The Experience of Earth Quaker Action Team
While teaching at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, a couple years ago, I learned from fellow teacher Doug Gwyn that George Fox was a deep ecologist long before Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess and others crystallized that perspective for us moderns. Naess coined the term “deep ecology” in 1973, advocating a belief that the world is not a resource to be freely exploited by humans, and that the survival of any part is dependent upon the well-being of the whole.
Fox, it turns out, was also a strategist during his time in the mid-1600s, guiding his Valiant Sixty and other Friends who followed the early Christians in carrying out the Lamb’s War, a form of nonviolent resistance to hypocrisy and evil in the world. Given such cultural DNA in the genesis of Friends, it was only a matter of time before today’s Quakers would rediscover an approach to climate change that strategically uses nonviolent direct action and, on a good day, invites Spirit into the very moments of encounter.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s 2009 annual sessions was one place where Friends began to move toward this approach. That year Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy by Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver was published, providing an unflinching look at the expansive size of the climate crisis and prompting feelings of both urgency and hopelessness among PhYM Friends. When temptation to despair could be felt tugging at us during the sessions, a Friend in the body of the meeting voiced his heartfelt cry, “Show us the way!”
The way clearly needed to be bold, decisively different from the talk-and-pray-and-more-talk habit that disempowers. In the yearly meeting sessions, Friends saw that the talk-pray-talk habit needed to be replaced by the seventeenth-century Quaker style: pray and act, pray and act more boldly, give thanks and risk more by acting still more boldly. The result of the motion felt in the yearly meeting was the creation of Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT).
Early on, EQAT (pronounced as a word “equate”) took into consideration that existing Friends groups were already pursuing diverse modes of work. The organization drafted a focused mission: “to build a just and sustainable economy through nonviolent direct action.” The team grew steadily in the United States, and by 2014 had attracted Friends from Maine to Florida, California to New York. Today, the actions of EQAT are also followed on an international level, including attention from Friends in England, Australia, and Cambodia.
Above: EQAT members participating in an action at PNC Bank branch in New York City. Photos courtesy of EQAT
Quakers as Strategists
Fox famously saw a vision that included an ocean of darkness. Acknowledgment of that fact did not lead him to scatter his energy by trying to bring light to each and every place the dark ocean touched. Fox was strategic. The Lamb’s War included individual campaigns—recall the Quaker invasion of Puritan Massachusetts—in which Quaker energy was focused and directed toward a specific target (the Puritan oligarchy) in order to win a specific objective (liberating Massachusetts from religious intolerance). Similarly, EQAT remains aware of the presence of a far-reaching ocean of climate darkness while strategically choosing to work on a specific campaign with a clear target and objective.
The group chose to act in solidarity with the exploited people of Appalachia, a Friends concern since the 1930s. The Appalachian people’s suffering has been compounded by the destruction of 500 mountains, dynamited to yield the coal that accelerates climate change. Mountaintop removal leaves behind a doubled cancer rate, increased birth defects, and broken communities. Relatively privileged Quakers working as allies of working-class and poor people on a common issue was key in our strategy.
Helping to end mountaintop removal coal mining in the Appalachia region is our achievable goal. A majority of Americans support actions related to this goal, as found by two polls conducted in 2011 (one a national poll by CNN and the other asking only residents of coal-mining states). President Barack Obama also became a strong ally, and when he was targeted by the coal industry, more activists emerged to support him. Dozens of mountains have reportedly been saved under his watch.
Successful campaigns give people hope, a truth that underscores the importance of having an achievable goal. We were aware of widespread despair among Friends and others, leading to endless talk-fests and token actions. A London Quaker once told me his observation of Quaker witness: “stand up to be counted and then sit down so you don’t rock the boat.”
The next step in a strategic campaign is to identify a specific target: an individual or group that needs to change its wrong-headed policy in order for our goal to be advanced. For early Friends combating religious intolerance, it was the oligarchy that ran Massachusetts. For EQAT, it is PNC Bank, a leading financier of mountaintop removal coal mining that has bragged about its Quaker roots and branded itself “a green bank.” In 2010, we sat down with the regional president of PNC and explained to him how we expect PNC to take responsibility for climate change and people’s lives in Appalachia. He thanked us for sharing. That same day we began our series of nonviolent actions at PNC-sponsored events.
