Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the 15th Annual Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation with members from my Quaker Meeting, and it was an enjoyable experience. This country could use one of these on a daily basis.
The theme for the walk this year was “Recognizing the One in All of Us.” This is appropriate for many reasons, in and out of religions.
Although this is something that has been going on for 15 years, it was my first, but certainly not my last. There is just something fulfilling about being surrounded by a group of like-minded folks that energizes me in a way I cannot put into words.
We started our journey at the Arch Street Meeting House in old city Philadelphia. The Meeting room was filled with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Baha’i, secular humanists, and others who share the values of peace and justice. We sat in silence, as we do in Quaker tradition before heading to the streets.
Our first stop was the Society Hill Synagogue where we were greeted by members lining the entrance. Musicians were playing inside that filled the room with joy. The Rabbi welcomed all of us with prayer and a dash of humor. We then enjoyed a musical prayer performed by the Philadelphia Sikh Society youth group. A reading by Philadelphia Youth Poet Laurite, Husna Hashim, that rose the room to their feet in applause, and a Recitation from the Qu’ran by Muhammed Shehata from the Al Aqsa Islamic Society, which thankfully was translated for all of us to interpret. Notice the Rabbi & the Muslim embracing in the background. Who would have known ….
All throughout the walk, we were encouraged to use this opportunity to strike up a conversation with someone outside of our comfort zone and LEARN. Questions like “does your turban come pre-wrapped or do you do it yourself?” were not off limits.
Just in case you were wondering they are not pre-wrapped and there are YouTube videos for guidance. According to his smile, I would say he was relieved at the lightness of my question.
Once we left the Synagogue, we made our way back to the street and headed out for a 60-minute walk to Al Aqsa Mosque. We were greeted by the sounds of music compliments of a woman DJ wearing a hijab and Beats by Dre headphones. Something you don’t see every day.
The parameter of the facility was lined with the World Peace ballons in the above photo. It was indeed a site to witness. The air was consumed by the fragrance of dinner being made by the members of the Mosque, and dessert prepared by the Sikh community for all of us to share. All I can say is …. YUM!
As we were all settling in I took a moment to look around, I mean really look around at the oneness surrounding me.
I watched the men carrying out trays of food, and the women were not only directing where everything needed to go, but they were also getting annoyed if the men did not do it accordingly. Every woman reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about.
The children were running around excited to have company in their “home.”Look what I can do! Look at me! Watch this! Free entertainment.
I realized that the ONE woman in our lives who insists you try her dish over the everyday meals made by the other women even though your plate is already overflowing exists in EVERY culture. You know who you are ladies.
This was when I understood that the core ingredient to solving World Peace is FOOD. We really need to stop overthinking, start cooking and
Enjoy the Ride!
I came across this amazing story 3 years ago and believe it should shared yet again. These men and their non-violent sacrifices should be recognized for their service at a time of war and their lifetime commitment to continue that service right here at home.
With Memorial Day approaching I would like give a well deserved nod to a group of very brave men. We rarely hear about this peaceful group, especially on holidays that memorialize war heroes, but they are heroes too. The Conscientious Objectors or CO’s as they were better known, provided services that were not combative. Non-combative rolls served this country long after the dust of the war had settled.
In my personal search for “something more” I began attending a Quaker Meeting in my area. After years of attending regularly I proudly made it official and became a Quaker. It was among this group where I first learned about these very brave peacemakers. Being a pacifist in a country that prides itself on war could not be easy, but that’s how Quakers roll. Throughout history they stood for unpopular injustices without batting an eye.
This story touched me for many reasons, but it hit home since I was raised in a neighborhood that literally sits in the backyard of this hospital. I grew up looking at the shells of these abandon buildings. They were a constant reminder of the horrors that took place.
Please take a minute to read this well written story by Joseph Shapiro. He brings the works of these very brave men and the POWER of PEACE to life. Click below to see and hear the moving work of these men. Their quiet works should be an inspiration to us all.
