If you’ve ever been in a Friends school, chances are you know people like Mary, Ben, and Kate.
Mary has taught at a Friends school for 25 years. She was raised Catholic but hasn’t been to Mass since she married 30 years ago. She attends meeting for worship every week at her school and occasionally attends meeting on Sunday. When she feels moved to speak, her words provide powerful ministry to a very challenging group of seekers—high school students. She frequently leads service trips, accompanying her students when they take sandwiches to a local homeless shelter. She is an active anti-racist educator and is constantly seeking ways to make her pedagogy more inclusive. When asked about her faith background, she says, “I was raised Catholic, but now, if anything, I feel Quaker.”
Ben is a student who has attended a Friends school for three years. Many of his family members have either attended Friends schools or worked in them. Ben goes to meeting for worship weekly. He comes from a family of mixed faith traditions, from conservative Christianity to progressive Reconstructionist Judaism. When asked about his immediate family’s faith, Ben says, “We’re almost Quaker. We’re like secret unofficial Quakers.” Passionate about nature and the outdoors, Ben plans to major in environmental studies in college and is already an environmental activist strongly committed to saving our planet.
Kate attended a Friends elementary school for six years. When she was about eight years old and in primary grades, she said to her mother, “In meeting for worship, I know we are supposed to be listening for the voice of God. I haven’t heard anything yet, but I will keep listening.” Kate went on to a public high school, is now in college, and today both she and her mother are members of a Quaker meeting.
As these stories illustrate, Friends school communities are filled with “almost Quakers,” large networks of people touched and nourished by a distinctive Quaker ethos. These kindred spirits play an important role in nurturing the Quaker spirit of Friends schools. Their presence and engagement bring them to an understanding of Quakerism and provide experience with Quaker testimonies. When they then go out into the world of work, they share these from a place of principle, spiritual grounding, and values that they identify as rooted in Quaker schooling.
With 81 Friends schools in the United States, the potential number of Quaker kindred spirits is actually quite large. Friends Council on Education (FCE) statistics show that Friends schools across the country include approximately 20,000 students; 4,800 faculty and staff; and 1,160 board members and trustees who volunteer their time for governance. In total, there are over 25,000 individuals in Friends schools today, and if you add parents to the mix, the number is even larger. There are approximately 45,000–60,000 people in Friends school communities who have exposure to Quaker beliefs, values, and practices each year. This count does not even include the thousands of Friends school alumni who are leading lives that speak, and acknowledging their Friends school education for having inspired the choices they are making.
As we engage in a dialogue about a new kind of Quaker identity, let us hold close the words of Rich Nourie, head of Abington Friends School in Abington, Pa., and a kindred spirit who has been working in Friends education for many years:
Friends teach essential truths about who we are as human beings, our relationship to a larger spiritual reality, an encouragement to recognize, join, and multiply goodness in the world. In this, Friends schools seek to help children grow into a fullness of who they really are and are called to be. In becoming more whole, they reflect the central insight that animates Quaker communities: that we come from spirit; we can learn from and be led by spirit; we find spirit in each other; and we are naturally, fruitfully responsive to the transcendent in our lives. We are teaching children not to be Quakers but to be human. Friends’ vision for education as induction into our truest identities is a great good.
Another Quaker, Ken Aldridge, head of Wilmington Friends School in Delaware, observes the broad reach of Quakerism in Friends schools:
I have worked in three Friends schools. I have watched so many “fellow travelers,” non-Quaker children doing their best to live out the testimonies, and that has been incredibly influential. Students, colleagues, families—all are inspiring in the ways they think about community, how they think about sharing, how they think about caring for the earth and the global community. I see how they try to lift one another up, how they seek to help another student to be successful. For some, they find aspects of the testimonies that resonate with their own faith, or if not a person of faith, they think of the testimonies as guiding principles.
Friends schools have reached beyond their walls to include kindred spirits from the start. “All the way back to the beginnings of Quaker education, kindred spirits have been a part of our communities,” says Drew Smith, executive director of Friends Council on Education and a Quaker. “Penn signed three charters in the early 1700s establishing the first ‘public’ school governed by a board of trustees that included Quaker and non-Quaker members.” He continues:
The original purpose of Quaker education was to educate citizens for a democratic society, to promote pluralism, and to provide moral education, not to create more Quakers. Friends schools, governed by Quaker values, have a public purpose to them. It is rightly ordered that they have non-Quakers. Early Quaker founders also thought that this was rightly ordered. Friends schools build an ethos of Quakerism in some individuals—some of whom go on to become Quakers and some who do not.
Where do we see aspects of Quakerism at Friends schools? If we took a snapshot of all Friends schools, we would find that students and teachers:
- worship each week in community
- practice conflict resolution skills
- study Quaker tenets, history, and practices
- learn to be stewards of the earth’s resources
- learn Quaker-based decision-making process
- design and lead service-learning and community outreach projects
- engage in courageous conversations about difference and inclusivity
- build capacity to actively make a difference in the world
Because the 81 Friends schools across the country vary in size and demographics, there is no single representative model of a Friends school. Some schools are in a care relationship with a meeting; some are not. Some Friends schools have larger numbers of Quakers in their community, and some have very few. Some schools “feel more Quaker” than others.
Schools each live into being a Friends school in varying ways. Friends Council schools commit to engaging in a membership renewal process by doing a Quaker self-study. FCE invests significant time and energy in supporting each school as it intentionally and deliberately explores its own Quaker identity and works to identify how that can be strengthened.
