Faith and Discernment in Times of Crisis

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When our lives and organizations go according to plan, decisions flow naturally from our commitments. We experience little controversy. Our friends and families don’t question the direction we are headed. We don’t spend our days agonizing over choices.

Then, something happens. The circumstances of our lives are thrown into the air, and we are set adrift. It may be the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or a health crisis. Suddenly, we have to let go of the familiar. We feel vulnerable and at risk. Deeper issues may surface uncomfortably. We may feel plunged into the “Ocean of Darkness.”

In this dark place, we are often confronted by fundamental questions: What really matters? Why are we here? Such questions can guide us into the Light, into renewal, into a place where the old drops away, and we step into a new phase of life. This can be the gift of crisis: It can distill our lives into a deeper sense of guidance and spirit. When we are stripped of certainty, we can be opened to seeing patterns that have held us back from following a deeper calling.

I have experienced this kind of crisis, this excruciating stripping away of my personal sense of mission. I had been absolutely clear about what Spirit wanted from me – to create educational environments that transform people’s lives and lead them deeply into their own unique paths of authenticity and purpose. I had the opportunity to deeply fulfill that purpose as the founder of The Woolman Semester School. But I had tried to do the work I had been given on top of old wounding, attempts at perfection, striving toward achieving while masking my insecurities and pain. When that edifice collapsed, I had to let the ocean of darkness take me into my deepest self. I had to face what was underneath. I was led into a life of greater authenticity and purpose, letting my true self emerge, with the cracks showing. A deeper joy replaced the pain I had been swimming in. God led me to the Ocean of Light where I could let who I was emerge as “enough.”

I have also experienced what it is like to go deeply into transformative crisis as part of an institution – not once, but twice.

John Woolman School opened in September 1963, under the direction of the College Park Friends Educational Association (CPFEA). The school’s property is over two hundred acres in the Sierra foothills near Nevada City, California. For thirty-eight years, Woolman functioned on a frugal budget, fulfilling its founders’ vision of providing a residential Quaker high school to young people on the West Coast. Then in September 2001, the CPFEA board made the painful decision to close the four-year boarding school.

The school’s Admissions Office was turned into a placement office, and the staff went to work transferring each student into a new school. As the students left Woolman one by one, we held a closing circle with each of them, filled with tears. Anger was also there, along with resentment and disbelief.

Then, as one staff member was packing, he mentioned the idea of semester schools. “You should look into that model,” he said. “As far as I know, there are no Quaker semester schools.” From that offhand comment, The Woolman Semester School was born. But not right away.

First, we faced that ghostly campus, devoid of students – with the first autumn rains coming down on empty cabins and the cold dining hall. College Park Quarterly Meeting, gathered soon after to support the board and the remaining staff. We faced Friends who recommended we close the campus permanently. During one long CPFEA board meeting, we focused solely on discerning that possibility. Then we held a large gathering in January 2002 for visioning. A group of young people came forward, whose lives had been touched by the Baltimore Yearly Meeting camping programs. Our mission – to serve teens and youth – was clarified and strengthened.

A model emerged from this visioning that included a camp in the summer and a residential semester program during the school year. Way opened in front of those two programs, while other ideas fell away. Throughout this time of discernment, the board and remaining staff worked hard to recognize promising new directions and to remedy the ills that seemed to be at the heart of our earlier difficulties. We had to face painful realities, while at the same time realizing a new purpose.

As in many lives that have weathered such storms, Woolman emerged with fresh perspective, enthusiasm, ideas, and resolve. During the following twelve years, more than three hundred students took part in The Woolman Semester School, a life-changing sixteen-week experience for high school students. Alumni of the program still relate to their Woolman experience as a touchstone that allowed their true selves and life paths to powerfully emerge.

Enormous amounts of work by board and staff, deep ongoing discernment and wisdom, and an outpouring of love and support helped to strengthen the Woolman Semester School over the years. However, while the program grew, some of the old limiting patterns re-emerged from Woolman’s earlier days. Underfunding, deferred maintenance, changing leadership, and underpaid staff were old problems that continued to produce burnout, exhaustion, and disappointment – right alongside the inspiration that shone from students’ faces at graduation each semester. Finally, with heavy hearts, the board came to unity in the summer of 2016 that Woolman could not offer a semester program in the fall.

That October, as in every year, College Park Quarterly Meeting held its fall gathering on the Woolman campus. The theme of that gathering was, “Listening for God’s Guidance,” which seemed especially appropriate to us in our situation. The CPFEA board gave a thorough report to a plenary session of the quarterly meeting, recounting recent challenges and decisions regarding the Woolman Semester School. Friends responded with love and support for the CPFEA board and the Woolman staff. Afterwards, the clerk of the CPFEA board, Sandra Schwartz, reported, “We appreciated the outpouring of support we felt as our larger family gathered here for the weekend. We felt very held, especially in our interest group, when people shared what Woolman had meant to them over the years and their dreams for our future.”

