FWCC and Affluent and Impoverished Friends

The October issue on the 70th anniversary of Friends World Committee for Consultation was a wonderful celebration of how Friends came together over the course of the past century, and it gave me both pleasure and insight to read how members of the Central Executive Committee and the staff and Executive Committee of the Section of the Americas came to Quakerism. By crossing boundaries, FWCC has served us all nobly. Alleluia! Amen!

Whether it is an organization for the 21st century is not so clear. "We" are far different now, as are the main divisions and diversities, and the issue of money is a different sort of problem than before. When I survey these differences, I see that FWCC is addressing some of them and seems stymied by others.

Margaret Fraser’s "A Snapshot of Friends in the Americas" gives a good picture of who "we" are now, as opposed to then. I find it helpful to use geographic tools—namely the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn—to help see the picture more clearly. The magnificent three-page photograph along the bottom of pages 7-9 shows that in 1952 Quakers worldwide (or at least those attending the gathering) were overwhelmingly from outside the tropics. Looking at the figures in Margaret’s "Snapshot," on the other hand, we see that today Quakers worldwide are overwhelmingly within the tropics. It is not that Quakers have moved from temperate zones to the tropics but rather that it is a very different group of people who are Quakers today. This is a sea change, and it is to the credit of FWCC that this change receives much discussion and searching consideration at FWCC offices and gatherings.

One reason this change is important is that incomes and standards of education and welfare are vastly greater outside the tropics than within them. In the past decade I have made eight trips to Bolivia, but no Bolivian Friend has been able to make half that many trips to the U.S. On my most recent trips I have stayed at a hotel in the capital, La Paz, three blocks from Plaza San Francisco, which is at the head of the Prado and just three blocks from Plaza Murillo, where one finds Parliament, the Presidential Palace, and the cathedral. So my hotel is central. My room has hot and cold running water and a shower, with breakfast and free Internet included. In September-October of 2007, my bill for 14 nights (plus a half day) came to $122. In major cities in the United States or Canada—and certainly in London, Berlin, or Vienna—it would be difficult to be able to pay so little for one night in a central location with equivalent amenities.

The point is that some Friends’ incomes go a very long way in the tropics, and others’ incomes do not go very far at all outside the tropics. Details differ, but the factor is somewhere between 10 and 20 to one—a huge difference.

So now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the main division among Friends is not between Hicksites and Orthodox or between Gurneyites and Wilburites or between evangelicals and others, but between the affluent and the impoverished. Quakers outside the tropics are affluent, and those within the tropics are impoverished. Although other divisions are not completely healed, it is this division between the rich and the poor that is the greatest challenge to Quakers today.

How does this affect FWCC? There are two immediate consequences for its finances. The first is that the average per capita income of yearly meetings that participate in FWCC has dropped dramatically in real terms. The second is that Friends from outside the tropics can still afford (in most cases) to pay their way to plenary conferences, but Friends from within the tropics cannot. These two consequences have a direct negative impact on FWCC staffing and the program. Unless income from outside the tropics is increased to make up for the shortfall from within the tropics, staffing and essential staff travel will have to be curtailed. And with the huge and increasing number of Friends within the tropics unable to afford international travel, there seems no way to continue to rely on huge plenary gatherings as the high point and focus of fulfilling the mission of having Friends meet face to face and heart to heart across various boundaries.

Not a word that I have said is news to staff or committees of FWCC. On the contrary, it has been the subject of searching and reorganizing for a decade or more. Recently the response has been different in the World Office and in the Section of the Americas office.

In the World Office the crisis came to a head two or three years ago when reports showed that the Office had exhausted its reserves. The decision was then made to cut senior staff in half (from two to one), a bold step that now seems to assure that the World Office will be able to continue its essential functions for the foreseeable future, while rebuilding its reserves. Nancy Irving deserves kudos for managing this turnaround with confidence and a consistently upbeat spirit.

Part of the reason for the confidence of the World Office is that it can look forward to increased income from the Section of the Americas (SoA), by far the richest section of FWCC. Each year 25 percent of the SoA budget is sent to the World Office. Therefore the World Office benefits from SoA having taken the opposite approach to a similar string of budget deficits. Rather than cut staff, Margaret Fraser and the Executive Committee of SoA launched a campaign, which is on target to reach its goal of $2,000,000 – $2,500,000 at the end of 2007. Margaret, especially, deserves admiration and deep thanks for having seen this opportunity and acted on it.

Assuming the success of the campaign, however, two big problems remain. One is that it is uncertain that the campaign will have boosted reserves enough to overcome the huge drag on finances of the decline in the average real income of Quakers. Given the growing financial wave, may not deficits likely begin climbing again, if the shape of the budget and programs remains constant? The other problem is that even with finances in order, the SoA remains out of touch with very many of the Quakers identified as within
its area—including the largest yearly meetings in both Guatemala Yearly Meeting, with about 15,000 members, and Santidad, the Bolivian Holiness Friends Mission, with about 12,000 members. (Margaret notes in her article "Why Does (or Doesn’t) FWCC Do That?" that "there are just a few, mostly some Evangelical and Holiness yearly meetings" not affiliated with FWCC, but since in SoA they include the two largest yearly meetings in the hemisphere, it amounts to very many Friends.)

I have just returned from my eighth trip to Bolivia, staying (as usual) just two weeks, and it is only about Bolivia that I am qualified to speak. In the two weeks I met more than 100 Bolivian Friends, sometimes on their turf, sometimes in an office or auditorium. On the second Sunday I was invited to give a message in a large Evangelical Quaker church. About half the Bolivian Friends I met were members of Santidad, whose yearly meeting is not affiliated with FWCC, and about a third were women (who seem never to represent Bolivian Friends at annual meetings of SoA.) In the six annual meetings of the Section that I have attended, I have not had a small fraction of the quantity and quality of face-to-face meetings with Bolivian Friends that I had in these two weeks.

The last four or five of my trips to Bolivia have been in connection with the work of the Bolivian Quaker Education Fund (BQEF), of which I am founder and president. It is one of three Quaker organizations unaffiliated with FWCC about which I wrote in "The Aspirations of Andean Quakers" (FJ Feb. 2007). I have experienced much more "face to face and heart to heart" contact with Bolivian Friends through these organizations than through FWCC. BQEF opens doors to such contact through opportunities for volunteers to assist in Bolivian Quaker schools and to facilitate (in Spanish) both AVP and FCE workshops (12 volunteers and 4 facilitators in 2007 alone). And to my mind the Testimony of Equality is approximated more fully through BQEF than through FWCC, since our staff, our scholarships, and our workshops are gender balanced, whereas the leadership of the yearly meetings (and hence the representatives to the annual meetings of the Section) are almost exclusively male.

This is not to disparage or discourage the work of FWCC. I have contributed (modestly) to the current Campaign for SoA and hope that the Section finds ways to flourish in the 21st century. But for that to happen, something more than its current programs will be required to bridge the chasm between the affluent and the impoverished that divides Quakers today. May the Light shine upon young people who find new ways to travel, new ways to be in touch, new ways to use video-conferencing and other technologies still to be developed, new kinds of workcamps—a whole spectrum of imaginative devices to further the mission of bringing Friends together in the 21st century.