We're launching a series of profiles of ESR graduates where they have the opportunity to share with Learning and Leading readers about the work in which they are now engaged. Today's featured alum is Steven Cleaver, who recently came to the Earlham campus as the College's Interim Religious Life Director. You can learn more about Steve on his website.
“People come to me for treatment and they want me to heal them and to make life “like it was before”. My purpose is to help them live into life as it is.”
- Terrie Lewine, Network Chiropractor
That purpose nicely sums up my experience at and from attending the Earlham School of Religion. To learn to live authentically and with faith into the world as it is.
I came to ESR after 20 years of managing a non-profit that provided services to over 7,000 children a year. During my time as a non-profit manager, I had been able to create programs and support teaching staff in their growth, won awards, and had been promoted enough times to finally be the Executive Director. I had also encountered the politics of management and at one point had to confront a situation where the Executive Director was embezzling. As far as my faith and religion went, I was attending Quaker meeting, but was not assertively (though I would dabble) involved in an internal search nor could I say that I had more than a lived sense of what it was to be a Quaker.
I decided to come to ESR because I realized I wanted to return to my Quaker roots and truth be told I felt a calling-stubborn as I am, I often just let the call go to Voice Message where I could delete it without listening. Initially my search took me to MBA programs, then Quaker MBA programs, and then a realization that I actually wanted the Divinity program. Unlike some who arrive with a certain purpose, either to become pastors or Quaker leaders, my purpose appears to have been to deconstruct some of the inadequate faith structures I had built, and in response, replace them with models and belief systems that could support a mature being. This purpose would inform and define the route of my life after graduate school.
ESR gave me the time and space to focus on myself and my writing. As a result of my experience at ESR, and through the mentoring of Tom Mullen and Barbara Mays, I not only had several poems published, but wrote a book, Saving Erasmus, which was published by Paraclete Press in 2007. I graduated in 2004 with the thought that I could just return to life the way it had been, that I could run a non-profit again, and settle back into life the way it had been before I started seminary. This was not what God had in mind.
I found myself living a peripatetic lifestyle. Though my traveling was more often by old car, than by foot, I started a journey that would take me not only to a wide variety of spiritual centers but would also reveal the underlying crisis of faith that unbeknownst to me, had brought me to divinity school I moved to New York City and lived in Staten Island. During this time, I worked at a spiritual center based out of Harlem and in a Quaker founded organization that promoted cultural understanding through travel. I had been comfortable for so long and now I found my moorings destabilized and I was challenged by uncertainty. Each job I took became short term as in one the Director went into the hospital and I discovered that there was no money and in the other the organization was pushed out of New York City by eminent domain.
Underneath my call, had been a crisis of faith that I had been able to ignore. I had been distracted by the business of a non-profit and my own movements. Childhood fears of being homeless and abandoned surfaced. I volunteered at the 15th Street Homeless Shelter so that I could witness what it was to be homeless. I sunk lower at times in my own lack of faith. I had grown up believing I alone was responsible for taking care of myself and others, and in this system there was no room for God.
I continued my search, albeit with new awareness and found myself working at Omega Institute, the largest holistic center in the world. Here I discovered a buffet of healing and spiritual practices and while I identified as Quaker, I was able to explore other faiths and belief systems. To make sense of a people who believed strongly yet differently, I recognized faiths as languages, and the heart as the interpreter. One winter I took a job as a dish washer at a Jewish Retreat Center. Here I was an integral part of the kashrut process as I had to change the dish machine water when we switched from meat to dairy or vice versa.
As I wrestled with my own faith, I returned now to my Quaker roots to find sustenance. I found in the small yet vibrant Bulls Head Meeting a depth of understanding and ability to articulate beliefs that supported me in recognizing the strength of my Quaker beliefs and faith. I took a position at Pendle Hill Retreat Center. I found myself slowly, yet not surely, embracing the unknown. I recognized that security comes from within, yet still struggled to believe that. I took a position as an Intern, so that I would have relatively little supervisory responsibility. My task was to work on me.
I took a class in George Fox and miracles. This gave me opportunity to learn more of the lost practices of my own religion, and in that see how I could embrace the various faith practices that I had witnessed. I was able to identify my own patterns that brought suffering and in that recognize what I wanted most of all was to live in a world the way it is, but live fully in love and with love. To do this required changing myself, not others. I had been seeking material recognition or titles, when in truth, as the bible asks, I was losing my soul.
My job at Pendle Hill was a 2 year appointment. When I started my job search I went about it differently. I knew that the uncertainty would create anxiety, but rather than isolate, I chose to seek guidance. Part of the support came from my Dark Night of the Soul Support Group. I asked questions. I used what I had learned in family systems classes that told me how to create balance. More than anything I practiced stillness and listening to that “still small voice.” As I looked at this as a practice in my own development rather than a threat, doors opened. I was reading Reginald Ray’s Buddhist book, Touching Enlightenment. I mentioned this to a friend (rather than anxiously discussing my job search), he told me that he knew someone who worked with Ray, and pointed me to a job opening. I received an interview, and while not the right place for me (14,000 feet up in Colorado and isolated half the time), it demonstrated to me that it was my authenticity that would open the right doors. As I interviewed for the position of Interim Religious Life Director at Earlham, I told myself to be authentic, and then if I was hired, I could be myself. The interview process was a different experience and I found opportunity, rather than the constriction of my previous anxious searches.
My experience of Divinity School is unique to my journey. Some people will come with specific needs and goals, and find their exit takes them to the job or position they had in mind. My journey and my intent was to learn to live fully into a life and world that is not always how I want it, and that can be violent and harsh. My soul called me to live into this life fully able to trust and love, despite the externals that challenge me. The tools and experiences I gained in seminary helped to challenge, support, and guide me during some incredibly difficult times and during times of elation.
I am utilizing the skills I gained from my experience. I have a radio show at WECI on Earlham Campus. I continue to write and have had a play performed and have a second book in development. My peripatetic lifestyle allowed me the opportunity to learn and witness various faith traditions, and this information will inform me as I work with students who come from a wide range of backgrounds and who will be seeking also. At one time I thought that I should always have a certainty about what I was doing and where I was going. I now know the value of the wilderness experience, and in knowing that, am also aware of accepting it and in this, finding the stillness in the midst of uncertainty.
I am, of course, still a work in progress. I wrestle with and question what it is to be faithful and how to live in this world. I have been humbled in my own search and in that, through my own journey, have realized that it is my own humanity and being, and in my own ability to be truthful and loving with myself, that I am connected and complete.
I do not know what someone else’s experience will bring them. I do know that my own time was invaluable, in what I learned and in the time I had to be still in a community of believers.