Visiting a Quaker School

I had an inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty last Thurs­day. I skipped work to be talk with two Quak­erism class­es at Philadelphia’s William Penn Char­ter School (thanks for the invite Michael and Thomas!). I was asked to talk about Quak­er blogs, of all things. Sim­ple, right? Well, on the pre­vi­ous Tues­day I hap­pened upon this pas­sage from Bri­an Drayton’s new book, On Liv­ing with a Con­cern for Gospel Min­istry:

I think that your work will have the great­est good effect if you wait to find whether and where the springs of love and divine life con­nect with this open­ing before you appear in the work. This is even true when you have had an invi­ta­tion to come and speak on a top­ic to a work­shop or some oth­er forum. It is wise to be sus­pi­cious of what is very easy, draws on your prac­ticed strengths and accom­plish­ments, and can be treat­ed as an every­day trans­ac­tion. (p. 149).

Good advice. Of course the role of min­istry is even more com­pli­cat­ed in that I wasn’t address­ing a Quak­er audi­ence: like the major­i­ty of Friends schools, few Penn Char­ter stu­dents actu­al­ly are Quak­er. I’m a pub­lic school kid, but it from the out­side it seems like Friends schools stress the ethos of Quak­erism (“here’s Penn Charter’s state­ment”). Again Dray­ton helped me think beyond nor­mal ideas of pros­e­ly­tiz­ing and out­reach when he talked about “pub­lic meetings”:

We are also called, I feel to invite oth­ers to share Christ direct­ly, not pri­mar­i­ly in order to intro­duce them to Quak­erism and bring them into our meet­ings, but to encour­age them to turn to the light and fol­low it” (p. 147).

What I shared with the stu­dents was some of the ways my inter­ac­tion with the Spir­it and my faith com­mu­ni­ty shapes my life. When we keep it real, this is a pro­found­ly uni­ver­sal­ist and wel­com­ing message.

I talked about the per­son­al aspect of blog­ging: in my opin­ion we’re at our best when we weave our the­ol­o­gy with with per­son­al sto­ries and tes­ti­monies of spe­cif­ic spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences. The stu­dents remind­ed me that this is also real world les­son: their great­est excite­ment and ques­tion­ing came when we start­ed talk­ing about my father (I used to tell the sto­ry of my com­plete­ly messed-up child­hood fam­i­ly life a lot but have been out of the habit late­ly as it’s reced­ed into the past). The stu­dents real­ly want­ed to under­stand not just my sto­ry but how it’s shaped my Quak­erism and influ­enced my com­ing to Friends. They asked some hard ques­tions and I was stuck hav­ing to give them hard answers (in that they were non-sentimental). When we share of our­selves, we present a wit­ness that can reach out to others.

Lat­er on, one of the teach­ers pro­ject­ed my blogroll on a screen and asked me about the peo­ple on it. I start­ed telling sto­ries, relat­ing cool blog posts that had stuck out in my mind. Wow: this is a pret­ty amaz­ing group, with diver­si­ty of ages and Quak­erism. Review­ing the list real­ly remind­ed me of the amaz­ing com­mu­ni­ty that’s come togeth­er over the last few years.

One inter­est­ing lit­tle snip­pet for the Quak­er cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans out there: Penn Char­ter was the Gur­neyite school back in the day. When I got Michael’s email I was ini­tial­ly sur­prised they even had class­es on Quak­erism as it’s often thought of as one of the least Quak­er of the Philadelphia-area Quak­er schools. But think­ing on it, it made per­fect sense: the Gur­neyites loved edu­ca­tion; they brought Sun­day School (sor­ry, First Day School) into Quak­erism, along with Bible study and high­er edu­ca­tion. Of course the school that bears their lega­cy would teach Quak­erism. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, the his­tor­i­cal Ortho­dox school down the road aways recent­ly approached Penn Char­ter ask­ing about their Quak­er class­es; in true Wilbu­rite fash­ion, they’ve nev­er both­ered try­ing to teach Quak­erism. The offi­cial Philadel­phia Quak­er sto­ry is that branch­es were all fixed up nice and tidy back in 1955 but scratch the sur­face just about any­where and you’ll find Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry atti­tudes still shap­ing our insti­tu­tion­al cul­ture. It’s pret­ty fas­ci­nat­ing really.

