Outreach as Retention

From Callid Keefe-Perry, a vlog entry on the apparent discrepancy between what Friends think they want to be doing (outreach) versus what they think makes for a healthy meeting (deep worship), as indicated by a just-released survey from Friends General Conference, the umbrella organization for many of North America’s Liberal Friends.


Callid says:

there’s a disconnect between deep worship as a mark of health, and outreach as the most important thing to do. We try as people to make things happen that are beyond our control. If we really attended to deep worship, if we attended to rooting our communies in a sense of discipleship and discipline, then outreach and care for community, and leading by example would come from that. Those things are fruits; their root is living in the presence, living in gospel order. I’m concerned that in the hustle and bustle of outreach and making things work we might miss that still small voice. [Loose transcript, lightly edited]

There is much we can do to promote community awareness of Friends (aka “outreach”), but I suspect the greatest effect of our efforts is internal–raising our own consciousness about how to be visible and welcoming. Friends are always getting free publicity (just this morning I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, whose final pages are practically an ad for our religious society, and there’s the seeker-producing mill of the Belief-o-Matic Quiz). What if visibility isn’t our biggest problem? Callid’s post reminds me of something that Robin Mohr said when I interviewed her “Eight Questions on Convergent Friends” for Friends Journal:

Though it may be different in other places, San Francisco always had people visiting; there was no shortage of new visitors. The key was getting them to come back… I don’t think the Convergent Friends movement is necessarily going to solve our outreach issues, but it can absolutely change the retention rate.

What if we thought of outreach as a retention issue? How would it relate to the “deep worship” the survey-takers lifted up?

Looking at North American Friends and theological hotspots

Over on Friends Journal site, some recent stats on Friends mostly in the US and Canada. Written by Margaret Fraser, the head of FWCC, a group that tries to unite the different bodies of Friends, it’s a bit of cold water for most of us. Official numbers are down in most places despite whatever official optimism might exist. Favorite line: “Perhaps those who leave are noticed less.” I’m sure P.R. hacks in various Quaker organizations are burning the midnight oil writing response letters to the editor spinning the numbers to say things are looking up.

She points to a sad decline both in yearly meetings affiliated with Friends United Meeting and in those affiliated with Friends General Conference. A curiosity is that this decline is not seen in three of the four yearly meetings that are dual affiliated. These blended yearly meetings are going through various degrees of identity crisis and hand-wringing over their status and yet their own membership numbers are strong. Could it be that serious theological wrestling and complicated spiritual identities create healthier religious bodies than monocultural groupings?

The big news is in the south: “Hispanic Friends Churches” in Mexico and Central America are booming, with spillover in el Norte as workers move north to get jobs. There’s surprisingly little interaction between these newly-arrived Spanish-speaking Friends and the the old Main Line Quaker establishment (maybe not surprising really, but still sad). I’ll leave you with a challenge Margaret gives readers:

One question that often puzzles me is why so many Hispanic Friends
congregations are meeting in churches belonging to other denominations.
I would love to see established Friends meetings with their own
property sharing space with Hispanic Friends. It would be an
opportunity to share growth and challenges together.

Hey who am I to decide anything

Over on Nontheist Friends website, there’s an article looking back at ten years of FGC Gathering workshops on their concern. There was also a post somewhere on the blogosphere (sorry I don’t remember where) by a Pagan Friend excited that this year’s Gathering would have a workshop focused on their concerns.

It’s kind of interesting to look at the process by which new theologies are being added into Liberal Quakerism at an ever-increasing rate.

