By Chuck Fager
I: The Background of a Concern
What we’ve dubbed “The Great Quaker Turnover” has been rolling through Quakerism over the past year. Practically all the “alphabet soup” Friends groups have been changing their top executives: FUM, QUNO, FCNL, FGC, FWCC, Friends Journal. Several top posts in Britain Yearly Meeting have turned over as well. Even this writer will be leaving his post at North Carolina’s Quaker House in Fayetteville NC in late 2012.
One of the most closely-watched transitions came in September 2010, when Shan Cretin took over as the American Friends Service Committee’s new General Secretary. She no doubt got lots of advice about how to renew and revive the organization, which is struggling to recover from an organizational near-collapse. Several months later, discussion about this once-eminent, now ailing Quaker group still seems in order; so we’re going to join the queue. To lay the groundwork for that, first a bit of background, and some diagnosis.
This Quaker’s attitude toward AFSC has gone through a couple of phases. First, for a long time I put considerable mental energy into the state of the AFSC, worrying, talking and writing about what had happened to it, and what might be done. This phase lasted nearly twenty years, from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s.
My concerns about the AFSC centered primarily on its loss of grounding in the Religious Society of Friends (RSOF), and first emerged during my term on AFSC’s New England AFSC regional Executive Committee, 1970-75.
Toward the end of that stint I began to notice what seemed to be an increasingly pronounced drift toward a lefty secularism. The “lefty” part didn’t bother me much; the secularism was something else.
I wasn’t the only one noticing, inside or outside the RSOF. In June of 1979, a cover article in The New Republic attacked the AFSC, and by extension American Quakers generally, for supposedly abandoning the tradition of pacifism. (It was called “Shot From Guns: The Lost Pacifism of American Quakers,” by Stephen Chapman, in TNR’s June 9, 1979 issue.)
(This article is not online, at least where I can find it. But it is discussed in detail by David Hostetter in his doctoral dissertation, which is online here: Movement Matters: American Antiapartheid Activism And The Rise of Multicultural Politics It’s a searchable PDF: look for “Shot From Guns.”)
A month later, Chapman’s article became the hook for a series of well-attended open discussions of Quaker concerns about AFSC at the FGC Gathering in Richmond, Indiana. As convenor, I drafted a summary letter listing the points raised. It was signed by 130+ individual Friends, including the President of Earlham College, and passed on to the AFSC Board.
Two years later, in 1981, I launched an independent monthly, A Friendly Letter, which continued until 1993. The newsletter covered a wide range of topics in its 134 issues, and AFSC was the focus at least once a year. (All print issues of “A Friendly Letter,” are online here, with an Index here.
From time to time, other Friends also spoke up about AFSC concerns. Their experience seemed to mirror mine: AFSC wasn’t good at listening to Quakers, especially those with criticisms. We felt mollified, patronized, undermined, but mainly ignored.
Another major outside expression of concern appeared in 1987, in a book called Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, (Eerdmans, 1988) by a conservative scholar, Guenter Lewy. Lewy repeated the charges that AFSC had abandoned pacifism and religion. But he did more: he based his case on extensive research in AFSC archives. Lewy’s Cold Warrior bent was clear, but his book was not simply polemic; he had done plenty of homework and had chapter and verse to back it up.
I took Lewy’s challenge seriously, respecting his research while rejecting his political stance. Even with his evident bias, Lewy had done a job which Quakers should have done for ourselves but had mostly been too lazy or timid to undertake. Peace and Revolution merited a careful, Quaker response, sifting out the wheat from the chaff, revising and reframing his critique of AFSC for the RSOF’s benefit.
This reaction led me to organize, edit and publish another book, Quaker Service at the Crossroads, (1988, Kimo Press).
It included essays by more than a dozen authors, all but one Quakers, both defending and critiquing AFSC; Lewy contributed a concluding response. The Introduction [reprinted elsewhere in this issue] described my own concerns in detail and offered them as an alternative to Lewy’s critique.
Much of my 1988 book still seems relevant three decades later. However, in the months following its publication, I noticed that my concerns about AFSC seemed not to strike the chord of reforming enthusiasm I had hoped for among the wider Quaker community. The subject did not draw a crowd for discussions, as it had in 1979; and the book sold slowly.
