Quakers are well situated to assist 'Occupy'

At the Friends center at 15th and Cherry Streets, Sarah Arent and Bryan Lang organize food for the protesters at City Hall.
At the Friends center at 15th and Cherry Streets, Sarah Arent and Bryan Lang organize food for the protesters at City Hall. (GIANNA VADINO / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 15, 2011

The American Friends Service Committee could not be better situated to help support the Occupy Philadelphia movement.

Spiritually and philosophically, the Quaker organization devoted to peace and social justice feels a natural solidarity with the hundreds of protesters camping out at City Hall.

Which is nice.

But it is on a more fundamental level - way down at the foundation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - that the committee has reached out to the high-minded masses.

It's letting them use the bathrooms.

For 150 years, the Quakers' venerable headquarters in a brick building at 15th and Cherry has opened its doors to people engaged in peaceful protest, said Patricia McBee, executive director of the Friends Center. "Women's suffrage meetings were held here, protesters involved in the antislavery movement and in the antiwar movement during Vietnam," she said. "We don't know how long this will be an occupation, but we will continue to support them as long as we can."

An estimated 35 to 40 protesters have been using the restrooms on the building's first floor since the Friends Center extended this humanitarian service Oct. 6, said Eric Erickman, who mans the front desk. Unlike some of the New York protesters who have trashed (to put it politely) the facilities at restaurants around Wall Street, the Philadelphia occupiers have been clean and respectful.

"I make it a point of smiling at them when they come in and making eye contact," Erickman said. "I think it helps."

The occupiers have also been given permission to use the center's large kitchen, which is ordinarily reserved for banquets, large meetings, and Sunday coffee hour after services.

Earlier this week, a dozen volunteers from Occupy Philly lined up along a gleaming stainless steel table, chopping mountains of tomatoes, washing lentils, and tending vats of soup and sauce simmering on the industrial-size stove.

Crushing cloves of fresh garlic with her bare palms, Caitlin Murphy said she was devoted to the cause.

"It's very complex," she said. "There's so much wrong, we're trying to find out what we can do about it. It's like an open forum."

Murphy, 21, grew up on Long Island and finished a year of college at Alfred University, south of Rochester, N.Y. She moved to Philadelphia two months ago, she said, because there were no jobs in Upstate New York, and has been working as a visual artist and a canvasser for a public-outreach group.

Her cheeks flush from the kitchen heat, Murphy looked up to see fellow protesters pushing a cart piled high with cooking oil, peanut butter, eggplant, and rice into the adjacent media room, where some members of Occupy Philly were using the computers and printers.

The space is now doubling as a pantry, said McBee, and the larder has remained full to bursting as people supporting the movement continue to donate food.

Protesters have also had access to the center's lovely, high-ceilinged, contemplative worship room, with its soothing putty-colored walls, hand-turned banisters, and simple wooden benches. Though most of the twice-daily general assemblies are held in Dilworth Plaza, during a downpour Wednesday night, 250 of the protesters moved their meeting into this space.

Because everyone associated with the movement has been so considerate and grateful, the Friends Center decided midweek to allow use of a shower in the building.

"They have to bring their own towels," said Tony Heriza, director of education outreach. On Thursday afternoon, he led a 30-minute training session for 13 Quakers who had volunteered to assist Occupy Philly protesters using the building.

He said he didn't know how long the vigil would last or how long the center could continue its open-door policy.

He lauded the movement for bringing national media attention to the vast economic disparities in the country. "There's been a different conversation because of what they're doing. ABC News reported that the 1 percent who are wealthy make 11 times more than the other 99 percent. In this recession, the average salary for the 1 percent is $1.5 million. For the 99 percent, it's $33,000."

The volunteers heaved a collective sigh and shook their heads.

Several of them, white-haired veterans of the 1960s, said they were pleased that a social-justice movement was finally getting some positive press.

The protests have also lit a fire under some dispirited Quakers, said Jody Howe, who belongs to a Friends meeting in Doylestown. "Membership in our meeting has been dropping off. People were preoccupied by the economic downturn," Howe said. "But now, finally, here is something we could do!"

Although the specific goals of this nonviolent be-in remain a little vague, the Quakers find its gist entirely copacetic.

"We felt we need to be connected to this. Nobody knows what it is yet," Heriza said. "But we should be engaged.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.


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