Where the Spirit Leads Me

Lakota Native American man at a powwow in South Dakota. Photo by Andrew James on Unsplash.

A Quaker Chaplain Embraces Native American Spirituality

God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are systems which human beings have created to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God; I think it only points me to God. —John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop

When I moved into my office in the Putnamville Correctional Facility in Putnam County, Indiana, I hung a sign with this quote on it on the outside of my door. Those who chose to read it would find the best and quickest way I could introduce myself to them. As a chaplain for the Indiana Department of Correction, I was expected to work with around 15 to 20 different faith traditions that the department recognized. (The number could vary.) I was expected to assist, in a number of ways, groups of incarcerated individuals who embraced traditions such as Asatru, Native American, Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism, Muslim, and Judaism, just to name a few. Chaplaincy is my understanding of God’s call on my life for most of the last two decades: how God wants me to express God’s love for God’s people.

I do use God as my first word choice for the Great Creator, O Most Holy One, and Allah. I am a Quaker by choice, and use that as my system to walk into the mystery of God, as the quote above describes. My call to be a chaplain is part of my understanding of the relationship between Creator and created. God created all people, loves all people, and therefore, I must love all people as well. By assisting people in their spiritual journeys, I show them God’s love. It doesn’t matter to me what human systems people embrace; if they ask me for assistance in their journey, I will provide it if I can. I have also worked as a chaplain in the local hospital, and I have worked in hospice. Currently, I work from home, thanks to the gift of the Internet, as a chaplain supervisor, training others to be professional chaplains.

Quaker theology and traditions give me the freedom to walk with those in community who might not sit with me in a meeting or a church. Quakers still discuss what George Fox meant almost 400 years ago when he talked about “that of God in every one.” Christians, Jews, and Muslims still discuss and interpret passages from the Old Testament. Discussion is good; living those discussions is better. Did Fox really mean “every one,” and if so, who does not have “that of God” included in their DNA?

This theology of radical inclusiveness empowers me to understand myself as a follower of Christ and does not diminish my ability to provide a ministry of presence to others of different traditions. Some students in my chaplaincy courses have felt uncomfortable providing care for someone of another faith unless they can “share their faith” with that patient. In my understanding, providing chaplaincy care is not about a sharing of beliefs (although that can happen during a chaplaincy visit), but is about coming alongside someone who is in need.

Proselytizing has a way of dividing people into categories: those who believe one way and those who do not believe that way but should. At the same time, Ephesians 4:11–12 says, “He himself granted that some are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Our callings seem to be seasonal: Paul was not an evangelist to the gentiles all of his life, and his faith seemed secure in his mission. My “granting” may send me into the midst of “the gentiles,” but God has not called me to evangelize them but to love them. Perhaps those two aren’t so different?

It is a gift of both personal and communal revelation and gives me insight into my past, present, and future spiritual life. It is not so much an answer but a light shining onto the path. It is a promise that when I feel fed spiritually, the Great Spirit, the Holy Spirit, has been involved, is involved, and will be involved.

The Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality further speak to my understanding of how the Creator speaks to the created, and how many faith traditions share more commonalities than divisions. Since I can remember, I have been drawn to Native American spirituality. There are reported to be over 500 tribes throughout the United States, and many have their own specific beliefs. Like Quakers, many tribes believe in a simple way of living, not taking more than is needed, being thankful for what they have, and leaving enough for others. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes how she was taught to only pick enough wild strawberries for her family’s need, that strawberries were a gift from the earth. Pipe ceremonies are sacred, spiritual contracts between parties where truth and respect (integrity) would be fostered, according to the Indigenous Saskatchewan Encyclopedia, which Europeans named the “peace pipe.”

Community is perhaps the most common value found in Indigenous tribes. In his recent book, The Seven Generations and the Seven Grandfather Teachings, James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw explains how the many tribes, including his tribe, the Anishinaabe Ojibwe, understand that the actions and decisions of one person affect their people for seven generations. To further emphasize their vision of equality, Ojibwe elders rarely used the word I because it does not express “all my relations” or the seven generations. Mitakuye Oyasin, meaning “all my relations,” is a Lakota Sioux phrase used in ceremonies to express the idea of human beings’ relatedness to all creation.

I embrace and celebrate Native spirituality as a part of my life. I share my belief with people and am often asked why that belief system speaks to me. Do I have “native” blood? Were my ancestors Native American? I have researched many of my family trees and never found any relatives who were. I do not have an answer to the question why I believe the way I do, except that I always have. I have prayed for clarity, and recently I received this answer: “where the Spirit will lead you, there the Spirit will feed you.” I was attending the National Powwow in Danville, Indiana, when this thought was given to me. It is a gift of both personal and communal revelation and gives me insight into my past, present, and future spiritual life. It is not so much an answer but a light shining onto the path. It is a promise that when I feel fed spiritually, the Great Spirit, the Holy Spirit, has been involved, is involved, and will be involved. It is an example of how even Christ, the Inner Teacher, will speak to my own condition.

Susann Estle

Susann Estle is a board-certified chaplain who works from home training chaplains virtually. She has worked for the Indiana Department of Correction, in hospitals, and in hospice settings. Susann is a recorded minister in Western Yearly Meeting, is on its Peace and Social Concerns Committee, and is a member of Plainfield (Ind.) Meeting. She also volunteers with Indiana/Ohio Alternatives to Violence Project. She has two children, Case and Chloe.

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