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Quaker, French-speaker, educator, anti-racist; Southern-born & raised, and talking enthusaist.


Lost Opportunity at Friends Central? The Devil is in the Details.

So some of you may have heard that an Independent "Quaker" school suspended 2 teachers indefinitely. These two teachers invited a Quaker who teaches at Swathmore (Quaker college) to speak regarding the Israeli/Palestinian problem. He is connected to a boycott movement that was started by another "Quaker" organization.

You may ask why I say "Quaker." Well that name means so many things. For some it means "founded by Quakers with a secular take on Quaker spiritual principles" for others it means "Quakers have a majority on the governing board." I don't believe in any of these above 3 institutions are they governed solely by Quakers and are overseen by any Quaker faith body (Yearly Meeting).

There are several sides to this story here. Here is my opinion as an outsider. Let me begin with a quote from a Friends Central graduate who was a colleague of mine at Wellwood International School. She attended there back in the 60s. She said that they had a saying in Philly where she grew up "Friends Schools are where Jewish kids get a Quaker education taught by Episcopalians." I've repeated that over the years to the nods of a number of my Jewish friends and colleagues.

That poses an problem socially. Friends schools mostly exist in areas of the country where liberal Quakers dominate or are the only form of Quakerism. For generations we have shunned proselytizing. I agree with that. If you have a faith, good for you. None? Fine. I shouldn't convert you. But they confused proselytizing with outreach. And so, people all of the country think Quakers are Amish, or extinct, or some exclusive group of do-gooders. Our meeting houses used to seat scores if not hundreds; however many of those same buildings are museums, historical monuments or have a fraction of the membership and attendance they once had. To put it bluntly: there aren't enough Quakers to populate Quaker schools and keep them under the authority of Quaker congregations. Quaker schools typically have around 5-6% Quaker attendance. There are more Jews than Quakers in attendance. Friends schools are often independent private schools that hold on to the Quaker testimonies (Guilford College now calls them Core Values for example) and follow a secular model of Quaker business practice (consensus). At Friends Central, they no longer have meeting for worship but meeting for sharing.  Quakers may have a say in Friends schools, but that's it. A say. How big of one varies. It stands to reason, then, that as an independent organization, the administration of those schools must take into consideration all points of view and weigh them in the light of Quaker principles. Administrators have authority. We aren't talking liberal Quaker meetings where no one person has "final say." This is a school. The administrator has certain rights per the by-laws/charter of that school.

I'll say here, that socially I'm on the side of the students and the teachers who wanted the event. My passions would be to tell parents who oppose the speaker to kiss off and send your kids to a Jewish school if you don't like it at Friends Central. However, there would be a missed opportunity here. And my passions usually are the opposite of my Guide's will.

So let me address Quaker process.

Pastoral Care (The Community): The school had a pastoral duty here to make sure that all stakeholders (parents teachers and students) were heard since the issue was controversial (even if it shouldn't be). A hold is appropriate in this case. Is there a rush to have the Friend come? Could he come later? What's more important, that his message be heard right away by a crowd who mostly agrees with him, or for people of differing, if not opposing perspectives to come to hear him? What would be gained or lost by him coming now vs. later? Is someone being harmed by not letting him come immediately-- is this a case of discrimination? A Quaker meeting would ultimately ask "what is God's will?" Discerning that takes time, and clarity comes when passions wane. If you don't believe that, look at the Quaker history.

The opposing stakeholders were, in this case, some of the Jewish parents. If Friends are operating in right order, they do not out-of-hand shun opposing views. I never heard this growing up in the Quaker meetings I attended, but we learned this at West Knoxville Friends Meeting when Russell and I asked to have the meeting take our marriage under its care. They had not previously been able to come to unity on the issue and so had dropped it. After lots of research through academic texts and yearly meetings' Books of Discipline, we uncovered what perhaps many Conservative Friends have known. This first part I saw commonly in all sorts of Friends meetings: Opposing people have the right to block something from happening. At first the Clerk will ask them "Can you stand aside?" If they say "no" the clerk can offer a second way "Would you stand aside with your name recorded in the minutes as having opposed?" Usually people will say yes, but not always. If not, it's the clerk's responsibility to sense God's will here with the help of the gathered meeting. If she does not sense there is sufficient CLARITY (and some would argue unity), then they table the issue until the next business meeting (usually in a month). This can continue for a long time. However, here is the part we uncovered: the burden is now on the opposing party to convince the others of their error. Conversely, the rest of the meeting was responsible for holding in prayer that they might actually be wrong and be OPEN to that possibility. Hard to do with egos and passions. So, it takes time.

