Unity Amidst Diversity (1955 – )

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Friends in Canada and in New York were reconciled and reunited at about the same time as those in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. New England Yearly Meeting had already experienced this process some ten years earlier. And indeed, there was among Friends throughout North America a growing interest in dialogue and cooperation. The Friends World Committee for Consultation, which had been founded in 1937 following the Friends World Conference at Swarthmore College, encouraged this development. Even more, the Fourth World Conference of Friends held at Guilford College yielded what became known as the Faith and Life Movement, with regional and then national meetings during the 1970s and early 1980s in which all North American Yearly Meetings participated; all shared the objective of finding common ground. On the other hand, there were important differences that continued to divide Friends, both within and between the various yearly meetings, and not least how to respond to two major social and political issues of the 1960s–the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement.

The PYM News for May 1965 included a call to attend a vigil at the Pentagon sponsored by the Interreligious Committee on Vietnam, of which PYM was itself a member. Then, at the 1967 Yearly Meeting sessions, the decision was reached to support the Phoenix project which sent medical supplies to North Vietnam despite the illegality of such action. The clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting resigned his clerkship soon thereafter, because as a sitting Federal judge he was personally and officially committed to uphold the law; other Friends likewise wrestled with whether civil disobedience was an appropriate method of registering opposition to the Vietnam war.

Following its 1964 sessions Philadelphia Yearly Meeting issued `A Quaker Call to Action in Race Relations.’ In that call, Friends acknowledged their failure to apply consistently the Quaker testimony regarding human equality and advocated various steps to promote fair housing and fair employment. During the summer of 1964, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sponsored a project in Mississippi to rebuild churches and construct a local community center. Many Friends, however, felt that their efforts should be focused on the needs of disadvantaged minorities in their own geographic area. Accordingly, in 1966 Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting initiated a community action project in Chester, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Friends were thus already attempting to respond to the urban crisis when they were presented with the Black Manifesto.

In the summer of 1969, the Black Economic Development Conference confronted various religious groups, including Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, with the demand that they pay reparations, given the alleged participation or complicity of such groups in the institutional arrangements that had disadvantaged African-Americans over the years. Shortly thereafter Philadelphia Yearly Meeting scheduled three called sessions in order to consider how it should respond to the Black Manifesto. Some 27 members of the local Black Economic Development Conference attended the third session, on 31 January 1970, and stood at the front of the meetinghouse for 45 minutes, with brief speeches by three of its leaders. Though the Yearly Meeting decided to reject the demand for payment of reparations, it did establish a Minorities Economic Development Fund which allocated funds (established in part through individual contributions and in part from the Yearly Meeting endowment) to support various community action projects in the Philadelphia area, including some sponsored by the Black Economic Development Conference.

Subsequently, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting wrestled with other manifestations of the ongoing problems of race relations and war. In the spring of 1978, it attempted to establish a `Friendly Presence’ in West Philadelphia to encourage nonviolent resolution of the growing conflict between MOVE, a local commune, and the city of Philadelphia. In 1984 and again in 1988, the Yearly Meeting became the object of an IRS suit resulting from its refusal to levy the salary of one of its employees who did not pay the military portion of federal taxes.

The members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have confronted other social concerns since 1955. Among these have been gender roles within monthly meetings and the general society, the rights of homosexuals, the investment of Yearly Meeting funds in companies with business interests in South Africa under apartheid, the Sanctuary movement for refugees in the US without credentials, the AIDS crisis, and the need for conflict resolution skills in families and schools.

Since reunification in 1955, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has experienced significant growth in its associated institutions. The number of Friends Schools has proliferated. Several life care retirement communities have been formed, beginning with Foulkeways in 1964. And the Burlington Meetinghouse has been renovated and expanded as a conference center for the increasing number of younger Friends and families.

Our Yearly Meeting had some 30,000 members in 1775, and about half that number by 1925, which were unevenly divided between two Yearly Meetings. Since then, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has continued to experience a gradual reduction in recorded membership. In 1994, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting recorded 12,100 members. Of these, about half had newly joined the Religious Society of Friends during the previous 15 years. Many of our Monthly Meetings have also experienced an influx of active attenders. A large number are young families participating in the revitalization of our First Day Schools. At this time, attenders were not included in the membership statistics of the Yearly Meeting.

Our Monthly Meetings, our Yearly Meeting and Friends institutions continue to offer a vital and active service to members, attenders and the community at large. We remain committed to a life of obedience to the Spirit, and seek to be faithful witnesses to the Truth.