Quaker Universalist Conversations

The AFSC is the reason I became a Quaker

A personal response to Greg Barnes’ A Centennial History of AFSC

Richard Van Dellen is a member of Rochester (MN) Friends Meeting and a longtime convinced Friend. In 2016 we published his review of Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifetime Activist, the autobiography of David Hartsough.

This piece rises from Friend Richard’s own long history with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). See AFSC Centennial for more information about the organizational history.

A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee, by Gregory A. Barnes (Friends Press, Philadelphia, 2016, 486 pp.)

A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee, by Gregory A. Barnes (2016) This book is a prodigious effort, and I thank Barnes for that—486 pages, with around 100 end notes after almost every chapter. Barnes had full access to the extensive American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) archives.

It is not clear to me what personal experience Barnes had with the AFSC. I think the book resulted mostly or solely from his study of the archives, the secondary sources listed and the interviews and email correspondence he lists.

Barnes did interview me, but I do not recall much about the interview and did not keep notes. I do recall there were things I wanted to talk about that he was not interested in.

Thomas Hamm, a Quaker historian, has reviewed the book for Friends Journal (April 2017, p.29). My comments here are not a book review but some personal reactions and reflections.

Some things Barnes did not include were important to me in my experience with AFSC. I include them with full awareness that Barnes could not cover everything in a book that is already long.

American Friends Service Committee logo
The AFSC is the reason I became a Quaker. We were active in the peace movement in the days of the United States war against Vietnam, and frequently ran across AFSC in those efforts. Unhappy with our own church’s stand on the war, we decided to inquire about Quakers.

In the late 60s we wrote a letter to the Des Moines office of the AFSC. In response we got a personal, informative, and warm letter from Cecil Hinshaw, then Executive Director of that region. That started our Quaker adventure.

A few years later I joined the local Twin Cities/Minneapolis regional board of AFSC. I was clerk for two years, during which time I attended the Des Moines regional board meetings. By then Warren Witte was the Regional Director.

The Minneapolis office was terminated after my time on that regional board, causing considerable pain and anger among local Friends. After that, my involvement was limited to contributions and occasional visits from fundraisers until 2003, when I joined the AFSC Board of Directors for six years.

I often have wondered what would happen today to the letter I originally sent to the regional office, given that so few of the staff are now Quakers, fewer than one half percent according to Barnes.

American Friends Service Committee logo
A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee is divided into sections by years, mostly four-to-seven-year stretches, in which Barnes covers changes in AFSC staff and structure, programs, and tensions within AFSC, as well as criticisms of AFSC from Quakers and others.

Under the heading “Harbingers” (pp.180 ff), Barnes mentions a letter from a Presbyterian pastor’s wife addressing Dr. Henry J. Cadbury and stating that AFSC is “pro-communist and subversive.” The woman’s letter also went to “important acquaintances” and found its way to the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C.

Then follows a letter from President Herbert Hoover to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, stating his concern that there is “collaboration of Quakers in some quarters with Communists.…”

In this chapter’s end notes we learn nothing about the woman and her acquaintances, or whether Hoover was referring specifically to the AFSC. I am a compulsive reader of footnotes and end notes. Unfortunately, the extensive end notes in this book are of little help to the reader. They reference sources that are often not readily accessible to the general public.

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Barnes refers to the AFSC pamphlet Speak Truth to Power published in 1955. He mentions it as the most influential of five booklets published around the same time (pp.77-78).

"Speak Truth to Power," published by AFSC in 1955 Barnes does not mention that the pamphlet was the work of 14 people, including Steve Cary, Cecil Hinshaw, Milton Mayer, A. J. Muste, Clarence Pickett, and Bayard Rustin (he does credit Pickett and Muste with editing the pamphlet).

Bayard Rustin1 requested that his name be omitted from the 1955 publication, since he thought his being gay might diminish any positive influence the booklet might have. The AFSC Board recognized that omission in 2009 after my Board stint. However, the pamphlet was not reprinted with that correction.
"In Place of War: An Inquiry into Nonviolent National Defense," published by the American Friends Service Committee in 1967
Larry Ingle wrote a 30-year retrospective on the effect of the pamphlet, published in the Christian Century (‘Speak Truth to Power’: A Thirty Years’ Retrospective,” April 17 1985, pp.383-85). Barnes fails to mention this article by Ingle, an odd omission since Ingle was one of the people who read an early draft.

Barnes also omits mention of the later 1967 publication of In Place of War: An Inquiry into Nonviolent National Defense.

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My first contact with AFSC came during the United States war against Vietnam.

Barnes discusses some of the AFSC efforts to protest the war, and he covers internal dissension, such the tension that led to the creation outside AFSC of A Quaker Action Group (AQAG).2 However, he gives scant attention to the Quaker Rehabilitation Center at Quảng Ngãi .3

"Once Upon a War," 1967 American Friends Service Committee documentarty about the Quaker Rehabilitation Center at Quảng Ngãi, Vietnam

Click image for video

Nor does he does mention the 1967 AFSC documentary film Once upon A War, which covers the work at Quảng Ngãi. When our local peace group was approached to help with a day-long discussion of the war at a high school, I tried to get the film shown but it was nixed by the principal. I ended up showing it at the youth center.

