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A work of the Spirit: Why I felt led to work at AFSC

Acting in Faith  |  By Greg Elliott, Dec 30, 2014
Harpenden Friends House

Harpenden Friends House

Photo: CC / Paul Downey

“Here, you might be interested in this. They’re a Quaker organization.” I look down at the title: "MARStar: Newsletter of the Middle Atlantic Region, American Friends Service Committee." The cover has a large image of protestors holding signs. “Cool,” I say out loud. I turn the pages and see words I’ve never seen before -- “social justice” “activists” “the prison industrial complex.” Immediately, I recognize that this magazine, this document, is something significant, something important, something I am connected to. For the first time in my life, I feel proud to be a Quaker. I am 14.

Factoryville, Pennslyvania, the town I grew up in, is home to about 1,200 people. It is a bucolic, working-class town, about halfway between Scranton and Tunkhannock, and it is almost entirely white. Most of my classmates came from families whose grandparents grew up in Factoryville, or at the very least, in small towns nearby. What made my family stand out was that both of my parents were academics and transplants, and for that reason, I was kind of an outsider.

Also, we were the only Quakers.

My parents felt that it was important for my brother and me to be raised in the Quaker community, not because they were Quaker, but because they wanted to raise us in a community that reflected their values. Among Quakers, they found just that. Plus, at the time, there were a lot of other kids our age in North Branch Friends Meeting. It was a 45 minute drive but at least we had beautiful scenery and NPR to listen to.

Meeting for Worship, First Day School, and Quaker summer camp gave me an abundance of life-changing experiences, lessons, and values that I still draw on today. In Meeting for Worship, I learned how to be still, how to engage with my inner world, and how to share that engagement in community. In First Day School, I learned that there was “that of God in everyone” and that Jesus had a lot to say about peace and justice. In the woods at Quaker summer camp, I learned about our fundamental connection with nature and that folk songs sound best when sung near creeks or under shade trees. Most of all, I learned that when love, trust, and acceptance are a part of community, it is much easier to be yourself and grow as a person.

Quakers are still for peace (Photo by Matt S. CC)Like most people of my generation, September 11th (9/11) was a turning point in my life. I was 17 and a senior in high school. When my French class huddled around the television and watched the second tower fall, my first thought was, “Oh my God, this will be used to justify more killing.” In that moment, I was more afraid of what the United States was going to do next than of what Al-Qaeda was going to do. I have Quakerism to thank for that. Quakerism taught me how war works, how aggression escalates, and how politicians use moments like 9/11 to make things worse, much worse. Stepping into the hallway, I became immediately aware that these were not the thoughts most of my classmates were having, especially the boys. Already, calls to war and racist slurs were spoken aloud with impunity. It was shocking, infuriating, and terrifying.

After graduating that spring, I attended Earlham College in the fall and was surrounded by students who shared the same concerns as I did and was proud that my Quaker college offered a class called “Nonviolent Social Movements,” which I enrolled in in my first semester. I felt a sense of being on the “right side of history” – in a time of war, Quakers were standing up for peace.

Abrahms Creek PTI 2007 (Photo by FOR-USA CC)

Later that winter, I attended the week-long Peacemaker Training Institute (PTI). Although my Quaker upbringing had already cultivated in me a commitment to peace and justice work, it didn’t teach me the shared analysis, vocabulary, and insights of the larger peace and social justice community. PTI forced me to confront my unearned white, American, male, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero, cis-gender privilege – and I include all of those qualifiers not in jest, but in reality. Before PTI, I saw myself as “one of the good guys,” but I was certainly not “one of the good allies.” At PTI, the Light shined on the experiences of people who did not share my identity, my worldview, my culture, or my history. My ignorance was brought into the Light, and I felt convicted by the truth. It was the most life-changing week of my life, and it was deeply spiritual.

Over the next five years, I worked as a part-time facilitator for PTI, and co-organized/co-facilitated trainings and workshops on anti-oppression activism and nonviolent social change. Rather than gravitating toward Peace Studies at Earlham, I gravitated toward African and African-American Studies and Women’s Studies. It wasn’t that I had it all figured out or even that I was a particularly effective ally. It was that I had come to believe that these classes and workshops were saving my life. They were mandatory. How could I be a “Friend of the Truth” if I only knew MY truth? How could I be fully human if I did not engage in “unlearning” the lessons of an inhuman culture, one that oppresses and distorts humanity and human relationships?

The teachings and lessons I experienced during that time were just as necessary, life-giving, and spiritual as anything I had learned or experienced as a Quaker growing up – what’s more spiritual than learning about ‘alternate realities?’ At PTI, we tried to intentionally incorporate spirituality into our trainings, but those “planned” sessions were never as spiritually vital as those “covered” workshops on racism, patriarchy, etc. in which listening and being led to speak took on entirely new meanings.

