Quakers and AFSC Work Together for Peace with Justice
I began my work as Friends Liaison with American Friends Service Committee in August 2011. In September the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted, and a large encampment was created here in Philadelphia at City Hall. I had planned to spend the first three or four months in my new position listening to staff and to Quakers about their vision for a collaborative partnership between AFSC and Friends. It was clear the distance between the two groups had become a habit, and avenues for working together had become scant.
As the Occupy encampment emerged on Dilworth Plaza at City Hall, there began a way to experiment with a different type of relationship with Friends, at least local Philadelphia Friends. AFSC bought a large tent—almost embarrassingly spacious—and provided some leadership in scheduling activities in what would become the Interfaith Tent at Occupy Philadelphia. We arranged events inside the tent, hosted a revolutionary nonviolence series in collaboration with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at Friends Center, and supported all those who showed up to cook meals for participants at Central Philadelphia Meeting’s large kitchen. We participated in town hall meetings in the tent and hosted Jesse Jackson when he came to town. Until the end, when the bulldozers came to shut down the encampment, Quakers were there.
I had just begun the Acting in Faith blog, and for months, Quakers and AFSC staff wrote about the movement. Noah Baker Merrill’s post “We are All Moses” received over 1,000 page views, which for us was a large readership at the time. We helped to connect and support Friends across the country who were supporting the emerging movement. I recognize and share the critique that followed, particularly around race issues. This was, however, an experiment in relating to Friends, and it helped set the direction for years to come.
When I asked Quakers what they wanted in terms of an enlivened partnership with AFSC, they said, “Please ask us to get involved in ways other than giving you money.” They cited the way Quaker meetings were draft counseling centers during the Vietnam War, and expressed a longing for this kind of collective witness.
When I asked AFSC staff what they envisioned, they said, “We are smaller now. Can Quaker meetings help us to move forward on the issues we work on? Can Quaker meetings be like small social justice centers helping us further our work?”
Those early experiments with the Occupy movement and those interviews formed the basis for all the ways we’ve tried since then to connect Friends and AFSC, to stoke the fire of powerful, Spirit-led activism. Workcamps were mentioned often as powerful, transformative spaces. Although AFSC was clear that hosting privileged people to work with impacted communities was not going to be our approach, hearing people’s desire for transforming experience has informed the vision we have been working to enact since then.
Another goal of this work has been to encourage and support Quaker meetings in reclaiming collective social change and peace work. While many Quakers are engaged, most of the activity in the past decades has come from individuals or from meetings’ minutes of exercise, rather than a collective witness of Quakers working together for change. In some ways, Quakers subcontracted prophetic witness to AFSC. Instead of working for social change as working for Quakers, a core part of the Service Committee’s aim became the emboldening and supporting of Quakers to walk on their own terms with AFSC and social justice movements, to reclaim social change witness as a spiritual commitment.
So, what have we built? We have built spaces for that relationship: spaces in which AFSC staff can teach and learn from Quakers, and Quakers can teach and learn from AFSC staff. We have built ways to engage with one another, ways to support movement building and taking action together for social change.
Acting in Faith (afsc.org/friends)
We have published over 300 Acting in Faith posts by Friends, activists, and staff, and we have received nearly 346,000 unique page views since we started the blog, 161,000 in the past year. As it was the first part of AFSC’s website to provide the opportunity for commenting, it has been a place for conversation, critique, dialogue, and exchange. One post, Vonn New’s “Note to self: White people taking part in #BlackLivesMatter protests,” has received on its own over 90,000 unique page views, the most read page ever on AFSC’s website.
Calls for Spirited Action (afsc.org/spiritedaction)
For nine months each year, we host monthly calls focused on key issues and ways to become involved in faith-based activism. These calls have been informal times for exchange and conversation. In December 2016 we hosted a call with AFSC’s Jamie Bissonette Lewey on Standing Rock and had 52 people participating; in January we hosted a call on the topic Sanctuary Everywhere, in which we discussed a new framework for activism. More than 70 people participated. These calls offer expertise and connection with Quakers across the country working together for change.
Acting in Faith with AFSC at the FGC Gathering (afsc.org/fgc)
An idea for a meeting between AFSC and Quakers came from a member of our Friends Relation Committee: a Common Ground meeting where AFSC and Quakers would learn about an issue and build power and skill together. This has been a core strategy vision in the last few years and is most vividly manifested at a mini conference within the Friends General Conference Gathering. We offer a four- or five-day, 15-hour workshop on topics ranging from “Living into Racial Justice” to “Immigrant Testimony and Action Tools” to “Economic Activism for Peace and Justice.” We run a full events schedule in the afternoon featuring AFSC’s and Quakers’ work for justice. We always host a panel on racism among Friends, have had George Lakey present on his latest book, and Paula Palmer on her research on Quaker involvement with Indian boarding schools. We offer two or three interest groups, and this coming year we are offering a plenary address titled “You Just Have to be Human: Following the Leadings of Spirit toward Liberation.” This space offers time to engage with one another deeply and to come together to prepare for action. One participant said, “These [AFSC events] are so hope-giving. To be able to see AFSC’s relevance to Quaker values before our eyes, and to be brought up to date on issues/work they’ve given careful discernment to that I haven’t even noticed yet—priceless!”