  • Membership of individuals in meetings. There are hundreds of meetings in liberal Quakerism that range all over the theological map. Add to that the widespread agreement that theological unity with the meeting is not required and just about anyone believing anything could be admitted somewhere (or “grandfathered in” as a birthright member).
  • A workshop at the Friends General Conference Gathering and especially a regular workshop at successive Gatherings. Yet as the very informed comments on a post a few years ago showed, theology is not something the planning workshop committee is allowed to look at and at least one proponent of a new theology has gotten themselves on the deciding committee. The Gathering is essentially built on the nondenominational Chautaqua model and FGC is perfectly happy to sponsor workshops that are in apparent conflict with its own mission statement.
  • An article published in Friends Journal. When the the Quaker Sweat Lodge was struggling to claim legitimacy it all but changed its name to the “Quaker Sweat Lodge as featured in the February 2002 Friends Journal.” It’s a good magazine’s job to publish articles that make people think and a smart magazine will know that articles that provoke a little controversy is good for circulation. I very much doubt the editorial team at the Journal considers its agreement to publish to be an inoculation against critique.
  • A website and listserv. Fifteen dollars at GoDaddy.com and you’ve got the web address of your dreams. Yahoo Group is free.

There are probably other mechanisms of legitimacy. My point is not to give comprehensive guidelines to would-be campaigners. I simply want to note that none of the actors in these decisions is consciously thinking “hey, I think I’ll expand the definition of liberal Quaker theology today.” In fact I expect they’re mostly passing the buck, thinking “hey, who am I to decide anything like that.”

None of these decision-making processes are meant to serve as tools to dismiss opposition. The organizations involved are not handing out Imprimaturs and would be quite horrified if they realized their agreements were being seen that way. Amy Clark, a commenter on my last post, on this summer’s reunion and camp for the once-young members of Young Friends North America, had a very interesting comment:

I agree that YFNA has become FGC: those previously involved in YFNA have taken leadership with FGC … with both positive and negative results. Well … now we have a chance to look at the legacy we are creating: do we like it?

I have the feeling that the current generation of liberal Quaker leadership doesn’t quite believe it’s leading liberal Quakerism. By “leadership” I don’t mean the small skim of the professional Quaker bureaucracy (whose members can get _too_ self-inflated on the leadership issue) but the committees, clerks and volunteers that get most of the work done from the local to national levels. We are the inheritors of a proud and sometimes foolish tradition and our actions are shaping its future but I don’t think we really know that. I have no clever solution to the issues I’ve outlined here but I think becoming conscious that we’re creating our own legacy is an important first step.

Why would a Quaker do a crazy thing like that?

Looking back at Friends’ responses to the Christian Peacemaker hostages

When four Christian Peacemakers were taken hostage in Iraq late last November, a lot of Quaker organizations stumbled in their response. With Tom Fox we were confronted by a full-on liberal Quaker Christian witness against war, yet who stepped up to explain this modern-day prophetic witness? AFSC? FCNL? FGC? Nope, nope and nope. There were too many organizations that couldn’t manage anything beyond the boilerplate social justice press release. I held my tongue while the hostages were still in captivity but throughout the ordeal I was mad at the exposed fracture lines between religious witness and social activism.

Whenever a situation involving international issues of peace and witness happens, the Quaker institutions I’m closest to automatically defer to the more political Quaker organizations: for example, the head of Friends General Conference told staff to direct outsiders inquiring about Tom Fox to AFSC even though Fox had been an active leader of FGC-sponsored events and was well known as a committed volunteer. The American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation have knowledgeable and committed staff, but their institutional culture doesn’t allow them to talk Quakerism except to say we’re a nice bunch of social-justice-loving people. I appreciate that these organizations have a strong, vital identity and I accept that within those confines they do important work and employ many faithful Friends. It’s just that they lack the language to explain why a grocery store employee with a love of youth religious education would go unarmed to Badgdad in the name of Christian witness.

The wider blogosphere was totally abuzz with news of Christian Peacemaker Team hostages (Google blogsearch lists over 6000 posts on the topic). There were hundreds of posts and comments, including long discussions on the biggest (and most right-leaning) sites. Almost everyone wondered why the CPT workers were there and while the opinions weren’t always friendly (the hostages were often painted as naive idealists or disingeneous terrorist sympathizers), even the doubters were motivated by a profound curiosity and desire to understand.

