GREENSBORO — Guilford College religion professor Max Carter only teaches morning classes. It’s his way of sorting out the riffraff, he jokes.
But those students dedicated enough to climb out of bed by 8:30 a.m. are treated to something special: a well-worn couch, hot coffee and, in the winter, a crackling fire inside his cozy classroom, known as The Hut.
“The combination of that early a morning, crackling fire, hot drinks, couches — they’re asleep within five minutes, so I can get by with murder,” Carter said.
But perhaps the only thing he has gotten away with during his tenure is helping students find and share their personal truths.
Carter is retiring from Guilford College after 25 years of leading its campus ministry. Calling himself a dinosaur, he said he wants to “get out of the way and let the young pups in.”
He will be missed.
In Carter’s safe and welcoming hut, Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists can all give their perspectives on religious issues without fear of judgment or criticism.
“In classes, if we’re talking about different views of the Bible, for example, sometimes you’ve got students in here for whom the Bible is the word of God, and it is inerrant and infallible, and it is the authority, Carter said.
“Then you’ve got people here for whom the Bible is an instrument of oppression. It’s what people have used to oppress women, gays, blacks, you name it. And, fortunately, even though quite often those conversations become somewhat heated, the culture and ethos of this place is one of deep listening and respect.”
Teaching both sides
Carter, 66, designed Guilford College’s campus ministry program. Then-President Bill Rogers hired him in 1990 as the director of the Friends Center. Rogers was looking for someone who could add to the center’s programs. Carter had started a campus ministry program at another Quaker college in Richmond, Ind. Carter was also named an adjunct professor in the religious studies department at Guilford College.
Travel became a hallmark of his campus ministry duties. Since 1997, he has taken small groups of Guilford students to Israel and Palestinian territories twice a year. Carter said he wants to expose students to the competing narratives of the conflict in those countries.
But he also has had his students frequently travel within Guilford College. He started the campus historical tours a couple of years into his job as part of a class he designed about Quaker simplicity. Carter made hiking the college’s woods — where Quakers settled and fugitive slaves chased freedom on the Underground Railroad — an integral part of Guilford students’ first-year experience. On Halloween night, Carter, dressed as an old Quaker, would lead tours through the New Garden cemetery with students role-playing the people buried there.
Rogers, who was president of Guilford College from 1980 to 1996, said the tours helped make history tangible for Guilford students.
“That, visually, is a very moving kind of experience,” he said.
Rogers said Carter has been prudent about presenting both sides of an issue, not condemning but being empathetic of someone else’s convictions. Rather, Rogers said, he tries to be an interpreter.
That’s because Carter teaches like he worships.
The Quaker way, Carter said, is to consider it possible that you might be mistaken. That helps if discussions get a little too heated, he said. He always started and ended his classes with silence as a way of helping students be attentive to what the spirit has in store for them. It’s also a way of helping them become connected to the heritage of Guilford College, Carter said. The Hut is purposely more living room than classroom as a way of promoting conversation and discussion.
Christina Repoley, a 2002 graduate of the school, was raised a Quaker in Charlotte. But she said Carter was the one who really helped her understand Quaker faith and tradition. She said he puts history into a contemporary framework, making it exciting and relevant.
“Max is an encyclopedia of knowledge about a lot of things, but particularly about Quaker history and practices,” Repoley said.
Quakers’ lives bear witness to their beliefs, and that has gotten them into trouble over the years, Carter said.
The Quakers who settled at Guilford College knew that slavery was the law of the land. Teaching slaves to read or helping them escape was illegal.
“So the Quakers here said, ‘Yeah, we understand that law,’ ” Carter said. ‘We also understand God’s law, and we choose to obey God.’ ”
So they ran an Underground Railroad. They taught enslaved blacks to read. During the rise of the Nazi party, they went to Berlin with a plan to get Jews out of Germany. In 1869, they opened a school for girls in Palestine.
And through those acts, they made personal connections with people, Carter said.
Carter connected with someone during the summer of 1964 who changed the course of his life. The Vietnam War was raging and Carter, who was raised a Quaker, was nearing 18 and trying to balance his Quaker history and understanding of Christian teachings with his sense of patriotism. He considered joining the Coast Guard.
“I’ll discharge my military duty, but I’ll probably never have to kill anyone,” he thought.
But he participated in a peace caravan that summer, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. He met a young Japanese woman who shared with him her family’s experience living through the end of World War II, and the weeks of bombings in preparation for the invasion of Japan’s mainland. Carter had been taught in school that those actions were necessary to end to the war, but he had no direct connection to it.
That is, until he met this woman. She told Carter how she and her little brother had been confined inside their home in Hiroshima for weeks because of the bombings. One day in August 1945, when the bombings ceased, their parents told them to go outside to get some fresh air. As they played, she heard the engine of a solitary plane overhead.
And then she saw flames. She watched her brother and her house burn. She had been behind a concrete abutment that protected her.
Something inside Carter shifted, and instead of joining the war, he became a conscientious objector. He did two years of alternative service, teaching in Quaker schools in Palestine.
He wanted to go where there was conflict to help make peace, and he wanted to make more personal connections.
“That’s what gives me the willingness, the strength or the idiocy to do what I do when, quite often, there’s a lot of blow-back,” he said.
In his classroom, Carter has helped students make similar connections, such as the Palestinian Muslim student and the Jewish student who became friends after meeting during a special worship service called in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Before that meeting in The Hut, the Jewish student, who was born and raised in Israel, had never met a Palestinian, Carter said.
A striking presence
Repoley, who now lives in Atlanta, said Carter was one of the people she consulted before she started her organization, Quaker Voluntary Service. It’s a service program similar to AmeriCorps but based on Quaker ideals, she said.
With his long, gray beard and Amish hats, Carter is a striking presence on the Guilford campus — and one that won’t immediately disappear. The college has hired C. Wess Daniels as the new Friends Center director, and Carter will help Daniels make the transition during the fall semester.
Carter said Daniels can relate to this generation of students in ways that he can’t.
“There’s wisdom that I can share from having grown up on a dairy farm and not seeing my first dial phone until I was in eighth grade,” he said. “There’s also wisdom in stepping out of the way and allowing those who can relate in powerful ways to the culture.”
Repoley knows Daniels and is excited about him taking over as the director of Friends Center.
But it’s hard to imagine Guilford College without Carter, she said.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” she said. “And Guilford will always, forever be different because of Max in the best kinds of ways.”