Quaker House at the United Nations

Imagine you are in the living room of your home. Now imagine the same scene, except that in addition to you, the room is filled with diplomats from around the world who represent their countries at the United Nations. I don’t have to imagine this —I see it on a regular basis in the living room of Quaker House in New York City. But it’s not only diplomats that come. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations, staff of the UN Secretariat, people from the private sector, and representatives of First Nations also come to meet, gather information, and discuss issues before the UN, right there in our living room.

I live with Jack Patterson, my husband and co-director of the Quaker United Nations Office in New York, along with our daughter, two dogs, and a cat, in Quaker House, a four-story brownstone in the heart of the district known as "Turtle Bay." Quaker House is a short walk from the Quaker UN Office—located directly across the street from the UN—but far enough to be out of the public eye and to allow for a break from the formal atmosphere of the UN.

Over 50 years ago, Quakers began their work at the UN from an apartment near the UN buildings. In 1953, a small group of donors got together to determine how to create a permanent Quaker presence at the UN, and the result was Quaker House. A small brass plaque identifies the building, which is almost indistinguishable from the other row houses on the block.

The first floor of the house holds a small office, an accessible bathroom, an elevator, and an apartment used to house visiting Friends who are doing work at the UN. The second floor is the main program floor that includes a living room, dining room, and kitchen. The third and fourth floors are our living space. In back of the house is a beautiful communal garden that stretches the length of the block from 2nd to 3rd Avenues.

E.B. White, a former resident of the block, set his famous children’s story, Stuart Little, in the garden behind Quaker House. In 1949 he wrote a prophetic book, Here is New York, on war coming to the United States and to New York in particular:

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

As the World Trade Center towers fell in 2001 and the subways, bridges, and tunnels closed, the staff of QUNO gathered in the living room of Quaker House to comfort one another and to watch the unfolding horror. Being together in a place of peace was a great comfort to us all in those hours.

Quaker House is used for meetings by the staff of the Quaker UN Office; these meetings usually take place during the lunch hours of the UN, between one and three. At a normal diplomatic luncheon meeting at the UN people sit around tables, food is served in a very formal manner, and people talk. We are looking for more than this; we want people to get to know one another on a personal level. We ask people to come to the buffet table and get their own lunches. They sit on chairs or couches and juggle their plates on their laps or eat from TV trays. Perhaps they don’t know the person they are sitting next to because there are no preassigned seats, and so they strike up a conversation. Food is always vegetarian and nondairy to meet the diverse dietary needs of the participants, and it is always delicious—food is a great lubricant of the wheels of conversation.

A brief presentation usually begins the discussion, and then people talk about the subject at hand, not from a prepared document, but as human beings representing their countries. We know that we are getting somewhere in the negotiating process when we hear guests say, "Well, this is my personal opinion, but . . . " or, "Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but . . ." or, "We couldn’t talk about this on the floor of the UN." Conversation begins to loosen up. People begin to see one another as human beings instead of solely as representatives of countries, and relationships develop. From relationships, genuine dialogue can emerge.

One of the most important things we do at QUNO is to build relationships. This means a lot of behind-the-scenes work, meeting with individuals before we bring them together at Quaker House. Quakers Sam and Muriel Levering worked for 20 years to create and negotiate the Law of the Seas Treaty, and much of this work was done in small meetings around the Quaker House dining room table. In 1957, Quaker House provided a venue for white South African diplomats to meet with diplomats from black African countries. After the death of Dag Hammarskjold, QUNO was invited to organize a private meeting of ambassadors to discuss the appointment of a new Secretary-General for the UN. Quaker House was the site of organizational meetings for the first NGO Forum during a world conference on the Environment held in Rio. Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemalan human rights activist, addressed diplomats in Quaker House in 1986. Critical breakthroughs were made on the conference platform for the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing during a lunch meeting at the house. More recently, a launch for the study "The Voices of Girl Child Soldiers" was held with diplomats, NGOs, and the media attending. The first meeting of the Planning Bureau for the Mon-terrey Conference on Financing for Development took place at Quaker House, as did meetings leading up to Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report on Conflict Prevention.

History has been made inside the walls of Quaker House, and if we, the staff of QUNO, have anything to say about it, this pattern will continue. We often remind ourselves that we stand on the shoulders of giants—the representatives who have come before us and have paved the road to the UN. Quaker House is truly a treasure that the Quaker community holds. Jack and I have been, and continue to be, extremely fortunate to represent Friends in this way, and we are blessed to reside in a home dedicated to peace and built on the foundation of the testimonies of Quakerism.