The CPT hostages were the talk of the blogosphere, yet where could we find a Quaker response and explanation? The AFSC responded by publicizing the statements of moderate Muslim leaders (calling for the hostages’ release; I emailed back a suggestion about listing Quaker responses but never got a reply). Friends United Meeting put together a nice enough what-you-can-do page that was targeted toward Friends. The CPT site was full of information of course, and there were plenty of stories on the lefty-leaning sites like ElectronicIraq and the UK site Ekklesia. But Friends explaining this to the world?

The Quaker bloggers did their part. On December 2 I quickly re-jiggered the technology behind QuakerQuaker.org to provide a Christian Peacemaker watch on both Nonviolence.org and QuakerQuaker (same listings, merely rebranded for slightly-separate audiences, announced on the post It’s Witness Time). These pages got lots of views over the course of the hostage situation and included many posts from the Quaker blogger community that had recently congealed.

But here’s the interesting part: I was able to do this only because there was an active Quaker blogging community. We already had gathered together as a group of Friends who were willing to write about spirituality and witness. Our conversations had been small and intimate but now we were ready to speak to the world. I sometimes get painted as some sort of fundamentalist Quaker, but the truth is that I’ve wanted to build a community that would wrestle with these issues, figuring the wrestling was more important than the language of the answers. I had already thought about how to encourage bloggers and knit a blogging community together and was able to use these techniques to quickly build a Quaker CPT response.

Two other Quakers who went out of their way to explain the story of Tom Fox: his personal friends John Stephens and Chuck Fager. Their Freethecaptivesnow.org site was put together impressively fast and contained a lot of good links to news, resources and commentary. But like me, they were over-worked bloggers doing this in their non-existant spare time (Chuck is director of Quaker House but he never said this was part of the work).

After an initial few quiet days, Tom’s meeting Langley Hill put together a great website of links and news. That makes it the only official Quaker organization that pulled together a sustained campaign to support Tom Fox.

Lessons?

So what’s up with all this? Should we be happy that all this good work happened by volunteers? Johan Maurer has a very interesting post, Are Quakers Marginal that points to my earlier comment on the Christian Peacemakers and doubts whether our avoidance of “hireling priests” has given us a more effective voice. Let’s remember that institutional Quakerism began as support of members in jail for their religious witness; among our earliest committee gatherings were meetings for sufferings–business meetings focused on publicizing the plight of the jailed and support the family and meetings left behind.

I never met Tom Fox but it’s clear to me that he was an exceptional Friend. He was able to bridge the all-too-common divide between Quaker faith and social action. Tom was a healer, a witness not just to Iraqis but to Friends. But I wonder if it was this very wholeness that made his work hard to categorize and support. Did he simply fall through the institutional cracks? When you play baseball on a disorganized team you miss a lot of easy catches simply because all the outfielders think the next guy is going to go for the ball. Is that what happened? And is this what would happen again?

Sharing our Quaker event photos

Over on the photo sharing service Flickr, I’m noticing a bunch of photos from this week’s Britain Yearly Meeting session. One contributor has tagged (labelled) all her photos with “britainyearlymeeting06” which means they’re all available on one page. Cool, but what would be even cooler is if every Flickr user at the event used the same tag. We’d then have a nearly real-time group photo essay of the yearly meeting sessions.

So this year I’m going to tag all my personal photos from next month’s Friends General Conference Gathering of Friends as “FGCgathering06“. I invite any other Flickr-using attenders to do the same. While I do work at FGC, please note this is not any sort of official FGC decision, it’s just my own idea to share photos and to see how we can use these online networks to share and promote Quakerism. In a few weeks you’ll start seeing entries via flickr and technorati. I’ll probably start with a few pictures of the bookstore truck being loaded for its cross-country trek. Update: one embedded below.
Blog posts:
If your blogging system doesn’t support the use of tags, then simply add this line in the bottom of each of your Gathering-related posts:

Update: here’s one:

Deepening the intervisitation of Gathering

The program for this year’s FGC Gathering of Friends went online at midnight yesterday–I stayed up late to flip the switches to make it live right as Third Month started–right on schedule. By 12:10am EST four visitors had already come to the site! There’s a lot of interest in the Gathering, the first one on the West Coast.

