Spiritual Activism

Justice work has changed significantly for me.

  • I grew up in Quaker communities, which defined my justice work for much of my life.
  • Then a decade ago, I was led to work in communities outside Quaker meetings.
    • (NOTE: “To be led” is a way of expressing Spiritual leadings).
  • These experiences have taught me quite different approaches to justice work.
  • These new perspectives also show me many of us Quakers, particularly White Quakers, need to change how we think about and do justice work.

Spirituality and social justice are often viewed as separate entities, but they can be deeply intertwined. Spirituality refers to a person’s relationship with the divine or higher power, while social justice is concerned with ensuring that all individuals have equal access to basic human rights and opportunities. Individuals tend to fall along the spectrum between emphasis on spirituality versus emphasis on social justice. There are some who do not believe they need to engage in social justice work.

Spiritual activism is a practice that brings together the otherworldly and inward-focused work of spirituality and the outwardly focused work of activism (which focuses on the conditions of the material or physical world). It is most often described as being separate from organized religion or dogma, but rather as activism that is generally egalitarian, particularly in service for people who are oppressed or marginalized, as well as for the Earth and all living things1.

Spiritual Activism, Wikipedia

Some of these blog posts take days to write. Sometimes when things feel unfinished, a missing piece will appear. From the Spirit, or something someone else wrote or did. I came across the following this morning.

On October 5, Diné Ceremonial Leader Woman Stands Shining (Pat McCabe) joined the global Pachamama Alliance community for a conversation on spirit in action. Pat McCabe is a mother, activist, writer, artist, international speaker, ceremonial leader, voice for global peace and healing, and long-time advisor to Pachamama Alliance. 

During the call, Pat offered many insights around what it means to take action while being guided by spirit, drawing from both her Diné background and the Lakota spiritual tradition. She shared key learnings from her own personal journey around this inquiry, while illuminating important nuances around the concepts of agency and intellect. 

The Importance of Surrendering to Spirit

As Pat was reflecting on how to take action while being guided by spirit, she explained that the first step is to surrender to the unknown. 

What Pat meant by this was to let go of the need to know everything and the need to have the answer—or even the idea that one can know everything. She explained that when one is at the limits of what one knows, that’s when spirit reaches into the mind and body to present something new. 

One of the ways this is experienced in some of the spiritual communities Pat is a part of is through fasting. During these fasts, participants must go 4 days without food or water as they engage in ceremony.* Pat described how it doesn’t feel humanly possible to complete this fast, unless one embraces the unknown and the possibility of failure. This is what allows one to keep going even if the way forward is unclear. And as Pat put it, it is at this point that spirit comes to meet you and carry you the rest of the way. 

What these ceremonies have taught Pat is to surrender her will to spirit so that the door to mystery opens, and a different kind of logic and perspective reveals itself.

Spirit in Action, Part One: A Conversation with Woman Stands Shining by THE PACHAMAMA ALLIANCE, FEBRUARY 10, 2023

*Pachamama Alliance is not promoting fasting or other similar activities, especially without the guidance of experts. Please consider consulting with your physician or other medical professionals if activities like this are of interest to you. 

it is at this point that spirit comes to meet you and carry you the rest of the way. 

Diné Ceremonial Leader Woman Stands Shining (Pat McCabe)

One example of my spiritual activism was when I became involved in the Kheprw Institute, a Black youth mentoring community in Indianapolis. That coincided with becoming involved with the Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM) model for justice work.

Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM)

At that time, I learned about a new American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) program. My friend Lucy Duncan oversaw the program. The Quaker meeting I was attending in Indianapolis, North Meadow Circle of Friends, participated.

AFSC provided training for those involved in QSCM, which is where I learned a lot about community organizing. (SEE: https://jeffkisling.com/?s=quaker+social+change+ministry

Training such as this can be an important part of learning to work for justice. As another example, in 2013, I was trained as an Action Lead in the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, which was about teaching local people how to participate in civil disobedience. Experienced activists from the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) traveled to twenty-five cities, providing a weekend of training in each city.

Working in diverse communities has given me new perspectives about Quakers and justice work and has led to questions.

  • What role does spirituality play for people and groups not involved in organized religion?
  • How are Quakers involved in justice work today?
    • How are justice concerns identified?
    • What are the primary justice concerns of Quakers, individually and of Quaker meetings?
    • Are Quaker meetings doing justice work as a meeting?
    • How do Friends work to address those justice concerns?
    • What are the different ways to work for justice?
  • How do Quakers balance spiritual life and doing justice work?
  • How do we support each other, and the meeting’s justice work?
    • How do we hold each other accountable?
    • How do Quaker individuals and meetings deal with historic injustices Quakers were involved in?
    • How do Quakers engage with those who have been subjected to historic injustices Quakers were part of?
  • How do we identify and work to heal from trauma?


I grew up in the Bear Creek Quaker community near Earlham, Iowa. Raised on farms, we then began to move often as Dad moved through the Farm Bureau/Farm Service system. Most of these places didn’t have Quaker meetings. I attended Scattergood Friends (boarding) high school and then Earlham College, a Quaker college.

