Lauri Perman on gratitude, vision, and her life
Lauri Perman has served as executive director of Pendle Hill since May 2007. In this interview with Shirley Dodson, she talks about her childhood religious community, how she became a Friend, what she owes to her work in academia, and her vision for Pendle Hill.
In this season of thanksgiving and hope, as we look toward Christmas, what are you most thankful for? What inspires you and gives you strength?
LP I am deeply inspired by the founders of Pendle Hill. My work today is rooted in the courage, perseverance, and vision of people who came before.
A planning meeting for Pendle Hill was held just after the financial crash of 1929. Pendle Hill’s predecessor, the Woolman School, had failed. Yet, the founders decided to proceed. Where did they find the courage? Caroline Norment, the last director of the Woolman School, had a remarkable vision. Her vision led to Pendle Hill. She said, “We have got to get it quite freshly to the Society with a plan of a bigger thing than we are doing, rather than to go and attempt to get the Society to support the small thing that we have done.”
I’ve heard that Anna Brinton needed to visit Philadelphia Friends with her hand out just to meet payroll. It would have been so easy to give up. I’m thankful that I can meet payroll and that Pendle Hill, with the ongoing support of many people, is doing well.
Lauri, what was your religious background growing up?
LP I was the product of a Minnesota “mixed marriage” – Lutheran and Catholic. Belonging to a Lutheran congregation was a really important part of my growing up. My childhood experience of God occurred only in the context of this loving church community. This is one reason why Quaker community is so important to me.
As a 14 or 15 year-old, I was asked to sit on the Peace and Social Concerns Committee in the Lutheran church. Like others my age, I had been invited into adult membership after communion. With other members of the committee, I attended fair housing hearings at the Minnesota Legislature.
My experiences have helped me see how important it is to involve young people in Quaker community. This is what YALD (the Young Adult Leadership Development program) does at Pendle Hill. Participants are inspired to take a leadership role during the program and afterwards. This is the sort of transformation we seek at Pendle Hill.
What led you to become a Quaker?
LP I was initially attracted by Quaker social witness. In high school I wanted to join an interracial workcamp organized by Quakers, but my parents wouldn’t let me leave the state to attend. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had many friends who were conscientious objectors. I was curious about Friends for nearly 20 years before I first attended a Quaker meeting in the mid-1980s when I was getting to know Tom Ryan, who is now my husband. Tom had read Pendle Hill pamphlets, and this drew him toward becoming a Friend. He was attending State College Friends Meeting while I attended the local Unitarian Fellowship. At that time I was Universalist, while Tom was Christian. It was easier for us to be together at the Quaker meeting. Also, the peace witness was more important at State College Meeting than in the Unitarian Fellowship. For Tom and me, involvement in State College Meeting has been an important part of our relationship.
What was your first experience of Pendle Hill?
LP Around 1993, I attended a workshop by Kendall Dudley on memoir writing. It was a wonderful experience. As the mother of a young child, I was tickled to have a room to myself.
You have a Ph.D. from Harvard University and were an administrator in the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University. Why did you stop working in academia?
LP I left academia after six years as a full-time administrator. I thought I was taking a short time off. Three months passed, then six months, then a year, then a two-year hiatus. During this time, Don Gann, then clerk of the American Friends Service Committee, encouraged me not to say “yes” to anything until I “couldn’t not say yes.” This was a fallow time, a time of emptying. I had no identity in my own eyes and in the eyes of the world. It proved to be fertile soil into which the call ultimately came – the call to clerk Baltimore Yearly Meeting.
What positive aspects of your experience in these two universities have you incorporated into your work at Pendle Hill?
LP Coming to Pendle Hill meant the integration of two parts of my life – academic administration and spiritual leadership. Many aspects of my work at Penn State are relevant now at Pendle Hill.
I assisted on two remodeling projects at Penn State, and this work has prepared me for our current plans to upgrade our facilities at Pendle Hill. I juggled multiple priorities at Penn State, with responsibility for 1,800 students and 700 honors faculty on 16 locations. Although the scale is smaller, the competing priorities I face at Pendle Hill are not dissimilar, and this familiarity helps me manage.
Also, at Penn State I experienced the diversity present at a large university, a diversity much greater than that in the Religious Society of Friends. I loved working with international students. I served as director of multicultural affairs. These experiences are valuable in working toward a multicultural, multiracial Religious Society of Friends and the creation of a diverse community at Pendle Hill.
What aspects are you glad to have left behind?
