On a Mission to Heal the Planet

Risking esteem and friendship to speak truth through Friends ministry

interviewed by Shirley Dodson

Amanda, what motivated you to apply to become a resident student at Pendle Hill?

I loved Pendle Hill from the moment I stepped onto the campus in 2002. I found great solace and comfort in the grounds; actually the very ground, the wood-chip path. After my first weekend course with the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent, I would come almost weekly and spend a few hours letting the trees and the ground soothe me. I cried many times in the silence and privacy of the trees. I also prayed and sang songs I made up out loud. When I first learned of the Resident Program I had an infant and a toddler, so I knew that I would not be a resident student for a long time, but I yearned for it. Finally, knowing in a very deep and clear way that I had completed both my marriage and my job, I began the Resident Program in the fall of 2007.

You brought with you to Pendle Hill a rich background in drama and college teaching. How did you hope to further your professional and personal interests at Pendle Hill?

I came to Pendle Hill to discern the next step for me. I had been teaching at colleges for ten years and been married for almost ten years and both were complete. Pendle Hill felt like the right context for me to step into the next phase of my life. It would be my cocoon. And it was! But a cocoon is not a place where you just chill out and live stress-free. A cocoon—if you are a caterpillar— is a place where you dissolve and re-form. Having released so much that had defined me, I felt unformed. Even before I arrived I had done some discernment and had come up with a statement of my life purpose: "On a mission to heal the planet." I found the courage at Pendle Hill to step into that mission by starting Theatre for Transformation and collaborating with artists based in Philly and even going to France to speak the truth about slavery. Taking yoga and Breema classes, along with classes that took me into listening in a disciplined way for the Spirit, gave me a willingness to say yes when I felt nudged into the unknown—beyond what I knew. But even more than the classes, it was having a cohort of people listening deeply and willing to laugh, sing, dance, and pray out loud that made that year magical.

You were the 2007-2008 Henry J. Cadbury scholar during your residency here. What project did you work on at Pendle Hill?

My project involved Quakers and slavery, and it became more specific over the course of my residency. I was drawn to the journals of early Friends and their engagement with slavery and travel in the vocal ministry. I was inspired and challenged by their willingness to be "fools for God." At first, I wondered why they were so resistant to ministry. But as I stepped more fully into my own ministry, I understood: being a public minister puts you under a kind of scrutiny and risk for failure that doesn’t happen if you keep your work and your failings private. Undertaking a ministry means that you are putting yourself under the care and direction of Spirit, and that is bound to put you at risk of losing people’s esteem, friendship, and support. Who wants to look bad and maybe end up crucified? Not me! Anyway, I became very intimate with a collection of Quaker women’s journals edited by Margaret Hope Bacon, John Woolman’s Journal, and a couple of others. Instead of writing a dignified, moderately academic article, I wrote a story and traveled to Paris to speak and perform about Benjamin Franklin and slavery.

You may recall that Woolman’s turning point, the moment when he decided he could not participate in slavery, was when he wrote a bill of sale for a woman who was enslaved in the household where he was apprenticed. One morning I woke up at about four and started writing in her voice how that situation unfolded and how she felt. She was in a rage. In the Quaker telling of the story, John Woolman ends up being a guy with a conscience—but in her experience he was no better than the man that all of a sudden sold her. This became the kernel of a story I shared at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Annual Sessions in 2008 and again at Friends General Conference that summer.

One of the most surprising things I did was travel to France in the ministry. I had been researching Ben Franklin and slavery, and while at Pendle Hill I created and performed a monologue about an enslaved woman he had captured in France. A prestigious French museum that was celebrating the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth was about to conclude its exhibit with no mention of slavery. I had wanted to perform my play there, but we could not get any sponsors, and, more importantly, the museum was not interested in having us or the topic addressed. While pondering this, it occurred to me that I could go and tell this story alone, without cast or crew. It would be much cheaper. I resisted this notion for a time, but it just rooted in me. With the support of a clearness committee back home in Lancaster, way opened. And then, just a few days before I was to leave, I lost my voice. Day after day, it did not come back. I did everything I could, and it came back just enough, but then there was a long delay at the cold airport and it left me again. I arrived in Paris with no voice!

Everyone was praying for me at Pendle Hill. I spoke no French. I had no personal friends or colleagues with me. But those journals from women in the ministry stuck with me, and I just surrendered to God.

I did regain my voice and performed many times, spoke to people over a two-day period, captured most of it on film, and returned home satisfied that I had been faithful. When I looked at that footage after I got home, I was shocked at the woman I was. I had this whole "blessed assurance" vibe about me, this peaceful confidence that is really beautiful to remember.

As you look back on your experience as a resident student at Pendle Hill, what most stands out for you?

A whole bunch of tears, which now I see came from being terrified and resistant to transforming; the singing resonance that was like the soil in which we the resident student body grew; and the incredibly hard-working staff who created that powerful container for us to be stretched and loved through it all. If you are willing to really sink down into yourself and listen and observe, and then take the action that terrifies you most—why, you might just be ready for a year at Pendle Hill.

Amanda Kemp

Amanda Kemp, a member of Lancaster (Pa.) Meeting, is the founder of Theatre for Transformation, a company that has reached over 7,000 people since its launch in 2007, and the author of a forthcoming book, The Ancestors are Calling: Your Guide to Forgiveness and Creating a Life of Purpose. Shirley Dodson, a member of the Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa., is director of communications at Pendle Hill.