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23rd-Century-Ready Quaker Institutions

Zae Asa Illo
On Words (November 2021)
Healing the World

Upon my arrival in Richmond, Indiana – after years of ministry in San Francisco, California – I would often walk the campus in the awareness that Earlham College had been standing at the time of the Civil War. I think often about the tension between spectacular, Ezekiel-like revelations from God and what happens when we attempt to translate such revelations into structured communities.

The means by which the revelation of Light presses us to become new creatures, different kinds of human beings, is best attested to over long periods of time in the institutions we create. Institutions will outlast protest and spoken ministry; hopefully, they will help foster a future revival of unity among Friends, whether programmed or not, “affirming” or not, affiliated with this alphabet-soup or that one. Institutions will be inherited by the next generation that has the courage to sit face-to-face with God. “Early Friends” are all dead, and we are the lifeblood of what “Quaker” means for the present hour, which is beset with so much unspeakable suffering, death, and darkness.

It is out of love for our difficult work of building communities that I say to you plainly that Earlham College needs to demonstrate more directly that it is seriously investing in its stated commitments to be aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. Can any institution be aligned with Black Lives Matter and pay wages of less than nine dollars an hour? That happens right now on campus; many students are not paid a living wage.

Can we be aligned with Black Lives Matter without preparing proper isolation and quarantine facilities for students? In Spring 2021, when an Earlham School of Religion student tested positive for COVID-19, it turned out that this school, “committed to diversity,” hadn’t thought about where such students could be isolated.

The hiring of a few people of color as faculty members or administrators for the Earlham School of Religion (ESR) is not a sufficient response to Black Lives Matter, unless we believe in W.E.B. DuBois’s “talented tenth” myth that a few exceptional colored folks are enough to undo our plight.  Much like the standard for our testimonies, our institutions should “speak” our values.

Last semester, while I was living on the Earlham campus, students who needed COVID-19 testing routinely had to walk more than a mile into town to get it. This fact was known by many administrators and faculty. Worse yet, the joint colleges (undergraduate and graduate) had not thought through that someone who tests positive needs to be totally isolated to avoid coming into contact with other people. It turns out, someone in isolation still needs to eat, and they need to somehow get to the isolation unit without coming into contact with any other members of the public; that’s what “quarantine” means. As it turned out, I happened to be living in the same house with this student who tested positive. Friends, I cannot express the horror I felt when Student Health Services actually advised me to continue cohabiting with this student.  I called my Baptist elder to seek advice as these events were unfolding, and he said in quite plain English, “Oh, hell no.”

I organized with a group of other students, and we arranged to have my housemate isolated and set up a grocery delivery service. Again, another part of “diversity” is that a student from another country may not want to eat the prepared food available on campus. If we want to wade into the waters of diversity, it requires us to think through what it means for students to have “diverse” opinions, cultures, and traditions.

I am blessed to give you the praise report that my own COVID-19 test results came back negative; but I tell you, I cried just thinking about the thousands of Black people who were put in harm’s way because they could not make fully informed decisions in an atmosphere of confusing, often contradictory, advice. Within Black culture, an old-school current remains: “keep your head down and don’t make any trouble.” I’m here to tell you that I firmly reject any passive, quiet-voiced philosophy of “peace” when the very survival of my Black body is at stake. My philosophy of peace says that we can be “still,” but also courageous enough to thunder and roar against injustice. As Dr. Maya Angelou said many times: “Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtues with consistency.” We need to remind ourselves that the business of peace is a dangerous and risky thing.

The opposite side of the coin of material “progress” is that many of us live in a rather soft, insulated world far removed from the brutal environment of seventeenth-century England. Our spiritual struggle opposes the dark forces, principalities, and powers that would work to suffocate the Light. We need to be reminded to gird ourselves in the “armor” of Light precisely because some of our testimonies and spiritual practices are opposed to secular culture. Discerning what we mean by “community” in a rather individualistic, materially focused society is one of those public witnesses.

