Student Interview: Zac Dutton

December 13, 2011
Student Interview: Zac Dutton
Zac Dutton / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

In a short Q&A, HDS student Zac Dutton talks about his involvement in the Friends at HDS group, his research on social conflict, and the interfaith community at the Divinity School.

Could you provide a brief introduction to the Friends at HDS student group? What is the group's vision or mission statement? In other words, what is Friends at HDS all about?

Friends at HDS focuses on disseminating information about Quakers and things that Quakers are doing in the Boston area. "How boring!" you might proclaim. But, we do not have a large constituency. It is just me this year, taking care to keep a Quaker presence at HDS.

In an ideal world we would have, on our website, an updated news feed of all the Quaker events happening at HDS and around Harvard, we'd be completely integrated with the work of the Harvard Chaplains, and we'd have a robust presence at HDS. This would be the opening salvo on the Friends at HDS website and in our group's description, if it were our reality.

Do you know about the group's history? Is it a group that has been present at HDS for some years, or is it relatively new?

Two years ago there were three members of Friends at HDS. The year after that there were two. This year there is one. I know previous leaders have had different aims than mine. Some have wanted to work with other student groups to participate in activism or community service. Some have used the group as a locus of spiritual support. I have made the group predominantly about information and planning occasional events. This year, we held two worship sessions, organized a Noon Service, and brought Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison, two Quaker performers, to campus.

I wish I knew about the group's history. I know that the Quaker presence at HDS has been consistent. I can't say how big it has been, but I'm going to hazard a guess that Quakers have probably had a larger presence than three at some point in their history here.

I envision for Friends at HDS a community that includes students, but is extended to all who would like to experience our particular version of community. Quaker community celebrates each member's power and each member's capacity to give. It cultivates gifts and raises up passion.

The particulars of the way we do business—gathering the sense of the meeting and discerning where the life (or the Spirit) in the community is moving—is based on the idea that compromise is not necessary. The community is conceived as a collective of values and needs, where the goal of the decision is to find a strategy that meets all the needs and values.

It is a common misconception, actually, that Quakers reach consensus. Consensus implies agreement through compromise, but Quakers trust in a deeper kind of agreement through compassion. I don't experience half of a day at HDS without noticing something that could benefit from being exposed to this way of thinking—to being less concerned about getting one's own way and more concerned with getting yours along with everyone else's.

On November 4, Jon Watts, a Quaker hip-hop artist, came to HDS to give a performance. The event was sponsored by Friends at HDS. What did the performance entail? What do you feel was the impact, both for the group in attendance and for you personally?

Jon Watts came with Maggie Harrison. They are not your run-of-the mill performers. They are actually traveling in the ministry. This is a facet of the Liberal Quaker tradition. By "Liberal" Quaker I just mean the kind of Quakerism we encounter in the northeastern United States. I'd recommend Ben Pink Dandelion's Introduction to Quakerism for a full account of the different types.

To compensate for the lack of hired ministers in the Liberal Quaker faith, there are traveling ministers who are endorsed by their home meeting (the Liberal Quaker name for the church congregation).

Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison were traveling in the ministry and gave us a message on November 4 to which they generally refer as "getting naked." They invited people to get naked metaphorically. It was an exhortation to shed our outer-performances—those we use to cover up imperfection, vulnerability, and inconsistency.

Jon deftly played the guitar to his own spoken word. Here's a part of the beginning of one of his songs, called "Let's Get Naked":

Adam wasnt full of knowledge.
Adam was ashamed.
Adam only knew about that one mistake he made,
and the worst mistake ever was
to give these leaves to us.
I mean our own doubts and fears
would be perfectly enough.
But, no,
we have to hide 'em
and ignore what's at the roots
we're told to love our fig leaves
more than we love the truth.

Maggie gave us prose-style interludes offering interpretations of Jon's songs along with her own exposition of different Quaker texts. In smart fashion, those in attendance got a first-hand sense of the way Liberal Quakerism operates today—especially among young adults who have begun to reorient the faith toward tradition and ritual with key postmodern twists. (Visit for more information.)

What hopes do you have for the group after you graduate?

I hope that the work that I and others have done can be enshrined on the Friends at HDS website and curated by the Office of Student Life while HDS awaits a Quaker resurgence. Short of this, I hope that Harvard College never gets rid of its Quaker chaplain position.

Through this connection to Harvard, the Quaker meetings in the area at least might have some sense of the potential needs of Quaker students, who will undoubtedly continue to matriculate. I know the meetings are theoretically interested in doing whatever they can to support the spiritual lives of those who show up. It is the reality, however, that the future of Friends at HDS, along with the Noon Service we lead each year, is in jeopardy.

I am not worried, though, for all things ebb and flow. Perhaps with the death of this version of Friends at HDS, some great new thing I've never even imagined can be born.

Getting more into your specific experience at HDS, I'm wondering how you, as a second year master of theological studies candidate, have been impacted by your experiences at HDS? What, if anything, has changed about you as a result of your time here?

This year I am blessed with a few very close friendships at HDS (and also beyond HDS). They have supported me through a lot of drastic change, and I likewise them. The intensity of my experience so far is likely due both to the ton of introspection required here and to the reality that most of us are in our 20s and still figuring out how to be adults in a world that makes you want to stay a child.

I went from being a master of divinity candidate to a master of theological studies candidate. I went from thinking I would be in Boston for as short as possible so I could move back to Philadelphia, my home. But now I'm in love and see no reason to leave. I feel within me a more steady connection with the ground, and a more stable approach to life.

Academically, what was has been your focus?

It turns out that doing theology does not really meet my needs for meaning and purpose. This is something I would never have realized if I had not come to HDS. I will graduate from Harvard Divinity School having taken only one theology class. This School, for some reason, does not let one pass through it without changing one's mind several times.

But my changes of mind have been accompanied by deep changes within my entire psyche. I went from thinking I would be a thought leader in the Quaker faith to accepting that I am, and have always been, more interested in social conflict. So right now I am doing research on Quaker nonviolence narratives and identity. I will write what I'll call a capstone paper next semester based on this research.

As a Quaker, why did you choose to attend HDS? What were your expectations before you started?

I certainly didn't decide to attend HDS as a Quaker. If my Quaker identity were a priority in applying to divinity school, I would have attended the Quaker seminary Earlham School of Religion. But if I was going to be a thought leader in Quakerism (which is what I thought I wanted to do at the time), I wanted to start out in a context where I could explore other potential interests.

On some level I probably knew that studying Quakerism alone would never satisfy me. So I hoped there might be a few Quakers to connect to, while acknowledging that if there are only some Quakers in Philadelphia, there are even fewer in Boston.

I also fell in love with the model of intentional interfaith community at HDS. The feeling here is unlike the feeling I experienced with other divinity schools. We are a unique place.

What advice would you give to other Quakers who are thinking of applying to HDS?

I would advise them not to get too entangled in the internal affairs of Quakerism and to dig deep into their souls for what gives them meaning and purpose. You don't need Quaker community per se, as long as you have community and the support you need to let your light shine.

You don't need to go to Quaker seminary to study Quakerism. Don't let Harvard's prestige eclipse your own leanings; follow them to the end. If they take you to HDS, then I celebrate that. If they take you away from HDS, then I celebrate that, too!