In response, I found myself talking and writing less about AFSC while listening and watching more. This observer’s stance marked the next phase in my AFSC concern. It crystallized after I started work at Pendle Hill, from 1994-1997, and has continued since, while I served as Director of Quaker House, a peace project near Fort Bragg, NC, 2001-2012.
In these years, I visited many Friends meetings and made dozens of presentations about peace issues. In them, I made a point of not mentioning AFSC or my concerns about it. Partly this was professional etiquette: as one Quaker hireling, it was bad manners to go around bashing other Quaker hirelings. But it was also a kind of research project: if concern about AFSC was no longer a big item among Friends, what place, I wondered, did the organization now hold in Quaker awareness and priorities?
The trend of the data soon became clear and has been reinforced by the scores of visits I’ve made to Friends Meetings and Churches in later years, including many workshops and presentations, mainly on peace issues.
What did this “research” show? One incident tells the story:
On a Saturday in the mid-1990s, a large Meeting in the Philadelphia area held an intensive, day-long exploration of ways to re-invigorate its peace witness. I was there as an interested visitor, sitting quietly and taking notes.
One exercise asked the thirty-plus Friends present to name their deepest peace-related concerns, and the organizations they were most eager to work with on them. The results were written on large sheets of butcher paper, brainstorming style, without discussion or debate. The exercise took more than an hour, until lunch.
I lingered in the room, going over the butcher paper lists. The issues were familiar enough: the arms race, Middle East tensions, military recruitment, and so on. The groups mentioned were many and varied, from local to international.
More than seventy were scrawled on the sheets. But there was one name I hadn’t heard spoken, and I double-checked the list to see if I had missed it.
Nope. Of the seventy-plus groups named by thirty-plus Friends in an active Philadelphia area Meeting, none – not one – had identified the AFSC as a body they were eager to work with.
This was the more striking because the Meeting was home to a very high-level AFSC executive, so one could hardly imagine it being somehow unknown.
Less dramatically, this result was confirmed again and again over the next fifteen years, and across a wide geographic span. If I didn’t mention AFSC while talking about peace-related concerns, hardly anyone else ever did.
Not that the group had disappeared entirely: occasionally I saw a stack of mail awaiting a Clerk’s attention. Sure enough, envelopes from AFSC were there. Plus the occasional poster or brochure. But the surrounding silence was thunderous, and all but complete. (There are a few exceptions; but they prove the rule.)
My conclusion: AFSC has essentially dropped off the radar screen for active American Friends. We aren’t against it; we’ve just quit thinking about it. It’s mainly “divorced” from our life as a faith community. It’s become one more group with an agenda and frequent fund appeals, one more envelope in the stack.
For a long time, this fact did not seem to make any difference to AFSC; it rolled on, with a budget climbing past $40 million per year, doing whatever it was doing. And for my part, while unease about the group’s de facto secularization continued, the topic slipped onto my own back burner. There was, after all, still plenty of room for Quaker action on peace and related issues, especially after September 11, 2001. So I was busy, as were other active Friends, in our Meetings and with many other groups.
AFSC hadn’t exactly been forgotten by me and these other Friends. Perhaps worse, it had simply become irrelevant.
From time to time, I wondered: could this situation go on forever? Or were there within it, chickens waiting to come home to roost? The answer to that question came in the crash of 2008-2009. AFSC’s chickens circled and came home, but they turned out to be buzzards.
Now the organization is in a time of rebuilding, and re-assessment. And one hopes the re-assessment includes the group’s attitude toward the RSOF and its relationship with Friends.
I wonder, though, if such a reassessment is in the cards. I mean a serious one, not posturing or ritual patronizing.
It’s evident from the records turned up by Guenter Lewy and other researchers, that there has been a generation or more of dominant AFSC staff which mainly shrugged off this disconnection: Quakers were, if anything, seen as mainly part of the problems the group worked on, rather than part of the solution. They (we) were (are) overwhelmingly white, middle class, politically unreliable, consumerist in fact (despite our organic protestations), shot through with racism, classism and homophobia, preoccupied with private and local matters, religiously parochial and given to nagging and complaining when approached. (Other than that, we’re fine.)
Besides which, we wielded little political influence and provided only a puny proportion of AFSC’s funds.