Quaker spaces never felt the same after that. Where I had once felt self-righteous, I felt humbled. It wasn’t that Quakers weren’t involved in great peace and justice work – they were. It was just that I started to notice things and ask questions that I had never considered before: Why were most Quaker meetings overwhelmingly white and middle-class? Why weren’t more Quakers learning how to be effective allies? Why were my attempts at voicing these concerns in Quaker spaces met with inaction or hesitation?

AFSC Sodastream Boycott (Photo by AFSC CC)One of the places where I truly felt at home in Quakerism was among American Friends Service Committee program staff who would often attend the same conferences as PTI staff did. I always got excited when I saw an AFSC table at one of those events. Whether or not they were actually Quaker, they represented Quakerism to that activist world in a way that made me feel proud, just like when I saw my first issue of the MARStar newsletter. I had no questions about “how Quaker AFSC was” – I was just excited that an organization that called itself Quaker was doing the kind of work that it was doing.

Working at AFSC, my activism and my faith community are more connected than ever before. I am inspired by efforts in the Religious Society of Friends and at AFSC to exist more authentically at the place where activism and spirituality merge. Recently, there has been a flurry of activity among Friends to address racism, privilege, and inequality in our Society partially due to the dramatic scenes of injustice and police brutality playing out before our eyes, but largely because of the continued efforts of Friends of Color and their allies. Spirit is rising, and if we seize this historic moment, we may be able to move past old patterns of denial, minimization, and words without action and take some concrete steps toward, to quote Dr. King, “the beloved community.”

In reality, it’s not that white folks in the Society of Friends are particularly ill-equipped to address these issues. It’s just that we often respond in exactly the same ways most white people respond. In a religious society that prides itself on being a voice of dissent in the dominant culture, it can be hard for us to admit when we sound less like the dissent and more like the culture. Being an effective and useful ally for racial justice is challenging, life-long work but in my experience, it is without question the most spiritually powerful undertaking of my life.

Friends Meeting House (Photo by Stephen Coles CC)Our active involvement is vital in this ongoing process of transformation in ourselves and our meetings/churches; in the Religious Society of Friends and AFSC.  With guidance from its Community, Equality and Justice Committee, AFSC continues to address those places within the organization where it still has room to grow. Whether we know it or not, we are on this journey together. The work is never ending, but the fruits of the work are never ending as well. We can find comfort in knowing that we are not alone in this.

Coming up on its centennial in 2017, AFSC has changed over time because the work of peace and social justice has changed over time. This connects directly to Friends belief in “continuing revelation,” and I believe that it is up to us to incorporate these revelations into our lives and our meetings/churches. Everyone who walks into a Friends meeting/church deserves to feel the same love, trust, and acceptance that I felt growing up Quaker, and I believe that doing this work will help get us there.

Friends also have much to offer the work of AFSC. At PTI, we often struggled over how to incorporate spirituality into our trainings. Now activists are more aware than ever of the importance of spiritual practices to prevent “burn out.” For Friends, there is no distinction between the spiritual and the political. Friends know that work for social justice is the work of the Spirit. Friends’ testimonies anchor the work of AFSC in a spiritual and religious foundation that goes back to the organizations’ beginnings, and that relationship ought to be reflected throughout the entire organization, from the Board to the program staff on the ground. Thankfully, AFSC recognizes the need to strengthen its relationship with Friends and is actively engaged in fulfilling that vision. The efforts of Lucy Duncan, Madeline Schaefer, and the Friends Relations Committee have already gone a long way toward strengthening AFSC's relationship with the Society of Friends and encouraging Friends involvement in AFSC programs and initiatives.

This is an exciting time in the history of AFSC and the Society of Friends, and I am thankful to be a part of it. From the Meeting/Church Liaison program to Shared Security, from Freedom Schools in Ferguson to workshops at Friends General Conference, we can all play our part in this ever-growing relationship, testimony, and witness. This is truly a work of the Spirit.

 

About the Author

Greg serves as the Friends Relations Associate for AFSC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, Greg grew up attending North Branch Friends Meeting at the Curtis family farm in the Poconos. Over the last ten years, he has facilitated numerous workshops for activists and Friends on a variety of topics, including anti-oppression activism, empire, and the "Inquirer's Weekend" at Pendle Hill with Trayce Peterson. Greg currently lives in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. 

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan works with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Sophia is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She is a recent graduate of Guilford College where she majored in Sustainable Food Systems and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies.

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