He does give coverage to Dr. Marjorie Nelson, a Quảng Ngãi staff person, and her friend, Sandra Johnson, being taken prisoner of war. The self-immolation by Norman Morrison is also mentioned, with the comment that “the AFSC came to accept his rationale and urgency” (p.234).

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During my time on the AFSC Board of Directors, I tried to visit regional offices when I could. For example, when in New York for another reason I visited the NY office (not high on many tourist lists), was warmly received, and learned of an ex-offender program.

I visited the Cambridge office when in Boston and met with the co-editors of Peacework, a publication that was stopped during the economic downturn. I learned of excellent prison and immigration work in the New Jersey, San Francisco, and Des Moines offices.

None of these programs is described in any detail by Barnes.

I worked several times on AFSC’s Eyes Wide Open or “Boots” exhibit,4 including two showings of the entire exhibit, and then I helped bring the Minnesota Boots to my own city.

"Eyes Wide Open," AFSC display of 800 pairs of boots on the National Mall in Washington, DC, representing American deaths in Iraaq
Barnes only comment: “Even the highly successful ‘Eyes Wide Open’ protest against the Iraq invasion brought a certain amount of blowback, as families of deceased soldiers objected to their loved ones names attached to the boots on the ground” (p.418). I do not think this “blowback” was unexpected, and many families applauded the effort.

Barnes states that “the slogan ‘War is Not the Answer’ was borrowed from another peace group” and was displayed widely (p.403). I believe the other peace group was Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).5

The Emergency Medical Aid Program (EMAP) was a successful program in responding to the Iraq sanctions (p.379).6 It involved thousands of children in the U.S and many Quaker meetings, our small Meeting being one. Barnes states: “Quaker Meetings small and large had already begun returning to the AFSC’s support via EMAP …” and “The AFSC had deftly exploited this connection…” (p.400, emphasis added). The use of the term “exploited” seems to me unfortunate.

Middle Eastern children from AFSC's "Resisting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan"

I don’t think Barnes adequately captured the pain and angst of the Board and organization leaders in discussing the economic downturn of 2008-2009 that led to so many layoffs. I ended my board service during this difficult time.

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Barnes describes well the gradually increasing disconnect between AFSC and some American Quakers.7 The Affirmative Action Program was a success, and many of those hired through that program were not Quakers (p.455). I am concerned about this shift in personnel, as are others throughout the Society of Friends.

Daniel Seeger, then AFSC staff, held a session at a Friends General Conference Gathering in Ithaca, NY,8 and reported back relevant Friends’ concerns that he thought AFSC should be attentive to. I believe this was a good faith effort to strengthen strained AFSC-Quaker connections. Barnes concentrates on the internal criticism of this effort (pp.273, 274).

In his discussion of dissent among Friends over AFSC’s choices, Barnes gives coverage to Evangelical Friends’ break with organization.9 He quotes criticisms from Oregon Yearly Meeting [now Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends ] that stated “AFSC attempts to spread the gospel of Unitarianism…” (pp.170, 179). Again, in the short final chapter, “Conclusion: On Quaker Service,” Barnes quotes from a 2015 minute of Northwest Yearly Meeting:

[The AFSC] consistently refuses to give relief in the name of Jesus Christ…[and AFSC] leaders have repeatedly expressed as the basis of their peace philosophy the universal goodness of man, or, as they so often state “that of God in every man,” which is contrary to the teaching of Romans the first chapter and other Scriptures. (pp.454, 455).

I am with AFSC here.

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Recent AFSC leadership has made efforts to improve the relationship between AFSC and Friends. Former General Secretary Mary Ellen McNish started a Friends Liaison staff position to support the Friends Relations Committee of the AFSC Board. That position was eliminated in the 2008-2009 staff cuts, but a similar effort, Friends Liason Program, was reinstated by outgoing General Secretary Shan Cretin.

At the 2016 Friends General Conference Gathering at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, MN, AFSC staff led five morning workshops, plus interest groups every afternoon.10 I was discouraged to learn that the AFSC staff stayed and ate off campus, thus not joining our Friends community. I can understand reasons for this, but it seemed to me an opportunity lost.

I hope the incoming General Secretary Joyce Ajlouny will continue to address this issue.

I agree with Steve Cary when he stated:

"The Intrepid Quaker: One Man’s Quest for Peace," by Stephen G. Cary (2003) The AFSC, like every human enterprise, sometimes disappoints, but I honor it for still being in the world year after year, grubbing around amid the ugly realities of violence and hatred, seeking to feed the hungry, reconcile the estranged, and restore faith to the despairing. In so doing it has helped to breathe new life and meaning into Jesus’ message for our time. Love, persistent and enduring, does overcome.

The Intrepid Quaker – One Man’s Quest for Peace:
Memoirs, Speeches, and Writings of Stephen G. Cary

(Pendle Hill Publication, 2003, p.81).


Notes & Image Sources

Image: American Friends Service Committee logo This symbol is the historical logo of American Friends Service Committee.