There are many grains of truth in this brief. Yet it is perhaps not decisive. It’s missing a key factor: that $40 million per year which AFSC used to raise – it was harvested from the “F” for Friends in its name, from the Quaker reputation. Not AFSC’s on its own. So even if the funds didn’t come direct from Friends to AFSC’s coffers, there’s something about the Religious Society of Friends, despite our many shortcomings, that can ultimately be “taken to the bank,” in large amounts.
Given the AFSC’s current straitened circumstances and acknowledged need for renewal, maybe this mysterious Quaker “something” deserves another look.
II: A Brand In Trouble
What would such a review show? Here is a thesis: that AFSC’s relationship to the RSOF is more important to its overall financial future than the immediate numbers suggest. That is, the direct proportion of donations from Friends today may be small compared to the group’s total income. But it is the Quaker “Reputation of Truth” in the larger world – the “F” in the AFSC – that attracts the bulk of the funds. It’s what makes the organization financially viable at all.
Hence I believe the road back to health for AFSC winds through the sources of this Friendly “Reputation.” And I contend further that this “Reputation” itself is in trouble, and needs attention, from AFSC as well as other Quaker actors.
What’s the trouble? Think of Quakerism as like an apple tree: while AFSC and others have been busy picking its fruit, eyes on the branches above, beneath their feet the roots have been neglected, and have begun to wither; no wonder the crop is getting sparse.
These “roots” are no less than the actual constituency of people around the globe who make up the Religious Society of Friends, in its varied incarnations, and with its 360-year history. For better and for worse, that (plus the Spirit) is what “Quakerism” is.
And these roots are tangled, no question. Actual Quakers are an unruly and confusing lot. Our history is convoluted and contested. Furthermore, my view is that the past generation or two of Quakers (i.e., mine) has been a rather undistinguished lot: mostly uninspired and uninspiring.
But there’s the rub: Amid this disarray, actual Quakers are still the seedbed and incubator of whatever empirical Quakerism has been and is to become. And if actual Quakerism is a mess, its wider “Reputation” is sure to suffer, eventually if not right away. And with that larger decline, those bodies that depend on that larger esteem will suffer as well.
I believe such a broader decline is well underway.
Here let me switch from horticultural metaphor to a more mundane frame: marketing. “Quaker” is a brand, for more than oatmeal. It’s a brand which has commanded a lot of public goodwill, for a long time.
And now the brand is in trouble. Not catastrophic, dramatic, BP-oil-spill trouble. More like melting iceberg trouble: drip, drip, drip.
AFSC didn’t create this brand and doesn’t control it. Yet AFSC is built on the brand, and has a big role to play in repairing it.
Such “brand maintenance” has not been seen as an AFSC responsibility for a long time. And no wonder: when actual Quakerism is viewed warts and all, without sentimentality or romance, it’s easy to experience at least a flash of panic, even an urge to flee.
Over the past couple of generations, that’s what many Quaker institutions have done – one thinks of the schools as well as AFSC: they have carefully distanced themselves from these snarled and messy “roots.” Instead they’ve taken cover under something called “Quaker values”: nonviolence, equality, peace, consensus, and so forth.
Unfortunately, when examined, these values turn out to be little more than a set of safe, generic abstractions. There’s hardly anything distinctively “Quaker” about them, and it’s hardly a surprise that in the groups espousing them, agendas appear driven by secular cultural (excuse me, “spiritual”) fashions and factions, with a more or less lefty tinge.
Not that these values are “false”; they’re simply disconnected. AFSC’s own Mission Statement says as much: “We recognize that the leadings of the Spirit and the principles of truth found through Friends’ experience and practice are not the exclusive possession of any group.”
Well, sure. But in that case, what if any “exclusive possession” does AFSC have? If it’s only these “values,” why bother with AFSC?
Take “peace.” Many groups seek and work for it. Equality? The NAACP was there first. Justice, gay rights and civil liberties? Try the ACLU. Nonviolence? There are numerous other advocates nowadays. Relief work? AFSC is small fry in that world.
Any good marketer knows that a brand has to maintain some “exclusive possession,” a distinctive identity to stay viable in the marketplace. And here, it’s not a set of generic “values” that distinguish AFSC; it’s the Quaker brand.
