Spiritual discernment to leave Quakers


For months I’ve been in significant spiritual distress. I’ve been learning a great deal from my Native friends, and working with them on Mutual Aid projects. And they tell me the way white people can best support them is by embracing and teaching others about LANDBACK.

I caused conflicts in my Quaker meeting because I wanted them to join me in the work of Mutual Aid and LANDBACK. Despite my efforts to explain this, they haven’t had the time or the experiences that would make them understand all of this, yet.

At the same time I felt I was letting my Native friends down, because I wasn’t making some of the changes I wanted to make in my life. Which could be an example of how white people can join their work with Mutual Aid and LANDBACK. This happened because I let myself be constrained by my Quaker community.

The solution the Spirit led me to was to leave my Quaker community, at least temporarily. That would remove the conflicts I am causing there. I hope and pray, with time, my Quaker friends will come to see the path forward is Mutual Aid and LANDBACK.

As environmental chaos deepens, with the resulting collapse of the colonial capitalist economic system and the political systems propping up white supremacy, we will have no choice but to find alternatives. Ideally those would be Mutual Aid and LANDBACK. This is powerful incentive to embrace these concepts now.

Mutual Aid and LANDBACK

As I began to write this article several days ago, I wrote “its been a long time since I’ve felt this lost.” I’ve been struggling with Quaker history and present related to black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC). Miraculously, praying since then and spending yet another Saturday morning with my Mutual Aid family at our food giveaway, a clear vision of what I am being led to do has emerged. As is often the case, the answer seems so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before.

What I’m about to do is step away from my Quaker meeting, for reasons I’ll try to explain here.

Since moving to Iowa three years ago I’ve been blessed to become good friends with a number of Native people. It was transformative to walk and camp for a week, 94 miles along the path of the Dakota Access pipeline with a small group of Native and non-native people. About 25 of us. Someone pointed out it was a sacred journey. One purpose of the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March was for the group to begin to get to know each other. Begin to build trust so we could work together on things of common concern going forward. This succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
See: First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March (firstnationfarmer.com)

Since then, we would come together for various actions. For example to lobby Senator Grassley’s staff about legislation that would affect Native peoples. And for Indigenous People’s Day, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, to get rid of racist statues, support the black liberation movement.

As I was preparing to go on that March in 2018, I thought a lot about Quakers’ participation in the Native residential schools in the late 1800’s. When I first heard about this, I assumed the Quakers involved were doing a good thing, as they helped the Native children learn how to live in the white culture that was beginning to envelop them.

So much for assumptions. I am not judging those Quakers. What I am judging is the very idea that white settlers thought they had to try to forcibly assimilate Native children. The very idea that Native culture needed to be replaced, erased. Very recently what I learned was even worse. That cruelty was to crush the resistance of Natives peoples as they were forced off their lands. The more I learned about this, the more distraught I became.

Of course the children’s parents, their whole tribe, suffered immeasurably as well. Every child subsequently born into these Native communities grew up and became aware of these tragedies, and were thus traumatized themselves. Native people alive today are suffering. In numerous ways I’ve seen that suffering of my Native friends.

Returning to the Climate Unity March, I wondered if and how I should bring up the subject of the residential schools. People on the March became aware that I am a Quaker, as was my friend Peter Clay who also participated on the March. I wondered if bringing up the schools would add to the trauma of the Native folks I was beginning to know.

The biggest reason for my hesitation was fear of their reaction if I did bring it up. Of perhaps anger and/or condemnation.

Walking and camping together over eight days afforded opportunities to share our stories with each other. As we got to know each other, we shared more intimate stories. Early in our time together, I began to feel very uncomfortable about not bringing up the subject of the Indian Boarding Schools. Not doing so felt like an act of omission. Felt dishonest. I did not think it would not be possible for trust to be built without somehow addressing this history. Following is the story of how sharing that history came about, and the reaction to it.

It didn’t take too many hours of getting to know Matthew when the Spirit led me to say to him, “I know about Quakers’ involvement in the Indian boarding schools. I’m sorry they did that.” I was apprehensive about whether I should have said that, whether that was appropriate or could pull up bad memories. We continued to walk side by side. All I noticed was a slight nod of his head. He always smiles, and that didn’t change.

But as we walked together a little later, Matthew shared a story with me. He had been living at Standing Rock for about six months. When he learned a new rope was needed to ferry people back and forth across a narrow channel of water, he offered his rope so the ferry’s operation could continue. He went on to say his mother called him after she recognized the rope while watching a TV news story. She was very upset because that brought back terrifying memories of how the Native families would try to help their children escape when white men came to kidnap them and take them to a boarding school.

Later that day he was shooting a video, and as I came into the picture he waved and said, “hi buddy”, and we both laughed. Every time we saw each other after that, we would say “hi buddy” and laugh. We have kept in touch and maintained our friendship since.

