TWO: From Supporter to Friendly Critic: How AFSC Changed Me

H. Larry Ingle

Friends learn from experience, actually from a dialogue with experience; at its best, the dialogue is actually a trialogue with God’s Spirit an essential third participant. That’s what happened to me as I reflect back on my encounters with the American Friends Service Committee.

    A fairly recent convinced Friend, in 1976 I joined the executive committee of the Southeastern Regional Office of AFSC in, first, High Point, N.C., and then Atlanta; I served for six years. I became a part of the group overseeing AFSC’s work in the southeastern part of the United States, enamored by the parts of its storied history I knew and it being named as a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1947 as a stand-in for Quakers as a whole. It didn’t take me long to see that our committee had little autonomy from the main AFSC office in Philadelphia, particularly the Community Relations Division headed by a long serving non-Friend staffer (I found out later), Barbara Moffett; Philadelphia liked to impose its definitions of programs on our region with what I perceived as little consultation with us, who supposedly represented Quakers and others in the region. (As a child of North Carolina farmers and hosiery mill workers— people who worked with their hands—I soon realized that I was rather unique in the group whose background was more professional.)

    It turned out that our principal purpose was to give a regional imprimatur to the Community Relations Division’s priorities. Some of us joked about this reality, but that was the way it worked, we decided. The one, most eye opening, incident was the Women in the Workforce initiative, which came before us from Philadelphia in the late 1970s. Designed to empower women in their workplaces, pressure their employers to recognize their value, and improve their wages and working conditions, it would send AFSC emissaries among hosiery mill workers in selected areas of North Carolina to carry this message. On the surface, this approach had a lot of appeal and was surely needed, but it did not grow organically out of hurts that women had experienced in their work places, and I, at least, did not think it would ever recruit workers to outsiders’ definition of their pain. I was able to convince my executive board colleagues to approve it for a one-year trial period, a time I believed would allow a test that would prove me right or wrong.  The staff, apparently following Philadelphia, never gave us a one-year report, the program petering out after I left the board in 1982. It was transferred to Kentucky & West Virginia, and I learned later that it died.

    About a decade later, Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association appointed me its representative to the AFSC Corporation, a body that gathered annually in Philadelphia to watch a dog-and-pony show about the glories of the organization and purportedly to select members for the policy-making Board of Directors for the organization. What we essentially did was to rubber-stamp a pre-selected slate formed by an unseen naming committee; even in those pre-internet days our task could have been just as efficiently performed by mail.

    Looked at charitably, attendance—and the Corporation itself—was a waste of everybody’s time.  In my three-year service, we took one major decision, in 1994, to change the rules so that non-Friends might serve on AFSC’s Board, something I believed would dilute the influence of Friends within the overall body, much as had happened at Quaker schools and colleges. When I realized that most of the other Corporation members were poised to approve the change—including a member with whom I had ridden to the meeting—I asked to be recorded as standing aside from the move; one other member made the same request, so that the change was ratified.

    Subsequent developments and observations have justified my misgivings. After returning home, I informed my yearly meeting that I wished to resign as its representative. The yearly meeting’s subsequent and continued efforts to engage with AFSC to determine what percentage of its staff were Friends literally got nowhere (see Chapter Six, below), even when the executive secretary visited our sessions and I asked her directly. The only recent public accounting is that the Quaker number is less than one-half of one percent (.005) and appears in Gregory Barnes’s AFSC’s centennial history, p. 455.

    Even our yearly meeting, which had always enthusiastically supported the Service Committee, could elicit no information about the number or percentage of Friends working for AFSC. We tried for a decade with verbal requests. Finally in 2011, we approved a minute asking for an accounting. Eight months later, in February 2012, a rebuke came from the Clerk of the Board, rejecting our request and explaining that it and the General Secretary guaranteed that AFSC would remain a Quaker organization and averring that “those who are not members of the Society of Friends help to call us back to our center.” In all honesty, that last comment contrasted sharply to the Center we in SAYMA relied on for our guidance. A cynic might be tempted to remark that the Board’s clerk was speaking for a “Society of Trends.”

    As an historian, I wanted to see how the Service Committee devolved from its original mission to the one I had experienced.  So with help from AFSC’s valuable longtime archivist, Jack Sutters, since retired, I dove into AFSC’s records to find some answers, some of which I published in Peace & Change as “The American Friends Service Committee, 1947-49: The Cold War’s Effect,” in 1998; it is reprinted elsewhere in this issue. 

    I found that the record revealed a conscious and considered decision in 1947, the thirty-year anniversary of the Service Committee’s founding, that the AFSC should move from using primarily Quaker volunteers to hiring professional staffers who could command foreign languages rather than using Friends who wished to serve.  The most telling example of how AFSC turned away from sending Friends abroad I found was the group’s decision to send a non-Quaker couple to India. According to the director of work there, the noted British Quaker Horace Alexander, the two misinformed questioning Hindus, telling them that only people with a Christian background could apply to or join the Society of Friends.  Back in Philadelphia after Alexander complained, members of the staff speculated that he had gone over the mental edge. He most certainly had not—he only operated on the basis of traditional Quaker practices.  I found that even receipt of the Nobel Prize was later used by Philadelphia to justify its new departure: the leadership clearly felt they had moved up into the big leagues as a public actor.

    Nearly two decades later, I wrote “’Truly Radical, Non-violent, Friendly Approaches: Challenges to the American Friends Service Committee” in Quaker History in 2016; this one looked at the background of the somewhat notorious group called together by Chuck Fager at Friends General Conference’s annual gathering at Earlham College in 1979, and it appears as Chapter One here. It documented for the first time how “liberal” Friends—prominent Quakers like Kenneth Boulding, a leading academic economist, and the director of the New York office of AFSC, Dan Seeger, both hitherto avid supporters of AFSC —were willing to emerge publicly to question the Service Committee’s new direction. Even earlier I penned for the April 19, 1995, issue of Christian Century magazine, a popular article entitled, “Quakers and the AFSC: Can’t we be Friends?” This article recounted the Corporation’s decision to allow non-Friends to serve on the Board of Directors as representatives from its various regions and suggested that the decision was analogous to the Roman Catholic Pope naming a Lutheran to the Curia. It brought a tepid letter from the executive director taking “particular exception” to what she called my “implication that inclusiveness compromises Quaker tradition and faith.”

    My excursions into the Quaker past, sad to say, had more impact on me than it did the AFSC, for whenever I recommended one of these articles to an AFSC staff member, a Friendly one even, I saw no impact. Thus my adventures into the past only serve to underscore the validity of the oft-repeated assertion of German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel that all “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.” It doesn’t have to always be that way: to prove Hegel wrong all it takes is for alert people to heed the words engraved on another philosopher’s gravestone, that of Karl Marx. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” It is past time for Friends to change the AFSC by insisting that its “Service” be directed and carried out by “Friends” once again.

– Larry Ingle, Chattanooga Friends Meeting

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