And the Quaker brand needs work. AFSC has a substantial role to play in that renewal project. Given its history over the past several decades, however, taking up the role will likely be traumatic for AFSC’s corporate culture. Which is why this period of retrenchment and the “Great Quaker Turnover” is as good a time as any to make the pivot.
III: Down & Dirty With Compost Theology
Why has the Quaker “brand” been worth so much until recently? I think the basic answer is simple, and twofold:
First, because the Religious Society of Friends has done many great and good things; and
Second, for a long time the RSOF did a superior job of letting the world know that.
Today the Quaker brand is in decline. Recent Quaker generations, in the US particularly, have been undistinguished; and we have also become particularly undistinguished and inept – lousy comes to mind–at telling the world about ourselves and our faith.
(BTW and just for the record: when speaking critically about recent American Quakerdom, I am including myself in the number.)
Why is contemporary Quakerism undistinguished? There are some good books, and better doctoral dissertations waiting to be written in response. Here only a brief sketch will be attempted, based on four decades of participant-observation.
This sketch returns to horticultural metaphors, and starts with what I call “Compost Theology.”
Compost Theology: Not Just For Gardens Anymore
Here’s how Compost Theology works:
As an “institution,” the RSOF takes physical form primarily in its Meetings, then in associations; concern-based committee, plus their organizational offspring; and schools, camps, and colleges. These structures, populated by actual Friends and their experiences therein, along with their communications about them, make up the “compost” of Quaker experience.
As in your backyard compost heap, what often looks like an undifferentiated pile, when well-mixed and heated up by the Light/God/Spirit energy, produces a surprisingly rich and fertile soil base. From this “soil” spring up a variety of hardy plants – many of which are unexpected, and any of which may at first look like “weeds”– but many of which have proven again and again to be fruitful and useful in the world.
For a while, I thought my Compost Theology notion was perhaps something new. Then I re-read the Parable of the Sower, in Luke’s Gospel, 8:5-8.
Wouldn’t you know, Jesus got there first: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. . . . Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
So this is in fact a familiar story; but I’d forgotten that “good soil” was the punch line.
Note that when Jesus finished telling it, “he called out, ‘They who have ears to hear, let them hear.’” I hadn’t been listening so well.
Anyway, the Sower is definitely a “universalist” – the seeds of the Spirit are scattered all over. The point for us is to be tending and developing “good soil.” Then good stuff will grow.
But what will sprout there is not always predictable. AFSC was one such shoot that appeared, grew and (for a long time) flourished.
Okay, so what’s happened to make our recent compost not so productive?
One big factor is, we’ve lost our history. Here’s an example, drawn from my pamphlet, Study War Some More (Quaker House, 2010): during peace workshops I often write three lists of five names on a blackboard, and ask the group how many they recognize.
The first list is of second-tier famous US generals (e.g., Stonewall Jackson). Almost everyone is familiar with the names, because our society is steeped in military lore.
Next is a list of several Friends who made outstanding contributions to peace work (e.g., Lewis Fry Richardson, the British Friend who invented peace research. You remember him, right?)
Who knew he would sprout up and singlehandedly invent peace research in the 1920s and 1930s, in his “spare time”??
Consistently, almost no Quakers ever know any of the names of these Friendly giants.
But the third list is always immediately recognized: announcers from National Public Radio.
Here’s what I draw from this (and lots of other related data): With but few exceptions, contemporary Quakers have bought into the media-centered view of the world, including war, peace, change, even religion. This media-centered view is also Washington-centered, and sees these matters in almost exclusively political terms.
Thus Quakers’ specific political views vary predictably based on their demographics: in the early autumn of 2008, for instance, in the liberal groups all were hard at work for the Democratic ticket. And when I visited a pastoral yearly meeting just after the Governor of Alaska had been put on the Republican ticket, the place was electrified and agog. The spirit of secular politics reigned in both places.
There are many problems with this political-media fixation (whether it be on NPR or Fox), not the least of which is that it is completely disempowering, since the “Quaker vote” (for whichever party) is but the tiniest of microblips on any worldly radar screen.
