Sidewalk Worship

For Quakers, 2003 was a year of protest and political activism. Understandably, the vast majority of it focused on events in Iraq. But in looking back on the years of war and occupation, I also found myself drawn to the memory of another event—the death of Rachel Corrie, the courageous young activist from the State of Washington who tragically lost her life in a confrontation with an Israeli Army bulldozer in Gaza on March 16, 2003.

I recently took out a journal entry I recorded after a vigil held for Rachel Corrie in San Francisco the day after her death. In it I reconnected with the spiritual quickening I experienced at that sidewalk vigil.

So I offer this account as an example of one Quaker’s fledgling steps on a journey of spiritual activism. And I offer it as a pledge of remembrance and respect for the sacrifice made by this young woman and in recognition of how, even at a distance, a life courageously and faithfully lived can reverberate in the souls of others.

March 17, 2003: I awoke to pictures in the San Francisco Chronicle of a young woman in a bright red jacket standing in front of a line of houses in Gaza. She had a bullhorn to her mouth pointed in the direction of a sinister-looking machine—an Israeli armored bulldozer. The accompanying article told of how the bulldozer operator, for whatever reason, failed to stop and somehow this activist, Rachel Corrie, had failed to get out of its way in time. She was covered by earth pushed up by the bulldozer’s massive steel blade and run over twice by the advancing, and then retreating, caterpillar tracks. Amazingly, she was dug out of the ground still alive and rushed to a Palestinian hospital, but she died soon after of massive internal injuries.

This story felt close to me—a young woman from the Pacific Northwest, the same part of the country I’d hailed from, and a young activist so similar to the Quaker peacemakers I know, worry about, and pray for.

Later in the day I heard on the radio of a gathering planned for 5 pm at the Israeli Consulate, so I rode the N Judah streetcar headed for downtown San Francisco. The consulate is in a modern high rise in the San Francisco financial district, and Montgomery Street is one of those steel-and-concrete urban canyons found in too many of our large cities. Reaching downtown, I got off the streetcar and headed up Montgomery against a stream of homeward-bound commuters. After a few blocks I came upon a crowd in front of the skyscraper housing the Israeli consulate many floors above.

On the sidewalk and spilling partly into the street were 100 or so people of all walks of life and with many different takes on the whys and the what nows of Rachel Corrie’s death: friends of Rachel offering speeches of remembrance ("Thank you for your courage, Rachel"); speeches against the occupation of Palestine, against the impending Iraqi war, against U.S. aid to Israel; signs condemning Caterpillar Tractors and capitalism; activists overheard complaining that a crowd gathers for the death of a blonde U.S. college girl but not for the thousands of Palestinians who died before her; pictures of the last moments of Rachel’s life—the most shocking one of her on the ground in the tracks of the retreating bulldozer, her head cradled in the arms of a fellow protestor as blood drips from the corner of her mouth and her vacant eyes stare skyward; a brief verbal confrontation erupting with counter-protesters across the street ("Shame on you . . . traitors . . . nuke ’em all"); TV news cameras, bullhorns, police motorcycles, and buses growling by, all mixing in with shouts, claps, and conversations.

Toward the end of the program one of the organizers asks for a moment of silence. Even with the assistance of a bullhorn he is hard to hear or pay attention to with all that is going on. Little silence ensues, and after only a minute or so, the bullhorn in another speaker’s hands comes back to life.

That was the scene. I was feeling shock, sadness, guilt, and despair in that moment. All this energy and activity wasn’t what I needed—or what I felt this young woman’s soul needed. Somehow this vigil-turned-political-protest wasn’t feeling like the place for me to be.

But that feeling disappeared with the realization that what I wanted to do was stay and worship. I felt a sudden need to try to hold a sacred space for Rachel Corrie—for all the courageous peacemakers in the world—right then and there on the sidewalk. I turned to the other Quaker I’d recognized in the crowd and asked if he wanted to worship in front of the impromptu shrine of flowers and blown-out candles near the front of the crowd. This Friend said he wished he could, but was quite chilled, late for another event, and had to leave.

I had my wool on so the cold wasn’t an issue for me and I was needed nowhere else. There was still a large crowd standing around, connecting, laughing, crying. I hesitated for a moment as I remembered John Punshon’s comment at a Friends General Conference Gathering: "A solitary Quaker is an oxymoron." Should I sit down on the sidewalk and worship alone? Did I have any chance of holding a space for silence in this antithesis of a meetinghouse worship room?

But it came to me that I could pray, and that somehow I wasn’t going to be alone. I was given a sense that my own inner silence and intent might outweigh the cacophony of the moment. I moved forward.

Maneuvering through the crowd, I sat down on the sidewalk next to the flower bouquets and protest signs ("We thought we had an agreement that they weren’t going to kill us"). I took out my small aluminum-encased candle lantern, fresh from use the previous night at the Iraq War protest in front of City Hall. Struggling a bit with the wind, I got the candle lit and placed it in front of my crossed legs.

I closed my eyes and began to pray. More precisely, I started to look for this woman’s soul, for her eternal essence somewhere, maybe even here amidst all that was going on. As my concentration deepened, the street noise and the conversations and the crinkling of the cellophane wrapping the flowers faded into white noise—the sound of an urban river rushing through the Montgomery Street Canyon.

