Gulf victory fails to change Quakers' course WAR IN THE GULF

March 11, 1991|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

As wars come and go, Quaker dedication to the ways of peace stays on course.

At North Baltimore's Homewood Friends Meeting, Vera Shank shook her head, smiling, when asked if the Persian Gulf war had changed her mind about pacifism. "Peace is still the way. Peace is the only answer," she said.

But tasks change. For local members of the Society of Friends -- the Quakers -- the emphasis on vigils and demonstrations urging negotiation as an alternative to war in the Middle East has shifted to practical humanitarian aid.

An upstairs room at the Homewood meetinghouse, 3107 N. Charles St., was filling with clothing donated for shipment to the needy in the gulf area via Philadelphia. "This is our job now, to pick up where the war left off," Ms. Shank said. "It's always like this. Wars leave refugees."

She has been a Homewood member for more than 50 years. She recalled similar clothing collections there after World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

"Sometimes we sew a button here or there, do a little bit of mending," she said. "But we have to get it out fast. We're asking people to give blankets, infants' clothing, light clothing for men and women that's already cleaned, mended, ready to wear."

A truck left the meetinghouse March 2 with 20 duffel bags tightly packed with donated clothes. The next truckload from Homewood is due in Philadelphia today.

Ms. Shank said the American Friends Service Committee shipping center there has alerted Baltimore's Quakers that the most urgent need among gulf war refugees is for warm clothing for infants and small children, cloth diapers and personal hygiene kits.

The kits, she said, must contain a small bath towel, a new bar of soap, a new toothbrush, a new comb or hairbrush and a small, sturdy plastic zip bag or soap dish.

Outside the meetinghouse, a hand-lettered sign still hangs over the front door urging, "Take the Risks of Peace." But a more controversial banner has joined Homewood's collection of old ones. It says: "Nobody Wins a War. Nobody."

Gary Gillespie said this sign made its first appearance during a peace vigil on Charles Street Feb. 28 at the height of the euphoria over the cease-fire and was not well-received.

"It was like we rained on their parade," said Mr. Gillespie, chief organizer of dozens of quiet anti-war demonstrations held at Homewood since August. "People yelled and jeered and gave us the finger." The reaction was in marked contrast to the predominantly friendly response from passing motorists throughout the preceding months, he said.

But the next day, the apparent hostility from passers-by had subsided, although Homewood's demonstrators continued to hold their "Nobody Wins a War" sign aloft. Again, during a peace vigil in front of the meetinghouse March 4, no negative reaction to the sign was noticed.

"Maybe the message began to sink in," Mr. Gillespie said.

As for himself, the Persian Gulf crisis has resolved any doubts he had about pacifism and the futility of armed conflict. He said, "I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the massive loss of life caused by this war."

While he said he understood flag-waving "as a symbol to pull people together, my vision of patriotism is the people and the land." He deplored the effects of the armed attacks on Iraq and Kuwait, on Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Baltimore's Quakers were feeling the war's effects during its final days in other ways. Both the Stony Run Friends Meeting at 5116 N. Charles St. and the Homewood Friends Meeting recorded increased attendance attributed to anguish over the Middle East hostilities.

But the serenity of the Friends' Sunday worship was disturbed, Quakers explained, when the usual long pauses for silent prayer were shattered by people "popping up" from the benches in quick succession to make impassioned statements denouncing the war.

Barbara Platt, who is on the Stony Run staff, said that both attendance and telephoned inquiries from non-Quakers increased after the Persian Gulf crisis heated up toward the end of last year.

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