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Personality and Place

By Doug Gwyn

Soil for the creative spirit at Pendle Hill is enriched not only by the inspired messages given in the meeting for worship — the creative writing workshop — and nourishing organic gardening — and study and action toward nonviolent social change — and Black City ghetto theatre in Central Philadelphia — and study of the gospels with emphasis on inward truth and consistency in Jesus’ dealing with corruption in his day — and deeply moving term papers — and exquisite pottery turned on the wheel — or hand shaped — all to be remembered by, but also, in the spirit of Wordsworth’s words, by the “Little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” That is the vital sacrament offered through the spirit of communion in everyday life at Pendle Hill.

These words were written in the late 1960s by Dan Wilson, Director at Pendle Hill at the time. They well evoke the power of community, the intersection of personality and place. Pendle Hill was founded in 1930 as a center for personal renewal, Quaker leadership development and social change. For more than eight decades thousands of students, sojourners, workshop attenders and staff have passed through its community situated on 23 wooded acres 10 miles west of central Philadelphia. These wide-ranging personalities have participated in Pendle Hill’s daily rhythms of worship, work and study, forging deep bonds of community. This communal discipline was borrowed from the Benedictine monastic tradition and it has proven to be a powerful formula for the education of the whole person. Daily worship interacts in subtle ways with classes, personal study, workshops and shared physical work. The transformative effects are largely subconscious, but strongly felt by those who come even for a short time. Pendle Hill offers the opportunity to participate in community as a “24/7” reality, something we experience less acutely in the life of a local meeting or church.

Pendle Hill has been inspired through much of its history by the religious philosophy of “personalism,” a movement that was very influential among churches in the first half of the twentieth century. Personalism is not individualism. Personalists believe that the healthy, whole person is created and truly fulfilled through participation in community. As individuals on our own, we are easily swayed by larger social forces and institutions. We forfeit our God-given uniqueness and bend to the powers of consumerism, nationalism and other forces that are morally neutral at best, demonic at worst. But in community we encounter one another as real persons, not the caricatures we perceive from afar. We find our best gifts exercised for the good of the group and raised to a higher power. Paul wrote his letters to early Christians as communities, as the body of Christ in the world. In community the “fruit of the Spirit” — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22) — grow to maturity.

Personalists also believe that community acts as a lens helping persons see the wider world more clearly. In community we feel more achingly the hurts and needs of our wider society, and receive leadings to act in the world in healing ways. Personalism has been deeply informed by the Christian tradition, which invites people of all kinds to find themselves formed together in the personality of Christ where, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). It also resonates strongly with the Quaker tradition that looks for “that of God in every one,” that seeks “to know one another in that which is eternal,” that finds new friends among those who were strangers and even enemies.

Personalists believe that communities not only form and inspire individual persons for service and witness in the world, but are also agents of change. They form the middle-term between individual and society. They model in small, provisional ways the kingdom of heaven on earth. Among neighbors and to political powers, they advocate for a more just and equal society, and for peaceful approaches to resolving conflict. Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is among you” (Luke 17:21) and helped men and women recognize this through his parables of everyday life in the household, on the farm — in the communities where they lived and worked.

In more recent decades, the sense of community at Pendle Hill has come to include the community of species that surround us on the campus. At Pendle Hill there are more than 140 species of trees and shrubs from around the world. One large American beech had already begun its life in 1682 when William Penn presented his historic treaty to the Lenni Lenape Indians in Philadelphia and purchased the land that includes Pendle Hill.

The organic garden is tended using permaculture practices and supplies some of the food the community eats. Most purchased food has been grown on organic farms within a 35-mile radius. The sense of place grows as we pay attention to nurturing the earth’s life-sustaining resources and balances in this crowded region. As Paul witnesses (Romans 8:19-25), the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God in communities that break the creation’s subjection to futility (that is, our human plunder and poisoning of the earth) and restore the health of our planet.

A mark of authentic community is that it doesn’t allow itself to become a cozy enclave of people who are comfortable in their sameness. True community keeps opening out to those often excluded or marginal in the wider society. In that spirit, Pendle Hill strives to become more diverse and inclusive with regard to religion, race, cultural background, etc.

The Quaker author Elizabeth Gray Vining called Pendle Hill “an annual experiment in community.” Most participants are here for only a short time — a weekend, a few months, a year. Pendle Hill’s purpose is to offer an immersion in community, a time for personal renewal, and a fresh vision for life and work in the world. Pendle Hill draws its name and inspiration from the hill in northern England where George Fox had his great vision in 1652 of “a great people to be gathered.” After 83 years of existence, Pendle Hill remains a place of vision. Yet the thousands who have participated in its life, even for a short time, have become a great people scattered around the world in lives of witness and service. Indeed, that is one more mark of community: it exists not for itself but for the world.

Doug Gwyn was pastoral minister at First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana 2003-10. He currently teaches Quaker Studies and Bible courses at Pendle Hill and has recently completed a book about its history. Friends United Press is reprinting his 1986 book, Apocalypse of the Word: the Life and Message of George Fox.