Quaker Leadership and Education

Photo: NetaDegany @iStockPhoto.com
Photo: NetaDegany @iStockPhoto.com

Just before Halloween last year, around midnight, as I was lying down to sleep, a song crept into my mind. It was a piece I had learned long ago in Harare, Zimbabwe, where Friends sent me to serve as an intern at the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1998. The lyrics were quite simple: “We want to rejoice, from generation to generation.” Why, I wondered, had this song returned to me after so many years? Could it have something to do with the fact that the Boston Red Sox had just won the World Series five minutes earlier, and Fenway Park was overrun with joyful bearded baseball maniacs who, come to think of it, looked an awful lot like many hirsute Quakers I know?

No, that was not it. I do live in Boston among generations of Red Sox fanatics, but the lyrics had a greater meaning in that moment. Recently, I had been asked to speak at the Quaker Educational Leadership Symposium organized by Guilford College, my alma mater, and New Garden Friends School, and as I drifted off to sleep with the African song’s sweet refrain sounding in my inward ear, it suddenly struck me: all of Quaker faith, Quaker leadership, and Quaker education were born out of an experience of utter joy, that moment George Fox discovered the Inward Teacher after exhausting all outward ones. “And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone,” he writes, “so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ And when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”

Joy is an underappreciated foundation of Friends education and leadership, a thread that binds us from generation to generation: joy in worship, joy in community, joy in learning, joy in serving and leading, joy born of suffering, joy even in our witness in a wounded world. As Quaker sociologist Elise Boulding wrote for her 1956 William Penn Lecture titled “The Joy That Is Set Before Us,” “Joy leaps into the future and triumphantly creates a new present out of it. It is a fruit of the Spirit, a gift of God—no person can own it. God’s Kingdom is Joy, said [the apostle] Paul. Joy is the ultimate liberation of the human spirit. It enables one to travel to the very gates of heaven and to the depths of hell, and never cease rejoicing.” (Gender-inclusive language has been added.)

At this uncertain yet exciting time for Friends meetings and schools, I want to share with you three brief, personal stories of joyful transformation from my own journey through Quaker education. Generations of Friends, including Boulding, have shaped my life—from my childhood First-day school in Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) through my years spent at Sidwell Friends and Guilford College to my present vocation as an educator, peacebuilder, and interfaith leader. The witness of these Friends offers exciting directions for Quaker educational leadership as we move into the future with confidence.

The first story begins, appropriately enough, in First-day school.

During my years growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s and ’80s, my mother and fellow Quakers experienced a powerful leading. It came to them to conserve a tract of land in the mountains near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. What began as a conservation effort soon became a mission to develop Friends Wilderness Center, a place of peace with a giant treehouse, a campfire circle, and even a Mongolian structure called a yurt. If the idea of 1970s-era Quakers swinging from trees gives you pause or evokes images of Planet of the Apes or Where the Wild Things Are, do not be alarmed! These faithful Friends dreamt of a place where harried people could connect with the land, learning the lessons that only wild places can teach.

Soon our parents enlisted us in the tasks of creating the Center: clearing the campground; building the treehouse on tall telephone poles; and yes, even digging the latrine. Before long, Quakers had fashioned a place of rare and rustic beauty, perched on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. Soon it became a dynamic center for prayer, meditation, and silent retreat—where Friends would sit among the trees and read mystical texts from Quakerism and the world’s religions.

Looking back on that time, I can see a Quaker educational philosophy at work in ways I could scarcely name then. Like Fox when he established coeducational schools, these older Friends were training us in “whatsoever things were civil and useful in the creation.” Riding a wave of 1970s environmental activism, they were also swimming in deep Quaker streams dating to Fox’s first experiences of the new creation, John Woolman’s concern for the suffering of creatures, and Edward Hicks’s powerful painted visions of the Peaceable Kingdom.

For us as children, nature became both our classroom and our cathedral. We absorbed the older Friends’ love for the simple, the local, and the land, and felt their sense of responsibility to our generation and the generations to come. They followed Margaret Mead’s advice: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” That’s what Friends do; that’s who we are.

Looking back now as an educator, I can see these teachers introducing us to some paradoxes inherent in Quaker education. Certainly learning involves action, innovation, and real world application, yet it also requires contemplation, silence, and solitude. Learning means swinging hammers, but also watching for deer and fool’s gold and jacks-in-the-pulpit.