After one year at Earlham, I moved to Indianapolis to join the Friends Volunteer Service Mission (VSM). This was in the early 1970’s, at the time of the Vietnam War. VSM was a project to provide meaningful work for young men doing alternative service for the Selective Service System. Although being a draft resister meant I refused to do alternative service “officially”, as far as the Selective Service System was concerned, I was led to join VSM to learn about doing justice work in communities. VSM had a model of doing one year of work in a job that would qualify as alternative service, saving enough money to support yourself to work in the community for the second year. Living in the community, I had time to see what community needs I might work on during that second year. During the first year I received on-the-job training at Methodist Hospital as a respiratory therapy technician. I spent my time outside my work in the hospital with kids in the neighborhood. There were no youth programs in that part of inner-city Indianapolis. I spent my second year continuing to work with the kids. Playing sports, taking bicycle trips, teaching how to work in a photo darkroom, etc.

So, at an early age (20), I began to learn about community organizing and spirit-led justice work. I was led to this work while praying and working to discern how I would respond to the requirement to register for the Selective Service System and whether to accept doing alternative service. These are related to the broader issues of peace and living in a violent and militaristic country. Learning what the Quaker way would be for me.

Although I returned to Iowa after completing the two years at VSM, I missed the kids so much that I returned to Indianapolis. I continued to do things with youth as I did at VSM while I continued my education. I enjoyed working as a respiratory therapy technician during my first year at VSM. When I returned to Indianapolis, I found a job at the Indiana University Medical Center as a respiratory therapy technician. I obtained a degree in Respiratory Care from Indiana University and became a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).

So, this leading to join VSM led to my career path in medicine, and my path of justice work.

Community building

I have been blessed to be led to new communities of people over the past decade or so. These experiences taught me more about justice work. And have taught me some different answers to questions such as these:

  • Who is the community?
  • How to identify what issues to work on?
  • How to address the issue(s)?
  • How to measure progress?
  • Accountability?
  • How to heal?

In the community

The following are some of the communities I have been/am now involved with.

  • The youth mentoring community, the Kheprw Institute, in Indianapolis.
  • The environmental/pipeline resistance communities in Indianapolis and Iowa.
    • Being trained as an Action Lead in the Keystone Pledge of Resistance in 2013, I received invaluable training in activism. That was also my first experience in being part of an Internet community, learning ways to support each other remotely. This included monthly phone calls with everyone involved.
    • In 2016 there was national/international support of those at Standing Rock opposing the Dakota Access pipeline.
      • Locally, in Indianapolis, we were able to use our training and experience from the Keystone Pledge of Resistance to organize and train people to oppose the DAPL.
      • This included my first experiences of being with Indigenous peoples at public rallies.
    • In 2017 I retired and returned to Iowa and began to look for environmental activists to work with here. The Internet was helpful in finding groups and events. I had heard of Ed Fallon’s work related to climate justice. We communicated via email, then in February 2017, I met Ed when he organized a group of us to go to Minneapolis the weekend the Super Bowl was played there, to hold a rally at the US Bank headquarters, because of their support of DAPL.
    • Sept 1-8, 2018, I participated in the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March organized by Bold Iowa (Ed Fallon and others) and Indigenous Iowa (Sikowis Nobiss and others). A group of about thirty native and nonnative people walked and camped along the path of the Dakota Access pipeline, from Des Moines to Fort Dodge). https://firstnationfarmer.com/
      • The intention of the First Nation-Farmer march was to create the time and space for us to get to know each other, to begin to develop some trust so we could work together. That worked exceedingly well, and various combinations of us have done many things since.
    • Last year the Buffalo Rebellion was formed as a coalition of many of the climate/social justice groups and people in the Midwest.
  • For the past three years most of my justice work has been with Des Moines Mutual Aid, where I’ve made a number of close friends.

Choosing the work

There are so many injustices, so many people suffering. How do you decide what to do?

As a spiritual person, as a Quaker, seeking spiritual guidance is fundamental to discerning what I am led to do. One reason I’m writing this post is that I’ve been wondering what role spirituality plays in the lives of many of my friends who are deeply involved in justice work. One’s spirituality can be expressed by one’s work in the world, and these friends work tirelessly for justice. But I don’t know what they think or believe regarding spirituality.

One important aspect of Mutual Aid is that most Mutual Aid communities focus on providing for people’s basic necessities, such as food and shelter. For example, my Mutual Aid community provides free food every week for those who come to us. Others in my Mutual Aid community care for houseless people in Des Moines. The gratification of helping those in need helps attract others to participate.

There are many historical examples of tragedies that occurred when well-intentioned people attempted to provide help to those in need. Unfortunately, too often, support came/comes from dominant groups who view solutions as controlling those deemed to need help. Another way of assimilating other peoples into their own (dominant) worldview. I use assimilate intentionally because one example is of white settler-colonists forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families and taking them to residential schools to learn how to live in white society. These schools were awful institutions where abuse and deaths of children occurred. And the trauma to their families and communities is still passed from generation to generation.

I’ve been exploring how Artificial Intelligence can help as a research assistant. Following is the response when I asked for a table summarizing the advantages and disadvantages of spirit-led social justice work. But I must say I am very concerned about the impact AI is having and will have in replacing human jobs.

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