Sharing a First Day School Blesses Two Communities
by Ann Kjellberg
15th Street Meeting
We have heard from Friends, though I can’t confirm it, that 15 Rutherford Place in lower Manhattan is the only Quaker Meeting where programmed and unprogrammed worship takes place in the same building. There have been times (now thankfully behind us, it seems to me) when there has been some tension around this encounter. But one longstanding source of connection has been our First Day School. When I arrived on the 15th Street Religious Education Committee around 2003, our regular First Day School class was probably about half-and-half 15th Street and Manhattan Monthly Meeting children (Manhattan being the programmed meeting), and over the years Manhattan grown-ups, many of whom are, as it happens, professional educators, participated in the planning of First Day School. This has been a source of enormous richness for our First Day School and also an important point of connection for our larger community.
We families of 15th Street love our Manhattan counterparts very much, and having those particular people in our lives is for us overwhelmingly the greatest benefit of our shared First Day School experience. But beyond that, Manhattan has had much to offer our curriculum and experience. The Manhattan kids have had regular Bible study from a young age and bring knowledge and depth of reflection on biblical themes to our discussions. Manhattan also has a long-standing connection with the development of Quaker schools in Kenya, which we have learned about and followed over the years, bringing 15th Street kids in touch at an early age with a broader understanding of the diversity of Quaker practice and experience around the world. Every year at our annual rummage sale (which raises funds to send families from both communities to Silver Bay), Manhattan Monthly Meeting has a food stand and sends the proceeds to the Kenya schools. I can’t speak to what benefits the 15th Street presence brought for Manhattan Friends, except that 15th Street does have more people, a number of them also teachers, giving support to what Manhattan can offer children in their small meeting. Our First Day School heard from 15th Street Friends who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, who are deeply engaged with Earthcare, and who are working artists and theater people, among other things. One of our favorite activities over the years has been reinvesting, through the Kiva program, some funds young Friends raised many years ago by selling home-made Quaker calendars at social hour. Through Kiva a generation of our young Friends have invested and reinvested these funds to help people around the world get the things they need for their communities to thrive—a barn, a well, some farming equipment. Gloria Thompson reported on our Kiva project as an example of the vitality of our unusually constituted First Day School at a gathering of the FWCC a few years ago.
Sharing a First Day School also gave our kids an intimate common experience with children of more diverse racial backgrounds than they might have encountered elsewhere. 15th Street First Day School was predominantly white, and Manhattan Monthly Meeting mostly African American, with close connections to Friends in Africa and Jamaica. For those children of color at 15th Street it was great to give them an environment in First Day School that was more racially balanced than the Meeting as a whole. Unlike regular school, First Day School is something we build together, and after childhoods spent together I think our children feel something close to a familial bond; a very special opportunity for children of different racial backgrounds in a city that is often deeply segregated by race.
During the time that I have served on our Religious Education Committee, our meetings have, in the larger sense, grown closer together. We now share worship once a quarter; we attend one anothers’ worship; ; we share information about events; some 15th Street Friends served as pastors at Manhattan after the much-mourned death of their beloved pastor Noel Palmer. Our working together on creating a meaningful First Day School experience for families in both our communities was a vital moment of common purpose—our children are such a source of joy and promise; First Day School is a beautiful place to build a friendship.
I think like many Quaker parents, we begin to worry when our children get old enough to move around on their own and seem to lose their connection to their Meetings. But this particular group of children, although they are not regular attenders as teenagers and young adults, keeps circling back and reaffirming the values we fostered together. Most recently, a Manhattan Monthly Meeting child whom I first met I think as a five- or six-year-old, and who now attends one of our Quaker schools, rose to speak beautifully and centeredly on a troubling concern that was roiling our shared communities, and his grace in this moment cast such a warm light over our history together in our shared First Day School. I think I can say that we all feel blessed to have been a part of this loving encounter.