Unity's spirit not dampened

Posted: August 20, 2007

Unity Day drew thousands to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway yesterday, bringing revelers closer together than perhaps ever before: huddled under canopies, umbrellas and tents, trying to escape a persistent summer rain.

"Showers," offered a hopeful Doug Henderson of WDAS-AM/FM, which presented the event along with sponsors ranging from Chrysler to Careerbuilder.com. "The rain doesn't seemed to have dampened the spirit of unity."

As the light drizzle began to strengthen, Henderson sat in a golf cart at the foot the Art Museum steps, not far from the main stage, looking across the parkway at the crowd. "They know this is a gathering place for the African American community, primarily. But it's also to embrace people of all colors."

Yesterday's crowd was indeed a rainbow of humanity that included not only African Americans but also Asians, Hispanics and white folks. The day started out comfortably cloudy, but turned drizzly and then sopping wet, the rain falling steadily in the afternoon.

Fran Grier didn't mind. She sat in a lawn chair under a tree whose branches served as an umbrella, listening to the stylings of singers on the Gospel Stage.

"It's wonderful," she said of the rain. "Keeps everyone from being too antsy."

Since 1978, Unity Day has been an annual, giant community picnic, featuring music, eclectic food, games for children, and activities of every sort and stripe. The first Unity Day drew 20,000, but over the last 29 years the event has become an institution that brings out hundreds of thousands for a day of peace, family and fun.

"Unity Day is my favorite day out of the whole year!" said Joanne Mason, who stood in the middle of a traffic island yesterday, wearing a Day-Glo sandwich board that said, "United in Diversity."

She handed out flyers promoting the Baha'i faith. Baha'i teaches that there is but one god and one race - human, Mason said. "Unity Day pulls us all together."

People set up tents and lawn chairs, and by early afternoon, the first solitary raindrops falling as warning, the smell of burning charcoal in barbecue grills wafted across the grounds. Booths lined the parkway. There were people from PAWS, dedicated to saving the city's homeless animals. The Fox Chase Cancer Center offered free cancer screenings, the city Health Department free condoms and HIV tests. There were booths run by the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, the Job Corps, and Adoptions from the Heart, the Wynnewood adoption agency.

At a tent sponsored by Mothers in Charge stood a photo collage of young people who have been lost to violence.

"The message we're spreading is, we need to step up and become a large, visible community against violence," Lynda Rubin said. "We want to stand up for our children in our neighborhoods.

Some distance away, Stephanie Bowler was selling wares from her Hip Hop Candy Shop (motto: "Bringing Sweets to the Streets").

"A lively crowd," she said.

That was before the rain started coming down in force.

One man huddled with his wife and daughter under a tent near the main stage. Water dripped off the edge of the canvas.

"Heading out?" he called to a friend who made his way through the rain, a folded lawn chair under his arm.

"We'll see what happens," the man called back.

As the rain fell, a few hardy tourists jogged up the Art Museum steps, the weather no match for their Rocky aspirations. And music poured from the speakers surrounding the main stage.

Whatever the weather, Henderson said, "It's a day for unity."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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