  • Pam

    mar­tin — I used to live across the street from Penn Char­ter, and I went to Ger­man­town Friends for a while, I had the same reac­tion as you, I dind’t think Penn Char­ter was real­ly quak­er at all any­more. I had no idea about their his­to­ry, or even the dif­fer­ence between gur­neyite friends and hick­site friends (though I’m sure I learned it in a sim­i­lar class 25 years ago — oh my god!)
    Thanks for shar­ing your expe­ri­ence, I think I will have to read this a few more times, I’m sort of scat­tered right now.
    peace
    Pam

  • Hey there, Mar­tin. Any chance that these vis­its and ses­sions were record­ed??? What a great oppor­tu­ni­ty, and I real­ly love the appli­ca­tion of Drayton’s coun­sel to your actu­al expe­ri­ence. Cool. It sounds as if you were faith­ful, too.
    Blessings,
    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  • *Hi Pam:* Oh, let’s not get into which school is the “most Quak­er” school, we could get into a flame war over that. As I under­stand it, the his­tor­i­cal asso­ci­a­tions of the schools are: Penn Char­ter Gur­neyite (Twel­veth Street Meet­ing, now Cen­tral Philadel­phia), Ger­man­town Wilbu­rite Ortho­dox, Green Street Hick­site. I’m not sure it helps to make too much of these labels, as few Friends today seem to under­stand how the his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion affects our cur­rent insti­tu­tion­al divides…
    *And Liz…:* Good­ness, no, noth­ing was record­ed. I didn’t give a for­mal pre­sen­ta­tion and the ques­tion and answer ses­sions were uneven. I gave fair­ly gener­ic answers, my only talk of the Gur­neys and Wilburs were with one of the teach­ers between class­es. I was there pri­mar­i­ly as a per­son of faith, with the Quak­er influ­ence being con­cerns for peace and patience in dis­cern­ment. The most inter­est­ing part from the stand­point of the Quak­er Ranter audi­ence was the process of inte­grat­ing min­istry into a rel­a­tive­ly sec­u­lar setting.

  • Mar­tin, your open­ing quo­ta­tion from Bri­an Drayton’s new book speaks very strong­ly to me.
    I was invit­ed a year ago to give one of the two keynote speech­es at Bal­ti­more YM’s annu­al ses­sions this com­ing August. The expec­ta­tion was that I would sim­ply speak about what I have been doing in my field (Quak­er envi­ron­men­tal activism) this last decade or so, and about what oth­ers could do if they want­ed to get involved. I had a very clear inti­ma­tion, though, that tak­ing such a rou­tine approach would not please God.
    Ulti­mate­ly, my effort to grasp what would please God sent my whole life into an upheaval.
    I think, when I return from my walk across the coun­try, I’m going to have to read Brian’s book!
    With all good wishes –

  • Hey Mar­tin, it sounds like it was a blast, I wish I could have been there to hear the sto­ries and see the excite­ment of the chil­dren. I am also encour­gared that a Gur­neyite school would be doing such a great thing, I not only hope it con­tin­ues but I hope it spreads too!

  • It was cer­tain­ly won­der­ful hav­ing you at Penn Char­ter; I’m sor­ry couldn’t stay for the entire ses­sion — looks like I missed out on the best parts!
    Being a rel­a­tive­ly new teacher (and new to Philadel­phia), I didn’t know Penn Char­ter has the kind of rep­u­ta­tion you allud­ed to. Why is that? Our school is about to under­go a for­mal self-evaluation of its own Quaker-ness, and I’d per­son­al­ly like to get more per­spec­tive on how Quak­erism could be meshed with pedagogy.

  • Pam

    mar­tin — I used to live across the street from Penn Char­ter, and I went to Ger­man­town Friends for a while, I had the same reac­tion as you, I dind’t think Penn Char­ter was real­ly quak­er at all any­more. I had no idea about their his­to­ry, or even the dif­fer­ence between gur­neyite friends and hick­site friends (though I’m sure I learned it in a sim­i­lar class 25 years ago — oh my god!)
    Thanks for shar­ing your expe­ri­ence, I think I will have to read this a few more times, I’m sort of scat­tered right now.
    peace
    Pam
    Post­ed by Pam | April 19, 2006 1:44 PM