Creating a Campus Quaker Culture

Processing a trip to an Amish settlement with my Guilford College “Plain People” course, a Quaker student shared with me his deepest impression. “I felt the power of tradition and community there,” he said. “I wish I had access to that kind of power in my life.”

Why would a young Friend raised in a Quaker home and meeting, living in an intentional community founded by Friends, and attending a Quaker college express such longing? Don’t Quakers have traditions? Aren’t we the Religious Society of Friends?

Unfortunately, apart from some outstanding Quaker camping programs, sustained work at a few Friends schools, and a handful of yearly and monthly meeting youth programs, a pervasive and authentic Quaker culture replete with powerful traditions and a deep sense of community is unavailable to many of our youth.

I wish I could report that Guilford’s Quaker Leadership Scholars Program (QLSP) was designed to answer this concern or that QLSP was initiated to replicate the educational culture described in Douglas Heath’s classic The Peculiar Mission of a Quaker School. Wouldn’t it be nice to say that QLSP was a response to Paul Lacey’s call in Growing into Goodness for an ethos in our Quaker schools that re-interprets the historical notion of a “guarded education”?

Quaker integrity compels me to admit, however, that QLSP’s origins were far less utopian and visionary—but quintessen-tially Quaker: the college wanted to conserve financial resources! Desiring to direct financial aid funds for Friends to those certifiably Quaker, Friends Center at Guilford College (a cooperative office of the college and the wider community of Quakers to strengthen Friends and their institutions) was asked to create a means to that end. QLSP was the result.

Stumbling into Goodness

A group of fewer than ten students formed the first QLSP class in 1992. They helped invent the program as they matured through their Guilford College career. The initial vision was to offer a systematic, co-curricular program enabling the committed Quaker student to utilize Guilford’s and North Carolina’s significant Quaker resources to prepare for service to Friends. Students would apply to the program, be recommended by their monthly meetings, and be selected into QLSP (and legitimated for Quaker aid dollars!) on the strength of their desire to prepare for servant-leadership among Friends.

How that preparation was to take place was envisioned as a four-year process of academic courses on Quakerism, spiritual formation, internships and mentoring, and exposure to a variety of Friends whose lives bear witness to the application of faith to practice. By the time the first class graduated, QLSP had nearly 50 students and a structure that would delude the casual observer into thinking we knew what we were doing! So, what does the program look like?

The First Year. A student’s initial year in QLSP begins with an orientation to the diversity within the worldwide body of Friends. QLSPers come from Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference, and Conservative meetings, many seeing a Quaker from “the other” tradition for the first time at Guilford. In fact, some do not even know there are such heterodox Quakers as “those others” before arriving at Guilford!

Visits to area meetings representing these varieties, adult Quaker contacts, upper-class “buddies,” and discussion among themselves help to puncture myths about different branches of Friends. Worship-sharing groups, frequent campus visitors, and academic courses add to the wealth of experience from which a student begins to sort out what it means to be a Quaker, a process that continues all four years.

The Second Year. An essential part of QLSP is a year of spiritual formation. Through weekly meetings, retreats, and spiritual friends, students are offered during their second year the opportunity to experiment with traditional spiritual disciplines. This process continues along with the regular all-QLSP meetings, programs, speakers, and other activities. Quite often, students will continue with their “spiritual friends” well past their second year.

The Third Year. A focus of this year in QLSP is the study of a particular area of Quaker interest in preparation for planning a major campus conference on that subject. Conferences have explored styles of leadership, decision-making, equality, approaches to the arts, and education. In weekly meetings, writings on the subject are discussed, plans are made, and leadership and decision-making are practiced—an intentional byproduct of the year. Robert Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader is always incorporated into the year’s study.

The Fourth Year. Seniors take a capstone Quaker studies seminar, using texts such as Wilmer Cooper’s A Living Faith and Marjorie Post Abbott’s A Certain Kind of Perfection. In addition, local Friends are invited to share with the students the ways in which they apply Quaker principles in the workplace. Visitors have included pastors, educators, state legislators, musicians, federal judges, attorneys, business leaders, and even the local mayor and district attorney! A senior project focusing the students’ particular academic and personal interests as Friends is shared with the wider community.

For all this effort, averaging some five hours of co-curricular involvement weekly, QLSPers receive up to $3,000 annually in scholarship aid, with additional matching funds if the student is supported financially by his/her local meeting. Program funds also support involvement in work trips, attendance at conferences, and other Quakerly activities.

Preparing for Service

As QLSP developed, it helped create a vital campus subculture that nurtured and sustained Quaker principles. Visiting Friends modeled integrity and commitment; worship opportunities deepened the life of the Spirit; academic courses, conferences, and workshops helped define authentic Quakerism. A critical mass of real, live Quakers provided important friendships, affinity groups, and a setting in which one’s faith and practice could grow and mature.

A high percentage of graduates has gone on to significant service for Friends and in areas offering important opportunity for expression of Quaker testimonies. Almost half have gone directly into Quaker organizations: internships with FWCC, QUNO, and FCNL; teaching and administrative positions at Quaker schools; youth leadership in monthly and yearly meetings. QLSP graduates have entered seminary, law enforcement, banking, migrant labor advocacy, health fields, law, public school teaching, and business.

Guilford College has been just as delighted with the program as employers have been. Over 90 percent of QLSP students finish their degree at Guilford. Many serve in critical positions as student members of committees of the college, helping articulate Quaker values on campus and holding the institution’s collective feet to the Friendly fire.

