The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was founded in 1917 by members of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States in order to provide young Quakers and other conscientious objectors to war with an opportunity to perform a service of love in wartime. In the ensuing years, the Committee has continued to serve as a channel for Quaker concerns growing out of the basic Quaker belief that «there is that of God in every man» and the basic Quaker faith that the power of love can «take away the occasion for all wars». Though the Religious Society of Friends itself is small, the work of the Committee is supported by thousands of like-minded men and women of many races, creeds, and nationalities, who serve on its staff or make contributions, both financial and spiritual, to its ongoing programs.
These programs are varied indeed. Through the years, the Committee has perhaps been best known for its work of relief and rehabilitation for the victims of war. In 1917, at its inception, it sent young men and women to France where they worked in cooperation with British Friends, feeding and caring for refugee children, founding a maternity hospital, repairing and rebuilding homes, and providing returning refugees with the necessities with which to start life once more.
With the cessation of hostilities in 1918, the work of the Service Committee spread into other war-ravaged lands: into Russia where workers helped to fight famine and disease, into Poland and Serbia where they established an orphanage and helped in agricultural rehabilitation, into Germany and Austria where they fed hungry children.
Eventually the Quaker service teams completed these tasks and went home, leaving behind them small Quaker centers to supervise the turnover of projects and to give support to the small groups of nationals who had become interested in Quakerism during the time of war relief. Scarcely, however, had the problems of World War I been met than the problems of the 1930’s called forth fresh efforts. Quaker workers were soon engaged in helping refugees escape from Hitler’s Germany; in providing relief for children on both sides of the Spanish Civil War; with feeding refugees in occupied France; and later, in helping victims of the London blitz.
The end of World War II brought a burst of AFSC effort, with Quakers engaged in relief and reconstruction in many of the countries of Europe, as well as in India, China, and Japan. In 1947, the Committee helped to resettle refugees who had lost their homes as a result of communal rioting upon the partition of India; and in 1948, Quaker workers undertook a program of relief for Arab refugees on the Gaza Strip. The Korean War, the Hungarian Revolution, the Algerian War all produced fresh openings for Quaker service. In 1966, the AFSC undertook programs of child care and prosthetics with war-injured Vietnam civilian refugees and their children and, shortly after this, extended their aid to civilians in North Vietnam and in the areas held by the National Liberation Front through gifts of medical supplies. During the Nigerian-Biafran War there were Quaker workers on both sides of the battle, and after the cessation of hostilities the Friends stayed on for a program of rehabilitation.
But while continuing thus to minister to the victims of man’s inhumanity to man around the world, the AFSC has turned its attention more and more to programs designed to relieve the tensions from which wars come. Since the disparity between rich and poor nations is one cause of such tensions, the Service Committee has concentrated since World War II on the establishment of programs of social and technical assistance in developing nations – among them, Pakistan, India, Zambia, Peru, Mexico, and Algeria. Work in the area of family planning is conducted in Hong Kong, India, and elsewhere, usually in conjunction with other ongoing AFSC projects.
In a related effort to get at potential sources of tension, AFSC has sought since the early 1950’s to bring together mid-career diplomats from many nations in informal, off-the-record conferences where they may come to know each other as human beings, free of the armature of office. Beginning in Europe, this program has been extended to Africa and all parts of Asia and expanded to include young leaders and professionals as well as diplomats. In Japan, in India, in Washington, D.C., and at UN headquarters, both in Geneva and New York, Quaker workers seek to bring together men and women who may be in a position to help prevent conflicts between their nations from developing.
Recognizing that most conflicts have their roots in injustice, the Quaker organization has been long concerned with eliminating such injustice at home. This has led to a long history of involvement with the American Indian, the Mexican-American, the migrant worker, the prisoner, the black, the poor. The AFSC’s approach is to help these people find the tools with which to organize themselves for community action and thus obtain the better schools, better housing, better working conditions they deserve.
Also throughout the United States, the AFSC works continually to create an informed public opinion on the issues of war and peace. By means of speaking tours, by publication of peace literature, through a campaign to end the draft, through its own vigils and participation in demonstrations and protests sponsored by others, the Committee works to arouse Americans against the dangers of increasing militarism and to inform them of the status of the military-industrial complex in the United States. In this work, as in many other areas, young people are drawn into the AFSC by their desire to make a positive witness against war and injustice.
«A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it;» wrote William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century; «let us then try what love can do.» When the AFSC celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1967, «To See What Love Can Do» became its motto.
This selected bibliography includes items concerning both the Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee.
Bacon, Margaret H., The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America. With a Foreword by Henry J. Cadbury. New York, Basic Books, 1969.
Davies, Arfor Tegla, Friends Ambulance Unit: The Story of the FAU in the Second World War, 1939-1946. London, Allen & Unwin, 1947.
Fry, Anna Ruth, A Quaker Adventure: The Story of Nine Years’ Relief and Reconstruction. London, Nisbet, 1926.
Hall, Willis H., Quaker International Work in Europe since 1914. Savoie, France, Chambéry, 1938.
Hodgkin, Henry Theodore, Friends beyond Seas. London, Headley, 1916.
Jones, Mary Hoxie, Swords into Ploughshares: An Account of the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1937. New York, Macmillan, 1937.
Jones, Rufus Matthew, A Service of Love in Wartime: American Friends’ Relief Work in Europe, 1917-1919. New York, Macmillan, 1920.
Milligan, Edward Hyslop, The Past Is Prologue: 100 Years of Quaker Service Overseas. London, Friends Service Council, 1968.
Pickett, Clarence E., For More than Bread: An Autobiographical Account of 22 Years’ Work (1929-1952) with the AFSC. Boston, Little, Brown, 1953.
Russell, Elbert, The History of Quakerism. New York, Macmillan, 1942.
Scott, Richenda Clara, Quakers in Russia. London, Michael Joseph, 1964.
Trueblood, D(avid) Elton, The People Called Quakers, especially Chapter 13, «The Penetration of the World». New York, Harper & Row, 1966.
Wilson, Roger Cowan, Quaker Relief: An Account of the Relief Work of the Society of Friends, 1940-1948. London, Allen & Unwin, 1952.
Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
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