Working for Peace for 96 Years

Building on a Legacy of Quaker Action

Friends oppose and refuse to engage in war and violence. In pursuit of lasting, sustainable peace, they seek to eliminate causes of violent conflict, such as poverty, exploitation, and intolerance. In renouncing war and violence, Friends embrace the transforming power of nonviolence, striving for peace in daily interactions with family, neighbors, fellow community members, and those from every corner of the world.
— American Friends Service Committee, An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies

AFSC History

Hoover's feeding program in the 1920s.
Hoover’s feeding program in the 1920s.

The American Friends Service Committee was born on April 30, 1917, just twenty-four days after the United States entered World War I. Friends who were old enough to have lived with the devastating consequences of the Civil War feared that their children, who had never seen the face of war, would be caught up in the wave of patriotic fervor sweeping the country, that they would be drawn to enlist in the military in the belief that it would serve peace.

Inspired by the work of British Friends, AFSC was created to provide alternatives to military service, ways to work for peace that were grounded in the Quaker commitment to respect every human life. Within five months of its creation, the AFSC gathered 100 (mostly) young people at Haverford College to train in masonry, carpentry, and agriculture (skills needed for the relief effort) before shipping them off to France. This first great project taken on by the Service Committee was of a scope and scale that clearly exceeded the capacity of any monthly, quarterly, or yearly meeting to carry out. Friends were able to make this dramatic witness because they came together to work across administrative, geographic, and even theological boundaries.

1920: Germany after World War I.
1920: Germany after World War I.

When the young people returned from France, they had seen for themselves how war and violence are inextricably linked to poverty, exploitation, and injustice. They had encountered the segregated units of African American soldiers with their white commanders, and they could not help but see their own country with new eyes. The passage of the draconian Johnson-Reed Immigration Act and the Asian Exclusion Act further exposed the deep-seated racial prejudices that permeated white society, including the Religious Society of Friends. By the 1920s, the Service Committee understood that racism must be addressed, not as a characteristic of flawed individuals but as a consequence of deeply flawed systems. Advocating for civil rights for African Americans was decades away from mainstream acceptance. Yet the Service Committee’s minutes and other archival documents strongly convey the sense that they took on these issues, not due to political convictions, but out of deeply grounded spiritual reflection.

The Friends leading AFSC understood with John Woolman and Martin Luther King Jr. that war and poverty are interconnected; that our mutual interdependence binds our futures; that caring and respectful economic development must ensure wellbeing for all, including work with dignity; that institutions and governments must be fair and accountable.

1930s: Miners in West Virginia.
1930s: Miners in West Virginia.

One example of the Service Committee’s work in those early years occurred in the coalfields of West Virginia. For two months in 1922, AFSC provided daily meals to 750 children of miners who had been locked out of work in a bitter labor dispute. The Red Cross had planned a relief program but then withdrew after pressure from the mine operators. By 1931 the situation in the coalfields reached a dire state in the wake of the Great Depression, and AFSC was asked to return to provide relief to the families of miners. They agreed to do so after explaining to President Hoover “that the Service Committee does not undertake relief work merely” but must combine relief with “some other aspect of reconciliation or … help to solve the breakdown of civilization.” As Mary Hoxie Jones later recounted, these Friends understood that the work in West Virginia required dealing with a “decadent industry” in a part of the country where “industrial conflicts are intensified by racial conflicts.” Not surprisingly, this early economic justice work was controversial. Quaker businessmen warned against siding with labor in the mining disputes.

From its earliest days, the Service Committee also worked at a global level to build relationships with those our government deemed pariah states. After the armistice, AFSC provided famine relief in Germany and the newborn Communist state of the USSR. These were controversial, highly political actions in the day. In 1918 Henry J. Cadbury, one of the founders of AFSC, was forced to resign from his Haverford College teaching position for criticizing the anti-German hysteria that followed the end of WWI. Russian famine relief required working with people labeled “Communists” during the country’s first red scare. As a result, the AFSC earned its first entry into what would become a rather lengthy FBI file.

Since our work in France and Germany in 1918, the Service Committee has understood that conflicts are only truly resolved through restorative means and without force or coercion. At the end of World War II, France, Germany, and England finally understood that centuries of war and conflict must come to an end. Henry Cadbury must have been gratified when Europeans, having seen the failure of the punitive Treaty of Versailles, sought to rebuild and reconcile in 1946. The 2012 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union honors the courage, compassion, and imagination required to break the cycle of violence. In the Nobel Lecture from the European Union, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, spoke of the Treaty of Friendship signed by France and Germany:

What makes it so special is reconciliation. In politics as in life, reconciliation is the most difficult thing. It goes beyond forgiving and forgetting, or simply turning the page. To think of what France and Germany had gone through … and then take this step … signing a Treaty of Friendship…. Each time I hear these words—Freundschaft, Amitié—I am moved. They are private words, not for treaties between nations. But the will to not let history repeat itself, to do something radically new, was so strong that new words had to be found.

