Quaker Theology #32 -- Spring 2018

The AFSC and Quaker Service: A Reappraisal

by Chuck Fager
Friends Journal, October 1, 1979

    After  taking part in numerous recent discussions about the American Friends Service Committee and its relationship with the Society of Friends, there are several reflections on the dialogue I would like to share.

    First,  these   discussions do not constitute an attack, direct or indirect, on the AFSC. The summary of concerns prepared as a result of the discussions held at Friends General Conference in July at Earlham College opened with a declaration of “warm support for the AFSC as the major Quaker service agency,” adding that “many of the firmest statements of support came from Friends with the most deeply-felt concerns.” Baltimore Yearly Meeting, a month later, exhibited a similar attitude in the minute it adopted which at the same time expressed support for dialogue about Friends’ concerns and appreciation for the work and the role of the AFSC. Because the AFSC has sometimes been subjected to strong and even intemperate criticism from outside Quaker circles, it is important at the outset to underline the “basically affirmative context,’‘ as the Earlham summary put it, in which this discussion is taking place.

    One other reason why the non-adversarial character of this discussion needs to be emphasized is that, in my judgment, there is more going on here than simply the development of a critique of one particular organization. To be sure, many specific concerns have been voiced about various AFSC programs and policies, and all of these specifics need to be addressed. Yet I am convinced that beyond these specifics, like the forest that encompasses a group of individual trees, is something broader than concern over the AFSC itself. I believe what we are witnessing is the beginning of a major reconsideration by many Friends of the meaning of Quaker service in our time, a process of widespread and burgeoning searching out of how the Spirit of God is calling us to act on our faith in the world as a Religious Society.

    Such a process of reexamination is almost necessarily a scattered, somewhat unfocussed and inarticulate one at first, because we have no pope, no church councils, no priestly elite to do this sort of seeking and thinking for us. We must do it for ourselves, as best we can.

    Thus groping our way, it is not surprising that many of us focus on an existing institution like the AFSC, which has so visibly and so long been acting on its own evolving understanding of Quaker service. And if, as I believe to be the case, many Friends’ sense of what Quaker service means is changing significantly, the direction of that most visible organization’s work may come to be seen as incongruous with these leadings–and this without the organization having done anything “wrong.” Moreover, any adjustments that may then be made are not admissions of failure or fault, but simply changes made in response to new leadings.

    As an example of this, consider the course of AFSC programs for youth involvement. At one time AFSC was famous for its youth work camps; it appears that much of a whole Quaker generation– not to mention thousands of non-Quaker youth– were introduced to social issues, Friends’ principles in action, and other cultures through these efforts. But in the Sixties these programs were seen as losing effectiveness, and were eventually laid down. Today a wide range of Quakers have stated a clear desire to have new opportunities for service by youth offered through the AFSC. The AFSC staff and Board  have heard this expression of concern, and are attempting to respond to it, in ways appropriate to the very different conditions of the 1980s.

    In no part of this evolution, in my view, has the AFSC done anything “wrong.” “The spirit blows where it wills,” declares the Gospel of John, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes....” Once Quakers felt that a certain variety of youth programs should be a major part of AFSC’s form of Quaker service; later, by and large, we thought differently; now it appears we are led to call for new youth programs. The wind keeps blowing.

    I believe this call for new youth programs is but the first concrete result of this expanding review of Quaker service, and the AFSC response to it is encouraging. Other elements, which have yet to become clear in the discussion, I think, will involve such things as structure and governance;  provision of service opportunities for meetings and Friends of all ages; bridging the gap between unprogrammed and programmed Friends in this area; and a special emphasis on maintaining the distinctively Quaker character of our service work.

    All these are matters which have major implications for the AFSC; but none is centered exclusively on it. Indeed, they should have equally important implications for all our Quaker institutions. How these leadings are ultimately understood and addressed will depend in large measure on the spirit and persistence with which we pursue together the discussion and worship from which they are attempting to emerge.

    I pray for a Friendly spirit and a gentle persistence as this work of seeking goes forward.

Chuck Fager is a writer currently working with the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Actively interested in Quaker ecumenism; he is editor of the Langley Hill (VA) monthly newsletter, and a member of that meeting.

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