And it’s disempowering in another, perhaps more important way: the historical amnesia it breeds puts us ever more out of touch with the potential strength of our own tradition, and its achievements, which are many. One of my favorite quotes here is from Sun Tzu, in his strategic classic, The Art of War:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
(And never mind “battles”; if we don’t know our history and its achievements – which mostly we don’t – just how are we supposed to tell the world about them? Actually, that is a “battle,” for our own identity and brand, and it’s one US Quakers have been losing for almost fifty years, not only with Washington or other churches, but with our own children.)
Most American Quakers today are caught in a mass media “matrix” (or, more currently, “bubbles”) that leave us in just that “know-nothing” plight. It’s hardly a surprise that I so often hear Friends speak about feeling as if their efforts are futile. They’re not wrong; in secular political terms, they pretty much are.
AFSC too, with exceptions. One recent exception was the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit, during the Iraq War which began in 2003. It succeeded because it substituted a powerful visual symbol for the usual political rhetoric, and moreover took the symbol to the people, not merely to Washington. Big (rare) win for AFSC.
Liberal Friends have another debilitating cultural characteristic: despite being generally highly educated, we are resolutely anti-intellectual about our religion, and religion in general. Since we live in a world which is increasingly shaped by religious ideas and movements (many of them bad), this is a distinctly dysfunctional stance; yet we cling to it.
AFSC is little better here. This is from its Mission Statement: “The American Friends Service Committee is a practical expression of the faith of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). . . .”
Really? And what might that “faith” be that they’re getting practical about? (Never mind creedal precision; how about just approximately?)
There’s no indication of that, except to assert that whatever it might be, “the leadings of the Spirit and the principles of truth found through Friends’ experience and practice are not the exclusive possession of any group.”
In institutional terms, this is a rationale for why the large majority of AFSC staff has long been non-Quaker. But theologically, it is utterly vacuous. Its Quaker “faith” is emptied of any distinct content, and with it, any reason for separate existence.
AFSC is hardly alone in this. One hears widely among liberal Friends the conviction that above all and before all we are about “seeking,” typically in a privatized “spiritual-but-not-religious” manner. All tradition, scripture, and the witness of those that went before are of only incidental interest. (The Evangelicals have a somewhat different form of this spiritual virus, with distinct but not much better outcomes.)
To sum up: a mass media, Washington-centered, politicized but disempowered view of the world, and our witness within it. A Quaker faith without content or history; a religious “community” of privatized “seeking.” This is a recipe for mediocrity, and that’s how it has turned out.
Again, any claim to originality in this analysis is already trumped in the Parable of the Sower. (Why does this keep happening to me?) There some of the seed of the Spirit (Mark 4:5-6) fell “where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”
That about nails it.
Note that I am not here trying to blame AFSC for this unhappy development. That would be facile, and give the body too much credit to boot. Yet AFSC certainly shares in this condition, contributes to it–and has paid the price.
AFSC also has a role to play in ameliorating the situation. It could be an important role; possibly even a pivotal one. Such an effort would mark a drastic departure from its path of the past several decades, and I am not counting on it. But it’s possible; and there are models.
Let’s glance at a couple of them.
IV: A Suggested Survival Kit
Here’s a quick quiz:
Two of the three church-related service projects below are holding their own, and one is in trouble. Can you tell which one has problems?
A. The Mennonite Central Committee
B. The Mormon Church missionary program; and
C. The American Friends Service Committee
To help with your answer, here are a few clues:
The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has for decades coordinated thousands of volunteer Mennonites working around the world, doing service and missionary work, with considerable support from their local churches. When these volunteers get back home, most resume their “normal” lives, including in their churches. There they typically become solid supporters and advocates for MCC: they donate and raise money for it, and help defend it against the vocal right-wingers in their denomination. And raise their kids to do likewise.
The Mormons do something similar with their young adults. Close to ninety per cent of young Mormon men from active church families go out on two-year missions, for which they raise their own funding. These missionaries likewise later resume their “regular” lives, and typically become solid supporters of their church and its projects; and when their sons come of age, most eagerly go out in their turn. Unsurprisingly, the Mormon church is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world.
Now to AFSC. Up until the mid-1960s, AFSC ran pioneering work camp and volunteer service programs, for Quakers and other like-minded folks, mainly youth, with lots of involvement by local Meetings. If you talk to some of us gray-heads, you can still hear about how important, even life-changing many were.
But then AFSC dumped the work camps and the whole idea of training and facilitating Quakers for service, in favor of “identifying” with “the oppressed.”
