Notes from an Access Pioneer

Recently I was asked to provide a six-word autobiography. I chose: "Child of God, Wife, Mother, Friend." Had I been asked for eight words, I would have included "Access Pioneer." This program at ESR, which combines online classes with residential two-week intensives, has been, to date, the seminal experience in my life. It was the beginning, but I hope not the end, of further development of myself as a person, as a Friend, and as a "Friendly Ear" at Friends House Retirement Community in Sandy Spring, Maryland. I believe strongly that God has always been working in my life, but it was Access, its faculty, and my pioneer cohort that taught me to understand better what the Divine Source has always been whispering in my ear. Actively seeking a graduate level program in religion in 2000, I was finding the right fit difficult. Attending ESR in Richmond had never occurred to me since the notion of undertaking a degree away from home seemed infeasible. An ad in Friends Journal for a two-week intensive course to take place in January 2001 sounded interesting. Then I learned about the incipient Access program due to begin in August. Traveling two to three times a year for intensive courses combined with online classes was an intriguing idea.

Now I laugh at the whimsical nature of divine humor. I believe I was called to a "helping profession" from a young age, but suffered from deafness to my inward spirit. Since calling me wasn’t working, God ultimately led me to where I needed to be. Not finding the appropriate program of study in the D.C. environs, my eye was caught by a simple two-inch advertisement. That first two week Intensive turned into an application to join Access. I did not apply willingly. Prior to submitting my application, I wrestled with what it meant to be a non- Christian Quaker in a Christian school of religion. That January in Richmond I began a clearness process defining what it means to me to be a liberal Friend. After I reached home the process continued with friends in Bethesda. For every good reason I could come up with to attend ESR, there was another telling me how impossible it would be. Indeed, the clearness process continued for several years. God turned my negative statements into positive declarations. "I am not a Christian" became "I am a child of God in Christ"; "I do not pray" became "I am in continual dialogue with the Divine"; and finally, "I have no discernible gifts" became "I am called to service and to pastoral care."

At age 51, knowing quite well who I was (thank you very much), I began the transformational program called ESR Access. While I began ESR knowing in my core being that ekam sad (Sanskrit meaning truth is one), I was willing to sacrifice all things "Christian" on an altar of leftover adolescent pique with the church. During my time in Access, I matured. I learned to see beneath the sometimes hypocritical and frequently bad theology of televangelists and other public Christian voices to hear the voice of Christ.

Spiritual matters discussed in class and online opened me in unexpected ways. Our cyber-classroom became a place of worship. I found that I gained an improved understanding of my own theology and that of the diverse types of Friends I encountered at ESR. Academic rigor prepared me intellectually for my chosen vocation of pastoral care. But ESR did not send me out into the world with only book learning. Through practicums and supervised Field Education I received guidance in real time. Learning by doing, I was fortunate that two women at Friends House allowed me to work with them during the last three years of my degree. Members of my Meeting were willing to participate in "group spiritual direction" with me. Four Friends continue to this day as my clearness committee. And I was blessed with a supportive supervisor whom I trusted yet who challenged me appropriately during my year of internship at Friends House. Headwork and soul-work combined well for my exploration of how the Divine operates in my daily life.


Susan Kaul, a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, was a member of the first— "pioneer"—Access graduating class of Earlham School of Religion.