I don’t believe that would have happened if we had not shared our stories about the residential schools. I didn’t bring up the subject with anyone else during the March. But over the next few years, when it seemed an appropriate time, I brought this up with each of my friends. One shared this was a good first step. Several told me briefly of their family’s experiences. Their hurt was palpable as they spoke.

My friend Paula Palmer wrote an excellent article for Friends Journal, Oct 1, 2016. “Quaker Boarding Schools: Facing Our History and Ourselves”.

In the same way I couldn’t understand the involvement of so many Quakers in the slave trade, and having enslaved people, I couldn’t understand Quaker’s involvement with forced assimilation.

Some Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad, to help people who had been enslaved escape from the South. Many Friends today bring up those stories in an attempt to indicate Quakers did some good related to enslavement and racial justice. It appears not that many Quakers were actually involved in the Underground Railroad. And in any case, people should not take credit for things they themselves didn’t do.

But there aren’t even such stories of Quakers’ work regarding the Native residential schools.

What does this mean for Quakers today?

First, there is very little diversity in most Quaker meetings in the country called the United States. Do white Friends think about this in relation to our history?

In the past Friends were sometimes called peculiar people as a result of public examples of their faith. For an example, Quakers would not do things like remove their hats when approaching others, or use titles to address people, such as “your highness” because they did not believe certain people were better than others. Many Friends were imprisoned for such actions.

Today most Friends are so integrated into society you don’t know they are Quakers. This begins to explain why I feel I need to distance myself from Friends. We need to make our lives reflect our concerns, to be public examples of our support for BIPOC folks. We can say we are for racial justice and Indigenous rights, but how do we actually do that? Especially when our daily lives benefit from the labor of enslaved people, and lands stolen from Native peoples. Every day. My BIPOC friends don’t care about what I say, but do care about what I do.

We can choose how much we engage with the culture of white supremacy. The culture behind the idea of forced assimilation of Native children. A culture that feels it does not have to honor treaties with tribal nations. A culture that feels it can pollute and otherwise destroy the water, land and air Native people try to protect, for the benefit of us all.

And there is the white, mainstream economic system of colonial capitalism Quakers are living in. A system that puts a price on everything, including what is priceless. A system of economic servitude that requires money for any commodity or service. That doesn’t care if people are hungry or living on the street if they don’t have money.

So no matter what we say about justice for BIPOC folks, those words are empty as long as we continue to take advantage of colonial capitalism and white supremacy.

It has been traumatic to find my Quaker community, which is nearly entirely white, has not had the understanding, yet, to break free from capitalism and white supremacy. People who have in many ways inspired me by their concerns for peace and justice. But, as with all white communities, no progress toward justice occurs when we are afraid to leave the frameworks that cause the injustice. It should be no surprise that few BIPOC people join us, much as we appreciate those who do.

The recent news of 215 Kamloops Native children buried on the grounds of a residential school has shocked non-native people, who did not know how many of these residential schools existed in the lands called the United States and Canada. Did not know tens of thousands of Native children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to these institutions where thousands were abused in many ways. Thousands killed or died. Though the stated reason for doing this was to assimilate Native children into white society for their benefit, the real intent was to quell Indigenous resistance to the theft of their land by white settler colonists.

The news has re-opened deep wounds in Native communities. Many have been triggered by this atrocity. One of my Native friends wrote that she was NOT OK. Another told me, “I’m trying not to be enraged in my mourning.”

One of my Native friends also told me, “The church is the church’s past, which is its future. It continues to see my people as obstacles in its endless conquest. To be blunt, there is too much damage that the church profits from and needs to protect to have any future there.” Vigorous attempts are made to hide it, but history does not lie. He also told me, regarding what I had been telling him about my efforts with Quakers, “I wish you the best. I imagine its a hard struggle.”

I cannot face my BIPOC friends if I don’t continue to seek the Spirit, and act on the leadings I am given.

“Don’t make orphans stand here covered in the blood of our parents and explain to you how this all came to be without doing something about it.“

The Tragedy of 215. Without truth, there can be no healing, by Sarah Rose Harper, Lakota People’s Law Project, 6/2/2021

I am so grateful to my BIPOC friends for teaching me that Mutual Aid and LANDBACK are alternatives to colonial capitalism and white superiority. LANDBACK is how to restore Native lands and leadership.

As environmental chaos deepens, with the resulting collapse of the colonial capitalist economic system and the political systems propping up white supremacy, we will have no choice but to find alternatives. Ideally those would be Mutual Aid and LANDBACK. This is powerful incentive to embrace these concepts now.

An Epistle to Friends Regarding Community, Mutual Aid and LANDBACK

Dear Friends,

The measure of a community is how the needs of its people are met. No one should go hungry, or without shelter or healthcare. Yet in this country known as the United States millions struggle to survive. The capitalist economic system creates hunger, houselessness, illness that is preventable and despair. A system that requires money for goods and services denies basic needs to anyone who does not have money. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) are disproportionately affected. Systemic racism. The capitalist system that supports the white materialistic lifestyle is built on stolen land and genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the labor of those who were enslaved in the past or are forced to live on poverty wages today.

