American Friends Service Committee after 90 Years

We seek to know where the Spirit is calling us to be in a particular place and time.
—Quaker aphorism

On April 30, 1917, representatives of Five Year’s Meeting, Friends General Conference, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) met and created the Friends National Service Committee, which was soon renamed the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC’s founders envisioned a temporary organization to provide conscientious objectors with opportunities to do relief work in France, helping victims of war as an alternative to military service during World War I. These Quakers, like many before them, were led to live out the Peace Testimony and not participate in the violence of waging war. But they also recognized the need to not appear to be unpatriotic when the expected draft came. Alternative service helping victims was to be the Quaker response to the call for war.

Addressing the question, "What Are Friends Called to Today?" in AFSC’s 90th year of service, it is evident that much has changed in the world and in the work undertaken by AFSC since 1917. From its original mission at the time of its founding, it has evolved over the years and expanded its work to deal with domestic issues that touch on most of the important social movements in the United States. Throughout its history, decision-making within the organization has emanated from strong Quaker values and represent those values in action. AFSC’s work continues to reflect that same spiritual foundation.

Organizing a Call to Action

The founders of AFSC wanted to create an instrument of service under obedience to divine leading, but even the most spirit-led institution remains a human creation, with both the limitations and the wonderful possibilities of human beings seeking to be obedient to these leadings. For many Friends, the work of AFSC has been to live a life of Christian fellowship; other Friends speak of seeking and cherishing "that of God in every one." Forms of expression differ, and those who have worked with AFSC come from many faiths and from none, and have found community in work for social justice, peace, and humanitarian service.

Over the decades AFSC has made many important decisions. Some of these decisions are the result of the threat of war or in response to war. Each major decision to take a position or to establish a program is reached after much worshipful consideration in the context of Quaker values and the explicit testimonies of Peace, Simplicity, Integrity, and Equality.

AFSC respects the worth and dignity of each person. Those aided by much of this work were often considered "the other" by the larger society. Despite sometimes being censured early on by those who questioned the organization’s motives or positions, AFSC has consistently reached out to the victims of oppression, to the outcast and the uprooted, the exploited and dispossessed. Viewed through the longer lens of history, few people now criticize the bold stands that AFSC has taken to support marginalized people.

The work before AFSC now is still defined by this consistent concern for the voiceless, by the ability to be effective in the work of reconciliation, and by the capacity to make a difference in the lives of the people and communities involved with AFSC as they develop self-reliance.

Making a Difference: Four Examples

AFSC’s first project in 1917 was to establish a training camp at Haverford College and to develop a plan to prepare 100 men for civilian service. The wartime work in France consisted mostly of driving ambulances and providing medical services for civilians. After the war, AFSC’s programs grew so large that with the support of U.S. government funding it was feeding one million children in Germany and Austria each day. The first group of volunteers to reach their assignments were women nurses sent to work in Russia. A majority of the first civilian workers were Quakers, but they also included Mennonites and a few young men from Church of the Brethren, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, two Swedenborgians, and one Jew.

As the work in France began to taper off in 1919, the AFSC Board of Directors discussed of the future of AFSC. If it were to become a permanent organization, it would need both to provide permanent work and be a good service laboratory for young Quakers. While considering the issue, the Board authorized a few small Home Service projects to give young Quakers experience on some of the great social and industrial problems in the U.S., including programs addressing poverty in the mining areas of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. These projects portend the nature of AFSC’s worldwide work for the rest of the 20th century, growing out of a concern for economic and social justice and equality.

World War II:

Reflecting on the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, Clarence Pickett, AFSC’s general secretary, made a poignant notation in his personal journal on September 13, 1938: "What can be done, especially by the American Friends Service Committee? That is hard to discuss briefly. Relief is still important. We may be penitent for our past in the vicious Versailles Treaty and War Settlement. But the Jews are the ones on whom now the burden for that war settlement falls hardest. We can do no less than give every aid possible to help those who come to us to make a new and fruitful start. This is and will be our chief relief work for some time."

In response to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass (November 9, 1938), when Jews in Germany were attacked, beaten, arrested, and their businesses and synagogues vandalized, Board Chair Rufus Jones and two other Quakers traveled to Germany to find out "what might be done to meet the needs of those who were attacked." After they arrived, they found out they would have to present to the Gestapo whatever relief they proposed to carry out. In the meeting they offered a statement, drawn up and translated into German. It said in part: "Our task is to support and save life and to suffer with those who are suffering."

When the Gestapo representatives left the room to take the Quaker request to their chief, Reinhard Heydrich, the three Friends bowed their heads and held a silent meeting. The Germans returned to the room and agreed to allow the relief work. When the Quakers asked for evidence that permission was given, the Gestapo men said every word in the room had been recorded and "the decision will be in the records." The Quakers were glad they had kept their silence.

