Earlham School of Religion (ESR) and I were both born in the autumn of 1960. We intersected in our "young adulthood" in the autumn of 1986 when I arrived, confused about what I was being called to do with my life, to engage in the Theological Reflection Year (TRY), a one-year program to take classes without committing to a degree program. About all I really knew about my vocational direction in life was that I desired to be a strong Quaker disciple of Jesus Christ in whatever way God might call me to do that. Though I wanted to make a difference with the life I had been given, I had no particular sense at all about my God-given gifts to make that difference. I was profoundly clueless.
After graduating from Friends University four years before (in the midst of an economic recession) I had taught English and history in a private school, done clerical work in a law office, been a typist for a business consulting firm, and worked in various offices through a temp agency. These experiences had supplied me with some sense of what I did not want to do: work 80 hours a week (as I had at the school), be a lawyer (even though I had done well on the LSATs), or earn my living at my worst skill (typing).
What God might have in mind for me was a complete mystery! I arrived at ESR hoping, praying, and longing for a sense of God-given direction.
I came to ESR as a self-described "ecumenical" Quaker. This journey had begun the summer I was 11 when I went with a cousin to a Friends camp run by a Midwestern yearly meeting. My cabin counselor questioned my Christian commitment when I told her that I had been a Christian my whole life. She expected me to pinpoint a specific time and place when I had made that commitment. My Quaker "ecumenicity" was cemented the next summer. I participated in a gathering of Young Friends from a Northeastern yearly meeting at which other Young Friends questioned my status as a Quaker because I carried my Bible and they discovered (gasp!) my father was a Quaker pastoral minister. Fortunately I had been blessed with wise and spiritually grounded parents who understood that these experiences did not need to be negative. They talked with me about how different Friends had varied understandings about how God worked in the world and in people’s lives. These two experiences, while inevitably planting questions in my young psyche about whether I was a "real" Christian or a "real" Quaker, set me on the journey to firsthand faith, in which my beliefs were no longer inherited and my relationship with God was grounded in Christ—Jesus of Scripture and Living Word in the world.
My "ecumenical" Quaker journey continued. I grew to appreciate many aspects of the variety of Friends. During college, I had actually been a member of three of the major branches of Friends at the same time: my membership was held in Smith Neck (Mass.) Meeting of New England Yearly Meeting (Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference), and my sojourning membership was held at University Friends Meeting in Wichita (Mid America Yearly Meeting of Evangelical Friends Alliance, as it was known then, and Nebraska Yearly Meeting—now Great Plains Yearly Meeting—of Friends United Meeting). In addition, I had significant exposure to other Christian traditions and other religious faiths.
Despite this fairly extensive experience with theological diversity, I found that it was one thing to have intermittent experiences of this sort, but quite another to live with it on a daily basis for an extended period of time. I and my classmates, like many who entered before and after us, discovered that this immersion was very intense and quite inescapable. Together we were forging a sense of community.
As that TRY year unfolded, it seemed that we were forever talking about "community" at ESR. I even got tired of hearing the word. I worked hard to be a good member of this strikingly diverse gathering of people from different generations, theologies, and experiences with different dreams, values, and expectations. Some seemed to think that this "sense of community," which seemed to be our common hope, should just be bestowed upon us like manna.
The reality was it took hard work to build and nurture a community that learned, worshiped, and worked together. The faculty and staff of ESR modeled well for us the work of community and created the atmosphere in which, for the most part, community could be formed; yet they could not give it to us. We entered into ESR monthly meetings for business with different expectations as unprogrammed Friends, programmed Friends, and other than Friends. We entered classrooms with different understandings of the Bible. We entered "Spiritual Preparation for Ministry" class with different experiences of God and different levels of comfort in talking about those experiences. Whether we were in the classroom, in committees, in conversations or at Common Meal, we were constantly in the laboratory of community. Although I found myself frustrated with those who complained, I kept quiet because I knew in my heart that I, too, longed for the closeness there that many of us had experienced in other places such as retreats or summer camp.
In the midst of all of this, "community" happened—in a conversation with a classmate who saw things from a different viewpoint and yet we experienced a kinship that could only be given by God, or in truly "gathered" meetings for worship. We experienced it as hardwon with our blood, sweat, and tears, and as God-given as well.
There were still times when I held that various thoughts, ideas, or beliefs of others were wrong, misguided, or even deluded; and I am quite sure that some of those who were sojourning through ESR with me thought the same about me. Yet I began to know that we were all "broken people" who wanted to live our lives in deep and meaningful ways that honored the Divine.
In this diverse community, I began to discover a stronger clarity about myself. That is one of the best fruits of a true community—to provide ways to connect with others and, at the same time, means to differentiate oneself from others.
The hard-won reality of true community is a tool that I carry with me today. I used it when I represented Western Yearly Meeting on the YouthQuake Planning Committee for ten years as we sought to engage Young Friends from diverse yearly meetings in considering "What does it mean to be a Quaker follower of Jesus Christ?" I carry it in my work today as I serve in ministry as executive director of Indiana Network for Higher Education Ministries, a small nonprofit that serves people and organizations who care about college students’ spiritual lives. This broadly ecumenical Christian organization also works in the interfaith arena when appropriate and necessary. It takes work to balance with integrity the perspectives of a governing board made up of evangelical, mainline, and Catholic Christians, while serving an even broader constituency.
