It was the Sunday morning before the Occupy movement’s first national gathering was scheduled to assemble in Philadelphia. After meeting for worship, the meeting’s Standing Committee announced that for the next week, the meetinghouse would only be open to tourists. Despite the presence of Occupiers in the city, we would close the gates to the meetinghouse and its grounds after the building was closed and before our staff went home for the night. We would begin this policy while the Occupiers were in Philadelphia during the upcoming Fourth of July 2012 weekend. The reason given for this policy was the yearly meeting’s lack of financial resources, which prevented us from repeating the generosity offered to Occupy during the previous year.
I remember trying to explain to a new member, as we climbed the stairs together after worship, why our meeting didn’t have the resources to keep the meetinghouse open. I could tell she was not pleased with this explanation. I went on to a scheduled meeting, while she continued to an adult education class. I later learned that this new member spoke up as the session to voice her upset that we were going to close our gates to the Occupiers. The Friends present were moved by her and realized that they too were also upset. The decision to close the gates seemed contrary to our testimonies and to what we are about as Friends. I went home after my separate meeting, unaware of this outpouring of concern and energy.
The next few days were a buzz of emails, telephone calls, and informal face-to-face meetings among members and some attenders. I received several proposals and many questions about how we could respond in a way more consistent with our values. I remember thinking, ‘doesn’t it take too long, maybe months, even years, to make all the decisions necessary to do this in a Friends’ Way?’ We knew that we didn’t have the time to organize a called meeting for business. Instead we decided the Peace and Social Concerns Committee would appoint a temporary subcommittee to make decisions through a consistent, timely, and disciplined commitment to Quaker process. They would reach out to committee members and others through informal meetings, direct phone calls, and emails. We discussed potential situations and how we would respond to the unexpected in a way consistent with our Quaker practice. We talked about offering our meeting’s parking lot as a refuge and sacred space. By the end of the week, we had just 24 hours to put together a proposal acceptable to Arch Street’s Standing Committee, which manages the meetinghouse and property for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
One of the many scenarios we talked about was what we would do if the police forced the Occupiers to leave their protest encampment. Could we offer to them our grounds as a refuge, inviting them in as our guests to defuse a potentially explosive situation? Once on our grounds, what could we do if hired provocateurs excited violence? What if someone drank alcohol or used drugs on our property? What if they used the building or grounds in a profane way and not as a sacred place? What if they acted in a manner contrary to who we are as Quakers? Our fears seemed endless. We agreed we couldn’t foresee all possible negative outcomes. But we would work together as a meeting to provide a safe place and a refuge, and to focus on our best Quaker practice.
We did agree to a set of rules in a proposal that we could use to develop what we would offer to the Occupiers. As an example, the meeting member in charge at any time could enforce our rules by asking the rulebreakers to leave our property. I was surprised, during the forming of this proposal, at how faithful our members were to the spirit of our Quaker process. This was consuming but essential work, made more stressful by tight deadlines and many necessary phone calls and meetings.
Our proposal developed through continuing exchanges. My emails proliferated. My drop box sagged. Our vision was constantly changing, but improving. This experience was full of surprises. Even now, I am amazed we were able to unite behind one proposal. And thus, the first lesson I learned was that to reach our best, we had to trust each other under pressure and commit ourselves completely to our Quaker process.
A second lesson we learned during this experience was the importance of ensuring that our Quaker process would lead to quality decisions. By quality, I mean that the meeting members, not just the clerk, agree that the issue is important to them and to their leadings. In this Occupy situation, how did I sense that the members felt that this effort was important? My answer was humbling: through the member’s participation, or practice, to carry out our decisions. The level of involvement quickly expanded to other members after that first meeting on Sunday, and grew in energy and scope as the days passed and more members joined the effort to make decisions in a timely manner. The subcommittee worked hard to devise a schedule so that a “member in charge” was present on site around the clock for the six days that our guests would be with us.
The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Arch Street Standing Committee accepted our proposal after several days of discussion. The meeting’s subcommittee wrote a letter to the police and others at the last moment (Friday afternoon)—but before our guests arrived—which I signed. It authorized Occupiers to encamp in our parking lot as a refuge and to use it as a calming and settling experience. This unexpectedly occurred on Saturday night. We later learned that police had expelled the Occupiers from their protest site and arrived in our refuge by Sunday morning. As we gathered for worship, we were surprised to find the parking lot filled with strange cars, vans, and trucks—and lots of Occupiers. Through the course of the following days, during many shifts, our members participated in overseeing our agreement that this was a worship place. Some of the Occupiers actually asked to worship with us.
A part of this second lesson was talking with and sharing expectations with individual members and Occupiers. I found the Occupiers a diverse group with differing means, outlooks, and views, and with varying resources and capacities. I enjoyed listening to them, and they listened to us. At the same time I was surprised not just by the scope, but by the intensity of our meeting’s involvement with individual members of Occupy, and the sense of the meeting that this was an important spiritual challenge. Through its participation our meeting demonstrated that this was an important decision we had made.
The third lesson for me, as clerk, is the importance of nurturing our members’ gifts and talents. This leadership flowed naturally from each participant, from our newest member to our more weighty Friends—including the clerk who was a willing, if not an amazed passenger—and then on to yearly meeting. After the Occupiers left for New York City, I went around to our community members to recognize their many contributions. They replied, again and again, that it wasn’t about them: “Robert, don’t you get it, this was the meeting” was the shared refrain.
This spiritual energy brought us together to meet an extraordinary event. We may have helped the Occupiers—I think we did—but we also ended up reaching out to each other. We became stronger as a meeting because we nurtured and responded to each others’ gifts and talents. Our meetings can develop our capacity to use Quaker process widely, and we can nurture our members in their practice of faith, expecting God in each of us.