WWII Pacifists Exposed Mental Ward Horrors
In September of 1942, Warren Sawyer, a 23-year-old conscientious objector, reported for his volunteer assignment as an attendant at a state mental hospital. The young Quaker was one of thousands of pacifists who had refused to fight and instead were assigned to work in places few outsiders got to see — places like Philadelphia State Hospital, best known as Byberry.
“Byberry’s the last stop on the bus here in Philadelphia,” Sawyer recalls. “Any young man on the bus, other people knew that we were COs working at the hospital. And they’d make different kinds of remarks, supposedly talking to each other, but hoping that we hear. And you know: ‘Yellowbellies, slackers.’ ”
Those slurs were harsh. But not nearly as harsh as what awaited the young men inside the gates of the chaotic and overcrowded hospital for people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.
The young pacifists would be changed by what they saw in places like Byberry, and then become a force for change themselves.
Serving The Country At Home
Ten million men were drafted into the military during World War II. But more than 40,000 refused to go to war. These conscientious objectors came from more than 100 religions. But most were from the traditional peace churches: people from the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers. Still, they wanted to serve their country. Many did serve in the military in noncombatant roles. Others did alternative service, like the 3,000 who were assigned to 62 state mental hospitals around the country.
“Well, I called them hellholes,” says Sawyer. “Terribly overcrowded. All we did and all we could do was just custodial care. Because when you have three men taking care of 350 incontinent patients with everything all over the floor, feces and urine and all that kind of thing.”
The smell got into his clothes and was so strong that even after he washed them, the smell lingered. “In the incontinent ward,” he says, “it took a few weeks before you got used to eating supper with the smell all through your clothes and everything.”
The “incontinent ward” was what the men called A Building. It was a large open room with a concrete slab for a floor. There were no chairs. There were no activities, no therapy, not even a radio to listen to. So hundreds of men — most of them naked — walked about aimlessly or hunched on the floor and huddled against the filthy bare walls.
Nearby was B Building; it was called the “violent ward” or the “death house,” because angry men sometimes violently attacked one another. In one room, rows and rows of men were strapped and shackled to their bed frames.
Sawyer wrote frequent letters home, and those letters provide some of the best surviving historical record of the conditions in those grim wards and of the work of the conscientious objectors at Byberry.
“It was in B Building, the death house,” he started in a letter written in September 1944 that explained one day of violence. “Due to the shortage of cuffs and straps and restraint locks that has prevailed in B Building for some time, one of the patients was able to get himself loose. He was a very dangerous fellow. He only had one cuff and strap on and he got out. He had a spoon that had been broken off at the end and was sharpened almost to a knife edge.”
“After he was loose, he went to another patient and jabbed him in the side of the neck on top of his shoulder and drove the spoon down about one inch deep, just missing the jugular vein.”
“Our work was to try to get attendants to realize these were ordinary people with a little problem and they needed help,” says John Bartholomew.
Working in such a brutal and chaotic place tested the men’s own ideals of nonviolence.
“But I found out there, the difference between violence and force,” says Hartman, who at the time was a young Methodist. “We used force. We’d grab a man and we’d pin him. And then maybe get a nurse if we could to give him a shot. But we didn’t use violence. And the difference was: It wasn’t unusual next day for the patient to come around and thank us for not using violence when we could have.”
There was lots of violence at Byberry. Many of the regular attendants were drunks who’d get fired at one state hospital and just move on to a job at the next. Some kept control by hitting patients with things like sawed-off broom handles or a rubber hose filled with buckshot.
Hartman says the patients came to appreciate the gentler manner of the conscientious objectors. “Cause they knew, the regular attendants, one of their tricks was to use a wet towel and put it around their neck and squeeze it. It, of course, choked them awful, but it didn’t make any mark on them so no state inspector could catch up with them,” he says.
Making A Lasting Impact
Still, the young pacifists worried that it wasn’t enough simply to show kindness. With the end of the war nearing, the conscientious objectors soon would be gone, but they didn’t want to leave behind a place where untrained and underpaid attendants ruled patients by brutality and violence.