One of FCE’s roles is to nurture the relationship between Friends meetings and Friends schools. As the size of the Religious Society of Friends dwindles, what will that mean for Quakerism and Quaker schools? Evidence shows the tremendous value of Quaker presence in Friends schools, whether faculty, administrators, board members, or students and their families. Can schools help to grow more Quakers to support their Quaker dimension?
Several small studies show that many individuals come to Quakerism through their experience in a Friends school. In 2006, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Friends Education performed a small, qualitative study; of those who responded to the survey, 67 percent of people in Friends meetings reported that Friends schools had influenced their path to Quakerism. In the 2014 Friends Council publication Leading in the Light, Tom Hoopes, chair of the religion department at George School, writes about a survey he did at the school in 2011:
Today, Friends education is evolving to embrace people of all religious and spiritual orientations, including those with no orientation at all. And many of them are calling themselves “Quaker,” or some hybridized version thereof. We are the stronger for it.
Ken Aldridge, head of Wilmington Friends School, is one example of someone who came to the Religious Society of Friends through Friends education:
Being part of a Friends school community is what led me to become a Friend. It has had tremendous influence on how I live my daily life. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where I attended a Baptist church and graduated from a Catholic high school. I never knew much about Quakers in Ohio! My first big exposure to Quakerism was being hired right out of college to teach at George School, where I attended meeting for worship regularly and attended several Quaker weddings. I could see Friends and non-Friends living their lives as best they could according to the testimonies, and wrestling with matters of faith.
Later, when I was head of the middle school at Germantown Friends School (Pa.), someone commented that my wife and I were raising our children like a Quaker family would. I was taken by surprise. We didn’t think of ourselves as Quakers or even as fellow travelers. Then a friend asked me what meeting I was a member of, and when I said I am not Quaker, he said, “Oh, I thought you were.” I co-taught a Quakerism class at GFS with a Quaker colleague. That prompted my interest in joining a meeting. I also read Letters to a Fellow Seeker by Steve Chase, which gave me further impetus to join. For me, it is a matter of faith; living a life of integrity is no longer an option: it is required. The decisions we make about how we live our lives are more than right and wrong; they come from a spiritual place.
If Friends schools are indeed a pipeline where students and their families can become familiar with the Religious Society of Friends, this is beneficial for both schools and meetings. Meetings will be stronger through the growth in membership. Schools will be stronger by having Friends school graduates who join a meeting and then hopefully return to serve Friends education in leadership roles.
The number of Quaker students in Friends schools is small, yet they play an important role in the culture of the school. They become a living presence of our long-standing faith tradition and often model for others in the school community. Ken Aldridge speaks to the role of Quaker students in his school:
I see the ways in which Quaker students at the school can help set the tone for ministry in meeting for worship and how they help frame the Quaker culture of the school. It is rare and moving to have a group that is 10 percent or less of the school population be the dominant culture. The same is true of Quaker faculty in our schools: they too represent a small percentage of the demographic and yet their way of being in the world influences the school’s Quaker culture.
Quaker schools need Quakers to help continue the grounding of Friends schools in the principles, beliefs, and traditions of the Religious Society of Friends. Friends meetings can be enriched by the many kindred spirits who come from Friends schools to visit Sunday meeting for worship and sometimes stay for years.
Two young mothers sat together on a First Day morning. Their children were friends and had been attending the school’s meeting for worship once a week since kindergarten. These moms attended a program for parents where they were invited to attend the Quaker meeting on Sunday. Organized by the school’s Quaker Life Committee, the program included an overview of Quaker history and how Friends principles and testimonies inform what goes on at the school. Faculty members and upper school students told stories of why they felt drawn to being part of a Quaker community at this particular Friends school and talked about their experiences in meeting for worship. These two young mothers did not realize that they would be welcomed on a Sunday (in fact, the meeting would be delighted to have them attend). Now, they have become regular attenders, and one is now often accompanied by her son and husband.
This story from Ken Aldridge speaks volumes:
Last year three students, none of them Quaker, went to pizza shop in Wilmington. Standing outside a pizza shop was a homeless man. Several people walked by and never acknowledged the man. Our students went in and bought pizza, and they also bought pizza and a bottle of water for the homeless man. Not only did they bring the food outside and give it to the homeless man, but they also stood and talked with him. We only learned about it because a parent from another school witnessed it and shared the story with us. There is the testimony of equality being lived out right there in what we see our students do.
Let us close with words from Quaker Tom Gibian, head of Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland:
Quaker voices are heard through our schools and colleges, retirement communities, camps, service work, and meetings. I know because every day I am in awe of the Sandy Spring Friends School faculty and other community members—their commitment to seeing that of God within each child, their openness to continuing revelation, and their capacity for love. Are these people unqualified to speak to the values and faith commitments of Friends? Of course not. Our faculty and trustees, alumni, parent volunteers, students, and so many others represent the very best of our society. I hear the soft, still voice of God speaking through members and non-members alike. Some whose journeys bring them here will find their way into our meetinghouses. Among those, some will persevere to be thought of as attenders, and some, eventually, will seek membership. In my mind, this is good, but regardless of their membership status, I know they bring Light to their Quaker communities as well as to their churches and synagogues, families, neighbors, workplaces, and community service destinations.