What's Unique About Quaker Service?

The following is an excerpt from a talk given at the Arizona Half-Yearly Meeting in March, 1998, by Anthony Manousos, who is not only the editor of Friends Bulletin, but also the coordinator for the AFSC/SCQM Youth Service Project.

During the 1997 Burlington Conference on Quaker Volunteer Service and Witness (see Friends Bulletin, June 1997), the question arose: "What is unique about Quaker service?"
I'd like to talk about some unique characteristics of Quaker service and then conclude with some comments about Gilbert White's article and the unique situation of Western Friends.

Volunteers at the Rev. Carl Bean AIDS center

Identification with Unpopular Causes and People

Let's begin by looking  at some of the well-known examples of Quaker service in the 20th century. After World War I, Quakers went into Russia to help the Russian people during their Civil War. During WWII, many Quakers went out of their way to help the Jews and the Japanese in the face of governmental indifference or hostility. After WWII, Friends helped the Germans along with other victims of war in Europe. In recent times, Friends have offered help to the North Vietnamese, the Cubans, the North Koreans, and most recently the Iraqis. Quakers have been leaders in prison ministry, particularly during times when the general public has had a very negative attitude towards lawbreakers. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to detect a pattern. One of unique characteristics of Quaker service is that it is often directed towards those that are unpopular, those who are seen by many as the enemy or as outcasts.
   Nowadays most Friends tend to be comfortably middle class, but a large proportion of us unprogrammed Friends have had formative experiences of being outsiders. Some were CO's, some were involved in the anti-war movement, others got involved in the women's movement or environmental causes before they were popular. I think it's safe to say that we Friends have tended to be out of step with mainstream opinion.
By identifying with the Outsider and the Enemy, Quakers have turned their service into a kind of witness. We are saying, in effect: "God requires us to love our enemy, and love means service--service from the heart, and not simply of the lip."
The results of this heart-felt and Spirit-led service may not be immediately apparent, but can have long-standing effects. When I went to the Soviet Union in the 1980's, there were Russians who still remembered with gratitude the relief work that Quakers did 70 years ago. The Germans are equally appreciative, as you can tell if you've had the opportunity  to watch the recent award-winning German documentary, "Love Amidst the Ruins." This powerful documentary commemorates the relief work that Quakers did in Germany after WW II when many people were suspicious of the Germans. Over the years I've encountered Jews, Japanese, Native Americans, and African Americans who appreciate the fact that Friends cared when others didn't.
   One of the unique characteristics of  Quaker service is that  Friends help people when it is not popular to do so, and expect nothing in return.

Teaching Self-Reliance and Self-Worth

The second characteristic of Quaker service is that it's about helping others to become self-reliant. Nothing makes a Quaker happier than for a group not to need his or her services any more. One of the best examples I can think of is Self-Help Enterprises. This project was started in the early 1960's in the Central Valley of California. Friends and the AFSC went to farm workers and asked them what they wanted. The answer they got was, "Homes." Many farm workers were living in shacks, or just sleeping in the fields. So Friends raised money to start a pilot project. They provided interest-free loans to farm workers to purchase land and materials to build homes. Technical expertise was also provided. The farm workers built the homes themselves.
This project was so successful that it eventually became an independent, non-profit corporation called Self-Help Enterprises. In 1995, Mike Gray led a project with Self-Help Enterprises in Visalia. I participated along with some Arizona Friends, Gerry Theisman and his two teenagers, Mindi and Ben. Together with a dozen Mexican-American families, we helped build not just houses, but a community. It was a fantastic experience.
Helping others to become self-sufficient is based on the idea that each person has a spark of the divine within. Even when we give homeless people bags of food, as we did recently in San Diego, we don't expect people to agree with our religious viewpoint, or pray with us, or  "grovel for food," as one homeless person put it. As Friends, we want to uphold the dignity and worth of each individual. In helping others, we help ourselves.