When I look at the Service Committee today, I see an organization that reflects the same commitments and values. We are actively re-affirming our understanding of what it means to be a Quaker organization, with a board and corporation that directs our work in a spirit of worship and discernment. Reaching out to yearly meetings, monthly meetings, and churches, we carry out our witness and learn to be a respectful, privileged ally to communities that live daily with the consequences of physical and systemic violence.

The Religious Society of Friends Today

The author in Burundi.
The author in Burundi.

Before joining AFSC staff, I served as the clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting. Then and now I saw my ministry among Friends as re-knitting the two essential components of Quakerism: our worship and our witness. In my monthly and yearly meetings, Friends were too frequently classified into “spiritual Friends” and “activist Friends.” But what drew me to Friends was the radical vision of a primitive Christianity that refused to make that distinction. Our spiritual journey is an opportunity to learn what we are called to do in the world. And Spirit is calling us to follow our leading, not settle for an easy gesture that salves our conscience without righting the wrongs. Spirit leads us to witness to the fact that every person on this Earth is a child of God, that acting out of love is a force far more powerful than any sword or gun, and this can and does overcome hate and evil.

Conversations with those serving our yearly meetings and yearly meeting-based Quaker organizations suggest that the Religious Society of Friends in the United States struggles with its identity today as much as it did in 1917. Our young Friends look to reclaim the vision of George Fox, of a great people to be gathered, yet we too often stay focused on differences that divide. Is it possible that we could set aside our differences long enough to unite around our witness in the world? Is it possible that uniting around our outward witness could enrich and ignite our inward connection to Spirit? Is it possible that our vitality depends on embracing the leadership of young Friends?

The speed with which AFSC came into being in 1917—at a time when Quakers were deeply divided by their theology—was largely due to the energy and leadership of Henry Cadbury, Vincent Nicholson, and Garfield Cox, who in 1915 had initiated a National Peace Committee that brought together Friends from different theological traditions. Henry Cadbury was then 31 years old; Vincent Nicholson, 25; and Garfield Cox, 24!

This National Peace Committee called the meeting that established the Service Committee, inviting five persons from each of its three constituent groups: Five Years Meeting, Friends General Conference, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Arch Street). As historian William J. Frost notes, the Service Committee was founded as a faith-based organization that did not proselytize its fractured faith but only asked to be judged on its deeds.

In recent years, the Service Committee has worked with Burundi Evangelical Friends Church in Bujumbura. We have come together around our passion for peacebuilding, leaving behind theological disagreements. In a country deeply affected by violent conflict, Burundi Friends have inspired and humbled me with their vibrant peace ministry: Healing and Rebuilding our Communities, Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, Friends Women’s Association clinic, and youth work. These ministries engage dozens of volunteers and paid staff. Some reach across country borders to Rwanda, Kenya, and the Congo. Any one of these ministries accomplishes much more than most North American meetings undertake in a decade, let alone in a year. They have contributed to spiritual depth in worship and impressive growth in church membership.

Vision for the next 100 years of Quaker witness

As AFSC approaches its hundredth anniversary, we have an opportunity once again to join with Friends everywhere to be a forceful witness for peace, addressing the roots of violence, exploitation, and militarism at home and abroad.

At the end of World War II, the United States chose to maintain our military on a permanent war footing, and we have been almost continually at war ever since. Over the same period, our citizenry has privately armed itself to an unprecedented degree, and many young people, especially youth of color, have seen their communities become war zones in misguided and misdirected wars on crime and drugs. The top one percent now holds 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and takes home 25 percent of the income, while the bottom 40 percent has only 0.2 percent of the wealth and less than 10 percent of the income.

Eyes Wide Open exhibition on the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Eyes Wide Open exhibition on the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the same 60 years, nearly every corner of the globe has been scarred by some form of military intervention, proxy war, armed revolution, civil war, ethnic cleansing, or war waged by non-state actors (whether narco-traffickers, pirates, or religious fundamentalists). Although there has been progress in reducing the number of people living in the most impoverished conditions—on less than $1.25 per day—the poor are increasingly concentrated in fragile states affected by conflict. By 2015, 60 percent of the poor will live in such failed and failing states.

