The American Friends Service Committee can be most vividly seen through the experiences and memories of the many people who have made up its ranks of participants, supporters, and staff over the last ten decades. The website Peace Works: Century of Action was created to gather and share stories from the past and present. Here is a small sampling of the more than 200 stories that have been contributed to date.
Please note that in some cases these stories have been abbreviated for display here. The full versions of these stories and many more can be found at peaceworks.afsc.org. You are also invited to share your own AFSC story on the site.
I remember when we got to Berlin, before daylight on Easter morning in 1919. We were parked at the side of a railroad yard only a few feet from a high woven wire fence. … A little girl came up to the fence and was hanging on the wire with her two hands looking up at me eating. I saw she was hungry and I looked around for something to eat. And I found the French Red Cross who had outfitted us had put a wooden pail of hard candy. So I got a handful of this and I passed it through the wire to the little girl and she did a little curtsy and a “danke shoen” and ran. In about 15 minutes she came back with a dozen other kids and we passed out the entire pail of candy that morning.
The interesting thing is that 70 years later, in Seattle, I was talking at a Fellowship for Reconciliation meeting and I told the story as I’ve told you. A young man got up, a student from the University of Hamburg, and said, “That girl was my grandmother! She was in Berlin at that time and she has told me that same story.” After 70 years! This is bread upon the water coming back, definitely.
From an AFSC oral history.
In 1934, in Germany, my tranquil childhood was invaded by fear. My teacher donned the Nazi uniform and stopped greeting me or calling on me in class. I was the target of stone throwing and name calling every day on the way to school. My mother and father wanted their nine-year old daughter to be safe and to receive an education. In 1936 they decided to send me to the Quaker School Eerde, on the train, alone, trusting that Friends would meet me once I arrived in Holland. I was absorbed into this remarkable community, which was grounded in the silent meeting.
At Eerde I met Peter and Dody Elkinton, students at the school and son and daughter of Howard and Catherine. Howard and Catherine were working as representatives for American Friends Service Committee in Germany, a dangerous and courageous undertaking. Their effort was directed at helping both persecuted Jews and non-Aryans to leave Germany. After Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938, and time in Buchenwald concentration camp, my father arrived in Holland: gaunt, his head shaved, but alive.
My parents, as many Jews, had bought tickets to the farthest point on the globe when they were in Germany and still had some money. These tickets, our escape route, were confiscated and canceled by the Nazis, and my parents had no money to buy new tickets. The American Friends Service Committee paid the Hamburg America Line for our canceled tickets, as well as for those of other refugees who faced the same dilemma. If it were not for this generous act, we never could have boarded the Rotterdam, a cargo ship overcrowded with refugees, in November of 1939. My family never would have been able to sail to the United States.
The AFSC placed me with a family in Pennsylvania so that I could complete my nursing degree. They also offered me some of the most exciting experiences of my young life.
In 1948, once I had completed my training as a nurse, I volunteered with AFSC for a two year service position in Gaza. I was part of a team helping to resettle Palestinian Arab refugees in the Gaza Strip. The work was hard but I was young and could handle it. The Palestinians were planning on returning to their homes. They assumed that what they were going through was temporary. The people were so warm and so friendly. But it was not only the Palestinians who made an impression on me. I formed lasting friendships with the other volunteers. My friend Sirka Hilke was a nurse from northern Finland. We remained lifelong friends after our experience.
My time in Gaza was perhaps more meaningful to me because just a few years earlier I had been a prisoner in a camp myself—and now I found myself in another camp where people had been taken from their homes. I understood a little bit of their experience.
I learned of AFSC through my sister’s husband who was a Philadelphia Quaker. He encouraged me to come east to Swarthmore College where I got involved in AFSC’s youth programs. I went on to the Columbia School of Social Work and volunteered with AFSC’s New Americans program for Jewish refugees, and as assistant director of a summer Mexican work camp.
In June 1947, I went to Finland to help build houses for war widows. Our work camp was located north of the Arctic Circle in an area which had been destroyed by the German army as it retreated. Of the 22 volunteers, half were Finnish and the rest from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and three from the United States. Although only three of us were Quaker, we held quiet meetings for worship on Sundays and discussions about reconciliation and peace. Having respect for each other and making decisions by consensus were basic to Quaker practice. Before each meal, we joined hands to sing international folk songs.
At the end of 1949, I returned to Philadelphia to direct the international work camp program. There I met Frank Hunt and we were married in 1951 and I joined him in Israel. For the next three years we worked together in Israel and Korea. After years of working on issues of poverty and civil rights in my own neighborhood, I returned to AFSC in 1973 as coördinator of the Africa programs for fourteen years. Our goal was to enable people, especially women, to gain skills and resources to improve their lives. The international and peace divisions also sponsored a southern Africa education program about the liberation movements and the struggle for majority rule.
Looking back, I am humbled by the capacity, indeed the faith and compassion whatever one’s religion, that people have. Even under extreme stress, our humanity holds us together. I trust that Power which is striving toward good. I have been privileged to be part of AFSC’s century of service.
I grew up in a neighborhood where racial identity meant nothing and it took me a long time to realize how important racial identity was to other people. After a semester in college I was drafted into the 92nd Infantry Division in World War II. In the army, I started to see the complexity of prejudice and discovered my attitude about different people was not typical. After serving in the U.S. infantry in Italy, I came back with many questions about the value of human life. “Why did some people have the power to not send their sons but send me instead? Why was I one of the easily draftable people?”
I went back to college where I met many people who had been conscientious objectors (COs), some of them Quakers. The COs and I spent many hours talking about the meaning of life, which influenced me to go to seminary. I finished seminary in 1952 and then returned to Italy to do post-war reconstruction work with AFSC. I spent a number of subsequent summers leading AFSC workcamps throughout Italy, rebuilding roads, sewers, schools, and bell towers.