I ended up staying at ESR beyond the Theological Reflection Year. Throughout the time I was there I kept a commitment to myself and to God: attending meetings for worship at ESR was a priority. When there was meeting for worship, I was usually there. Each week we had two unprogrammed worship times and two programmed or semi-programmed ones. Both fed my soul and deepened my ability to listen to God.
Being at ESR meant lots of listening. I learned to listen better to other people through Active Listening training. Even though at first the format seemed stilted and artificial, I learned to listen carefully and reflectively. Through meetings for worship as well as classes in prayer and spiritual direction, I learned to listen more attentively to and for the Creator’s call, Christ’s voice, the Spirit’s movement.
The first time I heard the phrase "listening spirituality" used to describe the essence of Quaker spirituality, it resonated with me. For that is what was embedded in me during my time at ESR. It allowed me to be more open to hear and receive.
If I had not been encouraged to engage in such a consistent practice of listening, I wonder if I would have been able to sense God’s whisper in the suggestion of a f/Friend to join with other Quakers in the Graduate Diploma program in Spiritual Direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1999. Would I have answered the call later to supervise the occasional spiritual direction intern? Would I have been open in the last few months to write a freeform poem and pass it on to a colleague who is a Baptist minister/artist, which led us to plan a gathering of creative people to write reflections on his spiritual/religious painting?
In December 1988 I got to be a part of what I believe may have been ESR’s first formal international cross-cultural experience for students. A dozen or so ESR students and one faculty member spent ten days in a study/service trip to Belize. Now I am a person who likes to have things planned. I like to know when things are going to happen, where I will be going, and what I will be doing. In short, I tend to take comfort in the illusory belief that I am in control.
There is nothing like traveling to another country, particularly a developing country, to shatter—or at least dismantle— that illusion while at the same time permanently rearranging one’s worldview. It was my first opportunity to travel outside the United States and Canada. Of course, things did not go as planned. The small group that I was to be with did not end up going to the section of Belize that we expected. That change of plans gave us the opportunity simply to "be available." We put together a celebration for the Friends Continuation School students. We did some repair and clean-up. We visited the "old folks’ home." I began to understand the need for flexibility and that sometimes ministry can happen—I can be available to listen to someone who is hurting or to offer hands of service—because things have not been tightly scheduled.
A few months later I realized that I had learned to "carry the ‘flexibility’ tool" with me. In one of those absurd moments of life, worthy of a scene in sitcom in which my friend and I could not seem to extricate ourselves from endless road construction in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I had missed my train from Philadelphia back to Richmond. I took it in stride with very little anxiety, something that would have been impossible in my life pre-Belize.
Oh, what a valuable tool flexibility has been in my toolkit. For the first youth camp at Quaker Haven that I directed after starting as associate superintendent of Western Yearly Meeting, I did not know who all the counselors were going to be until two days before. People got their activity assignments 24 hours before the campers arrived rather than several weeks before. We had to be very flexible as we made it through that week. Although I do confess I did have a great deal of anxiety, I was able to adapt and bend to meet the realities with which I was faced.
Paradoxically, during my four years at ESR while I was learning to be flexible, I was also learning the value of planning and good administration. I remember vividly in my second year at ESR, stopping by to talk to Fred Tiffany (Hebrew Bible professor and academic dean). I expressed my frustration and confusion about whether administrative work was ministry or not. Fred spoke clearly and eloquently that administration is a ministry in itself. These words have stayed with me.
During most of my student years at ESR, I was editing children’s and youth curriculum for Friends United Meeting (FUM), and my field education site was there. Through planning and guiding various pieces of curriculum through the publication process, I began to see that I might have a gift for administration.
As I have continued in ministry since ESR, I have felt free to serve in administration, knowing that it is ministry. I have learned to plan well but to have the flexibility to deviate from that plan when necessary. It continues to give me joy to administer, knowing that it frees others to engage in their ministries in the world.
The Importance of "And"
By now you may wonder whether the value of ESR for me was confined to experiences outside the classroom. Let me assure you that the classes were valuable; it was primarily in the classroom that I learned the power of "and." Alan Kolp, who taught both New Testament and Spirituality classes, engaged our minds and our spirits.
My favorite class was the one he taught on the Gospel of John. For ten wonderful weeks we engaged deeply in study of this Gospel. It created in me a deeper hunger for, and a strong love of, the Scriptures. While Alan expected rigorous scholarship, he also expected us to engage in the Gospel in ways that fed our spirits and informed our abilities to serve in ministry. We washed one another’s feet in that class—not as a ritual nor as a simplistic object lesson, but as an opportunity to open ourselves deeply to the meaning of Scripture, the power of God, and the essence of servanthood. The weekly field education class sessions allowed us to connect theory and practice. We were encouraged to question and to answer, to seek and to find, to give and to receive.
The lesson of "and" was pervasive at ESR. "And" continues to be handy for many things. It’s like the multi-purpose tool in my toolkit. It reminds me that there is richness and depth in life and ministry. It points me toward Jesus who was full of grace and truth. It helps me focus on possibilities when I feel trapped in polarized conversations.
I graduated from ESR, still not quite knowing what my vocational and career path was going to be. I did leave with an emerging sense of what gifts I had been given and a deep sense of gratitude to God for all the people, the experiences, and the opportunities I had been given during my sojourn there. I was still committed to being a strong Quaker disciple of Jesus Christ, and I still desired to make a difference in the world. I had some sturdy tools in my tool kit, and I was a little less clueless.