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Lessons of spiritual strength: The legacy of Quaker work camps

Volunteers at an AFSC Work Camp in Korea. Photo: AFSC

When I was 14, my mother took me to a weekend-long Quaker work camp in West Philadelphia, one of the last before the program was closed in 2005. I painted a hallway blue, prepared simple meals, and slept in a sleeping bag. By Sunday afternoon, I knew that I had been transformed.

Yes, being exposed to the struggles of poverty and becoming acutely aware of my own privilege was eye-opening. But what broke open my heart was sitting in a circle after dinner, listening to a local African-American man tell about his daily struggles with racism, and how its structural violence has shaped the course of his life and his ability to love others. 

He told us the real story of West Philadelphia—of gentrification and military aggression and white flight.  He told us stories of pain and strength.

Although I had spent the weekend “serving,” I felt that my impact had been minimal in comparison to what I had been given. The people in the neighborhood had developed a kind of spiritual strength that compelled me to look deeply at my own approach to life. I saw a model of strength that had been forged from struggle and perseverance and faith.

I felt more alive, more connected, more tender than ever before.  And while I can’t say that I knew how I was going to use that experience, I was sure that spirit-led action was going to play a central role in my life. It is the only way to truly live.

The origin of the Quaker work camp experience like the one I attended can be traced back to the American Friends Service Committee’s work camps, started in the 1920s by AFSC’s Home Service Department. The department was charged with the work of “laying before our young people and those associated with us in our schools and colleges the call to give at least one year’s time on a volunteer basis in actual service in connection with some one of the great social problems before they settle down in business or home life.” 

The program soon developed into a rich and intensive experience, involving several weeks of manual labor, group living, and spiritual contemplation, deeply impacting an entire generation of young Quakers who remained connected to AFSC for the rest of their lives. (Watch this silent documentary created in 1939 by a Work Campers in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.)

In 1940, AFSC published a brochure to recruit young volunteers to attend one of 12 month-long work camps being held around the country. Work—hard, physical work—was at the core of the program. For, as stated in the introduction, “Laboring with one’s hands makes it possible as nothing else can, to understand realistically the problems of the working man.” It goes on to say that “class and race barriers tend to disappear in the fellowship of hard physical labor.”

No matter what we might think of the language today—paternalistic, naïve, and irrelevant in the digital age—these camps had lofty aims. “Physical work and the daily periods of meditation become means through which the camp group comes to understand the deeper human meanings of community rebuilding.” 

This was more than merely an opportunity for privileged young Quakers to learn about “the problems of the working man” while contributing little in the way of real help. These work camps provided opportunities for young people to work together with local leaders to discover the best means of rebuilding struggling communities. It recognized that it was going to require the cooperation of both historical oppressors and the oppressed to transform those archaic and destructive systems into a more whole society.

While my experience in 2005 was certainly important, digging through the AFSC Archives reveals that this model of work, contemplation, and deep listening to local community members can be truly revolutionary. It is the basis for the work AFSC does today.

Quaker Voluntary Service is the latest incarnation of this tradition of Quaker service, and launched in Atlanta during August of 2012. QVS takes this vision a step further by providing a yearlong experience of living in a developing community and working with local organizations, including AFSC’s Atlanta office. 

By living together in the community they are serving, participants practice nonviolent techniques of communication with one another and neighbors. Each volunteer receives the spiritual mentorship from members of a local Meeting. It asks a great deal of its volunteers in the name of deeply connecting to the roots of compassion and transforming those feelings into action.

This weekend I’ll be visiting the first house in Atlanta. I look forward to hearing the stories of how these volunteers have been broken open and transformed. 


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