This is the first of a series of short interviews with Quakers who have worked or currently work closely with AFSC. Oskar Pierre Castro is the Philadelphia coordinator for Quaker Voluntary Service. Oskar previously served as coordinator of AFSC’s National Youth and Militarism Program. He now serves on AFSC's Board Program Committee and the Board Community Equality and Justice Committee.
Sophia: What does being a Quaker mean to you?
Oskar: Being a Quaker for me, is more about being a part of a society regardless of it being a religious society of folk who are open to and/or seeking that of God within everyone and everything. For me, being a Quaker is as much about respecting that of God within you, as it would be about respecting that of God within those trees outside.
Sophia: How does your social change work and Quaker faith connect?
Oskar: My current work with QVS and my time at AFSC led to my choosing to become a Quaker. I found that many of the Quakers I was exposed to while at AFSC were serious about how their faith or spirituality informed how they worked or advocated for justice. I wanted to be that kind of Quaker.
While working at AFSC I spent a good amount of energy going around the country meeting Quakers and worshipping with them. I was helping to support them with the work of countering militarism in their communities. Being called out to different parts of the country, for me, was an experience that got me more clued into the idealism of Quaker values merging with social justice values and consciousness. Leading with the idea that we’re Quakers and we want to apply these values, move these ideals into action and asking what can we do as Quakers -- not as me, not as an individual, not as a citizen -- but leading with what can we as Quakers is central to the core of Quaker faith. It got me to thinking, okay, I’m working for a Quaker organization, I’m not Quaker, but in a lot of ways I feel like I am because the values resonate.
Sophia: What does a decolonized Quaker faith look like?
Oskar: I think a decolonized Quaker faith needs to look at the history and looking at the colonial nature of life in North America as a Quaker and the practices and the sensibilities that come out. For one, why choose Quakerism as a faith? What do we practice? How steeped in white supremacy culture is this?
Me as a Puerto Rican coming into Quakerism, I find a lot of white paradigms, silence in and of itself is not exclusively colonialism, but I think the way that Quakers sometimes lean into silence beyond the spiritual side of it, the conflict avoidance side of being a Quaker, these are the things that don’t necessarily resonate with me, culturally speaking and I think that a decolonized Religious Society of Friends in North America would be one that is actually practicing decolonization consciousness. I think a big part of decolonizing the Religious Society of Friends is essentially having Quakers decolonizing their own communities, their families, and friendships. How do you have an extended beloved community beyond your family? I don’t see Quakers intentionally, overwhelmingly moving in directions of broadening their relationships.
Sophia: What does a decolonized AFSC look like?
Oskar: I see a decolonized AFSC being an organization that is fundamentally run, overwhelmingly, by people of color and people of color who historically come from oppressed communities. I think that as levels of leadership, that includes the board all the way down.
I think having Ewuare Osayande be the chief diversity officer is a big step in terms of the organization paying more attention to how it shows up for its staff, let alone how it shows up in the world authentically. Sometimes in work environments we don’t treat people of color as well as we treat white folks because white supremacy culture drives us to have these paradigms of accountability and responsibility in a way that fits white culture, and we’re expecting Black and brown people to assimilate into that culture, sometimes even in AFSC culture. So having an Ewuare being able to push back and say hey we need to stop doing things this way, the way we’ve always been doing things, with this white cultural lens, is important. We want to be a decolonized organization and we want to have more people of color working here and we want to have our partners, especially our partners that are people of color led, seeing us as the benevolent organization that we are.
Sophia: Why do you remain a Quaker today?
Oskar: Fundamentally, the reason I am still a Quaker is based on my strong attachment to the idea that within the Religious Society of Friends there is a kernel of truth regarding how we humans can deal with our conflicts. That kernel is directly tied to seeing that of God in everything. And within the context of being a Friend of color who has been doing anti-oppression work and who has also been engaged in anti-racism discussions for more than 20 years, I certainly recognize that Quakerism or the Quaker way is beyond any individual or collective of individuals, like a Quaker Meeting. Therefore it is really the faith practice of silent worship and the vocal ministry that comes from people authentically being led by the spirit that I am drawn to. This is mystical work to me and as a seeker I am inclined to examine the mystery of life in this way.
I know that the Religious Society of Friends in North America is predominately white and I feel a part of the reason I am still a Friend is because I am being led to help Friends better understand that being a Quaker is about more than beliefs and their attachment to white culture; it is about deeds and deeds that go beyond helping out at soup kitchens, or raising money for a good cause. I see being Quaker mostly about being a daily practice of seeing that of God in everything with an emphasis on “daily.” Lately I feel a big part of my desire to be a Quaker stems from the idea that the Religious Society of Friends can be decolonized so that all types of people can understand how mystical it is to listen to the Divine and fellowship with it in profound silence. I'm here to do that work I believe.