Students of late-20th Century Quaker history can see the progression of Friends General Conference from a very Philadelphia-centric, provincial body that had its annual gathering at a South Jersey beach town to one that really does try to serve Friends across the country. There’s losses in the changes (alumni of the Cape May Gatherings all speak of them with misty eyes) but overall it’s been a needed shift in focus. In recent years, a disproportionate number of Gathering workshop leaders have come from the “independent” unaffiliated yearly meetings of the West. It’s nice.

Joe G has been sending me emails about his selection process (it’s almost real-time as he weighs each one!). It’s helpful as it saves me the trouble of sorting through them. It’s usually tough to find a workshop I want to take. A lot of Friends I really respect have told me they’ve stopped going to the Gathering after awhile because it just doesn’t feed them.

It’s a shame when these Friends stop coming. The Gathering is one of the most exciting annual coming-together of Quakers in North America. It’s very important for new and/or isolated Friends and it helps pull all its attenders into a wider Fellowship. Intervisitation has always been one of the most important tools for knitting together Friends and the Gathering has been filling much of that need for liberal Friends for the last hundred years.

I’ve been having this sense that Gathering needs something more. I don’t know what that something is, only that I long to connect more with other Friends. My best conversations have invariably taken place when I stopped to talk with someone while running across campus late to some event. These Opportunities have been precious but they’re always so frantic. The Traveling Ministries Program often has a wonderful evening interest group but by the time we’ve gone around sharing our names, stories and conditions, it’s time to break. I’m not looking for a new program (don’t worry Liz P!, wait it’s not you who has to worry!), just a way to have more conversations with the QuakerQuaker Convergent Friends–which in this context I think boils down to those with something of a call to ministry and an interest in Quaker vision & renewal. Let’s all find a way of connecting more this year, yes?
_For those interested I’ve signed up for these workshops: “Blessed Community in James’ Epistle”:http://FGCquaker.org/gathering/workshops/work14.php (led by “Max Hansen”:http://alphamind.maxhansen.net/ of “Berkeley Friends Church”:http://www.berkeleyfriendschurch.org/), “Deepening the Silence, Inviting Vital Ministry”:http://FGCquaker.org/gathering/workshops/work20.php (20), and “Finding Ourselves in the Bible”:http://FGCquaker.org/gathering/workshops/work22.php (22)._
h4. Related Entries Elsewhere:
* “Robin”:http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/2006/03/FGC-gathering-registration-begins.html
* “LizOpp”:http://thegoodraisedup.blogspot.com/2006/03/posters-themes-and-historyof-FGCs.html

Excitement outside fgc

melee
The offices of Friends General Conference are across the street from the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is this week hosting a biotech convention. The streets outside are hosting a bit of a counter-convention led by a group named “BioDemocracy 2005”:http://www.biodev.org/. Here are some shots from a melee outside our front door a few minutes ago.
*Update:* apparently one of the police officers at the center of this scuffle “suffered a heart attack and has since died”:http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/business/special_packages/bio2005/11949070.htm. I’m not even sure how to comment on that. From my vantage point it certainly seemed like the police officers were using undue violence. But while I was ten feet away I don’t know who threw the first punch and what exactly happened in that sea of bodies. Whatever happened, it’s quite appropriate to hold him and his family in our prayers.

It’s My Language Now: Thinking About Youth Ministry

This past weekend I took part in a “Youth Ministries Consultation” sponsored by Friends General Conference. Thirty Friends, most under the age of 35, came together to talk about their experience of Quakerism.

Conformed to the World

The issue that spoke most strongly this weekend was the experience of not being known. Young and old we longed for a naming & nurturing of gifts. We longed to be seen as members one of another. Early on a young Friend from a well-known family said she often felt she was seen as her mother’s daughter or confused with cousins and aunts. Another Friend with pedigree complained that as a young person interested in Quakerism he was seen by nominating committees as a generic “Young Friend” who could be slotted into any committee as its token youth representative. Another young Friend agreed that, yes, there is “affirmative action for young Friends.”