Here’s an example:  It took West Knoxville Friends Meeting from 1990 to 1998 to reach unity on gay marriage.  For West Knoxville Friends, those opposed to gay marriage had the responsibility to minister to / convince those who were for gay marriage that they were wrong. They didn’t succeed, and the meeting seemed to be back at a standstill. That is, until the Clerk read a minute of unity.   She quoted from sources given to her that those opposed had failed to witness to Friends the error of their ways (pro-gay marriage) and that it seemed that Friends were, and had been, at some level of clarity that God was moving them in this direction.  She read a minute approving a celebration of commitment rather than marriage.  The two families walked out never to return.   Also it was known that one of these families was often oppositional, and that didn’t help them.  Whether we are faithful depends on the fruit of our work (per Jesus).  West Knoxville Friends Meeting subsequently grew, and some old members returned because of the new stance on same-gender unions.

The administrator at Friends Central may or may not have prayed over this. It's a good question to ask. It seems to me he may have made a good decision and followed process (he could have also swayed under pressure of full-tuition paying parents -- again, Quakers aren't paying the tuition, nor can they endow the schools like they once could).  Even if the concerns of the Jewish parents are unfounded, they should be heard.  If possible, they should hear the perspectives of those inviting the Palestinian Quaker to speak.  To ask the students to wait, to  hear the concerns of the parents, and to have a conversation with the parents about those concerns would be a good idea. Let the parents who oppose come speak to the community about why they oppose. What are they afraid of? On what is their founded? Have they heard the voice of the students who want the Quaker to come speak?  Could this change hearts and minds, even if a few?  The faculty and administration could then follow their by-laws and come to a decision taking into consideration the views of the stakeholders, including Quakers and alums.  A note on that: For better or worse, this school and other institutions like it function on people funding it; alums and Quakers who give money are needed.

Like I said, it could very well be that the administrator got spooked with threats and made a rash decision without any guidance from his Higher Power or colleagues.  That would indeed be unfortunate.

There is the second issue of the suspension of the two teachers.   I do not know all of the facts, but I will say this:  if the teachers disobeyed any orders, if they resisted authority, then they are lucky they have their jobs. In any other private school they would probably already be canned.   If they felt entitled to their jobs they were wrong.  This is a reason I haven’t yet decided to teach at private schools (no union and lousy pay).   If they disobeyed realizing that this act of disobedience to authority could be sacrificial (losing their jobs) I think that’s honorable, though perhaps misguided (or not).  Here again, Quaker process of clearness committees is important.  Assuming the teachers acted counter to the wishes of their employers, the Quaker practice of setting up a Clearness Committee would have been advisable.  I don’t know if they did or not, and I’m assuming they didn’t.  It seems few of us seek the prayerful wisdom of the group before making decisions. I don’t, and this reminds me that I should.  If the teachers were in the wrong place at the wrong time, then hopefully the details will come out into the open and they can be reinstated with each party involved making amends for whatever their part in the mess. 

In the meantime the national media has caught on to this and people who aren’t involved are quick to judge.  This includes the media who report allegations of some prior censuring of anti-Israeli / pro-Palestinian sentiments.

Yes, I believe this man should be heard.
Yes, I believe the fears of the concerned parents are unfounded (based on what I’ve read).
No, I don’t think the school should bow down to political pressures and ideologies inconsistent with Quaker principles (You want to know what’s going on in Palestine, ask a Palestinian Quaker.  We’re not immune to bias, but we have a hard time lying).
Yes, I think we all have opinions based on limited facts. As you can see I have mine.  

I've also read another opinion which I find to be valid as well.

Opportunity exists for real growth and dialogue here.  The question is, who is guiding the process?  Perhaps during meeting for "sharing" the school could ask students to sit in their thoughts or really try to listen to their Guide to see what can be learned here.  What direction will take them toward reconciliation and help them move forward? What are individuals who have authority doing? What is their Guide telling them to do?  The Enemy comes through our passions. He comes through our hurts, habits and hang-ups.   He seeks to divide us from one another and to use God as our excuse.  Whatever the facts, it looks like he’s doing a good job at Friends Central.

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