These challenges come at a moment of great opportunity. In the decades since Gandhi led India’s successful nonviolent revolution, the use of nonviolence to effect social change has been steadily increasing. Now there is mounting evidence that resorting to armed violence is not an effective way to build and sustain peace. In their seminal 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan analyzed 323 violent and nonviolent efforts to bring about social and political change from 1900 to 2006 and found (to their surprise but not to mine) that nonviolent resistance is twice as effective as violent revolution in bringing about regime change or ending occupations, even against repressive regimes. And nonviolent movements were far more likely to establish democracies and protect human rights, and far less likely to lapse into civil war than were their violent counterparts. In 2011, Swarthmore College launched the Global Nonviolent Action Database cataloging hundreds of nonviolent campaigns.

Ceremony in Yogyakarta, Indonesia's "City of Tolerance."
Ceremony in Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s “City of Tolerance.”

The May 2012 issue of Science reviewed a wide range of research on the social and biologic factors contributing to human conflict. Behavioral analysis research has also provided evidence-based tools for replacing a culture of violence in schools and organizations with a culture of peace. In short, there are growing resources to strengthen the power of our spirit-led witness for peace!

To capture this moment, the Service Committee is launching two interlinked initiatives to demonstrate the power of nonviolence and overturn the false narrative that true security can be based on war and violence. We invite Friends everywhere to join us over the next five years as we convene, network, and persistently raise our collective voice to create narratives, images, and pathways to peace while challenging the effectiveness and glorification of militarism.

In early April 2013, Friends Committee on National Legislation and AFSC jointly sponsored a consultation bringing together an impressive array of experienced and expert Friends to re-imagine a U.S. foreign policy based on shared humanity and shared security. These energized Friends began building answers that will bring us beyond mere opposition to war and into a Quaker corporate witness on practical steps to establish lasting peace grounded in justice, healing, and dignity. We envision building partnerships that will bring practitioners and researchers together to learn and improve our work as we go. To transform the culture of militarism, we must draw on spiritual and emotional as well as rational appeals. In its exhibition on the human cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Eyes Wide Open, AFSC offered a respectful, even prayerful, visual reminder that lives lost in war are more than statistics. Artists, musicians, film-makers, poets, social scientists, and peace practitioners all have something to contribute to a clear-eyed, open-hearted look at the human costs of funding war—the costs of not investing in in education, health, and sustainable economic opportunities.

A second and parallel initiative will build and promote palpable demonstrations of the power of nonviolence to change lives affected by violence and violent systems of oppression. It will occur where victims and ex-combatants live and work side-by-side: in schools in Los Angeles, in prisons in Maryland, among young people in Indonesia, and in Burundi’s Peace Villages. Trauma healing, conflict resolution, restorative justice, and reconciliation are important, but we also must stop the source of trauma: the idea that violence and coercion are effective ways to bring peace, a mindset that has captured too much of our country.

Crystal Gonzales, Peace Education Coordinator, teaching an AFSC Youth Leadership class at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angles.
Crystal Gonzales, Peace Education Coordinator, teaching an AFSC Youth Leadership class at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angles.

We should be inspired by the graduate of AFSC’s youth program in Los Angeles who helped organize a youth-led, statewide campaign to change the Zero Tolerance policies in California high schools, policies that led more students to be expelled and suspended than were graduated each year. The burden fell most heavily on men and boys of color who were being criminalized and sent to juvenile court for discipline problems that formerly were handled in the principal’s office. As a result of this campaign, four new laws were passed and signed that mandated restorative justice and positive behavior reinforcement in schools and that supported training for teachers and school administrators.

In a lecture to Harvard divinity students in 1936, Henry Cadbury shared his “personal religion.” He began by saying that he was very comfortable leaving open the questions of the existence of God and life after death. He subscribed to the Quaker tradition that “religion is a way of life,” that the “way to know a religion is to see a religious personality in action” ( The Service Committee aspires to let others know the Quaker faith by seeing that faith in action. AFSC brought Friends together in 1917, and the world was changed sufficiently so that Quakers were recognized in 1947 with the Nobel Peace Prize. As AFSC approaches its centenary, we see the opportunity to work with Friends and like-minded partners to once again bring healing and justice to communities under the yoke of violence, and once again to challenge the world to turn its swords—and drones—into ploughshares.

Shan Cretin

Shan Cretin is general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. Prior to her appointment in 2010, she served as director of the AFSC's Pacific Southwest Region. She has served as clerk of Pacific Yearly meeting, co-founded the Los Angeles chapter of Alternatives to Violence Project, and serves on the board of the directors of the California Endowment.

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