Learning meant creation but also re-creation. These Friends modeled Sabbath-keeping, taking back their time to reconnect with one another and with deeper things of the Spirit. Like the Shakers, they believed firmly in putting their hands to work and their hearts to God.

To them, learning meant delving deeply into ancient texts, but also engaging more recent visionary thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and their Quaker mentor John Yungblut, who saw the evolutionary future of Quakerism (rightly, I believe) as simultaneously mystical, prophetic, and evangelical—in the very best sense of each word.

Each of these principles are as relevant to Quaker education and leadership today as they were to my First-day school class long ago, even more so in the face of our environmental crisis and the urgent need for renewal among Friends. We are called to not only walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone, but also walk gently on the land, reverencing that of God in (and beyond) everything. Green must become our new Quaker gray.

The second story is set in Washington, D.C., on Thanksgiving Day in 1984.

Three veteran African American civil rights leaders are arrested on the steps of the South African Embassy, launching a wave of marches and sit-ins that refocused international attention on the evils of apartheid. Within days, my eighth grade social studies teacher at Sidwell Friends School, Lonnie Edmonson, had packed us all onto school busses, and then we were marching, the first group of children to join the daily protests outside the Embassy.

In our Sidwell sociology class, we had learned the terms to describe in-groups and out-groups, social stratification, and systems of structural oppression. In meeting for worship with headmaster Earl Harrison and others, we had been introduced to Friends testimonies of equality, peace, and global concern.

Here, however, was the ultimate teachable moment, the object lesson, and Sidwell seized it. I remember our fear and excitement marching silently along Massachusetts Avenue, as cars flew past and honked their approval. I remember standing before the TV cameras as the media spokesperson, a shy Quaker kid with (truly) shaggy, shaggy locks. I remember thinking that it would not be right to be the only spokesperson, so I put my arm around a younger Jewish classmate, drawing him into the camera’s gaze.

Looking back now, it seems clear I was destined for a career as both a Quaker educator and an interfaith activist. At the time, however, I could not have guessed that within a year and a half (by Mothers’ Day 1986) I too would be arrested with my younger brother and older marchers outside the Embassy, singing “We Shall Overcome” as the police took us away. I could not have guessed then that the arrests would force passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 over President Reagan’s veto, or that by 1989, Sidwell students would form the nation’s largest interscholastic anti-apartheid coalition. And who could have guessed then that by 1990—after generations of struggle by millions of people—Nelson Mandela would walk blinking and waving into the daylight of freedom?

The final story takes place at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

In her wonderful book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, the Quaker scholar Sharon Daloz Parks speaks of the journey of young adulthood as a dynamic quest for meaning, vocation, and a mature adult faith to live by. She employs powerful metaphors such as the hearth, where minds and spirits are welcome and kindled; and the commons, where diversities meet in dialogue and mutual transformation.

The hearth of Guilford College is the Hut, a hobbit-hole structure housing campus ministries. When I arrived in 1992, the nearly new “hut master” was Max Carter. As interesting as Max was, there was another figure on the scene, who went by the nickname “Quaker Goddess of the Religious Studies Department”: Rebecca Grunko. She was the first graduate of the pioneering Quaker Leadership Scholars Program (QLSP). I was the second, and I’ve been following her around ever since. (Spoiler alert: she’s now my wife.)

I remember very clearly during my first semester at Guilford signing up for a weekly seekers’ session led by Max in the Hut. The subject was the Gospel of John, often called the Quaker gospel. As chance would have it, Becca was the only other regular seeker in that session. Week after week, we would pore through John’s gospel, beginning with the Word and the Light of the first chapter and concluding with John’s great affirmation: “if every deed were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (As a booklover, that one brings me great joy!)

Looking back now on that first semester at Guilford, I can see the power of these two Quaker educational leaders—a mentor and a peer, Max and Becca—taking me under their wing and schooling me in the Quaker way. We would gather around the hearth, around the text of the scriptures and the text of our lives. They would listen patiently to my half-baked theological musings, crack some jokes, and lo and behold, Quaker education occurred. There and in Mel Keiser’s Quakerism class, I experienced first-hand what Parker Palmer has called the “meeting for learning,” where learning itself is holy work, where the Inward Teacher is alive in each person, where Truth itself is felt and known.

