Yesterday I wrote Faith Now and suggested Mutual Aid as a framework for faith now. So, I’ll describe more of my experiences with Mutual Aid.
I’ve spent the last couple of years involved in Des Moines Mutual Aid (DMMA). Much of what I’ve learned can be found here: https://quakersandreligioussocialism.com/mutual-aid/
The are several reasons for my excitement about, and continued involvement in DMMA. The first time I went to the DMMA food project I was immediately aware I was in a special place. There was a greater diversity of people than I had found in any other gathering in Iowa. “These spaces become intergenerational, diverse places of Indigenous joy, care and conversation.”
There were usually around a dozen of us. There is a signup sheet on the Internet. So many people wanted to come to help that we had to limit attendance. This was also important for social distancing because of the COVID virus. Wearing masks is mandatory. No mask, no work.
As I spent more time in this community, I often heard people say these Saturday mornings together, putting together boxes of food and handing them out, were the highlight of their week.
Care is shown when each person coming to help is greeted by name, and how as we moved around, filling the boxes of food, when we came near each other, we would exchange a few words, asking how we were doing. When asked how you are, more than a surface “OK” was expected.
Whenever a problem came up, you were welcome to ask anyone what to do. The answer was always given in a positive manner, and usually ended with “but do whatever you think is best.” Taking initiative and critical thinking were expected.
I remember a specific instance early in my Mutual Aid experience. I was helping move the tables we usually set the boxes to be filled upon from the basement of the church to the yard outside. That was because the church that let us use their basement was holding a COVID vaccine clinic there that Saturday morning. Ronnie, who helped facilitate DMMA taking over the free food project, asked me, a relative newcomer, to tell him what he could do to help.
Since we were all working toward the same end, there weren’t the tensions of someone telling you to do things a certain way. This is the non-hierarchical way that is the foundation of mutual aid. This also meant our work was done very quickly and efficiently, as no one was waiting for someone to tell them what to do. In just one hour we put out sixty boxes and proceeded to add the vegetables and food from three sources into each box.
The vegetables were waiting for us when we arrived. There might be about a dozen boxes full of peppers and other vegetables. Someone would arrive with a car full of boxes of dated food from one source, and someone would arrive with the van that one of us drove to another source to be fill with donated food. All this food was carried into the church basement, and each bag opened and the food from it distributed. It’s hard to give you an idea of how much food that is, but it all got distributed quickly.
Four long tables were setup outside. When we finished distributing all the food, we carried those boxes out to the tables. People coming for the food knew to park in the parking lot of the school cross the street from the church. When we were ready, one of us would direct those cars, one at a time, to drive to the tables. We would open the car door, greet the people, and put a box of food in the car. This is one of my favorite parts, seeing how great my friends are at interacting with those in the car.
There is an aspect of self-determination and ethical engagement in organizing to meet our peoples’ material needs. There is a collective emotional lift in doing something worthwhile for our peoples’ benefit, however short-lived that benefit might be. These spaces become intergenerational, diverse places of Indigenous joy, care and conversation, and these conversations can be affirming, naming, critiquing, as well as rejecting and pushing back against the current systems of oppression. This for me seems like the practice of movement-building that our respective radical practices have been engaged with for centuries.Maynard, Robyn; Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. Rehearsals for Living (Abolitionist Papers) (p. 39). Haymarket Books. Kindle Edition.
I learned about the Des Moines Mutual Aid food project from a series of messages about it with Ronnie James who I was getting to know. The more I learned the more I wanted to see how that was done. From experience I knew a level of trust needed to be established and we need to be careful about inviting ourselves into these situations. Finally, the spirit led me to ask Ronnie if it was alright for me to participate. He said, several times, that it was fast paced, which sounded like a caution. I later learned several people had not been able to keep up with the physical demands. And I’m seventy years old. But he said yes.
That first Saturday morning I was a bit apprehensive. I’m not good at meeting new people and wasn’t sure what to expect. As I met people, they were polite but reserved. I imagine part of that was the mistrust of the old, white man. And the people were protective of each other. I was told we were all expected to take any of the food ourselves, and then I began to help fill the food boxes.
One mistake I made was not taking any of the food myself. When after a few weeks someone in a pleasant manner said I never took any food, I realized I hadn’t been participating in the mutual aspect of this. So, I began to take something each week. There were some awesome cakes from Whole Foods. I realized my sweet tooth was noticed when someone asked me if I wanted something they had come across. Just one example of how we learned more and more about each other.
I had thought I’d attend just once or twice, just enough to see how this worked. But from the start I began to see all the wonderful things about Mutual Aid that I’m writing about today. I was ‘hooked’ as the expression goes. It didn’t take long to feel accepted and begin developing deep friendships. I’ve attended almost every week for the past two years.
It was only recently, though, that I’ve recognized the healing aspect of this work. It is difficult to learn of the wrongs of the past. The atrocities white people executed on others. The damage done to Mother Earth. And the wrongs continuing today. The injustices we are complicit in. Helping meet people’s survival needs is something we can do now. This is what I meant when I wrote Faith Now yesterday.
And then the second part of the talk is an evocation of the healing that is necessary and possible, a gradual elevation of the human spirit. It’s about the mobilization that is needed and which is within our reach. Then people know you’ve spoken truthfully, and you have evoked in each person a desire to help, to take care of their families, to have self-regard. I see this pattern in every talk I give.The World We Still Have. Barry Lopez On Restoring Our Lost Intimacy With Nature BY FRED BAHNSON, The Sun, DECEMBER 2019
My reference to faith now comes from being led to call on Quakers to apply our spiritual practices to critically evaluate the systems we live in and take for granted. That are unjust and must be replaced. We must reject capitalist systems and systems of dominance. Build Beloved communities where everyone is cared for. Mutual Aid communities are a template for doing so. Are radical in the sense of freeing us from the power systems we find ourselves living in.
By faith now I mean today. Every day we live in this settler, colonial, capitalist society, we continue to be oppressors.
- How are we working to deal with existing chaos and preparing for further collapse?
- Do we provide for everyone’?
- What is our relationship with Mother Earth? Do we honor and conserve the resources we use?
- What systems of dominance, of vertical hierarchies are we involved in?
- Do we work to ensure there aren’t vertical hierarchies in our communities, in our relationships with all our relatives?
- Do we have the courage to follow what the Spirit is saying to us? To not force those messages to conform to our existing beliefs and practices.
- How do we connect with communities beyond our Quaker meetings? What are we learning about spiritual connections beyond our meetinghouses? Are we sharing these spiritual lessons with others?