1 Editor’s Note: For more information about Bayard Rustin’s choice to remain closeted while working with AFSC, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s-60s, see sources such as the following:

2 The Quakers in the World article “Peace Witness and Relief Efforts during the Vietnam War” gives an account of this development:

In the autumn of 1966, aware that the need for humanitarian aid was even greater in North Vietnam than in the South, the AFSC applied for permission to send $6k of aid to North Vietnam. The US government refused on grounds that the North Vietnamese would not allow independent observers to ensure the aid reached civilians only.

The AFSC knew that to proceed would put them in violation of the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, and backed down. In response, a new, more radical group called ‘A Quaker Action Group (AQAG)’ formed and took charge of the operation for North Vietnam….

In February 1967, AQAG chartered a sailing vessel loaded with medical supplies, particularly penicillin, and sailed it into Haiphong harbour in North Vietnam…. On their return to the US, all the crew had their passports confiscated.

AQAG’s acts of civil disobedience were deeply controversial among American Quakers. Nevertheless, in 1968, the AFSC followed suit….

For more on AQAG, see “A Quaker Action Group” by George Lakey in the May 2000 issue of Friends Journal (pp.24-26). The article is excerpted from an interview with George Lakey by Roger Hansen on July 5, 1999. (Note: Only subscribers to Friends Journal have access to the Digital Edition Archive version of this issue.)

See also “The Best Intentions: Evaluating the Legacy of the American Friends Service Committee and the Vietnam War,” Benjamin Temple’s 2001 interview with his grandfather Louis Schneider about Schneider’s involvement in the Vietnam War for AFSC.

3 See “Quaker Rehabilitation Center, Quang Ngai, Vietnam (Cong-Tac Xa-Hoi Quaker Tai Viet-Nam, QUAKER SERVICE-VIETNAM, American Friends Service Committee, Excerpts, Report 1/28, March 1970) on the Civilian Public Service website.

4 Eyes Wide Open (EWO) was created to show the public the human cost of the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq (and subsequent war in Afghanistan). An AFSC web page describes the project:

Eyes Wide Open…features a pair of empty boots honoring each U.S. military casualty. The exhibit started in January 2004, when the US casualties in Iraq numbered 500….

As the casualties grew so did the exhibit and it toured the country extensively until May 2007, when the casualties in Iraq numbered 3500, and it was determined to split the exhibit up into smaller state-based exhibits.

Eyes Wide Open has been seen by millions of people across the country and has involved thousands of volunteers. Eyes Wide Open continues to tell the story of the human cost of war in 46 states with boots representing US deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and shoes representing Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

Image: “Eyes Wide Open @ National Mall, Washington, DC” is from the AFSC image files.

See also:

5 Editor’s Note: Another possibility is that the phrase first came into use thanks to the profoundly moving title song of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going on. Find the backstory for the song and album at “The Story Of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’” from National Public Radio (8/7/2000). The relevant stanza of the song is this one:

War is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

—Al Cleveland, Renaldo Benson and Marvin Gaye,
What’s Going On, What’s Going On (1971)

6 See “AFSC emphasizes “no more victims” in the U.S. or abroad” from ReliefWeb for an example of EMAP work (10/3/2001).

Image: Middle Eastern children, from AFSC’s “Resisting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Waging peace in the Internet age.”

7 The Historical Dictionary of the Religious Society of Friends by Margery Post Abbott (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012) describes this shift of Quaker opinions in its article on AFSC (pp.25-26):

Throughout its history, there have been differing discernments between AFSC and some yearly meetings. In the 1950s and 1960s, some Friends felt that AFSC was “too political” or “too left leaning.” In the late 1970s, AFSC adopted an affirmative action plan, based on the Quaker belief in the worth of every person and with the intent of more fully reflecting American society. Implementation of this plan caused tensions within AFSC and between the corporation and Friends, and some yearly meetings withdrew their support. AFSC maintains that it is possible to be diverse in composition, true to Quaker values, and divinely led.

8 1978 Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY – The Future: What Does the Lord Require…?.

9 For another example of the criticism from Evangelical Friends, see the article on AFSC on The Light Within, presented by Downington (PA) Friends Meeting:

Unlike the traveling ministers who were their spiritual forebears, the Friends who served in the AFSC projects didn’t proselytize. They believed that their projects and their lives should speak for them. In addition, from the first they had welcomed men and women of different faiths who shared their interest in finding an alternative to war. Respect for these differences inhibited a missionary approach.

Nevertheless, in Germany and France, as well as other European countries, the silent help of the Friends encouraged war-weary men and women to inquire about Quakerism. From this inquiry grew small but dynamic groups of Friends’ meetings in Europe. The refusal of AFSC workers to perform the more traditional missionary role disappointed more evangelical Friends and, in time, grew to become a source of conflict.

For an overview of the schisms beginning in the early 1800s which led to Quakerism’s differing branches, see “A Brief History of the Branches of Friends” on the Quaker Information Center website of Earlham School of Religion.

10 See “Acting in Faith with AFSC” from Schedule and Handouts for 2016 FGC Gathering.

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