For the first ten minutes I went unnoticed except when someone stumbled around me. I had my head down and my eyes remained closed. As I was centering, searching, and listening, I felt a new presence. I looked up.

On the other side of the lantern another soul had joined me on the sidewalk: a woman was facing me with her head bowed. After a few minutes she started gently crying. She dabbed her eyes with a wadded up tissue. She had a young face and blonde hair. She looked to be about the same age as Rachel. Yes, she looked like the "before" pictures of Rachel.

For some time we shared this sacred spot on the concrete, candle flame at its center and enclosed by a forest of legs. After a half hour she moved to leave. We met one another’s gaze, clasped hands, and she said, "Thank you for this." I replied, "Thank you, friend." Nothing else was said. She stood, turned, and disappeared from my sight.

My focus came back to the lantern my hands were cupping around in an attempt to warm my fingers. The crowd by now had started to disperse. Maybe a half dozen or so people were still milling around, discussing the politics of Palestine and trying to figure out which flowers to leave and whether the signs could be reused elsewhere. The vigil was ending, but I wasn’t released from my spot on the sidewalk.

As the final few folks moved to go, one of them bent down next to me and asked, "Who are you? Are you with the Solidarity Movement? Did you know Rachel?" I responded that I was a Quaker and though I didn’t know Rachel, I was praying for her and for other peacemakers I knew. "A Quaker?" "Yes," I responded. "Really? . . . Hmmm, good, good for you. . . . Thank you."

And then it was just the lantern and me. By now the sun had fallen behind Telegraph Hill and the cold and shadows had deepened. The street and sidewalk traffic had thinned considerably as it was past rush hour and the financial district is not a place people hang around any longer than their jobs demand. The wind was picking up, but the flame was well protected so I sat and kept praying.

Now and then individuals or small groups of people would walk by headed elsewhere. Their conversations seemed to die down as they passed in front of me and the small candle-lit shrine. A few paused to read the signs and look at the pictures ("Oh, yes, this is for the girl who tried to stop the bulldozer"). A couple of times the building guard looked around the corner to check, I imagine, if anyone was still there, and upon seeing me he’d go back inside the lobby.

I’d sat "alone" for 20 minutes, I think, before a young man rode up on a bicycle. He stopped in front of me. No words were exchanged as he looked around. He got off his bike and locked it to the railing behind the small marble planter box that was serving as the platform for the makeshift shrine. He sat down a ways behind me. I could not see him but I felt accompanied by him in the silence.

I returned my attention to the lantern. Its flame was still strong, but I began to consider how much longer the candle would last—how much longer I would last. I’d been sitting cross-legged on the cement for more than an hour. Surprisingly, my 40-something body wasn’t complaining or even very cold. Maybe I should stay until the candle burnt out? Maybe I should stay all night and be there when the consulate staff returned? Maybe I should just wait for my current cyclist friend to leave and then I could as well? Somewhat uncharacteristically, I re-centered and went back into prayer and asked Spirit to instruct me.

Another half hour passed and it came to me that this wasn’t about setting an endurance record. It was about holding sacred space for Spirit—and for Rachel—and that the amount of time it was held wasn’t really the issue. That came, as well as a sense of my responsibility to the class I was teaching tomorrow, and the lecture I’d still not written. I felt my body and mind ease. I sat for another few minutes and then prepared to leave. I said a final prayer for Rachel Corrie, bent forward, and blew out the candle.

Rising to my feet and turning to walk away, I saw the cyclist still there with his head bowed. I took a few steps away, but then stopped and turned back towards him and the shrine. I was confused about whether I was really supposed to go.

As I stood pondering what to do, lantern dangling from my hand, two women approached from across the street. They came up and stood where moments before I’d been seated in prayer. Scarves covered their heads and they spoke softly to one another in what sounded like Arabic. They read the signs and looked at the pictures.

And then they started to straighten things up—rearranging the flowers and working to secure the signs and pictures from the wind. I felt as if I was watching women coming to prepare a body for burial, or family members coming to tend to a gravesite. And with that act of care and respect, I knew that I had been released.

I went over to my fellow friend in prayer. He looked up and we shook hands. He, too, seemed to be Rachel’s age. I asked him if he knew her. He said no, but that he was a graduate of the same college (Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington) and was a friend of friends. I shared my sorrow about her death and my respect for her courage. He shared his surprise that it hadn’t happened before ("The settlers had already shot at their feet"). I nodded my agreement and said, "Spirit will hold her." He nodded his agreement and closed his eyes as he again lowered his head. I turned and headed down Montgomery towards the N Judah streetcar and home.

I was moved to sit in prayer that chilly March evening for Rachel Corrie and because of the aching in my own soul. I wasn’t thinking about how holding that public, sacred space might affect others. Nor was I thinking about how that experience would stay with and change me. Public worship was something the early Quakers were oft and eager to do. It is a gift I feel today’s Quakers should offer the world, offer ourselves—now more than ever.
This article originally appeared in Friends Bulletin, May 2004, and is reprinted with permission.

John Helding

John Helding is a member of San Francisco (Calif.) Meeting, currently sojourning with Lopez Island (Wash.) Worship Group. He is a group facilitator and interpersonal communications teacher in places ranging from the California State Prison System (Alternatives to Violence Project) to Stanford Business School.