What I loved about AFSC is we did not go in with a preconceived plan—which suited my personality just fine. Part of my job was to form, and then listen to, a local committee to see what it was that they were interested in doing.
The American Friends Service Committee has provided me with so much learning from 1951 to the present. From my first door-to-door collection of used clothes when a college student to clerking board meetings, each taught me something. My only staff position was as co-director of the International Student House in Washington, D.C., from 1957–60.
What examples of exceptional, strong, down-to-earth women and men, were present for me in those years! It is a joy to think of them today. For me, having the Religious Society of Friends as our common denominator was what enabled the work to move forward. Admittedly, I was not conversant with world affairs, nor an avid reader, but I did read all the materials presented in preparation for meetings. I did not speak up during meetings, but admired those who did. I could see that information got to the people for whom it was intended and donating came naturally. When I moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, in 2013, it was a pleasant surprise to find the Western Massachusetts office of AFSC three blocks from where I live. So much has changed in the 30 years since I was actively involved with AFSC. I find several constants: the quality of the staff, the loyalty of donors and volunteers, and the inevitable tension between and interdependence of meetings/churches and the AFSC. It is a challenge to “try what love can do,” but with the devotion of so many people, expressed in well-based ways, it is one that is eagerly faced.
My name is Mae Bertha Carter and I was born in Sunflower County, Mississippi. I had to pick cotton when I was about six years old. So I didn’t get an education. When my first little baby was born I looked at it and I said I want you to have an education. I don’t want you out in the hot sun at 103 degrees, picking cotton for 14 hours a day.
So the children was motivated when [the law said] they could go to any school they wanted to.
They wanted to go to the all-white school because they felt they could get a better education there. When I walked into the superintendent’s office and handed him the papers I noticed that he turned red. They weren’t expecting anyone to do this. A couple of nights after that, about 3:00 in the morning—and we live way back on a dusty, gravel road—my husband looked out the window and said, “What is all those cars doing coming in here?” About then the shots came into the house.
My husband had to go up the next day to ask for some credit. The man at the store said, “You withdraw your children out of the school and then you can have credit.” That was the way it was—all the credit was cut off. We didn’t know how we was going to live. About five or six days after that two ladies came to our house. They’d heard we had enrolled the kids. You need to have someone help you all along, and the next thing I knew I got a letter from the American Friends Service and they told me they had heard all about it so they sent some help. My family and AFSC worked together for ten years and we’re still in touch.
My name is Desire Louis Peterson; I’ve been a Local Peace Network facilitator of SAKALA (Sant kominote Altenatif ak lape) since December 2013. My first participation in the meetings of AFSC Local Peace Networks was for me a miracle, because I used think that violence was something you could not avoid—considering that in my neighborhood if you want to survive you must seem hard, as a protection mechanism.
When I got involved with AFSC I learned that there are tools to transform conflicts and that it’s also important to understand the causes of conflict. During my participation I have realized that violence doesn’t make you a strong person. I have changed at a personal level. I have learned to be calmer and more respectful and now and I train other youth on mediation and conflict transformation. I want to thank AFSC for the implementation of this project in Cite Soleil, Haiti, and in other areas with a high intensity of violence. This project helps many young people in my neighborhood to improve their view of the future.
Attending AFSC’s Freedom School was the first time I had ever been exposed to a space encompassed in such racial consciousness and empowerment. I learned a lot about what racism really means and why it’s important to speak out about it, even if you’re not always in an environment where it’s encouraged. Freedom School provided everyone the rare occasion of having the conversation society mostly avoids like the plague.
At my high school, the challenges that people of color face are countless microaggressions and the achievement gap. For instance, there are regular classes and there are honors classes, where the coursework is accelerated. Many of the kids of color stay in the regular classes, and we’re given the impression that “regular” is the most that we can handle. I did honors classes from sixth to eighth grade. But when I tried to go from regular to honors classes in the beginning of high school, my white counselor asked me repeatedly if I believed I could handle it and reminded me numerous times that the rigor would probably be too much for me, even though my grades didn’t indicate that I was struggling.
In Freedom School, after two days of learning where racism comes from and how deeply embedded it is in society, I came to the conclusion that even if racism will never be eradicated, oppressed people will never stop speaking up and having these conversations, and fighting to build from what racism has destroyed. For me, Freedom School fostered a sense of validation, comfort, knowledge, and resilience.
It was my second time attending a city council meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. As an intern in the Peace and Economic Justice task force, I was representing AFSC with my supervisor and coworker. I had never seen the council chambers this crowded. We were here to address the recent passing of House Bill 2, also known as Hate Bill 2, which requires that all people use the bathroom that coordinates with the sex they were assigned at birth.
When finally the time arose for people to deliver testimonies, many individuals, mainly LGBTQ people of color, spoke on how this bill would jeopardize their privacy, their safety, and, ultimately, their lives. After each testimony, cheering and applause filled the room, though the council and HB2 supporters attempted to quiet the noise. Security guards even forcefully escorted one brave woman out the door. Many of us silently held signs advocating to repeal HB2, and I was one of them. During one particularly moving testimony, I let out a shout of encouragement, after which a gentleman behind me leaned forward and whispered, “Shut up.” The tension of the room was turned way, way up.
Had I not been an intern with AFSC, I likely would not have been at the city council meeting. I would not have known what it looks like when those in power use the rhetoric of “the safety of women and children” to marginalize the LGBTQ community. As a woman, I felt it was my duty to stand up to those in power and firmly declare: “You will not use my safety to hurt others. I refuse to be your political pawn. I do not need saving.”