So the conscientious objectors came up with a daring plan. Sawyer wrote about it in one of his letters home:
“We are working on a carefully laid out plan to blow this place open in two months,” he wrote. In secret, they went to newspapers, with details of the scandal inside the institution. “If we COs do nothing about this place to improve it,” Sawyer continued, “our stay here has been to no avail and we have accomplished nothing. Two other fellows and I are heading up this thing to launch a campaign and gather material.”
One of those other fellows was a conscientious objector named Charlie Lord.
Today, Lord, 89, lives in another Quaker retirement community, this one in Tennessee. In the living room of his brick bungalow, he flips through old yellowed photographs. “Here’s the original one. Here, 1946. This is the day room with dozens of naked men along the left wall.”
At Byberry, Lord sneaked a small Agfa camera in his jacket pocket. It was the camera he’d borrowed to take on his honeymoon. But he’d dropped it in a lake and then felt he had to buy the damaged camera from his friend. Now he could use it to take pictures to show conditions in the A and B buildings.
When no one was watching, he’d quickly shoot a picture without even looking through the viewfinder. “I’d try to fill the frame,” he says. “You know, not just have little people far away. I’d get up as close as I could. I was aware of composition. But the main thing was to show the truth.”
Over a few months, Lord filled three rolls of film, with 36 exposures each. His pictures showed the truth, in black and white. In the past, reformers and journalists like Dorothea Dix and Nellie Bly sneaked into institutions and wrote exposes about the horrific conditions there.
But Lord was one of the first to ever expose institutions by using the power of photography. “I just thought this would show people what it was like. It’s not, not somebody writing to describe something,” he says. “They can use flowery words or you know, do whatever they want. But if the photograph is there, you can’t deny it.”
One of the first people to see the photographs was Eleanor Roosevelt, in September 1945. A meeting was arranged between Roosevelt — whose husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, had died just a few months before — and a couple of the conscientious objectors from Byberry. They brought along Lord’s disturbing photos. But Roosevelt at first doubted them.
According to Steven Taylor, a professor of disability studies at Syracuse University, Roosevelt assumed these were photos from some institution in the South. She said she knew about those kinds of conditions in Mississippi or Alabama. When told that they had actually been taken at an institution in Philadelphia, Roosevelt then promised to support the reform campaign and wrote about what she’d seen to government health officials and journalists.
Lord’s photographs would have their biggest impact several months later, when they were published in Life magazine in May 1946.
Taylor says the images of thin, naked men lined against walls echoed some other disturbing images Americans had just seen. “The immediate reaction by many people to these photographs were that these look[ed] like the Nazi concentration camps. People could not believe that this was the way we treated people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities in our society,” he says. “So it created a kind of mass uproar, nationally.”
Of course, one can’t equate the conditions in American mental hospitals back then — no matter how inhumane — with the extermination of more than 6 million Jews and others. In fact, among those killed by the Nazis were up to 250,000 people with disabilities. They were mainly people with mental illness and intellectual disability, the same disabilities as the people who lived at American institutions like Byberry.
Still, Taylor, who has written a new book about the World War II conscientious objectors calledActs of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions and Religious Objectors, says the photos punctured a national sense of American superiority.
“We saved the world. We stood for human rights; we condemned the Holocaust,” he says. “America’s confidence was soaring in the immediate post-World War II era. We were morally superior; we were militarily superior. And I think this was a stark reminder that America wasn’t perfect. America had its shortcomings.”
In postwar America, the country turned to righting those shortcomings. Conscientious objectors from Byberry started a national association that helped train and professionalize workers at state hospitals. And, most of all, they helped improve the lives of the vulnerable people who lived in those state institutions.
The COs from Byberry continued to work for social change, in political activism and in the jobs they chose.
Charlie Lord became a professional photographer and a social worker. The Bartholomew brothers both went into social work. John Bartholomew worked for a mental health group that moved people out of institutions and into small group homes.
