The divisive, antagonistic, violent climate of our times can be challenging and discouraging for Friends. Not only in the United States but around the world, populist political movements have capitalized on fears of “violent extremism,” growing income inequality, and economic stagnation by closing doors to immigrants and refugees. They also have adopted nationalistic, isolationist stands on trade and foreign policy. How do we act on our commitment to speak to that of God in everyone and to live lives that promote peace and justice for all? Can Quakers offer spiritually grounded leadership that unites our theologically diverse religious society?
The Early Years of the Service Committee
AFSC was born in turbulent times. Minutes from the April 30, 1917 meeting at which AFSC was founded—just three weeks after the United States entered the First World War—document “requests continually coming in as to what Friends can do in this crisis.”
The prevailing narrative then, as now, was that democracy was threatened, and the only response was to use military force. Spurred by the vision of three young men in their 20s, theologically diverse Quaker yearly meetings came together, united by their commitment to the peace testimony, to do something that exceeded their individual capacities, something global. In a time when military service was promoted as the only way to make the world “safe for democracy,” Friends offered an alternative form of service for peace.
The immediate result of that April meeting was a centrally coördinated project that inspired the active participation of Friends from across the United States. One hundred young people trained at Haverford College in June 1917, and were working in France by September, addressing needs of those displaced by war.
Once the war ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, there was ongoing discussion of laying down the Service Committee. The conclusion was clear: “We should not go on unless we are sure that we have a vital mission to perform” (Rufus Jones, from the minutes of the September 25, 1924 meeting of the executive board).
Many of those returning from service in Europe were clear that a vital mission still called for a response from Friends. They wanted to do more than relief after war—they wanted to prevent war and to build a foundation for peace. AFSC workers in Germany after the armistice felt the seeds of future war in the injustice that was punishing German children for the sins of their fathers. The hope for peace and justice was not much better in the United States where the end of the Great War did not result in the democracy promised in the recruiting posters.
The United States in 1919 was in the grip of anti-immigrant (not just anti-German) fear fueled by acts of politicized violence, much as today. On May 1, 1919, newspaper headlines reported on a plot by anarchist followers of Italian Luigi Galleani who had sent letter bombs to 36 U.S. leaders. Following a call to “close the gate” on “undesirable” foreign immigrants, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer conducted raids, arresting and deporting many Slav and Italian immigrants labeled as anarchists, communists, and radical leftists.
In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which severely restricted immigration until lawmakers could agree on a “permanent solution.” The Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson–Reed Act) was passed and reluctantly signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge. Even more restrictive than the Emergency Quota Act, the 1924 law put an outright ban on Arab and Asian immigrants.
The First Red Scare included brutal responses to union efforts to improve working conditions. In West Virginia, for example, striking coal miners were locked out by mine owners until they and their families faced starvation.
African Americans continued to be, in the words of Langston Hughes, “The rock on which Freedom / Stumped its toe.” As he so poignantly wrote:
There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”
Instead there were race riots, lynchings, and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan—and not only in the Jim Crow South.
Given the climate of the times, it is no wonder that in 1924 Friends embraced the need to engage in “home service,” while continuing “the message side of our work” and relief efforts in post-war Europe and Russia. “America has not learned the lesson of the war, nor has our own Society learned it. We are still thin and superficial in these deepest issues of life.” One of the lessons yet to be learned was “interracial relationship, a new spirit of understanding and fellowship between different racial groups, particularly, of course, Negroes, Japanese and Italians” (letter from J. Edgar Rhoads to Rufus Jones, 9/30/1924).
Putting Quaker Faith into Action over 100 Years
AFSC’s mission and vision today arise from the same spirit articulated in the 1920s. Then, as now, the Service Committee saw itself as reflecting the peace and social justice concerns of Friends and offering support, focus, and inspiration to the ongoing witness of Friends meetings and churches.
AFSC works to build a firm foundation for lasting peace by partnering with diverse communities, by healing and restoring broken relationships, and by transforming unjust systems. The Service Committee is unusual as an international faith-based organization in that it does not proselytize—a legacy of the diversity of the founding yearly meetings who would not have been able to agree on the branch of Quakerism to which new disciples should be brought. Instead, from the outset, AFSC sought to share our Quaker faith by letting our work and our lives speak.
AFSC had neither the aspiration nor the resources to replace the important local witness for peace and social concerns that should be part of every Quaker meeting and church. Rather, the Service Committee offered a global perspective, weaving together issues and experiences encountered in places across the United States and around the world. Friends work on many individual peace and justice issues, and we do our best work when we remember the connections among them. As abolitionist John Woolman observed in his work to end slavery, “the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.” Two centuries later, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us again that living our faith requires a moral revolution that will conquer the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
Over many decades AFSC’s work on Middle East peace has evolved, exposing its ties to work on racial justice in the United States and South Africa. Making these uncomfortable connections can help us confront our own racism, colonialism, and privilege. Living up to the Light that we are given at a moment in history requires that we faithfully persist, with the courage to stumble and the humility to learn.