Now, back to the quiz: which of these groups is in trouble – I mean, really serious, organizational life-threatening trouble?
If you picked “C”, as in AFSC, you win. And Quakers lose.
It’s now generally admitted that this dumping-the-Quakers-and-service-projects move was a bone-headed idea.
A disaster, not to put too fine a point on it. And I say this as one of the generation which bequeathed the notion to AFSC.
What the hell were we thinking??
Well, there’s no rolling back history. Yet the culmination of the trajectory launched by this shift is now clear: a trainwreck.
How bad is it? According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, forty per cent of AFSC’s staff has been laid off, and its income has dropped more than thirty per cent, with little relief in sight. Inside sources suggest the decline has been even steeper. (“Painful cuts for American Friends Service Committee,” Christopher Hepp, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 5, 2010.) [More rounds of job and program cuts have come since.]
From a fundraiser’s perspective, the story appears still more grim: since the Sixties, AFSC has been sustained financially above all by the loyalty and largesse of a World War Two generation of donors which, as an internal AFSC report recently out it, “can remember the work camps and the heady days of AFSC receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.”
But these faithful donors had one big flaw: they were mortal (like the rest of us). And now they’re mostly dead, with the rest soon to follow. That means their donations have ebbed, and their bequests are largely distributed.
For years, when I’ve talked with AFSC staffers, especially those involved in fundraising, I’ve asked one question again and again. It is:
“Have you found a replacement for your World War Two generation of donors?”
Finally, this summer I got a straight answer from a national AFSC fundraiser; and the answer was, in sum: “No, not yet.”
I appreciated the candor, but this was a very ominous reply.
Consider the parallels suggested by our opening quiz: since the mid-1960s—for nearly fifty years– the MCC and the Mormons have been cultivating a growing constituency of dedicated supporters and advocates, rooted in their founding churches, mindful of both generational and organizational continuity, and applying their considerable spiritual and organizational energies. As their World War Two donors die off, there are plenty more waiting behind them.
Meanwhile, AFSC has been seeking new donors and supporters– where?
While there are a few exceptions to this gloomy sketch, I’ll tell you where, in AFSC’s own words: “people of many faiths and backgrounds who share the values . . . .”
Which people is that?
And which values are these?
Why “Quaker” values, of course.
And what are those? “nonviolence and justice.”
We already saw how inadequate these abstract “values” are as a base for anything “Quaker,” since who isn’t for nonviolence?? (Even the U.S. military favors it, “when possible.”) Or “justice”??
From a marketing perspective, a brand built on such platitudes is an empty vessel; it has no identity, no “edge,” no roots, no history, no culture of its own, nothing to distinguish it from the thousands of other groups working for “justice” or “nonviolence.” Especially when its stewards aren’t even using the values the way the Mormons and Mennonites do, to build a trans-generational home base of support for the ongoing service work.
So from a rebuilding standpoint, AFSC is close to starting from scratch. How can it recover?
To replace lost donors, a non-profit group goes prospecting, looking for likely new ones. It works to capture their attention, and (in fundraiser jargon) “cultivate” them so they gain a favorable view of the charity, then asks them to give, in varied and compelling ways, to support work that speaks to their deep motivations and high values.
This process too is basic to a non-profit’s survival. And here’s how AFSC could get re-started on it.
The core prospects, in my view, are the children and grandchildren of the Quaker segment of the “Greatest Generation,” especially those old enough to have living memories of the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s.
The material needed to gain their attention and cultivate their loyalty is contained in the high points of this decade-plus of activism, and AFSC’s extensive involvement in it, from civil rights through the Vietnam War, women’s and gay liberation.
The compelling message drawn from this history comes down to this: there was a time in our lives when our Quaker witness and sacrifice for noble values had meaning, and helped make a big difference, in many ways. AFSC was there alongside you, and with your support, working together, we (and our children) can make such a meaningful difference again.
In one sense, this message is the flip side of that conveyed by AFSC’s latest big success, the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit. That display (rows of empty boots, filling a room or a lawn, each bearing the name of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq) made visible the futility of the troops’ sacrifices in that war. This new initiative would evoke the lived alternative.