Travel among Friends (afsc.org/inviteafsc)
When I started my work in 2011, AFSC had a reputation for having staff show up at yearly meetings to make presentations and then leave. So it was a priority to encourage connections between AFSC staff and Quakers at yearly meetings. To that end, I run a yearly meeting visitors program that encourages staff to stay for the full sessions and build relationships as well as offer AFSC resources. Through this program, I’ve seen relationships deepen and lay the ground for powerful partnerships. For example, Lis-Marie Alvarado visited Southeastern Yearly Meeting, and now Miami Friends are ready to lead Sanctuary efforts in the area. I also coordinate staff visitation to monthly meetings during the year and have found those events powerful occasions for relationship building, mobilization, and connection.
Undoing racism among Friends
Because discrimination and racism are key causes of war and violence, and because this is a rising concern among Friends, we have prioritized a goal to awaken to the impacts and work to end racism since the first days of our Friends Relations work. We’ve written about racism and white supremacy extensively, led workshops, made presentations, created a curriculum (“Denormalizing Whiteness for Racial Justice”), and offered the art installation “39 Questions for White People” by Naima Lowe as a resource for fostering conversations and insight. One meeting said of the exhibit, “The discussion was spontaneous. The questions triggered memories and events from participants . . . the PR and buzz this installation created brought new people into our meeting.” For me, this work is a primary spiritual commitment, deeply connected to our journey toward spiritual wholeness.
Partnerships with other Quaker organizations
A core strategy from the beginning of our work has been to be in community with Friends where they are: from yearly meetings to Quaker Facebook groups to the FGC Gathering to Friends World Committee for Consultation events to Quaker journals. To further this effort, we have collaborated with other Quaker organizations on mutually beneficial work: one joint effort has been four QuakerSpeak videos with Friends Journal, which have received over 36,000 views. We’ve regularly sent articles for publication to Quaker journals (especially Friends Journal, as for this centennial issue). We’ve cosponsored two conferences with Pendle Hill, one on the U.S. prison system (Ending Mass Incarceration) and one on restorative justice practices (Beyond Crime and Punishment). We’ve partnered with Quaker Voluntary Service in hosting alumni Fellows the past two years. Supporting one another’s missions and stoking the fire for Spirit-led activism works best when we work together.
Quaker Social Change Ministry (afsc.org/qscm)
When we started to provide resources and offer trainings around core issues to Friends, we did so with a sense that Quakers were equipped for community organizing and moving the issue forward. While there are some amazing Quaker organizers around, many of them work outside their meetings. True collective social justice work within meetings was far rarer than I anticipated. We started to look for ways to foster such activism and were led to a model based on Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust that was developed by Unitarian ministers in Denver: Spirit-based, small group social change work based on accompaniment. This past year we piloted the model with five meetings and built out the resources for support.
A Quaker Social Change Ministry group is a place to worship, build trust, take risks, make mistakes, learn together, and deepen the connection between social change and spiritual growth. The QSCM group becomes a home base from which Friends engage with the world and return for reflection, discussion, and renewal. QSCM connects Friends to that which is larger than ourselves and calls us into right relationship as we walk beside our partners and endeavor to co-create the beloved community. Participants in the pilot found that the program deepened their connections and their work. Quaker Social Change Ministry has filled a need in Quaker meetings for Spirit-led ministry and for a desire for a deeper relationship with AFSC.
These are some of the mechanisms and spaces we’ve created to foster a deeper, transforming relationship with Friends. There are more ways to engage with us, you can find them all at afsc.org/friendsengage.
At this moment we stand eager to support Friends who seem ready for a deeper level of engagement in the current political context. We are excited to support the courageous many who are ready to step into what Parker Palmer calls the “tragic gap, the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible.”
What we can create together if we are courageous and support one another is no less than deep transformation of ourselves and of society. What we are called to is what Noah Baker Merrill wrote six years ago about being called to be faithful together:
Something I know from experience is that we can’t truly “answer that of God in every one” in the abstract, in some vague distant world of analysis and political ideology that hovers aloof above the fray, as if Quakers are somehow too good at nonviolent social change to actually get involved. I think we have fallen into this too often. Margaret Fell might call this “having the form of godliness, but not the power.” It can look pretty good, but it’s hollow where it matters.
We can answer that of God in this moment so pregnant with expectation by being willing to know and work with our neighbors, all those people who for whatever reason are feeling the call to be part of this emerging newness, amidst so much apathy and despair. We can do it by being willing to enter into relationship, to participate in the messy, confusing, turbulent way that movements happen. . . . We have to participate if we are to be changed.