American Friends Service Committee
|American Friends Service Committee|
|Founder(s)||17 members of the Religious Society of Friends|
|Headquarters||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA|
|Origins||Haverford, Pennsylvania, USA|
|Key people||Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary|
|Area served||Worldwide with U.S. emphasis|
|Slogan||Quaker values in action.|
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) affiliated organization which provides humanitarian relief and works for social justice, peace and reconciliation, human rights, and abolition of the death penalty. The group was founded in 1917, as a combined effort by American members of the Religious Society of Friends and assisted civilian victims of World War I.
Because Quakers traditionally oppose violence in all its forms and therefore refuse to serve in the military, the AFSC's original mission was to provide conscientious objectors (COs) to war with a constructive alternative to military service. Its program of Voluntary International Service Assignments (VISA) served as a model for the U.S. Peace Corps. In 1947, AFSC received the Nobel Peace Prize along with the British Friends Service Council, now called Quaker Peace and Social Witness, on behalf of all Quakers worldwide.
The Quaker view of peace and social justice has been controversial among some who reject the notion that pacifism can successfully confront the aggression of militaristic and totalitarian societies.
The basis for the peace work of the American Friends Service Committee is the Peace Testimony, also known as the Testimony Against War—a shorthand description of the stand generally taken by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) against participation in war and against military service as combatants. Like the other Quaker testimonies, it is less a "belief" than a commitment to act in a certain way, in this case to refrain from participation in war and to actively oppose it and those who participate in war. The Quakers' original refusal to bear arms has been broadened to embrace protests and demonstrations in opposition to government policies of war and confrontations with others who bear arms, whatever the reason, in the support of peace. Because of this core testimony, the Religious Society of Friends is considered one of the traditional peace churches. The peace testimony has inspired Quakers to protest wars, refuse to serve in armed forces if drafted, to seek conscientious objector status when available, and even to participate in acts of civil disobedience.
World War I
In April 1917—days after the United States joined World War I and declared war on Germany and its allies—a group of Quakers met in Philadelphia to discuss the pending military draft and how it would affect members of peace churches such as Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, and the Amish. They developed ideas for alternative service that could be done directly in the battle zones of northern France.
They also developed plans for addressing the issue of pacifism with the United States Army, which had been inconsistent in its dealing with religious objectors to previous wars. Although legally members of pacifist churches were exempt from the draft, individual state draft boards interpreted the law in a variety of ways. Many Quakers and other COs were ordered to report to army camps for military service. Some COs, unaware of the significance of reporting for duty, found that this was interpreted by the military as willingness to fight. One of the AFSC's first tasks was to identify COs, find the camps where they were located, and then visit them to provide spiritual guidance and moral support. (Howard Brinton, for example, visited a prison holding COs in North Carolina; this journey led to his going on an AFSC trip into the war zone itself.) In areas where the pacifist churches were more well known (such as Pennsylvania), a number of draft boards were willing to assign COs to the AFSC for alternative service.
In addition to conducting alternative service programs for COs, the AFSC collected relief in the form of food, clothing, and other supplies for displaced persons in France. Quakers were asked to collect old and make new clothing; to grow fruits and vegetables, can the fruits and vegetables, and send them to the AFSC headquarters in Philadelphia. The AFSC then shipped them to France. The AFSC also sent young women and men to work in France, where they worked with British Quakers to provide relief and medical care to refugees, repair and rebuild homes, and they jointly founded a maternity hospital.
After the end of the war in 1918, the AFSCs began working in Russia, Serbia, and Poland with orphans and the victims of famine and disease, and in Germany and Austria, where they set up kitchens to feed hungry children. Eventually AFSC was chartered by President Herbert Hoover to provide United States-sponsored relief to Germans.
World War II
During the 1930s and 1940s, the AFSC helped refugees escape from Nazi Germany, provided relief for children on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, and provided relief to refugees in Vichy France. After World War II ended, they did relief and reconstruction work in Europe, Japan, India, and China. In 1947, they worked to resettle refugees from the partition of India, and in the Gaza Strip.
The Cold War
As the Cold War escalated, the AFSC was involved in relief and service efforts around the world in conflicts including the Korean War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and the Algerian War. Beginning in 1966, the AFSC developed programs to help children and provided medical supplies and artificial limbs to civilians in both North Vietnam and South Vietnam. During the Nigerian Civil War-Biafran War, the AFSC provided relief to civilians on both the Nigerian and Biafran sides of the conflict.
In 1955, the Committee published Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. Focused on the Cold War, the 71-page pamphlet asserted that it sought "to give practical demonstration to the effectiveness of love in human relations." It was widely commented on in the press, both secular and religious.
In the United States, the AFSC continued the Quaker tradition of support for the American Civil Rights Movement, and the rights of African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans, including providing support for Japanese-Americans during their internment during World War II. The AFSC also has worked extensively as part of the peace movement, especially work to stop the production and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Programs and projects
Today, the AFSC has more than two hundred staff working in dozens of programs throughout the United States and works in 22 other nations. In the United States, AFSC has divided the country into nine regions, each of which runs programs related to peace, immigrant rights, restorative justice, civil rights, and other causes. AFSC's international programs often work in conjunction with the Canadian Friends Service Committee, Quaker Peace and Social Witness (formerly the British Friends Service Council), and Quaker Service Australia.
The AFSC is still based in Philadelphia in Friends Center, a building attached to the Cherry Street Meetinghouse, one of the oldest churches in the United States.
Among the many ongoing programs of AFSC, in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, AFSC launched the Eyes Wide Open Exhibit. This exhibit travels around the United States displaying in public spaces one pair of combat boots for each American killed in the ongoing fighting in Iraq. Additionally, more than one thousand pairs of donated civilian shoes are displayed as a reminder of the Iraqis killed in the conflict. The exhibit is intended as a reminder of the human costs of war.
AFSC also provides administrative support to the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in New York City. This office is the official voice of Quakerism in the United Nations headquarters. There is a second QUNO office in Geneva, Switzerland; support for that office is provided by European Friends. QUNO is overseen by the Friends World Committee for Consultation.
For its anti-war and anti-capital punishment stance, the AFSC receives criticism from many socially conservative groups alleging that the AFSC has supported communist activities and because of its assistance to illegal aliens wishing to stay in the United States. Since the 1970s, criticism has also come from liberals within the Society of Friends, who charge that AFSC has drifted from its Quaker roots and become indistinguishable from other political pressure groups. Quakers expressed concern with AFSC's abolition of their youth work camps during the 1960s and what some saw as a decline of Quaker participation in the organization. The criticisms became most prominent after a gathering of Friends General Conference in Richmond, Indiana, in summer 1979, when rank and file Friends joined more prominent ones, such as Kenneth Boulding, to call for a firmer Quaker orientation toward public issues. Some Jews have taken aim at AFSC for what they charge is an anti-Jewish bias because AFSC has a long history of listening sympathetically to, even sometimes siding with, Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Throughout much of the group's history, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has monitored the work of the organization.
- American Friends Service Committee. Struggle for Justice. A Report on Crime and Punishment in America, Prepared for the American Friends Service Committee. Hill and Wang, 1971. ISBN 9780809089277.
- American Friends Service Committee. In Place of War; an Inquiry into Nonviolent National Defense. Grossman, 1967. OCLC 610840.
- Szumski, Bonnie, et. al. Social Justice: Opposing Viewpoints. Greenhaven Press, 1984. ISBN 9780899083230.
All links retrieved May 17, 2021.
- American Friends Service Committee
- SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence quaker.org.
- Quaker United Nations Offices
- AFSC's Street Spirit newspaper
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