Stories of Action and Spirit
In recent years EQAT has been attending PNC’s annual shareholders meetings as another opportunity to voice our concerns. By 2013, we realized our witness could go beyond the rules of decorum and be more bold, more in the style of early Friends. Along with a representative from Appalachia, 17 of us entered the well-appointed auditorium for the annual meeting. We spaced ourselves randomly among the shareholders, then settled into the Quaker silence that is such a welcome part of any meeting for worship for business. Once the shareholders meeting got underway, our own Quaker meeting for worship surfaced. As moved, EQAT members rose and spoke to our own agenda opposing mountaintop removal, even while PNC shareholders attempted to pursue their own.
The two meetings—bank and Quaker—unfolded simultaneously in the same space until PNC’s chief executive abruptly threw up his hands in frustration and said, “This meeting’s adjourned.” EQAT member Ingrid Lakey began to sing “This Little Light of Mine,” and other members joined her in song. The moment was felt to be in homage to the still-inspirational Civil Rights Movement.
As we moved toward the exits with the other shareholders, still singing, I observed that the police and security personnel in the room far outnumbered EQAT members. I also noticed that some of the regular shareholders had joined us in the singing.
In October 2013, EQAT returned to PNC’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the aid of local Friends and young people participating in the Power Shift conference, a project of the youth-led Energy Action Coalition, which was taking place nearby. The combined forces held the largest day of bank branch actions in U.S. history: 16 actions in one day.
In the last action of the day, some EQAT members, including me, were led to risk arrest. The action took place in a tall office building, whose large, first-floor lobby contained a PNC Bank branch. The bank locked its doors, and seven of us stood in the lobby holding enlarged photos of devastated spots in Appalachia—a move considered to be trespassing on PNC’s property without permission. We risked arrest to tell the truth about PNC’s practice of investing depositors’ money in mountaintop removal.
The lobby filled up with customers, curious people from upstairs offices, and police officers. EQAT member Michael Gagne stood on a box, explained our motivation to the crowd, and invited people to reflect with us when we began silent prayer. After repeated explanations of what we were about to do, Michael opened a season of prayer, and a hush fell over the entire crowd. Even police and security guards respected the silence. Those of us about to be arrested found ourselves so moved by Spirit that tears were streaming down our faces, and when I looked across the lobby I noticed some bystanders also in tears. Then Michael began singing, with the rest of us joining in, “This Little Light of Mine.” Shortly after, police began the process of arrest.
EQAT continues to experiment with the process of inviting spiritual depth into the midst of confrontation. Non-Friends among us have found their own spiritual lives refreshed by such frank reliance on Spirit. The practice also seems to broaden the typical age range of our actions (18 to 85), strengthening our movement.
In 2014 the national movement against the Keystone XL Pipeline reached out to EQAT, asking us to organize a civil disobedience action in Philadelphia at a critical point when it was feared that President Obama was considering approval of the pipeline. When EQAT’s clerk, Eileen Flanagan, called for silence among the 200 people blocking the doors of a federal building, she tested the challenge of communication among activists spread across a plaza spanning the area of a city block.
I was with a crowd on the other end of the plaza from Eileen. First the activists who were risking arrest at Eileen’s end of the plaza began the prayerful silence. Those at the central entrance door followed. When the silence reached our end, it felt like a palpable wave crossing over the cobblestones of the plaza. A police officer respectfully turned off his radio.
No Cross, No Crown
The title of William Penn’s 1669 book, No Cross, No Crown, reminds us that Friends locked into worldly comfort are not yet ready to address climate justice. As a result of carrying out this work, EQAT members have found themselves trussed in plastic handcuffs; sleeping on cold, stone floors of jail cells; and paying fines they can’t easily afford. One Friend required months of physical therapy to recover from ill treatment by an officer. EQAT has built a reputation of providing legal, spiritual, and emotional support for our members who risk arrest. As early Friends knew, the love of God becomes incarnated through community.
We also know that governmental and corporate authorities sometimes defend the practice of defiling the earth with far greater violence than our group has yet experienced. Quakerism was not organized for the faint-hearted to remain permanently in that condition, and the good news is that courage has a learning curve. Leaning on Spirit has enabled EQAT members to inspire each other to become bolder than before.
Bystanders often comment that they see joy on our faces. That’s because at last our actions are in alignment with our understanding of just how grave the environmental crisis is. Alignment produces joy, while avoidance promotes hopelessness. Being in community with risk-taking Friends, everyone can join Fox in experiencing the ocean of darkness and the ocean of light that overcomes it.