Along with Friends’ support, many Friends rose and spoke in response to the CPFEA board report. Almost as one, their voices were clear. If Woolman could not be turned around, made strong fiscally and sound internally, it should be laid down. Once again, the rains came down on an empty campus, with a board and tiny staff in discernment.

In his book Deep is the Hunger (1951), theologian Howard Thurman advised, “There is a fallow time for the spirit when the soil is barren. . . Face it! Then resolutely dig out dead roots, clear the ground, . . . work out new designs by dreaming daring dreams and great and creative planning. The time is not wasted. The time of fallowness is a time of rest and restoration, of filling up and replenishing. It is the moment when the meaning of all things can be searched out, tracked down, and made to yield the secret of living. Thank God for the fallow time!”

So we suspended the Woolman Semester School, and we listened. Irene McHenry, who has led several planning processes for the Woolman board and staff over the years, guided us again in establishing benchmarks that we would need to meet if we were going to survive a new discernment process. Especially, we would need to secure sufficient financial support for the process. It was unclear if we could meet those benchmarks. We would need to raise funds, build the board, fully evaluate every aspect of the organization, and create new business plans to determine program viability. Slowly, the board and staff moved through the goals, and gained some stability and clarity as the months passed.

In early 2017, we began considering an outdoor school model, building on the strength of our summer camps. Sierra Streams Institute, a local environmental nonprofit that promotes the health of our local watershed, was seeking a home. A vision of Woolman as an environmental center began taking root. Several donors helped to restore one of our buildings, Madrone Hall, to serve as a home for the environmental center and Sierra Streams Institute. We conducted two pilot residential sessions of our nascent Woolman Outdoor School, in partnership with the North Oakland Community Charter School, offering activities ranging from invasive species removal to astronomy. Students who had never seen stars stood awestruck on our soccer field under the Milky Way.

Social activism, part of the Woolman experience for over fifty years, was also emerging as an important element of our mission. The board approved launching the Jorgenson School for Nonviolence as a pilot program to support youth activists in designing and implementing nonviolent direct action for social change. Such a program has never seemed more relevant or needed than it is today.

Yet even as we launched these new programs, serious questions remained about the overarching viability of Woolman. In January 2018, we began working with a strategic planning consultant, Lisa Frankel. She interviewed board members and staff, donors and lenders, student alumni and campers. She reflected back to us that our community longs deeply to keep Woolman alive in the world, to maintain its unique message of authenticity, simplicity, and community. But she also reflected back to us the exhaustion of years of struggle. Skepticism and hope seem to be evenly mixed.

In August of 2018, after two years of discernment, the CPFEA board met to consider adopting a strategic plan – called “Woolman Rising!” – which included five goals: fiscal health, site improvements, strengthening the staff and board, creating strong mission-driven programs, and grounding our work in Quaker faith and process. We had a choice before us. The plan would require us to squarely face issues that have, repeatedly, led us close to dissolution. It would require everyone’s dedication. The alternative would be to begin the process of laying down the organization. Here was the Ocean of Darkness.

We worshipped together. Out of the silence, we felt and spoke our fears and hopes. We wondered whether we could break the patterns of the previous fifty-five years, whether we could create a truly just and sustainable organization, whether we could establish programs with sound business models that would pay for themselves. Could we raise the money needed, garner the support required, find our way? Were we enough?

With a deep breath drawn from two years of work, we said, “Yes.” Yes, we would try. We would let ourselves be guided by benchmarks, goals, and shared work. We would let go of old patterns. We would find new purpose and direction.

Now we are more clear about who we are, which old destructive patterns hampered us, and how we can implement new structures and processes to help us heal. It is tempting to say that the discernment process is over. We do feel a collective sense of excitement and renewal. But in this seasoned fifty-fifth year of Woolman, we know better. We know that after we settle into a clearer light, the darkness will inevitably come again, with its further gifts of insight and deeper understanding, just as the light will follow the darkness as Way becomes clear.

It my deepest hope that Woolman will play its own part in the Great Work of history. We live in a time of crisis, our own collective Ocean of Darkness. Deep ills run through our society like fault lines. If we can look into the heart of that darkness and see the healing that must be done, I believe that we will emerge into a place of deeper understanding that will lead us to the Ocean of Light.  ~~~

Amy Cooke has served as the current Executive Director at Woolman at Sierra Friends Center since 2016. She served as the Head of School of John Woolman School from 2000-2001 and as the founding Head of The Woolman Semester School until 2005. She is a member of Grass Valley Friends Meeting in Nevada City, CA (PYM).