Tragically, this rich alternate history has been largely erased from public memory, even among many Friends: lost in the miasma of mindless distractions, diminished and discounted by decades of unrelenting right-wing propaganda and revisionism, compromised and counterfeited by politicians, all compounded by our own ongoing failures to articulate and pass it along.
But it’s still there, and doesn’t have to stay in the shadows. There are several million now middle-aged Americans who lived it, directly or at close range, and they can still be moved by these fugitive, exiled recollections and aspirations.
These memories of what once was, and the hopes for what could yet be, are not only a precious heritage. They are the keys to turning those who cherish them into AFSC’s next generations of supporters, i.e., donors.
Finding new donor prospects is an expensive and time-consuming process. It’s not clear AFSC has enough resources left to do what’s being urged here; yet it’s not clear that any other path is viable.
“But why,” I can hear some object, “are you asking us to turn back to the past, when there are so many burning issues facing us now?”
Good question, and the answer is straightforward: this “look back” is not about nostalgia. It’s about finding hope for a potential generation of donors which has had a hard time sustaining hope.
Put more starkly: help the Boomers and their kids recover their hope, and they’ll help you (i.e., send money). Then you can afford to take on the burning issues of today and tomorrow. And you better start with Quakers, because those are your roots; then build out from there.
What might this effort look like? Here’s one sample scenario:
March 7, 2015, Selma, Alabama. For the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march, which won voting rights for millions of black citizens across the South, pilgrims came from around the world. President Barack Obama led the crowd of international dignitaries and thousands of anonymous movement veterans and their children across the historic Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama River.
AFSC is in Selma with a high-visibility major exhibit and program, focused on its civil rights work in the South, and in particular the murder of AFSC staffer James Reeb, who came to Selma to join the protests and was murdered by white toughs. Two years in preparation, the exhibit was organized and mounted by a team of interns mainly drawn from Quaker meetings and churches around the country, working with movement veterans and local partners.
After the Selma celebrations conclude, the exhibit will go on the road, making stops at several sites in the South and elsewhere in the country.
Because of my personal history, I look to Selma as a landmark of the era; but such work doesn’t have to wait until 2015 to begin.
The donor marketing rationale here is straightforward: the Boomer activists found a sense of achievement and promise in Selma (and similar events). Their children have heard a bit of the stories, and will respond to more. Remind both of that in an inclusive way, and you can help them regain their hope for today. Do that, and you can ask them for support for current and future projects.
Of course, any such connection has to be reinforced; donors need to be “cultivated.”
Fortunately, history provides a succession of similar landmark events in the period 2015-2025. Consider just a few:
1966/2016: The movement for open housing in Chicago; the debate over “Black Power.”
1967/2017: Dr. King joins the antiwar movement; big antiwar protests; second wave feminism begins its rise. And AFSC’s Centennial. (What a combo!)
1968/2018: The murder of Dr. King; the Poor Peoples Campaign; the Chicago Democratic Convention.
1969/2019: Stonewall; the AFSC’s “March Against Death.”
From this could be drawn a series of events. Let’s call it the “Half Century of Hope” campaign, bringing back this past not for its own sake, but as the basis for a renewed future.
Among these events are plenty of “hooks” with which to gain and then hold the attention of Boomers and their older children (and done right, their grandchildren after them). AFSC was involved in much or most of it in one way or another. But again, the purpose of this campaign is not antiquarian. Connect with those who lived through this epic time of hope, especially as Quakers, and as hope revives you can gain their support for programs of today and tomorrow.
As this recovery of hope is expressed in concrete projects, a parallel task will be to “embed” – or better, “re-root”– AFSC in the donor constituency (that seething Quaker compost heap). This process will involve some analogue to the work camps. Not the same thing (we can’t go home again), but intentional efforts to involve the target donor community in the group’s work, on as broad a scale as possible, on a continuing basis. This is, after all, the “secret” of the Mormons’ and Mennonites’ success. Though it’s not really a secret at all.
And there’s more to this “embedding” idea. American Quakers have not all been idle since AFSC dumped us. Numerous small-scale projects have sprung up, not only domestically (such as, for instance, Quaker House in Fayetteville/Fort Bragg NC) but internationally as well, from Bolivia to Africa. For the most part, though, they work on their own. I suggest AFSC take on a ministry of service to these groups, for instance by offering to convene consultations where they could share and brainstorm and, as way opened, collaborate.
