Alumni panel reflects on Quaker ties to activism

Panelists included alumni who discussed the link between Quakers and activism. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)
Margaret Perry ’08, Cynthia Richie-Terrell ’86, John Braxton ’70 and Mark Harris ’08 (not pictured) return to campus to discuss connections between Quakerism and activism that they have encountered after Swarthmore. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)

On Monday evening a panel of Quaker alumni held a discussion about activism and faith in the Scheuer Room of Kohlberg Hall. The Quaker Activist Alumni Panel consisted of four panelists invited back to campus by Joyce Tompkins, a campus Religious Advisor: Mark Harris ’08, Cynthia Richie-Terrell ’86, John Braxton ’70 and Margaret Perry ’08.

The panelists came from a variety of personal experiences and backgrounds, but all mainly focused on the connection between Quakerism and activism. Panelists focused on important themes in both Quaker and activist life — resistance, history, family and dialogue.

The event was prefaced by a call for a moment of silence. After a pause, President Rebecca Chopp gave a brief speech about the importance of examining things like Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage in the “wake of strategic planning.” She also introduced the invited panelists and their detailed their activist accomplishments at and beyond Swarthmore.

Cynthia Richie-Terrell ’86 was the first panelist to speak, and she began with a quote by George Fox, an important Quaker theologian whose writings are central to modern Quaker faith and practice. Richie-Terrell explained that “let your life speak” is an often-quoted tenant of Quaker thinking, which encourages a spirit of activism in one’s life. The panelist then detailed her family’s long history of activism and how this crucial element of “family history” influenced her life today.

Ritchie-Terrell added anecdotes about her own activism at and beyond Swarthmore, including the “profound work” of speaking out against the apartheid. Echoing sentiments introduced by President Chopp earlier that evening, the panelist described Swarthmore as a “leader in things intellectual, as well as in having a huge endowment” and that these resources should be put towards promoting social change. Richie-Terrell further noted that by “asking the hard questions that need to be asked” activism can help enact “positive social change.”

The second panelist was Margaret Perry ‘08, a recent graduate of Swarthmore who has spent time teaching in Malaysia. She shared a moving anecdote about stepping on oil waste, discharge of deep-sea dumping, on the beach one day. To Perry, stories like these are part of “Quaker heritage as experience, subjective absolute experiences.”

One additional experience of importance that Perry chose to relate was about her early introduction to the faith. As a homeschooled child in a Quaker household, she learned early on about testimonies, Quaker documents recounting belief in everyday life, and was especially struck by the “equality testimony.” Perry described the testimony as “humbling and empowering,” because equality reminds one that no one is better than any one else. The speaker concluded her introduction by telling Quakers that activism means continuing to ask, “What do I believe?”

Mark Harris ’08 is a current member of the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical consortium of Christian denominations. As the Quaker representative of this body, Harris facilitates dialogue and discussion between a variety of religious groups. The bulk of his presentation focused on the Quaker faith as it exists in a modern global context — faith outside a vacuum. Consequently, Harris focused on Quakerism as “both relational and theological. Both categories drive the other.”

Theology, according to Harris, is something that Quakers are generally afraid to talk about, but it is an extremely unique aspect of the faith. Though a “robust holy spirit” is not unique to Quakerism, the spirit’s “work in human lives and human history” is its most important theological idea. He added that this ability to look for the worth in all religions is a positive benefit for interfaith dialogue, which in itself is a form of activism.

The final speaker was John Braxton, who shared remarkable personal experiences about his time during the Vietnam War. Serving on a medical supply ship, “The Phoenix,” Braxton delivered medicine to both the North and South Vietnamese, risking his own life as well as committing an act of “civil disobedience.” He added that the climate of the war tested his idea of “what it means to be a Quaker in a time of war.”

Moreover, by leaving Swarthmore for longer than one semester, Braxton lost the right to student deferment — an exemption to the draft for students attending secondary education. As a conscientious objector, Braxton was not required to serve in direct combat, an exception that he regarded as humorous. While ruminating about these ideas at 16th St Meeting, he saw Swarthmore Professor George Lakey dispose of his draft card, inspiring Braxton to do the same. Braxton quoted Lakey as saying, “There comes a time when one can no longer resist.”

Since this is illegal, Braxton served 17 months in federal prison. He concluded his talk by offering a quote on actions for future Quakers. “Quaker values mean being revolutionary. Confronting the structure that makes wars possible.”

In a concluding question-and-answer session, the panelists spoke candidly about a variety of issues, including Quakerism’s role in Swarthmore’s strategic planning. Harris spoke about the importance of religious literacy for encouraging tolerance in an institution, and Richie-Terrell called for leaders to “raise hard questions” and challenge the status quo. Perry echoed similar sentiments. “For an institution that is educating human beings, not just marines, it’s important to talk about integrity.”

Members of the local Quaker and campus communities, including a newly reformed Swarthmore Student Quaker group, asked further questions about a larger student history on campus. The evening concluded with a reflection on both the past and future for Quakerism, activism and their connection to the Swarthmore community.

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