In a letter sent to every monthly meeting in the United States and Canada on Sunday, November 20, 1938, AFSC chair Rufus Jones reported that a special service for refugees coming from Germany to the United States had been set up by the Service Committee. He stated: "We also believe that the personal concern and friendliness shown to those coming to us under these tragic circumstances may be the most effective manifestation for the Christian spirit in these dark hours."

Japanese American Internment:

In a 1942 letter to monthly meetings, Clarence Pickett, AFSC general secretary, reported that the War Relocation Authority had asked AFSC to "take primary responsibility for the relocation of Japanese students from proscribed areas on the west coast to inland institutions. After due deliberation, this responsibility has been accepted."

But Pickett was quick to clarify that the Service Committee did not accept the evacuation as a matter of course. He stated in the letter: "It has come to us with deep humiliation and profound concern that events have revealed in the bloodstream of our American life a poison which has caused this disease of hatred. Whether it be greed or race prejudice or war hysteria, it is equally dangerous. . . . Penitent as we are on behalf of those who have been the immediate cause, we want to call every Friend to an examination of his own motives and the spirit of his life."

He asked all Friends to reach out, in particular, to help with student relocation or other "channels of expression." He closed: "But most of all we wish to call for a re-examination of the spirit of our own lives and a dedication anew to a reverence for that of God which is in every man." AFSC helped thousands of Japanese American students relocate from colleges on the West Coast to those in the Midwest and East. Other individual Quakers in cities in the East, including Philadelphia and New York, helped Japanese American business owners find jobs after their businesses were forced to close because they were dependent on imports.

South African Apartheid:

The AFSC Board of Directors noted appreciation in its minutes of February 2, 1965, for a minute received from the clerk of South African General Meeting. The South African communiqué highlighted the "grave responsibilities which rest on us, to witness to the Christian faith as it is revealed to us and to share in close fellowship with our fellow Christians; to witness to God’s peace in a situation of increasing tension by transforming the energies of violence into the work of peace." General Secretary Colin Bell said the minute "made a muted reference to the central moral issue (Apartheid) and reveals a travail of spirit to which Friends here could relate with deep sympathy."

AFSC’s interest in Southern Africa dates to 1957, when AFSC representatives were first based in the region, and with projects in Zambia from 1964. In 1974, AFSC sent a special Southern Africa Representative, Bill Sutherland, an African American, to live in Southern Africa, to support and listen to people who were struggling for justice and freedom there, and to interpret the issues and kindle active interest among people in the United States.

The AFSC’s call for majority rule, early public support for the African National Congress (the ANC was often defined as a terrorist organization in its early years), the Peace Education division’s work emphasizing the struggle against the apartheid government in South Africa, and its call for economic sanctions led to friction among Quakers in the U.S. and between Friends in the U.S. and South Africa for a time.

The AFSC Board approved a policy statement in 1976 calling on the U.S. government to "disassociate itself from the repressive racism of Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, as well as to eliminate it in our own society." The statement also outlined specific steps that the U.S. government should take to enhance the prospects for nonviolent change in Southern Africa with majority rule an as objective.

After many soul-searching discussions within the AFSC Board of Directors, on September 28, 1985, the Board approved a policy statement on South Africa calling for "one person/one vote, an end to apartheid, supporting sanctions against the country and other elements." This statement was approved with the knowledge that it could complicate relations with Friends in South Africa. The U.S. Congress did not pass a sanctions bill until 1986, which became law over the veto by President Ronald Reagan.

The Vietnam War:

AFSC Board minutes from early April 1954 show a strong concern about the increasing involvement of the United States military in Vietnam. There were calls from at least one AFSC regional office and from people external to the organization calling on the Service Committee to take leadership on this matter, which was now an actual shooting war. On April 28, 1954, the Board’s Consultative Committee on Foreign Affairs assigned to three individuals, Elmore Jackson, Stephen Cary, and Clarence Pickett, the task of preparing a preliminary statement.

The Executive Committee discussed the draft statement at its May 5, 1954, meeting and approved it with a few revisions. The statement cited AFSC’s long experience in international affairs and stated that "the destructiveness of modern war produces nothing but hatred, even among those on whose behalf the fighting ostensibly is undertaken, and hatred is no foundation upon which freedom and democracy can be built." It also called for specific changes in U.S. policy and working to provide stability in all the countries of Asia. An abstract of the full statement was released to the press.

Concern over Vietnam continued through the next decade with meetings with public officials, letters to newspapers, public witnessing, and a few visits to Vietnam by Friends who brought special insights on the people and culture. During the war, AFSC sent medical aid to civilians in North and South Vietnam and the National Liberation Front areas. At the end of hostilities, AFSC established development programs in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to help in rebuilding these countries devastated by war. Programs in Vietnam and Cambodia have now devolved from AFSC management and are continuing around local development issues after more than 30 years.

Learning from our Past

Starting in the late 1950s, AFSC increasingly focused on programs designed to relieve the tensions that lead to war. These efforts included sending young volunteers to work in developing countries in the 1960s and assisting in the VISA program, a forerunner to the Peace Corps. To address the disparity between rich and poor nations, the Service Committee established programs of social and technical assistance in developing nations: Algeria, Vietnam, Laos, Zimbabwe, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This work has carried through to the present. For instance, today, in a community garden started in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 2000, Bosnians, Croatians, and Serbs raise fresh vegetables and rebuild relationships destroyed by war.