Something similar would be advisable for Shan Cretin and her new leadership team. What if they made it part of their regular routine to go on tour among American Friends, but not primarily to talk, rather to listen and learn. To ask, “Given this shared history, how can we serve Quaker work and ministries?” and make notes on the responses.
Doing so would mark a sharp break with the routine practice I and so many others have been accustomed to (and alienated by) for decades: of AFSC dog-and-pony shows show-casing (bragging about) all their projects, dunning us to support them, and sidestepping real questions. Such a process would be a stunning (and overdue) example of organizational humility. It would also likely yield some valuable insights and ideas, once they got the hang of it.
For that matter, I would include the pastoral and evangelical groups on the itinerary. Shan might have to put up with some airing of old theological and political grievances, and more altar calls than a liberal Quaker prefers. But much is to be learned there as well. Most of these groups are in ferment; and there will be openings for those who know how to discern them and respond.
One more thing: if the new leadership was ready to make a truly dramatic, visible break with AFSC’s failed old order, here’s a radical proposal: move the main offices OUT of Philadelphia.
In fact, I’d leave Pennsylvania entirely; maybe head for North Carolina, where there are actually more Quakers. But most any state that was in “flyover country” would do. I bet it would save money too. After all, the Mennonite Central Committee is headquartered in Akron, PA, a hamlet in the heart of Dutch country. And the Mormon missionary program is run out of Provo, Utah. Being in flyover country seems to do them good. (But, Akron PA?)
Note that I’m not suggesting AFSC somehow put itself under the authority of Yearly Meetings or any other body. But the changes contemplated here involve becoming a participating “member” of the Quaker community, rather than some sovereign power taking time from power lunches in Geneva and Capitol Hill to mingle with the bumpkins. (Lots of these bumpkins haven’t been fooled by that shtick for a long time.)
If this sounds snarky, don’t get me started repeating all the comments I’ve heard from highly accomplished Quaker professionals about being patronized, put down and ignored by self-important AFSC poohbahs over the years. Hello, Philadelphia? This is Quakerism calling; and it’s humble-pie time.
What’s the hopeful outcome of all this scenario spinning? It’s like this: imagine ten years from now, AFSC has substantially re-rooted itself among American Friends, drawing much of its support (not all) from this base constituency. It is also involving large numbers of Friends in its work at all levels, especially younger ones, as interns and in other service-training roles.
It might be smaller, but it would have a much more solid donor base than it does now. It would also have some great new ideas, wildflowers from a well-stirred theological compost heap. And my sense is that such a re-embedded organization would have considerable appeal for non-Quakers as well, based on, of all things, our old buddy the “Reputation of Truth.”
Speaking of which, did you notice that the Selma scenario, like the other events drawn from the Half-Century of Hope campaign, would be putting Quaker achievements and witness before the world, as well as Friends? And it’s worth underlining that such canny and careful self-promotion had a lot to do with the successes of AFSC’s “classic” period (up to the Nobel Prize). It wasn’t only that Friends did good things; but they also managed to let the world know that, without being too obvious about it.
So to recap, here’s the laundry list:
AFSC survives by finding new generation(s) of donors. It finds them by:
Mounting a “Half Century of Hope” campaign of exhibits and events highlighting renewing the legacy of the 1960s-early 70s.
“Re-rooting” AFSC in “Quaker compost,” its base community in a multi-generational way.
Moving the offices out of Philadelphia & PA.
Listening to, learning from, and serving Friends and their varied witness.
What are the chances of any of this happening? Such an agenda will doubtless face lots of internal opposition, from forces dedicated to protecting old turf and keeping AFSC more in tune with the latest movement trends than with a bunch of bourgeois Quakers. But such forces should be seriously in question already, and if AFSC is to survive, the old ways are overdue for an even more fundamental shakeup than they’ve had so far.
My inside sources have predicted that the changes coming in AFSC will be big and basic.
Let’s hope so; I’ve heard such predictioms before (and made a few) so I’m not so sanguine. The Great Quaker Turnover is but a moment. The window for basic change closes. Odds are long and times are tough; AFSC’s margin for error has shrunk; and those old donors keep dying off.
There isn’t much time. And there are no guarantees.