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On April 30, 1917, just 22 days after the United States entered the First World War, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) came into existence. Developed to provide "a service of love in wartime" for conscientious objectors and others, the committee consisted of representatives of the three major Quaker groups—Orthodox, Hicksite, and Five Years Meeting. Among the founders were three women, Anna G. Walton, Arabella Carter, and Lucy Biddle Lewis. A fourth, Rebecca Carter eventually became the first paid staff member.

AFSC became the first major philanthropic effort in which Quaker men and women worked together on equal terms. The reforms of the 18th century, in which Quaker men began to make good deeds rather than political power their basic form of self-expression, had finally begun to work. The organization at first reflected the working methods of Philadelphia businessmen. The chair of the board was always a man, and the executive secretary also, except for a few months in 1927, when Anna Griscom Elkinton served as acting secretary. Nevertheless, in the field, workers carried on their relief work, it was often women who took the lead and became AFSC's heroes. This in turn helped move the organization forward toward true equality. In the spring of 1917, the AFSC set to work immediately arranging for conscientious objectors—primarily Quaker, but also Mennonite and Brethren—to be furloughed to its care, and developing units to be sent overseas to do relief work in France and later elsewhere in Europe. Even though women weren’t subject to the draft, many young Quaker women also worked to serve and were sent to relief projects overseas.

AFSC visits North Korea

In June of 1917, six women went to Russia to work in areas surrounding Buzuluk, a wheat depot on the Samara-Tashkent railroad. Here war refugees had crowded in from the front, straining the supplies of food and water already reduced by drought and famine. English Quakers were already at work in this area, providing medical services, and the six American women helped in the clinics and established workrooms where one member of each refugee family could gain employment: weaving, spinning, sewing, or embroidering. They also set up schools for refugee children.

Following these reports, AFSC decided to do what it could to feed the hungry in Germany. The committee’s original idea was to undertake a small-scale demonstration project, but Herbert Hoover, then director of the American Relief Administration, and also a Friend, asked instead if the Friends would be willing to distribute food to children throughout Germany. The AFSC recruited workers, skilled in either medicine, social work, or administration, and sent them to begin to establish feeding stations.

As staff and resources grew, the AFSC expanded the project, maintaining 2,271 kitchens and supplying 8,364 feeding stations to feed a million children. Many of the men and women who participated in this project went on to devote their lives to this sort of work.

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.

From the first, local Friends’ meetings worked to raise money and to gather clothing and bedding for the overseas projects. Older women, who could not be active, knitted layettes and made blankets for shipment abroad. In addition, it became traditional for younger Quaker women to offer a year or two of service. After the worst of the postwar emergency came to an end, the AFSC opened service opportunities in settlement houses, southern schools for blacks, and Indian reservations throughout the United States. In 1927, The organization also began to send young men and women across the country each summer in peace caravans to bring messages of international reconciliation to the small towns of the United States. During the Great Depression, AFSC undertook a major project of child feeding in the Appalachian coalfields and here initiated the first workcamps in which young men and women spent their summer in unpaid volunteer labor to aid underprivileged communities.

Before World War II began, the AFSC explored opportunities for reconciliation. In the spirit of nonviolence, AFSC sent a mission to the German Gestapo to speak against persecution of the Jews–the only Protestant church group to do so.

During the War, Quakers devoted themselves to maintaining hostels for refugees from Germany, protesting the relocation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, and finding new homes and schools for both groups. Many women also served, along with their husbands or brothers, in the Civilian Public Service camps established for conscientious objectors, in mental hospitals, forestry camps, or medical experiment stations. Some Friends trained at Haverford College, in Haverford, Pennsylvania, for post-war reconstruction.

In the postwar years, Quaker workers returned to Europe and Japan to try to undo some of the damage of war. In addition to relief, AFSC promoted off-the-record conferences for diplomats and other leaders, as well as student exchanges, in an effort to provide reconciliation and probe the causes of war.

Rather than disbanding after the social and physical problems in Europe resulting from World War I had been resolved, the AFSC turned to domestic problems of human needs both in this country and throughout the world. A common desire to meet humanitarian needs through service has since unified various groups of Friends both in the U.S. and abroad with those of similar persuasion from a variety of church denominations. Together they work on projects dealing with criminal justice, community development, and non-violent methods of achieving a peaceful world, both in this country and worldwide.

In recent years, the AFSC has undertaken relief efforts, helping refugees from late 20th and early 21st-century wars.

The AFSC China Summer Workcamp will be held July 27- August 22, 2009. For more information, click here.

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