Soon I too would lead seekers’ sessions and make my mark in the Religious Studies Department. Soon I too would become a teaching assistant in Mel’s Quakerism class. Soon I too would be entrusted to represent the college at national Quaker gatherings. Before long, I would fill Becca’s shoes as clerk of QLSP and Guilford’s interfaith council.

Where in my home Quaker meeting and at Sidwell I had glimpsed what Quaker leadership might mean, at Guilford those glimpses became a full-fledged vision. I found myself surrounded by inspiring teachers and leaders who showed me what Quakerism truly is and what it might mean for me and the world. I felt I was surrounded by the most diverse Quaker community in North America—at Guilford, Quakerism was in the air and water, embedded in the institutional DNA. Through QLSP, I was given a spiritual director, Carole Treadway, who met with me weekly. As Carole sat and listened and answered the witness within me, I came to know what Douglas Steere meant when he wrote, “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into life, into a condition of disclosure and discovery, may be the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”

For the Generations X and Y, experiences like Guilford’s QLSP became what the Civilian Public Service camps and American Friends Service Committee workcamps were for our elders: the next great laboratory for Quaker leadership. At Guilford, our Quaker president (Bill Rogers), faculty, staff, and trustees all modeled what authentic, compassionate, intellectually serious, and socially engaged Quaker faith might be. For us, Guilford became not simply a community with mentors present but a mentoring community. It was not simply a place with visionary individuals but a visionary community.

The Quaker education at Guilford quite literally propelled me into my vocation. While at Guilford, Friends General Conference learned of my interests in ecumenical and interfaith relations and sent me off to represent Friends in Geneva, in Harare, and finally in Brazil at gatherings of the World Council of Churches. My first paying job after Guilford was directing a program at Pendle Hill modeled after QLSP, which taught young Quaker leaders to integrate contemplation and action through the rhythm of work, worship, study, and service in inner city agencies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From there I moved to Moorestown Friends School in New Jersey, then to seminary, and in recent years I’ve served as director of Boston’s oldest interfaith social action network, founded by Quakers and others in 1966. I now have the privilege of serving as executive director of a new center at Northeastern University: the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service, where we train students as global leaders by building bridges of understanding through dialogue and action.

In all this, I rejoice in the knowledge that Quaker education extends from generation to generation, stewarded by faithful leaders. Drawing upon my own experience of Quaker religious education in childhood, at Sidwell, at Guilford, and at Pendle Hill, I am profoundly hopeful for our future, for our strength finally is in the power of God. We cannot be naïve about the challenges we face. In reviewing decades of Quaker literature on leadership and education, it is clear that while we have made strides forward. Friends today are asking the same questions and struggling with the same issues as we were when Howard Brinton published his seminal study of Quaker education in 1940, when Pendle Hill convened a consultation on Friends as leaders in 1979, and when Quakers gathered at Westtown for our Second International Congress on Quaker Education in 1997: How can we best nurture future Quaker leaders to sustain our institutions and do God’s work? How might we revitalize our meetings as learning and witnessing communities? What relationships between Friends and our schools are most life-giving and effective? How can we journey together into the deeps of the Spirit and into the world, learning the lessons of the Living Christ who calls us Friends, the one who has come to teach his people himself?

As I think about the challenges that face us as Friends, I remember the mentors and teachers who have shaped my life, and the generations of giants on whose shoulders we all stand: the George Foxes and Margaret Fells; the John Woolmans and Lucretia Motts; the Rufus Joneses and Thomas Kellys; the Bayard Rustins; the Steeres, Brintons, and Bouldings. The historic laurels of Quaker leadership can be inspiring, yet daunting. Sometimes I worry for our future, wondering where the next leaders will come from. Then I remember the words of Diane Nash, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer from Fisk University and youthful architect of the freedom struggle, which involved generations and thousands of unheralded heroes. Nash is quoted at the close of David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr.: “If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they—young people—are more likely to say, ‘Gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ . . . If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?’”

Together, Friends, we can do great things in education and the wider world, working to build the Peaceable Kingdom, rejoicing always in the Light—from generation to generation.

Alexander Levering Kern

Alexander Levering Kern is an educator, poet, writer, ecumenical and interfaith leader, and member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.). Editor of the anthology Becoming Fire: Spiritual Writing from Rising Generations, he currently serves as executive director of the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service (CSDS) at Northeastern University in Boston.

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