Affirmative action?!? For young Friends?? At this statement my jaw dropped. Throughout most of my time as a twenty- and thirty-something Friend I have felt almost completely invisible. I’d have to walk on water to be named to a committee by my yearly meeting (only in the last year has a yearly meeting nominating committee-member approached me). I can get profiled in the New York Times for my peace work but request as I try I can’t even get on the mailing list for my yearly meeting’s peace committee!

And yet the deeper issue is the same for me and the annointed young Friends: we are seen not as ourselves but in relation (or non-relation) to other Friends. We are all tokens. As a small group of us met to talk about the issue of gift-naming, we realized the problem wasn’t just limited to those under forty. Even older Friends longed to be part of meetings that would know us, meetings that would see beyond our most obvious skins of age, race and birth family to our deeper, ever-changing and refreshing souls. We all long for others to give nurturing guidance and loving oversight to that deepest part of ourselves! How we long to whisper, sing and shout to one another about the Spirit’s movement inside us. We all long for a religious society where expectations aren’t limited by our outward differences.

This isn’t about filling committees and finding clerks. What if we could go beyond the superficial communities of niceness maintained in so many Meetings to find something more real–a “capital ‘C’ Community” as one Friend put it? This is about living that beloved Community. Consultations and programs are easy but the hard work is changing attitudes and changing our expectations of one another, expectations that keep us from having to get to know one another.

One Body in Christ

As the consultation wrapped up we were given an overview of the next steps: setting up committees, doing fundraising, supporting identified youth work. It’s all fine and good but it was a pretty generic list of next-steps that could have been generated even before the meeting.
Caught up in the idea of a “youth ministries program” are assumptions that the problem is with the youth and that the solution will come through some sort of programming. I don’t think either premise is accurate. The real change needs to be cultural and it needs to extend far past youth. Even most of the older Friends at the consultation saw that. But will they bring it back to the larger organization? Last November I shared some concerns about the Youth Ministries initative with its organizing committee:

I haven’t heard any apologizing from older Friends for the neglect and invisibility that they’ve given my generation. I haven’t heard anyone talk about addressing the issues of Quaker ageism or the the culture of FGC institutional nepotism. At [the FGC governing board’s annual meeting] I heard a statement that a youth ministries program would be built on the ongoing work of half-a-dozen listed committees, most of which I know haven’t done anything for youth ministries.

The point was hit home by an older Friend at the consultation during a small-group breakout. He explained the all-too-familiar rationale for why we should support youth: “because they are an investment in our future, they’re our leadership twenty and thirty years from now.” I suspect that a number of Friends on governing boards–not just of FGC but of our service programs and yearly meetings–look at “youth ministries” in a similarly-condescending, dismissive way, as investment work in the future. Why else would younger Friends be so under-represented in most Quaker committees and program work?

The problems transcend Quaker institutions. But Friends General Conference is in a particularly good position to model the work. Will FGC create a youth ministries ghetto or will it do the hard work of integrating its committees? Will it finally start sponsoring young ministers in its Traveling Ministries program? Will FGC initiate outreach efforts specifically targeted at 20-somethings (the demographic of the great majority of seekers who come to our doors)? Will there ever be a Friend under thirty-five invited to give a major Gathering plenary talk?

Transformed by the Renewing of Our Minds

The consultation was just 30 Friends. Most of the most exciting young Friends I know weren’t even invited and really couldn’t be with such a limited attendance cap. One older Friend tried to sum up the weekend by saying it was the start of something important, but that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s really only another step along the way, the continuation of work that’s been going on for 100 years, 350 years, 2000 years or more depending on your frame of reference. This is work that will continue to be done over the course of generations, in hundreds of meetinghouses and it will involve everyone in the Religious Society of Friends in one way or another.