LP Until age 50, I lived my life largely out of my head. I plan to live the rest of my life from my heart and from that deep place of knowing that is lower than the heart. Of course, my job is still intellectually demanding, and I don’t abandon my head altogether.
Pendle Hill is “a center for God’s transforming work in the world.” Many people tell us how their lives have been changed by their Pendle Hill experience. Have you personally been transformed by your experience at Pendle Hill?
LP I had a significant experience in August 2005 when I came to Pendle Hill as a sojourner after my first time clerking Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I had been at Pendle Hill the previous November for a clerking workshop and had collected “perfect” red Japanese maple leaves. This time I took a walk down the back path to Rogers Lane. I was drawn to pick up broken leaves – those that were torn and had fungal warts. They were beautiful. A core spiritual issue for me has been perfectionism. I realized that the broken leaves are how God sees us. It is precisely our flaws that make us beautiful, make us who we are. I am beautiful in my imperfection, and so are you and everyone else.
I didn’t see myself as director at Pendle Hill; I was recruited to apply. There was some real sadness in being called away from Baltimore Yearly Meeting. This new call mirrored my call to BYM. I knew my only response was to submit. When I was recruited, I had a head injury from a car accident. In saying yes, the healing began.
Work has deepened my faith. It has increased my capacity to hold uncertainty. I have come to the brink of not knowing and way has been shown to me. I once had an image of a hallway with many doors shut on both sides. Not only did the doors open, but the hallway disappeared. I have witnessed God’s grace over and over. My biggest transformation has been growing in the certainty that we’ll be given what we need.
As a leader of a small nonprofit organization in today’s economy, you have a challenging job. How do you deal with stress?
LP [laughter] Not well enough. The most important thing I do is take a monthly retreat. While on retreat, I meet with a spiritual director. Journaling is very helpful to me. On retreat, I often read over my journal to see where I’ve been.
I belong to two spiritual friendship groups and also meet with the heads of Quaker organizations. In addition, I have a one-on-one spiritual friendship. This rich network of spiritual relationships is essential in doing my work.
Those of us at Pendle Hill are privileged to have daily meeting for worship. This grounding in the Spirit reduces stress and recollects us to the well that is always available to us.
Sometimes I believe I have the best job at Pendle Hill because I have so many meetings. Since all meetings start with worship, I have more opportunities for worship throughout the day.
What is your vision for Pendle Hill? What changes do you hope to see at Pendle Hill in the next five years, and what do you hope will stay the same?
LP I am reminded of what Jennifer Barraclough said when she arrived to direct the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Britain: “I wanted Woodbrooke to be clean, efficient, and functional. “ In my case, I said “I just want to get the phones answered.” In a broader sense, however, my vision is of Pendle Hill as a resource for all Friends and as a spiritual crossroads, a meeting place, an oasis in the desert where people from different places and religious traditions can come together. I see Pendle Hill as a well we can all dip into, to varying depths as we are able.
Pendle Hill has not been a monastery keeping the world out, but a seedbed of activism. Pendle Hill nurtures people into faithfulness and that faithfulness translates into action.
I want Pendle Hill to retain the warm, family-like character that is the essence of who we are, while professionalizing our operations and modernizing our facilities.
What are some ways that people can support Pendle Hill as we live into the future?
LP First, Pendle Hill benefits from everyone’s prayers. We are strengthened through prayer. Second, people coming to Pendle Hill are our lifeblood. Students and conferees come here for the first time because they are invited. When meetings invite new members and attenders to come to Inquirers’ Weekends, the meetings often grow. Third, Pendle Hill needs financial support and volunteers. We’re doing well, but we really do need ongoing support. For a long time I thought, some day I’ll come to Pendle Hill; I assumed Pendle Hill would be there. Please don’t take Pendle Hill for granted.
I’m immensely grateful to the people who have named Pendle Hill in their wills. If Pendle Hill has been important in your life, please remember Pendle Hill in your will.
One of the great blessings I have in my role is to learn how people’s lives have been transformed by Pendle Hill. This summer a Japanese visitor, Makoto Ibuku, came and told us of his aunt, Dr. Mieko Maeda Kamiya, and how her life was transformed by her experience here in the late 1930s. She was inspired to begin a career as a psychiatrist and spent 20 years ministering to people with leprosy. Her autobiography, Pilgrimage, includes a chapter on Pendle Hill.
The seeds we sow today will be harvested by others in the future. In the meantime, I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to meet and get to know some people who have been coming to Pendle Hill for more than 50 years. I’m still the “new kid on the block,” but I’m learning fast and am the lucky beneficiary of all who have gone before.