“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.” - Abraham Heschel
As some of you know, I work at Guilford College
as the Director of the Friends Center
. One of the things our office does is work with students who are apart of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. This program is now more than 25 years old and has had well above 300 graduates of the program. To me, Friends Center and the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program (QLSP) are crown jewels of Guilford. They truly set Guilford apart in Higher Ed and the Quaker world.
A couple of years ago, Deborah Shaw (the now-retired Director of QLSP) and I began working on a question: how do you help sustain a program like this over the long haul? How can you create a program that is both able to remain stable in its form but adapts in its content and practice? It would be easy to not want to touch or change anything for fear of messing something up or because change is hard, but knew if the program needed to adapt if it was going to continue into the next generation.
As you can imagine, the college students moving onto Guilford College’s campus today are not the same as the students rolling onto campus 28 years ago. The same is not only true for the students, but it is also for Quakerism more generally speaking, and is obviously for our world.
How do you build a program, a faith community, and organizations that can remain adaptable while not letting go of the central core of what it is?
Over the last three years, starting with Deborah (until she retired), and then with the help of my new colleagues, Aleks Babić and Evelyn Jadin, we have worked to “remix” QLSP to be true to its roots and original vision, while also able to be adaptive to the changes we face as a society.
The resultant program is something we at Friends Center are very proud of and believe that it is worth telling everyone about.
What was the core to its creation?
Today you will hear Aleks, the Director of QLSP, repeat frequently:
“QLSP is about making apprentices to the Quaker tradition.”
First, as apprentices of the Quaker tradition ourselves, we took time and care to revise this work - not for change’s sake - but the sake of our students and the tradition. We want the program to succeed because we want the tradition to succeed, and we used all of our varying gifts, experiences, and knowledge to create an open-work that we believe will do just that.
Second, we see our work with the students being about making apprentices. That means that they need to have holistic and embodied knowledge of the tradition. The learning needs to be participatory. And it needs to result in students who can create out of the tradition rather than copy it.
My understanding of the apprentice is captured by one of my favorite stories from Peter Rollins
There was once an old wise master who was at the end of his life. He had one disciple he was deeply fond of but was worried that this disciple was still far from enlightenment. The disciple was deeply devoted to the master, carefully following all of his teachings and never deviating from the path laid out for him. This was what troubled the master most of all. Calling his disciple to eat with him privately, he began,
“You have been a thoughtful and dedicated follower of my teachings for many years, and you may well one day become a great teacher. However, I sense that you are in danger of betraying me in your thoughts and actions.”
The disciple was crushed at the suggestion and responded,
“… I never tire of engaging in the rituals and prayers that you have taught. I swear to you that I would never betray you, my great teacher.
The master responded, “The fact that you have never betrayed my teachings, and the fact that you swear never to betray them: this is to betray them already.
This is the crux of everything we are trying to do.
To be an apprentice is to go so deep into one’s tradition that you gain a sense of mastery over it. However, the real work of an apprentice isn’t to just become a master in order to repeat what one has learned but to “produce” new fruit that is recognizable to the tradition while also being marked by that person’s own hand.
The parable suggests that the one who learns and practices the tradition needs to be able to discern between when to hang on and when to let go. When to be faithful and when to betray. The title of this parable is telling: “A Faithful Betrayal.”
Or for those of you who prefer Master Yoda who said in the Last Jedi: “Luke, we are what they grow beyond.”