Neal Hartman was a teacher. Warren Sawyer sold real estate and is proudest of the way he helped integrate neighborhoods.
Sawyer says what he saw at Byberry — and what he saw could be changed — fortified his dedication to work for human rights. His work at Byberry, he says “changed my life in terms of appreciation of people who are forgotten. It makes me want to make people aware of the many things that need to be done, that people need to be involved in doing things.”
A couple of years ago I found a little pamphlet or should I say it found me that contained the keynote address given by Arthur Larrabee at the Friends General Conference Gathering of Friends, which was held back in 1998. If you weren’t aware, I attend Quaker Meeting every Sunday. It’s where I’ve regularly been going for the last 3 years to … well … get my peace on.
One Sunday I entered Meeting very troubled. Things were beginning to get somewhat extreme in my head over a particular situation. It wasn’t good. I found myself sitting somewhere differently that day, but it was right where I was supposed to be, next to this wonderful little pamphlet. Psst…Lisa…sit here you need to see this now.
When I opened it up the words resonated so deeply that I found myself unknowingly crying. I know right? I’m sharing this now because as I was cleaning during my oh shit, we’re having company for Easter frenzy, I came across the pamphlet in my house and paused to re-read it. This must be shared….it just does.
Simma down folks I’m not going to get all religious on you, but I am going to fill you in on some of the messages that I received that day. The first thing that hit me was the story he shared, which some of you may have already heard over the years. I had not. It is a Taoist fable of sorts … here it is.
An old man and his son lived in an abandoned fortress on the side of a hill. The son was the sole support of his father, and their only possession of value was a horse. One day, the horse ran away. The neighbors came by to offer sympathy. “This is a terrible thing,” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man.
Several days later the horse returned, bringing with it several wild horses. The old man and the son shut them all inside the gate. The neighbors hurried over. “This is fabulous,” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man.
The following day the son tried riding one of the wild horses. Alas, he fell and broke his leg. Sure enough, the neighbors came around as soon as they heard the news. “What a tragedy!” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man.
The following week, the army of the emperor came through the village, forcing every young man into service to fight faraway battles. Many of them would never return. But the son couldn’t go. He had a broken leg.
The message here is that the old man lives in the now. He doesn’t attach himself to the big “What Ifs?” surrounding him. He embraced the situation he was presented with, therefore giving him peace of mind … which I was desperately seeking in my life.
My personal story was a little different. It didn’t involve an old man or a horse, but it did include that annoying neighbor in the fable … that was ME a/k/a Debbie Downer. No one was more surprised by this news than yours truly. As much as I want to deny the whole experience…I can’t….it’s true.
There I was sitting in Meeting sobbing due to the realization that I was slowly strangling my own life with predetermined judgments, while blowing any chance of peace of mind right out the window. Yep, Debbie has a way of sucking the life out of every party.
The Debbie Downer in me immediately put her negative judgment on the situation at hand. Why, because it’s easier than moving on to something new? Umm…yep. She put her preconceived notation that this new experience I was presented with was a “bad” idea and she wasn’t afraid to let it be known … over and over and over again. Clearly, Debbie is also a huge pain in the ass! What I wasn’t “seeing” was that this event was just a teeny tiny piece of a much larger story, one that needed to be TOLD not INTERRUPTED.
So, I spent months, yes months, holding on to what was comfortable, while fighting the new. I was literally being held prisoner by my own resistance! It’s really no surprise that the tears were flowing because at that moment I was empowered to give Debbie the big heave-ho out of my head. Toodles Deb, don’t let the door hit ya!
As I re-read the pamphlet this time around it was more of a reminder … one I constantly need! I need to stop killing my own chances at life and embrace the resurrections, even if they’re filled with challenges … I think I’m worth the risk.
Stop the death in your life by letting go of your attachments to the pain, the past and your pre-conditioned thoughts on how things are “supposed to be.”
Resurrect your life by embracing the challenges, the hopes, and the risks by letting things “just be.”
So, say YES! to life and Enjoy the Ride …. it’s a gift.