Unity Amidst Diversity: 1955-2000

As with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1955, Friends in Canada and in other parts of the United States were reconciled and reunited. Friends throughout North America developed a growing interest in dialogue and cooperation. The Friends World Committee for Consultation, founded in 1937 following the Friends World Conference at Swarthmore College, encouraged this development. On the other hand, there were important differences that continued to divide Friends, both within and between the various yearly meetings, including how to respond to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

For instance, in 1965 members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting attended an anti-war vigil at the Pentagon sponsored by the Interreligious Committee on Vietnam, of which Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was a member. Then, at the 1967 yearly meeting sessions, the decision was reached to support the Phoenix project to send medical supplies to North Vietnam despite the illegality of such action. The clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting resigned soon thereafter, because as a sitting federal judge he was personally and officially committed to uphold the law; other Friends likewise wrestled with the question of whether civil disobedience was an appropriate method of registering opposition to the Vietnam War.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting issued a Quaker call to action in race relations following its 1964 sessions. In that call, Friends acknowledged failure to carry out the implications of the Quaker testimony of 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. In 1966, Friends initiated a community project in Chester, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia area Friends thus were already attempting to respond to the urban crisis when they were presented with a demand for reparations payments.

In the summer of 1969, the Black Economic Development Conference confronted various religious groups, including Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, with the Black Manifesto and the demand that these groups pay reparations, given their complicity in the institutional arrangements that had disadvantaged African-Americans over the years. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting scheduled three called sessions in order to consider how it should respond to the Black Manifesto; members of the Black Economic Development Conference attended the third session. Though the yearly meeting decided to reject the demand for payment of reparations, it did establish a Minorities Economic Development Fund to support various community 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. And beginning in 1984, the yearly meeting became the object of government lawsuits resulting from its refusal to levy the salaries of its employees who did not pay the military portion of federal taxes.

Members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have confronted other social concerns. Among these have been gender roles within Friends meetings and the general society, the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender individuals, the divestment of yearly meeting funds in companies with business interests in South Africa under apartheid, the Sanctuary movement for refugees in the United States without credentials, and the AIDS crisis.

In addition to public witness regarding social issues, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting gave considerable attention in the period after reunification to “putting its own house in order.” Nearly once every generation, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has asked itself variations on the fundamental questions of how our religious society should be organized so that it serves its members well and how the finances of the yearly meeting should be handled in order to use our resources most effectively. The first question was answered with decisions to change the committee structure of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in the mid-1970s, in the mid-1990s, and again in the mid-2010s. The second question was answered with the adoption of different approaches to fund raising and budgeting, including replacing the “quota” (an assessment from the yearly meeting on monthly meetings based on the number of adult members) with a voluntary “covenant” contribution determined by the monthly meetings. Over the course of these decades, the role of yearly meeting staff changed from committee support to general provision of services largely focused on core administrative functions and support of meetings.

Since reunification in 1955, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting experienced significant growth in its associated institutions. The number of Friends schools increased, including schools for children who learn differently. Several continuing care retirement communities were formed with symbolically important grants from the yearly meeting, beginning with Foulkeways in 1967, followed by Medford Leas and Kendal in the early 1970s. The Burlington Meeting House was renovated and expanded as a conference center in the 1990s for younger Friends and families. Other recent initiatives undertaken by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting include a Spiritual Formation Program; Meeting Enrichment Services that enable meetings to deepen and strengthen the quality of their corporate worship and witness; and, since 1995, residential annual sessions that are held on a college campus for several days in the summer to provide opportunities for shared worship, fellowship and business. These efforts have helped to build a greater sense of community in the yearly meeting and in many of its constituent meetings.