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Taking away occasions of war

German feeding program during World War II Photo: Archives / AFSC
AFSC in Quang Ngai, Vietnam Photo: Archives / AFSC

For almost 100 years, AFSC has brought relief in the aftermath of conflicts around the world. Nearly all of our international programs originated in war zones or amid political conflicts, often aggravated by disasters.

Though AFSC gained respect and renown for aid interventions, humanitarian assistance and development have never been the driving mission of the Service Committee—rather, the mission has always been to make peace viable.

Rebuilding requires harmony. Reconciling warring communities takes trust. And trust takes time to build.

The pace of building peace with justice—of taking away the occasions of war—requires faith in the practice of nonviolence. Lessons from the past century have taught AFSC to concentrate on preventing violence.

Often, that means staying in a post-conflict area long after the news cameras and emergency aid dollars have moved on.

Colin Bell, executive secretary in the 1950s and 60s, summed up AFSC’s approach: “The cup of cold water to the thirsty child is not a debatable proposition. It has to be given,” he said. But to fulfill their spiritual purpose, Quakers must continue beyond aid, finding direction by asking “Why the thirsty child? Why the breakdown into war?”

Love is the first motion
The Quaker peace testimony opposes war and violence, compelling Friends to pursue lasting, sustainable peace. Eliminating the causes of violent conflict—such as poverty, exploitation, and intolerance—is part of practicing nonviolence.

Led by this testimony, 14 Quakers created AFSC weeks after the United States entered World War I. The organization gave conscientious objectors ways to serve without joining the military or taking lives.

Members drove ambulances and ministered to the wounded in Europe. They collected clothing and canned food to distribute to displaced people in war-ravaged France.

Donations and volunteers kept coming after the war. Though AFSC was imagined as a wartime effort, support for its approach encouraged the early members to keep serving those suffering in post-conflict areas around the world.

Thus began a longtime AFSC practice of collecting and distributing material aid. That aid peaked in the two decades following World War II, when AFSC shipped over 124 million pounds of supplies to devastated areas of Europe and Japan. Medical supplies were shipped to hospitals during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Tractors to Israel in the 1950s. Vaccines for Algerian refugees in Morocco and Tunisia. In 1948, the Emergency Material Aid Program ran five export warehouses, in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, Pasadena, and Seattle.

AFSC was a conduit for a swelling amount of generosity in that period. The federal government subsidized shipping costs, and U.S. supporters gave readily in the form of used clothing and donations. As Colin Bell said:

The efficient first aider who appears on the scene of an accident is a godsend, and is seen by others as one. For this reason, it is a tragic fact that the AFSC, a charity existing on the gifts of vast numbers of Americans, most of them not Friends, has been at its richest in funds during the aftermath of a number of wars.

We are most strongly supported when we are doing what we least want to do—namely, picking up the pieces, stanching the wounds caused by some violent breakdown in human relations. Doing that, it is easy to be everybody’s darling.

Preventive medicine
AFSC’s founders protested taking up arms because they believed that humanity could exist without violence. “They were inwardly pledged to a way of life—which, if extended through the world, would eliminate the seeds of war,” said Rufus Jones, one of the founders and AFSC’s first chairperson. In caring for others and respecting each person’s dignity, the founders were transforming enemies into allies and conflict into peaceful coexistence.

Transformative peace-building has always been the core of the Service Committee’s approach, even when humanitarian assistance is the first response.

During the Vietnam War, AFSC ran a medical project in Quang Ngai, training residents to make artificial arms and legs for civilian amputees. Lady Borton volunteered on the project, running er-rands in the town to support volunteers with medical skills. Years later, in 1988, Lady reflected that her presence interacting with townspeople made a lasting difference. “Our effort to learn Vietnamese, our willingness to let the Vietnamese on both sides know who we were and, most important of all, our commitment to listen and to care,” she said, were more critical than the medical projects they were there to provide.

“Commitment to listen and care is no small gift,” she said. “After the Vietnam War, the AFSC commitment meant fostering a relationship during years of Vietnamese reticence. And it meant continuing projects even when funding programs in Vietnam grew unfashionable.”

Being present in circumstances such as these makes a lasting difference. In the mid-2000s, AFSC made external and internal changes to better support that investment with its limited resources. The material aid program ceased sending used clothing overseas, as shipping grew costly and material goods had negative effects to local economies. Directors for international programs moved from Philadelphia to international regions, bringing leaders closer to people affected by decisions and allowing them to act in deeper partnership with community and national leaders.

AFSC also expanded the work of international affairs representatives who focus on building bridges. In the midst of violence and in post-conflict situations where violence could easily erupt again, they have created important opportunities for underrepresented voices to be heard. They also created space for dialogue among divided leaders.

AFSC pioneered many of the peace-building methods practiced widely among international peace organizations today, such as bridging divides, meeting pressing needs while addressing underlying conflicts, and engaging respectfully with local partners. These principles continue to inspire our work with communities worldwide.