Accounting for the Program’s Success

When asked to reflect on the meaning of QLSP to their lives, graduates typically name three key ways in which the program influenced them:

Integration. Alex Kern, a 1994 graduate and current seminary student, having worked at Pendle Hill and Moorestown Friends School, writes:

“I came to Guilford seeking a home, spiritually, intellectually, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of community.” In QLSP, he found an integration of academic study with opportunities to practice Quakerism with heart and soul in worship, and with the body in service projects. Alex credits the experience of a diversity of ways to express faith, along with a range of speakers, readings, and programs, with giving him a sense of being integrated into a vital, worldwide community of Friends. Internships and conferences introduced him to post-Guilford opportunities in which he combined his spiritual commitments with employment.

Modeling. Jessica Piekielek, a 1997 graduate and advocate for Native American affairs for FCNL, notes:

“Being a part of QLSP introduced me to some wonderful people, kindred spirits who had—and continue to have—a profound effect on me, on my understanding of faith, and on my vision of what it means to live a Spirit-led life.” She describes QLSP as a safe haven in college where support was found for facing the challenges of a youth culture marked by alcohol abuse, drugs, depression, eating disorders, family struggles, disillusionment, and suicide.

“Participating in QLSP steeped me in Quaker culture,” she writes. History, traditions, friends, and mentors provided
her with a discipline and language that provided an oasis in the sea of cultural confusion.

Support. Becca Grunko, a 1993 graduate and high school Spanish teacher, cites QLSP community as important to her. QLSP began when she was a senior at Guilford, and although she had been the student coordinator of the campus Quaker Concerns group, a high school youth leader at New Garden Friends Meeting, a religious studies major, and a regular attender at Friends worship, she often felt isolated and alone before the program’s inception.

With QLSP, “All of a sudden, I was surrounded by a group of people who were very diverse, but who had solid Quaker backgrounds and cared about Quakerism in the same way I did. More than anything, QLSP gave me hope and community.”

There Are Still Thorns on This Quaker Branch

Indeed, personal and programmatic success stories can be underscored, but the program is not without its struggles and challenges. Four in particular have tested our patience and ability to keep the program vital and meaningful.

Attendance. Not unlike others, most of our Quaker students come out of a culture of individualism, with little group loyalty. “That of God in everyone” has been translated too often for them as a statement of anthropology rather than theology. The individual is god rather than a vehicle for knowing the divine in spiritual discipline and corporate discernment. Few come to Guilford with a strong pattern of regular attendance at worship or the business meetings of Friends.

To address a consistent pattern of non-commitment, Lisa Lundeen, a 2000 graduate and former co-clerk of QLSP, formulated a set of advices and queries in a handbook for QLSP as her senior project. She addressed the problem of absenteeism this way:

“Together, members of QLSP form a worship community, of which each Friend is an essential part. Absences from QLSP events diminish the quality of worship and education for everyone. Do you maintain a faithful discipline of attendance? Do you make an effort to catch up on QLSP news when an absence cannot be avoided?”

Quaker diversity. While a distinctive strength of the program, the pervasive misunderstanding of “the other” in the Quaker world spills over into QLSP. Unprogrammed Friends new in QLSP are often hostile to Christian language and assume that pastoral Friends are “hellfire and damnation” fundamentalists. Evangelical Friends coming into QLSP often suspect “silent” Friends of paganism at worst and squishy universalism at best.

Lisa’s advices and queries ask, “Friends’ beliefs and practices vary widely. How well acquainted are you with traditions outside your own? Do you actively seek to learn more about other traditions? How can you work to integrate aspects of other Quaker cultures into your own daily discipline?”

Busyness. Linked with the problem of fidelity to the program through faithful attendance at events is the overwhelming busyness of students at a college so academically demanding and offering so many competing activities as Guilford. We talk much about the testimony of integrity, of leading a truly integrated life as well as living up to promises of participation. The embarrassment of riches in QLSP programs alone challenges a student to maintain a balance of studies, sleep, leisure, and active involvement in QLSP. Again, Lisa queries:

“Are you able to let go of your busy-ness to be truly present in worship and other QLSP events? What would help you better direct your energy to the present moment? Are you able to say NO when you need to take care of yourself?”

Size. Indeed, size matters. The popularity of QLSP and its growing national reputation have swelled the program’s ranks, providing a vital subculture on campus as well as sufficient diversity. But at the same time, as the program’s numbers have grown, intimacy has decreased, and even in a group of 50, cliques have formed around common experience, theology, and personal habit. Many feel that QLSP is already too large. How can the advantages of size be balanced by the necessity for a sense of community?

Lisa’s query, in part, addresses this issue: “What or who speaks to your condition? What kind of language do you prefer to use to speak about your own condition? How open are you to developing or becoming acquainted with new vocabularies? How can Friends, beginning in QLSP, work to achieve unity in their corporate search for Truth even when some speak of “God,” some of “the Light,” and some of “Christ”?

Have We Succeeded?

Has QLSP become the oasis of a culture of tradition and community that my student yearned for upon returning from his visit to the Amish? Has QLSP succeeded in providing an incubator for young Friends to prepare for larger service to the wider Quaker community? QLSP has a long enough record now to indicate a tentative yes. Truly to succeed, however, there will need to be a vital Quaker community into which we can send our invigorated graduates!

As QLSP has struggled with the question of size and diversity, integrity and community, the response comes to us again and again: we can do our part to nurture servant-leaders for the Religious Society of Friends, but the broader community needs to find ways to replicate QLSP in various forms.

Is Quakerism up to the challenge?

Max L. Carter

Max L. Carter is the director of Friends Center at Guilford College and a member of New Garden (N.C.) Meeting. Before Guilford, he served at the Ramallah Friends Schools, Earlham, Friends Select, and Friends Central.