Lurking unnamed in the background of the Youth Ministries Consultation is the popular “Quaker” sweat lodge, which became so popular precisely because it was partly organized by young Friends, gave them real leadership opportunities and knew–knew with a certainty–that they could experience the divine and share that experience with their peers. If FGC’s programs can’t match those criteria, then FGC will suffer the loss of yet another generation.
What was important to me were the trends represented. There was a definite interest in getting more deeply involved in Quakerism and in exploring the religious side of this Society of Friends.

Grace Given Us

One struggle we’re going to continue to have is with language. For one small-group breakout, the organizing committee broke issues down by topics. One was dubbed “Leadership Training.” With that moniker it was surely going to focus on some sort of delimited, secular–and quite frankly boring–program that would be based on an organizational design model. It wasn’t the concern I had heard raised so I asked if we could rename it to a “naming of gifts” group; thankfully the suggestion was eagerly accepted. Renaming it helped ground it and gave the small group that gathered permission to look at the deeper issues involved. No one in our small group pointed out that our discussion unconsciously echoed Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect… For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. Romans 12.

This unconscious Christianity is very strong among our branch of Quakers. As our small group discussed naming of gifts we turned to the roles of our monthly meetings and started labeling their functions. As the mission statement was worked out point by point, I noticed we were recreating gospel order. I suggested that one was to “forgive each other our trespasses,” which was an idea the small group liked. Even so, a few members didn’t want to use that language.

We were talking gospel order, but with sanitized language; it’s an oddity that we modern liberal Friends turn so often to secular vocabulary: we talk of childhood development models, we use organizational design lingo, we speak in the Quaker committee-speak.

My feeling is that liberal Friends do want to be religious. But we’ve spent a generation replacing any word that hints of religion with secularized alternatives and that now we often can’t think past this self-limited vocabulary. One word that needs to be exercised more is “God.” If you want to be a modern day Quaker minister, just reformulate every secularized Quakerspeak query you see to include “God.” When Friends ask “How can my monthly meeting meet my needs,” nicely suggest that we also ask “How can my monthly meeting meet God’s needs.” I found myself constantly reformulating queries over the weekend. It’s kind of odd that the word “God” has become so absent from a People gathered in the knowledge that “Christ has come to teach the people Himself,” but that’s the Society we’ve inherited and this is where our ministry must start.

Near the end of the consultation one college-age Friend explained a moment when her Quakerism was transformed from outward identity to an inward knowledge. “It’s my language now” she declared to us. Yes, it is. And that’s youth ministry and elder ministry, the good news that there’s a God we can name who will reveal what is “good and acceptable and perfect.” That’s our work today, that is the ministry of our ages.

More Reading:

FGC published a Good News Bulletin about the Youth Ministries Consultation.

Vanity Googling of Causes

A poster to an obscure discussion board recently described typing a particular search phrase into Google and finding nothing but bad information. Reproducing the search I determined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actually quite accurate. I’ve been hearing an increasing number of stories like this. “Cause Googling,” a variation on “vanity googling,” is suddenly becoming quite popular. But the interesting thing is that these new searchers don’t actually seem curious about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?

Continue reading

We Quakers should be cooler than the Sweat Lodge

I have just come back from a “Meeting for Listening for Sweat Lodge Concerns,” described as “an opportunity for persons to express their feelings in a worshipful manner about the cancellation of the FGC Gathering sweat lodge workshop this year.” Non-Quakers reading this blog might be surprised to hear that Friends General Conference holds sweat lodges, but it has and they’ve been increasingly controversial. This year’s workshop was cancelled after FGC received a very strongly worded complaint from the Wampanoag Native American tribe. Today’s meeting intended to listen to the feelings and concerns of all FGC Friends involved and was clerked by the very-able Arthur Larrabee. There was powerful ministry, some predictable “ministry” and one stunning message from a white Friend who dismissed the very existance of racism in the world (it’s just a illusion, the people responsible for it are those who perceive it).