Capitalism is revealed as an unjust, untenable system, when there is plenty of food in the grocery stores, but men, women and children are going hungry, living on the streets outside. White supremacy violently enforces the will of wealthy white people on the rest of us.

It has become clear to some of us who are called Friends that the colonial capitalist economic system and white supremacy are contrary to the Spirit and we must find a better way. We conscientiously object to and resist capitalism and white supremacy.

capitalism has violated the communities of marginalized folks. capitalism is about the value of people, property and the people who own property. those who have wealth and property control the decisions that are made. the government comes second to capitalism when it comes to power.

in the name of liberation, capitalism must be reversed and dismantled. meaning that capitalistic practices must be reprogrammed with mutual aid practices. 
Des Moines Black Liberation Movement

Mutual Aid

How do we resist? We rebuild our communities in ways not based upon money. Such communities thrive all over the world. Indigenous peoples have always lived this way. Generations of white people once did so in this country. Mutual Aid is a framework that can help us do this today.

The concept of Mutual Aid is simple to explain but can result in transformative change. Mutual Aid involves everyone coming together to find a solution for problems we all face. This is a radical departure from “us” helping “them”. Instead, we all work together to find and implement solutions.  To work together means we must be physically present with each other. Mutual Aid cannot be done by committee or donations. We build Beloved communities as we get to know each other. Build solidarity. An important part of Mutual Aid is creating these networks of people who know and trust each other. When new challenges arise, these networks are in place, ready to meet them.

Another important part of Mutual Aid is the transformation of those involved. This means both those who are providing help, and those receiving it.

With Mutual Aid, people learn to live in a community where there is no vertical hierarchy. A community where everyone has a voice. A model that results in enthusiastic participation. A model that makes the vertical hierarchy required for white supremacy impossible.

Commonly there are several Mutual Aid projects in a community. The initial projects usually relate to survival needs. One might be a food giveaway. Another helping those who need shelter. Many Mutual Aid groups often have a bail fund, to support those arrested for agitating for change. And accompany those arrested when they go to court.


The other component necessary to move away from colonial capitalism and white supremacy is LANDBACK.

But the idea of “landback” — returning land to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples — has existed in different forms since colonial governments seized it in the first place. “Any time an Indigenous person or nation has pushed back against the oppressive state, they are exercising some form of landback,” says Nickita Longman, a community organizer from George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada.

The movement goes beyond the transfer of deeds to include respecting Indigenous rights, preserving languages and traditions, and ensuring food sovereignty, housing, and clean air and water. Above all, it is a rallying cry for dismantling white supremacy and the harms of capitalism.

Returning the Land. Four Indigenous leaders share insights about the growing landback movement and what it means for the planet, by Claire Elise Thompson, Grist, February 25, 2020

What will Friends do?

It matters little what people say they believe when their actions are inconsistent with their words.  Thus, we Friends may say there should not be hunger and poverty, but as long as Friends continue to collaborate in a system that leaves many without basic necessities and violently enforces white supremacy, our example will fail to speak to mankind.

Let our lives speak for our convictions.  Let our lives show that we oppose the capitalist system and white supremacy, and the damages that result.  We can engage in efforts, such as Mutual Aid and LANDBACK, to build Beloved community. To reach out to our neighbors to join us.

We must begin by changing our own lives if we hope to make a real testimony for peace and justice.

We remain, in love of the Spirit, your Friends and sisters and brothers,

Jeff Kisling (and, soon, others)

Note: Modeled from ‘An Epistle to Friends Concerning Military Conscription’

This entry was posted in Black Lives, capitalism, Des Moines Black Lives Matter, Des Moines Mutual Aid, enslavement, Indigenous, LANDBACK, monuments, Mutual Aid, Native Americans, Quaker, Quaker Meetings, race, residential schools, solidarity, Uncategorized, white supremacy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Spiritual discernment to leave Quakers

  1. Beth Furlong says:

    Thank you; I value your reflections and actions.

  2. Lara/Trace says:

    It would take much planning, Jeff, but if each Quaker family could grow an acre of food (simple vegetables) for the nearby rez, it would/could change lives. Grocery stores hardly exist in rural rez communities, and if food was coming, and delivered without cost to the tribe, food insecurity would change.
    I was with my sister Ellowyn when she went to pick up commodities in Wounded Knee, SD. She would get a head of cabbage to last a month. Not enough food makes people weak, so they don’t thrive. Ellowyn had diabetes which killed her.
    Food insecurity is a weapon.
    Quakers could help change that.

  3. Tom Smith says:

    I appreciate your struggle with “Quaker entrenchment.” I have had some struggles of my own, as represented by my Facebook post of a few days ago where I suggested a “withdrawal” from posting or sharing. Two of the concepts that have prompted this. The more reliance in “authoritarianism” among Friends and the need for the concept of “Jubilee” in our s(S)ociety (of Friends.)

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