Epistle, Friends Association for Higher Education and Friends Council on Education Joint Conference, June 12-15, 2014

Epistle Committee: Rebecca Mays (Philadelphia YM), Barbara Heather (Canadian YM), Jim Hood (North Carolina YM Conservative)

Greetings to all!

The Friends Association for Higher Education gathered for its annual conference in joint sessions with the Friends Council on Education on the extraordinarily beautiful campus of Haverford College from June 12 to June 15, 2014.  Walking the lawns of Haverford with the sounds of catbirds and sparrows ringing in our ears, we were startled by the lush green of late spring and blessed by the warmth of being in this special place of learning.  FAHE minutes its appreciation to Dan Weiss and Haverford College for hosting us with such love and tender attention to our needs; to Walter Sullivan and Kaye Edwards for their leadership in organizing our program; and to Geoff Labe, Director of Summer Programs, and his team of easily identified Haverford-tee-shirted students who unobtrusively and effectively met our every need.

Welcomed by Haverford’s president, Daniel Weiss, Thursday evening we were nurtured during our first plenary session by the music and deeply spiritual message of Tribe 1, a diverse group of performers whose songs give us hope and the inspiration to “see through illusion”towards the truth that guides us into right relationship.  The following morning, Sarah Willie-LeBreton challenged us to embrace the contradictions of working toward justice, reminding us through personal story interwoven with social theory to engage our skills and knowledge of collective practice and decision-making in order to “nurture a radical patience,”“continue to upend what puts people down,”and “open the circle [and] clarify the conversation”as we endeavor to “jar oppression from its structural scaffolding.”

In smaller, joint sessions, the topics of which ranged from honors programs to study abroad opportunities to economics to communal discernment, presenters blessed those gathered with a plenitude of questions and insights into how we might reorder attitudes and actions to embody spiritually-grounded, justice-oriented relationships.  We probed the work of 17th-century Quaker Elizabeth Bathurst, whose “bold and courageous”theology, written only in her third decade of life, continues to provide much to challenge and inspire Friends.  We engaged in a rich discussion about the problems that attend to our culture’s obsession with economic concerns, focussing on how our idolatry of money consistently diverts our decision-making attention from ethical consideration.

During the Friday evening plenary session, Kimberly Wright Cassidy, president of Bryn Mawr College; Robin Baker, president of George Fox University; Darryl J. Ford, head of school at William Penn Charter; Nancy O. Starmer, head of school at George School; and Irene McHenry, executive director of Friends Council on Education, discussed the multiple ways in which the Quaker history of Friends’institutions continues to inform their educational practices, and they considered mechanisms by which Quaker schools and colleges might further the educational vision of their founders. We were called to continue to question the use of form for form’s sake and to see excellent education for all as today’s most pressing civil rights issue.

Additional presentations explored the vitality of recovering a sense of place, the shifting meanings of “plain”and “simple,”the dangers of committing violence through the “scholarship of personal attack,”the problems that ensue when Quakers have not been able to live up to the full measure of our principles, and the possibilities of a Christ-centered truth-seeking, which, conversely, is a being sought.

In the final plenary, Micheal Birkel, Shan Cretin, and Diane Randall “consider[ed] the connections of things,”most particularly an imagined response by John Woolman to the working paper recently produced by the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation entitled “Shared Security,”a bold vision of a fifty-year plan for more effective and longer-lasting international security.  Woolman’s mystic and activist spirit pervaded their reflections on how to move beyond the concept of the nation state and international engagement through the production of war.

The sunlight over Sharpless Hall before our Saturday evening plenary, backlighting the trees and buildings with a sharp clarity, spoke for the clarifying intellectual and spiritual inquiries of this year’s FAHE sessions.  We explored right relationships in many arenas.  Several sessions named the tensions of individual rights and corporate authority in our Quaker efforts to create communities of justice.  We named avenues of justice that create agency and restore right relationships where broken.  Sessions on interfaith relations identified components of the Quaker foundational ethic for how to treat those who do not practice our testimonies or espouse our tenets of faith.  We challenged economic systems that support the elite on the backs of the poor; we faced our technological advances with gratitude for the doors that are opening for connection and with healthy skepticism for the threat to wholeness as a human community.  We identified the drivers of conflict to find how to use that energy instead for transformation.  In our meetings for worship, gentle biblical vision and deep quiet inspired us for the long road still to travel.  Saturday evening’s “Epilogue”included ministry that commemorated and celebrated—with affection and humor—the life of T. Canby Jones, one of the principal founders of FAHE.

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