The Flowering of Quaker Earthcare Witness

Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (renamed Quaker Earthcare Witness in 2003), originated at the 1987 Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering at Oberlin College in Ohio. At that Gathering, environmentalist Marshall Massey delivered a plenary address calling for Friends to recognize the global environmental crisis as a spiritual issue. Participants in a weeklong workshop on environmental concerns, led by Bill and Alice Howenstine, were energized by his speech and decided the time had come to carry a Quaker environmental witness to national and international levels. Dozens showed up for a meeting one evening at the Gathering to discuss how to do this. In the following months a smaller cadre of Friends met faithfully to work out details of the purpose and structure for a new Quaker organization. Bylaws were drafted, and articles of incorporation were filed. A newsletter kept several hundred supporters informed about the unfolding adventure. A central office was set up in the Michigan home of Bill and Isabel Bliss.

Not surprisingly, this early phase was difficult for many supporters. New ground was being broken, so there weren’t many suitable models or guidelines. Some looked to Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) as a model because of its international scope and nontheological networking approach. Others felt affinity with the Right Sharing of World Resources program, which challenges Friends to apply their limited resources to practical outreach—to, in William Penn’s words, “try what love can do.”

A further challenge to unity was the fact that participants in the planning meetings reflected much of the diversity found among Friends at the FGC Gathering. Some were committed to following good Quaker process, while others were eager to dive into action. Some tended to be sectarian or contemplative, while others were more universalist or political. A few withdrew, frustrated by the seemingly slow progress. But the Blisses, the Howenstines, and other seasoned Friends in the group pressed forward to build a strong spiritual and organized foundation.

In the early years of the organization, the newsletter, BeFriending Creation, was reporting extensive involvement by Friends and Friends meetings in environmental protection. A new booklet by Jack Phillips, Walking Gently on the Earth, offered practical tips for environmentally friendly living. At the same time, many articles and letters to the editor debated what was uniquely Quaker about this approach. Some drew parallels between growing environmental concerns among Friends today and the process by which the Religious Society of Friends arrived at a corporate witness against slavery two centuries before. Some took a new look at the writings of early Friends such as William Penn and John Woolman and found views and ethical principles that seemed quite applicable to today’s environmental challenges. Others searched out common threads among other faiths, including indigenous traditions and pre-Christian, Earth-based spirituality.

Another question about the fledgling organization’s function: How can such a small, scattered group begin to address a multifaceted global environmental crisis? Some Friends articulated spiritual and philosophical foundations for the new movement; others tackled particular issues, such as population, alternative energy, legislation, sustainability, nonviolent direct action, intentional communities, permaculture, and the nexus of science and religion.

After participating as a nongovernmental organization in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, FCUN began to see itself as a partner with other environmental and social movements around the world. Another defining moment came in 1993, when FCUN threw its support behind a sustainable agriculture project, La Bella Farm, that Quakers in Costa Rica were launching in an effort to balance their long-standing support for cloud forest protection with concern for the needs of local, landless farm families. The project has demonstrated that Quaker-based environmental concerns are inseparable from social concerns. The farm community also serves as a microcosm of the problems that have to be addressed worldwide if the larger human community is to have a future.

FCUN representatives participated in a 1998 sustainability conference in Havana, Cuba, co-coordinated by American Friends Service Committee. This experience became a springboard to greater international outreach, including several visits with Quakers in Cuba and South America.

In 2002, FCUN representatives participated in the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. Others have been focusing on economic globalization, which has raised concerns for both human justice and ecological sustainability.

From the beginning, FCUN was a regular presence at Friends gatherings and yearly meetings, in addition to sponsoring workshops, conferences, and retreats. At each FGC Gathering, FCUN sponsored an interest center (now called the Earthcare Center), as a gathering place for workshops, exhibits, and special interest groups.

A sign of FCUN’s increasing stature and influence among Friends came during the 1996 sessions of New England Yearly Meeting. FCUN Clerk Ted Bernard gave one of the plenary talks, and Lisa L. Gould, author of Becoming a Friend to the Creation and other FCUN publications, presented the week’s Bible Half Hour lessons. The 2000 FGC Gathering featured plenary presentations by FCUN’s population expert Stan Becker and by Steve Curwood, host of National Public Radio’s Living on Earth program.

At FCUN’s 10th anniversary gathering in 1997, supporters sensed that they were completing the development phase of their mission and were entering a new flowering phase of seeking fuller integration with the wider Religious Society of Friends. Bylaw changes made FCUN more accountable by dedicating half of the positions on the steering committee to representatives from yearly meetings. FCUN’s Quaker Eco-Witness for National Legislation project has worked closely with Friends Committee on National Legislation to put greater emphasis on environmental issues in its work.

In 2003 the organization revamped its goals statement and adopted the name Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) to help make the organization’s message more intelligible and acceptable to the wider spectrum of Friends. Recently, QEW supporters have taken active steps to sow its seeds beyond the largely unprogrammed FGC-affiliated meetings that so far have provided the bulk of the organizations’ membership and support. As a part of this outreach, QEW recently published Earthcare for Friends: a Study Guide for Individuals and Faith Communities. Although the branches of Quakerism still tend to be divided on theological and social issues, it is hoped that this new curriculum will help Friends of different persuasions realize that they can work together for a just and livable world for this and future generations.

QEW is also redoubling its efforts to send representatives to engage all yearly meetings in North America. The goal is for Earthcare to become so deeply rooted in Friends faith and practice within the next ten years that there will no longer be a need for a separate organization such as QEW and that we can joyfully lay ourselves down!

This is not to say that the role of modern-day John Woolmans will be an easy one. He often met resistance during his traveling ministry, but he was never defeated by lack of response from those he visited. A spiritual approach to both social and environmental witness means being faithful to our calling while not trying to bear the entire burden alone. As Mother Teresa once said, “We aren’t called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.”

We have heard the call to put the health of the planet front-and-center among Quaker concerns. Once again the Religious Society of Friends has the opportunity to play a leading role in one of the most crucial issues of our time. Answering that call is both the least and the most we can do.

To join with other Friends in this vital work, contact the QEW office at 173-B N. Prospect St., Burlington, VT 05401-1607, (802)658-0308;; or visit its website:

Louis Cox

Louis Cox, a member of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting, is publications coordinator for Quaker Earthcare Witness and edits its newsletter and website,