Berry Festival emits positive energy in city
Wilmington Friends Meeting House hosts the neighbors.

By VICTOR GRETO, The News Journal
Posted Monday, June 4, 2007


Quran Guy, 6, waits patiently as Catey Hill paints his face Sunday at the Berry Festival, held at the Wilmington Friends Meeting House. The News Journal/FRED COMEGYS

WILMINGTON — Monique Valbuena giggled as her son Quentin flopped over on his stomach and slid down the huge, puffed-up slide that colorfully towered over the faded headstones Sunday at the Wilmington Friends Meeting House at Fourth and West streets on Quaker Hill.

Quentin begins pre-school at Wilmington Friends School in the fall, she said, which is how she heard about the Friends' first Berry Festival, held Sunday afternoon mostly outside the historic 1816 meeting house under gray skies and spritzes of warm rain.

They're not Quakers, Valbuena said, "but we're excited about having their philosophy behind his education."

She wasn't the only one.

Michelle Thomson, who lives in Trolley Square, said her daughter Courtney attends Friends School.

"We like the philosophy and commitment to diversity there," she said.

That peaceful philosophy imbues the meeting house, whose side doors were held open by two-by-fours, and whose only air conditioning was provided by a cross breeze between opened front and back doors.

The festival, which drew about 100 people, was held in conjunction with the Harmony on the Hill program, a concert series begun last September.

"With the concerts, we want to create some kind of energy and positive presence in the downtown area," said Mia Muratori, a member of the meeting house.

Off in a side room and within glass-enclosed bookcases lay decades-old tomes chronicling the English founder of the Friends' movement in the 17th century, George Fox, as well a leather-bound copy of "Pilgrim's Progress" and many volumes of writings of the movement's most famous statesman, William Penn.

But that peace was happily broken Sunday.


Aaron Brick, 7, slides down a giant blow-up slide set up for the Wilmington Friends' first Berry Festival on Sunday in the Quaker Hill section of the city. The News Journal/FRED COMEGYS

Near the musty bookshelves lay a 45-rpm single of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and shortly after noon, local folk singer John Flynn sang to about three dozen parents and clapping children, followed shortly by the novice but blistering sounds of Wilmington's School of Rock.

So it was cutely ironic when Diane Kirk, who, although not officially a Friend though she attends meetings here and whose son attends the School of Rock, said she loved attending services here for the "value of silence."

But there was nothing ironic about Kirk's admiration of the Friends' belief that "God is within everyone."

No matter how loud the music, the meeting house felt intimate because of its facing cushioned pews and the silently whirling fans overhead.

Amanda May came to the festival with her husband and two grandchildren. Her family first moved into the neighborhood around 1960, she said, one of the first black families to have done so.

When she returned to the neighborhood a while ago, she was amazed at its diversity. The Berry Festival provided the first opportunity for her to actually go into the meeting house, she said.

"I used to pass this property all the time," she said. "I just thought it was a cemetery."

It's that, too, as rows of worn, gray and white tombstones — many from families whose lines endured in the congregation for centuries — have remained as the neighborhood, and the congregation, radically change.

The cemetery holds the remains of two very famous people: John Dickinson, known as the "Penman of the Revolution," and Thomas Garrett, one of the greatest "conductors" of the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape from the South to the North.

Martha Durham, a 15-year member, said the meeting house had been much more vibrant decades ago, but lately she said she has observed more younger people attending.

Wilmington Friends' membership is more than 200, said Ellen Gay, a 20-year member, but the active membership is about 75.

Contact Victor Greto at 324-2832 or vgreto@ delawareonline.com.

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