A Perspective on the Quaker Sweat Lodge

I am responding to Chuck Fager’s recent letter on Friends General Conference and the Quaker Sweat Lodge ("Finding a Way Forward," FJ Nov. 2006). For the record, FGC continues to be led (along with many meetings and individual Friends) along many exciting paths to a vital, Spirit-led, and growing Quaker community. The Quaker Sweat Lodge (QSL) is not our most important issue, yet it does raise important related issues for Friends.

For the record, I have served as general secretary of FGC since 1992. I first participated in the Quaker Sweat Lodge, under the gifted leadership of George Price, at the 1992 Gathering, and I did it again in 2003. I found both to be meaningful spiritual experiences, and I fully recognized the enthusiastic responses of many of the younger participants as genuine and deep. Around FGC, I was known as a supporter of the QSL.

I also have some experience with Native American (or "First Nations") communities. From 1968 to 1970, I worked as assistant to the director of the National Study of American Indian Education and, in that capacity, visited and interviewed Native American people on several reservations and in non-reservation school systems. I also have an M.A. in Anthropology and some understanding of the ways that different ethnic and language communities constantly borrow cultural practices from one another.

And I know something of the history of relations between the dominant European peoples and the Native peoples of North America. Over a period of several centuries, powerful, mostly non-Native people in the United States and Canada took almost all of the land on which Native peoples lived, killed millions upon millions of them, virtually wiping out entire tribes and communities and destroying enormous parts of Native cultures and languages. In seeking to characterize at least parts of this history, the word "genocidal" seems apt.

So when Alice Lopez, an active member of a small Native American community in eastern Massachusetts (the Mashpee Wampanoag), sent a strong letter of protest about the QSL prior to the 2004 FGC Gathering, many of us felt that we had to listen. In its semiannual meeting a few days later, the Long Range Conference Planning Committee of FGC decided to cancel the QSL planned for the Gathering that summer at the University of Massachusetts. Subsequently, the clerk of FGC’s Committee for Ministry on Racism and I made a special trip to visit several respected members of the Mashpee Wampanoag community, and we were made aware of their very strong feelings on this matter.

I should note that the members of the Mashpee Wampanoag with whom we met said they would not object to holding a sweat lodge at a future FGC Gathering—if it were led by a recognized tribal religious leader. They said that such a leader would have to be asked in a respectful fashion, and that some might agree to do it while others would not. But they stated unequivocally that to allow a non-Native person to perform an adaptation of a sacred Native American religious ritual was spiritually risky, deeply disrespectful, an example of racist insensitivity and white privilege.

In the two-and-one-half years since that initial decision, many Friends have shared their points of view with FGC. To those like Chuck who have criticized FGC for not reinstating the QSL, I want to note that the divisions on this issue extend beyond FGC to the larger body of Friends. FGC has received minutes from the Working Party on Racism of New England Yearly Meeting, the Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and at least one monthly meeting, as well as letters from several individual Friends, urging FGC not to renew the practice of offering the QSL at FGC’s Annual Gathering.

I should also note that there are Friends, both within and outside FGC, who object to the QSL on the grounds that it is based on a non-Quaker religious ritual and, as such, is not appropriate for a Quaker event. These Friends believe that FGC can and/or does provide opportunities for deep and meaningful spiritual experiences for Young Friends in what they consider more appropriate ways. So there are real divisions among Friends on this matter, and that has made it difficult to discern the right way forward. Those who dismiss or belittle the voices of the many Friends who express these concerns do not serve the cause of Truth in this matter.

FGC does take this concern seriously. We have given the matter prayerful attention over the course of the past three years, including several "listening sessions," the panel discussion at the 2006 Gathering to which Chuck alluded in his letter, and a follow-up discussion two days later at the same Gathering. Responding to Chuck’s statement that "none of those who urged the QSL’s cancellation were prepared to join the panel": we felt that Lisa Graustein, a young adult Friend and former New England Yearly Meeting staff person responsible for youth programs, could best articulate the concerns that have been raised.

Lisa serves on the Working Party on Racism of NEYM and has met several times with Alice Lopez and the Mashpee Wampanoag. Before accepting our invitation to travel to the Gathering for the purpose of presenting her views, Lisa called and talked with Breeze Richardson, the former QSL leader who presented the pro-QSL position at the Gathering panel discussion, thus modeling the kind of respectful airing of differences on this matter which FGC seeks to encourage.

At the annual sessions of FGC’s Central Committee at the end of October, the clerk announced the appointment of a small ad hoc committee to consider the QSL controversy and how FGC might be led to move forward. That committee is balanced in many respects, including points of view on the QSL and age of members. It will be clerked by George Owen, one of the three Friends on the 2006 Gathering panel and a Friend with some Native American heritage and considerable experience in Native American communities.

FGC will wait to hear what this special committee recommends as they seek to discern the way forward. We ask Friends to respect our careful, Spirit-guided process in this difficult matter on which Friends are indeed divided, and to hold all in prayer.

Bruce Birchard
General Secretary
Friends General Conference