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AFSC's Work: Of Friends, not By Friends or For Friends

Corporation Members take part in a workshop on the Occupy/Unoccupy Movement
Corporation Members take part in a workshop on the Occupy/Unoccupy Movement Photo: Ralph Medley / AFSC

Note: This guest post in part responds to an earlier discussion on this blog, "What makes a Quaker organization Quaker?" - Lucy

by Doug Bennett

How is AFSC a Quaker organization? This was one thread among several at an excellent meeting of the AFSC Corporation this past weekend. 

That topic has surfaced and submerged often in recent decades, but the current discussion seems much more constructive.  The appointment of Lucy Duncan as Friends Liaison is testimony that AFSC cares about this matter and wants to keep it steadily in focus.  This Acting in Faith blog is one fruit of her work.  Lucy, Shan Cretin (Executive Director), and others are regularly travelling among Friends, seeking to hear their hopes for AFSC’s work and to recruit their support.  What makes these efforts all the more remarkable is that they are being carried through in a time of diminished resources and rapid organizational change to adapt to those diminished resources. 

In several sessions at the Corporation meeting, I found myself thinking about what, for me, is the answer to what makes AFSC a Quaker organization – or should. 

Having recently visited the Lincoln Memorial, I found myself thinking about Lincoln’s handsome phrasing that democracy is “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  Does AFSC’s Quakerness reside in its work being “of the Quakers, by the Quakers, and for the Quakers?”  Well not “for the Quakers:” we aren’t just trying to serve Quakers; we are trying to serve people everywhere in their efforts to find peace and justice. And not, I think, exclusively “by Quakers:” our witness is neither enriched nor sanctified by restricting opportunities to share in the work to those who are members of Quaker meetings.  We are a small religious group that aspires to universality, hoping to share our message, our witness, our service with all human beings. 

But yes, our work should be “of the Quakers,” if we can figure out what that means.  We choose to be Quakers, don’t we, because we find among Friends ways to make us more able to love God with all our heart and all our soul and with all our mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22: 37-40).  It is an aspiration to reach beyond ourselves, upwards and outwards, which makes us Friends.

So what is it that we find among Friends to make us (we hope!) more able to love God and love our neighbors?  Two things stand out for me.

First is a habit of being directed in our work by worship.  We always begin with worship, and we always return to worship.  That doesn’t just mean that we begin and end meetings in worship.  It means, too, that we slip into worship often, especially when we are confused or divided.  We don’t bear down, we don’t force the issue; we go deeper. 

Worship is hardly unique to Friends.  What Friends carry joyfully through and to the world is a confidence that God speaks to us in the present, if we will only still ourselves to listen.  Moreover, we know that God will speak to every human being who opens her or himself to the possibility.  With this understanding that God can and will speak to everyone, of course we must invite non-Friends to join with us both in worship and in work.  And if there is any case at all that the direction of AFSC should be in the hands of Quakers (on the Board of Directors, for example) it lies in seeking to ensure that there is a critical mass of those who understand worship in the manner of Friends and who have a ready, grace-filled inclination to lead us into worship when we should be seeking our bearings through worship. 

Friends also understand that when we hear God speaking to us, it is not just our understanding that is improved: we are also moved to action.  We are impelled to let our lives speak.  These leadings for our faith to find expression in action we call testimonies, of course.  And so a second principle of what makes AFSC a Quaker organization is that its activities are grounded, and visibly so, in Quaker testimonies. 

AFSC has recently published “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” which confidently declares that AFSC’s work “is based on the testimonies of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), belief in the worth of every person, and faith in the transforming power of love to overcome violence and injustice.”  I am delighted to see this publication, and hope that AFSC will use it to show how its program work, in each instance, arises from Friends Testimonies.  This may be a little like the exhortation of math teachers for students to “show their work.”  We may hope our programs speak for themselves, but we want to be sure that others see and understand the spirit from which those activities arise.  

How is AFSC a Quaker organization? For me, the answer is that it is “of Friends,” not so much “by Friends,” and certainly not “for Friends.”  To be “of Friends,” its work must be steadily grounded in worship after the manner of Friends.  And that worship must regularly nourish the testimonies that in turn frame and should illuminate our programs and activities. 



About the Author

Douglas Bennett is a member of AFSC's Corporation, as well as the Standing Nominating.  He also serves as the clerk for the AFSC Friends Relations Committees. Doug is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College.