Concerning the specific expression of that struggle in the context of the institution of Earlham College, I am holding four bold visions in prayer before God:

(1) The need for restricted funding for domestic Earlham/ESR students of color. (International students are funded from different “buckets” of money.)

(2) Increasing the minimum pay of all students within the Earlham system, whether seminary or undergraduate, to no less than $10 an hour.

(3) An expansion of the authority of the ESR Board of Advisors beyond merely “advisory” in some areas, granting greater influence in institutional direction-setting.

(4) A serious, spiritual threshing about the entire system of nondisclosure agreements and other such legally binding, speech-limiting documents. These documents are signed by members of faculty and administration and are designed to explicitly prevent open dialogue about how decisions are made. As the student representative (from student meeting for business) to the Board of Advisors, I was surprised to learn that these documents were in effect.

During the early-pandemic, global financial crisis of 2020, Earlham College attempted to rectify its financial problems by drawing on endowment funds that most Friends understood at the time as “belonging” to ESR, not Earlham College. Many Friends became deeply concerned when millions of dollars that they had thought were earmarked for the seminary were transferred to the college. Anyone who has operated in the nonprofit world is well aware that institutions routinely reallocate assets among different funds. However, there is a distinction between “restricted” and “unrestricted” donations. Likewise, there are legal differences between a “loan” and a “gift.” A serious problem that Friends continue to face regarding this dispute at Earlham is that although a court ruled on the matter, its ruling was based on those pesky primary documents – especially, the actual original agreement that granted the disputed funds to the seminary in the first place. Those who are “concerned” would do much better to focus on the text of these documents, rather than engage in uninformed gossip.

I recognize that our beloved Quaker institutions are facing serious financial challenges. But I am firmly convinced that God is ultimately in control. If our mission is aligned with the discernment that arises from the Light of Christ, then no power on earth, either biological or otherwise, can prevent us from fulfilling that mission.

In the case of Earlham, one of the obstacles preventing clear discernment of the college’s financial landscape is that very few people have ever actually seen the primary documents involved in the college’s bequests or the major financial relationships between the college and the seminary. I certainly have no access to these documents. As a graduate student, I am well aware that primary documents are needful in making critically informed assessments. In all the student meetings for business, faculty meetings, and annual meeting of the ESR Board of Advisors that I attended, no one ever referenced these primary documents. There are confidential portions of faculty meetings and other such bodies but, by definition, I wouldn’t know what they discuss. What do we mean by “community?” Is this merely a marketing phrase, or do we wish to fold community into the bones and marrow of the institution that the Light of Christ wants us to build?

I hold the leadership of Earlham College in continuous prayer and urge that all Friends do likewise. I want the stewards of Earlham, especially President Anne Houtman, to be healthy and clear-minded as they steer this Quaker institution through this chasm of darkness. I also encourage all Earlham students to meet with college decision-makers whenever and wherever possible. When we are struggling for solutions to corporate problems, we have to be able to sit at the table with those with whom we have severe disagreements. Finding unity does not mean excluding the people who don’t agree with you or only talking with like-minded people. Cliques and factionalism are the express enemy of “unity.”  I believe the Quaker mission is needed today more than ever. In some sense, COVID-19 is our Civil War. It is likely the key historical event that will shape how we are seen by future generations.

We should discern if and when the power dynamics within our institutions undermine our own testimonies on right relationships and community. The world stands weighed down by a metal jacket of illusion (gamification), violence (guns, police) and worry (COVID-19). The Light will judge us for whether we have been stewards of the spirit of transforming the world in front of us. It will take Black folks several generations of work to undo the spiritual catastrophes of COVID-19 and the Great Recession (we lost over $1 trillion of wealth). Let’s wade into the waters and cross from the neck-crushing oppression of Egypt into our Promised Land. Even though we might bicker about the water and food, let’s keep coming back to the table, breaking bread and encouraging one another to envision a 23rd-century-ready Religious Society of Friends. Amen.  ~~~

Zae Illo is a member of San Francisco Friends Meeting (PacYM).


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