I’ve had my own run-in’s with the sweat lodge, most unforgettably when I was the co-planning clerk of the 2002 Adult Young Friends program at FGC (a few of us thought it was inappropriate to transfer a portion of the rather small AYF budget to the sweat lodge workshop, a request made with the argument that so many high-school and twenty-something Friends were attending it). But I find myself increasingly unconcerned about the lodge. It’s clear to me now that it part of another tradition than I am. It is not the kind of Quaker I am. The question remaining is whether an organization that will sponsor it is a different tradition.

How did Liberal Friends get to the place where most our our younger members consider the sweat lodge ceremony to be the high point of their Quaker experience? The sweat lodge has given a generation of younger Friends an opportunity to commune with the divine in a way that their meetings do not. It has given them mentorship and leadership experiences which they do not receive from the older Friends establishment. It has given them a sense of identity and purpose which they don’t get from their meeting “community.”

I don’t care about banning the workshop. That doesn’t address the real problems. I want to get to the point where younger Friends look at the sweat and wonder why they’d want to spend a week with some  white Quaker guy who wonders aloud in public whether he’s “a Quaker or an Indian” (could we have a third choice?). I’ve always thought this was just rather embarrassing.  I want the sweat lodge to wither away in recognition of it’s inherent ridiculousness. I want younger Friends to get a taste of the divine love and charity that Friends have found for 350 years. We’re simply cooler than the sweat lodge.

* * * *

And what really is the sweat lodge all about? I don’t really buy the cultural appropriation critique (the official party line for canceling it argues that it’s racist). Read founder George Price’s Friends Journal article on the sweat lodge and you’ll see that he’s part of a long-standing tradition. For two hundred years, Native Americans have been used as mythic cover for thinly disguised European-American philosophies. The Boston protesters who staged the famous tea party all dressed up as Indians, playing out an emerging mythology of the American rebels as spiritual heirs to Indians (long driven out of the Boston area by that time). In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper turned that myth into one of the first pieces of classic American literature with a story about the “Last” of the Mohicans. At the turn of the twentieth century, the new boy scout movement claimed that their fitness and socialization system was really a re-application of Native American training and initiation rites. Quakers got into the game too: the South Jersey and Bucks County summer camps they founded in the nineteen-teens were full of Native American motifs, with cabins and lakes named after different tribes and the children encouraged to play along.

Set in this context, George Price is clearly just the latest white guy to claim that only the spirit of purer Native Americans will save us from our Old World European stodginess. Yes, it’s appropriation I guess, but it’s so transparent and classically American that our favorite song “Yankee Doodle” is a British wartime send-up of the impulse. We’ve been sticking feathers in our caps since forever.

In the Friends Journal article, it’s clear the Quaker sweat lodge owes more to the European psychotherapy of Karl Jung than Chief Ockanickon. It’s all about “liminality” and initiation into mythic archetypes, featuring cribbed language from Victor Turner, the anthropologist who was very popular circa 1974. Price is clear but never explicit about his work: his sweat lodge is Jungian psychology overlaid onto the outward form of a Native American sweatlodge. In retrospect it’s no surprise that a birthright Philadelphia Friend in a tired yearly meeting would try to combine trendy European pop psychology with Quaker summer camp theming. What is a surprise (or should be a surprise) is that Friends would sponsor and publish articles about a “Quaker Sweat Lodges” without challenging the author to spell out the Quaker contribution to a programmed ritual conducted in a consecrated teepee steeplehouse.

(Push the influences a little more, and you’ll find that Victor Turner’s anthropological findings among obscure African tribes arguably owes as much to his Catholicism than it does the facts on the ground. More than one Quaker wit has compared the sweat lodge to Catholic mass; well: Turner’s your missing philosophical link.)

* * * *

Yesterday I had some good conversation about generational issues in Quakerism. I’m certainly not the only thirty-something that feels invisible in the bulldozer of baby boomer assumptions about our spirituality. I’m also not the only one getting to the point where we’re just going to be Quaker despite the Quaker institutions and culture. I think the question we’re all grappling with now is how we relate to the institutions that ignore us and dismiss our cries of alarm for what we Friends have become.