Today in many troubled regions abroad and in the United States, AFSC still sends staff to promote peace, justice, and reconciliation by providing opportunities for communication among people who can effect change at all levels, from the grassroots to the United Nations. The roles of Quaker International Affairs Representatives (QIARs) working in many different regions of the world continue to take on greater significance. Much of this work involves bringing together representatives of many facets of civil society in informal off-the-record conferences. This program began in Europe, and it has been extended to the Middle East, Africa, and all parts of Asia. It has expanded to include young leaders and professionals as well as diplomats.

At home, AFSC’s work for justice has included a program that helped to place thousands of African American children from Prince Edward County, Virginia, in schools in the North and Midwest when their public schools closed in 1965 rather than desegregate. Belief in the Peace Testimony inspired Service Committee work in opposition to the U.S. troop buildup in the late 1960s in the Vietnam War and to counsel thousands of draft-age young adults.

The AFSC Board viewed violence as present in a continuum from individual weapons to weapons systems, and it participated in a nuclear freeze campaign in the 1980s named A Call to Halt the Arms Race. This effort also involved activities intended to stop the U.S. deployment of missiles in Europe and the Pacific.

Continuity and Change

Discerning the leading of the Spirit is rarely easy. It means listening with openness and often choosing a path based on faith as much as experience. AFSC has recently completed a Spirit-led visioning process involving the whole organization to help it determine what work should continue or should be undertaken for the coming years. The visioning process has led to the development of several overarching goals for its programs: human rights for immigrants, peace-building and conflict resolution, a new vision of (criminal) justice, and economic justice.

In the area of economic justice, AFSC will work in the U.S. and other countries to improve social and economic well-being, increase the ability of communities to secure access to resources for sustainable livelihoods, and advocate for national and international policies that support equitable and sustainable economic development.

Under the general heading of a new vision of (criminal) justice, AFSC will use issue campaigns in the U.S. and abroad to lift up a vision of a world without prisons, where justice systems work to restore wholeness to individuals and communities. In addition, work opposing the death penalty and the use of control units will continue to illustrate the bankruptcy of the current system. (Control units operate under super maximum security to disable prisoners through isolation, extremely limited access to services, and physical or mental torture; in them, prisoners are often kept from human contact for 23 hours of each day.)

Just as Quakers spoke and acted against slavery decades before abolition, as AFSC called for the end of apartheid in South Africa, and as AFSC was at the forefront of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, so is AFSC called today to speak out for and support the human rights of immigrants to the United States.

Project Voice is a nationwide initiative to support immigrant-led organizations and to link immigrants and the policymakers whose decisions affect their lives. AFSC staff in all nine of its domestic regions is involved in leveraging local grassroots networks to gain wider support for the human rights of immigrants, migrant refugees, internally displaced persons, and returnees. Following a holistic approach, AFSC works locally with new immigrants to advocate around issues of achieving safe and affordable housing, confronting exploitative working conditions, wages, and access to basic health care.

During its 90 years, AFSC has also worked for peace with justice in ways that speak to the immediate needs of human suffering and the timeless witness of Friends testimonies. Through two world wars, a global nuclear arms race, U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S.-backed wars in Central America, apartheid in South Africa, entrenched violence in the Middle East, and a new era of the boundless "War on Terror," AFSC has responded to urgent issues of the day and long-term trends related to international peace and conflict.

Today, AFSC is at work in many places where war is an ongoing reality: Afghanistan, North Korea, Africa’s Great Lakes Region, Colombia, and the Middle East. Despite the tendency of most nations to rely on war as a legitimate policy for attaining economic and political ends, AFSC is working to decrease global militarization and armaments. The overarching strategy is to increase the capacity of civil society groups to prevent violence, foster the peaceful resolution of conflict, and achieve reconciliation and healing.

In the United States, AFSC is involved in the peace movement that brings together military families, veterans, and traditional peace activists through its Eyes Wide Open exhibit. Starting in Chicago in January 2004, the exhibit, which memorializes members of the U.S. military who died in Iraq, has grown with the death toll and traveled to more than 100 cities. Eyes Wide Open includes one pair of boots for each U.S. soldier and many pairs of civilians’ shoes to represent the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed.

Since it was founded, AFSC has demonstrated its capacity to speak truth to power while it quietly builds bridges of peace in complementary and successful ways. Combining these roles will continue to be a unique and much-needed contribution to the field of peace-building and conflict transformation.
AFSC will continue to apply Quaker values and principles of respecting each person’s dignity and potential, use the wisdom that comes from listening to many voices, and develop plans that encompass those voices and views. These plans set a direction, recognizing that detours and setbacks will occur, while holding steadfast to the vision of a world that can be peaceful and just for all.