Allan Austin reviewed the rocky road of AFSC’s work on racism from its earliest days in Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917–1950. From the Institute of Race Relations started at Swarthmore College in 1933 through the 1959 sponsorship of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to India to connect with Gandhi’s disciples through the publication of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail in 1963 to today’s vibrant work with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, AFSC struggles with its limitations as an historically white, Eurocentric religious organization with structures and practices that create barriers for people of color. Yet we persist, and in our persistence, we can celebrate our individual and organizational progress.
Working in the Middle East has also been a difficult journey, beginning in 1948 when the United Nations asked AFSC to begin administering relief to refugees in Gaza. Naïvely expecting the refugees to return to their homes within a year, AFSC has since come to a much deeper understanding of the tangled history of Palestine and Israel, of the role of European colonial powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the history of anti-Semitism (aimed at both Arabs and Jews), and the ongoing role of American foreign policy and corporate interests.
The treatment of Palestinians by occupying Israel Defense Forces at checkpoints evokes the “stop and frisk” experiences in Black and Latino communities in the United States by police and justice agencies who have no accountability to the people they are supposed to serve. Empathy works in both directions: Palestinian youth in the throes of the September 2014 war in Gaza found time to offer their support for Black Lives Matter on social media. Today the Movement for Black Lives platform supports Palestinian rights. As Quakers surely understand, we are all connected, deserving children of God. None of us is secure until all of us are secure. Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.
The ongoing impasse on the future of Palestine and Israel had already contributed to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab propaganda in the United States. Today’s prevailing narrative in media and entertainment reinforces the premise that we are “good guys” under attack from evil terrorists who can only be subdued by force. As Friends, we know from our faith and our experience that there is another, truer story to be told, and we are called to tell that story through our lives and our work.
Finding a Witness for Our Times
Faced with worldly challenges to our core values, we can choose to become the embodiment of an approach Martin Luther King Jr. called “creative maladjustment.” Dr. King understood that a lifelong commitment to nonviolence is not a sweet and gentle thing. “We all want to live the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic personalities,” he said in 1963:
but there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted, and to which I call all people of good will to be maladjusted until the good society is realized. I must confess that I will never adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I will never become adjusted to religious bigotry. I will never adjust myself to economic conditions that take necessities from the many and give luxuries to the few….I never intend to adjust to the madness of militarism.
American Friends Service Committee has been creatively maladjusted for 100 years. Staff, community partners, Quaker allies, volunteers, committee members, and donors—we are passionately engaged in the world as it is—here and now, warts and all—without accepting the warts or adjusting to the all. We refuse to adjust to violence and injustice. We are energized by the power of working in partnership with Friends meetings and churches to spread creative nonviolent approaches to seemingly intractable problems.
AFSC has never had the resources or intention to staff the social action of local meetings and churches. Instead, we support Quaker witness more broadly with resources at our website, the Acting in Faith blog, workshops at Friends General Conference, and networks like the Quaker Network to End Mass Incarceration or the Quaker Palestine Israel Network. Last year we piloted the Quaker Social Change Ministry to help meetings embrace social witness as an integral part of a larger spiritual journey. Friends’ oversight of and partnership with AFSC, in turn, remind us to pursue work from a Spirit-led center.
In recent months, Friends are embracing a new sanctuary movement, offering refuge to immigrants threatened with detention and deportation. This new movement follows in the spirit of the 1980s sanctuary movement that sheltered refugees from the Central American wars, with deep and broad support from Friends. In 2014, AFSC helped establish Colorado’s Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition and prepare its members to offer sanctuary. After discernment, Mountain View Meeting in Denver joined the coalition, and late last November welcomed a young Peruvian woman with an eight-year-old citizen son into sanctuary. In North Carolina, AFSC is sponsoring an initiative called Sanctuary Everywhere to create various safe spaces, allowing more people to support sanctuary at whatever level they feel ready to engage. Sanctuary Everywhere is not limited to immigrants and refugees, but also supports Muslim and Jewish communities, the Movement for Black Lives, and the LGBTQIA community.
As the American Friends Service Committee, we feel a special responsibility to help our country find new approaches to foreign and domestic policy that will serve global and domestic peace. The Shared Security framework developed jointly by AFSC and Friends Committee on National Legislation is proving to be a powerful basis for working with Friends and partners internationally. Shared Security also offers a way to understand—and bridge—the faultlines sharply dividing our own country. To build an inclusive and respectful society, we must live and work in ways that are inclusive and respectful by reaching out to all who have been denied the opportunities, agency, and respect that would allow them to feel secure.
Despite the challenges of the times, Friends draw hope from our lived experience that faithful, courageous, loving witness for peace can and will overcome fear and hate. Do Friends dare become leaders for peace and justice? Dare we be optimistic in dark times? How can we refuse?