Quaker Volunteer Service for the Future

By Gilbert White,
Boulder Meeting
Reprinted from Friends Journal, January, 1998

The future of Quaker volunteer service in the United States was a question of keen and probably decisive interest in 1997 because of two parallel developments.  The first development was the decision by the Board of the American Friends Service Committee to adopt a strategic plan for its future activities.  The second is the ongoing, converging interest of a large, diverse number of Quaker organizations in providing more effective channels for concerned Friends and other like-minded persons to testify to their beliefs through voluntary service.  Clearly, there is a deep and widespread demand for more such opportunities, but it is uncertain how and when that need will be met, and no concrete plan for action yet has emerged.
As one Friend who has both observed and participated in parts of these developments over the past 55 years, I feel it is important to engage our larger community in thoughtful discussion of some of the issues involved.  The choices ahead are likely to affect the well-being of both individuals and the Religious Society of friends as a whole.  The AFSC has experienced major shifts in its position toward volunteer service, while the extent and diversity of interest by other groups in such service has also changed.  We may be at a kind of crossroads in policy.  Something new is needed, and may be happening.
While early Friends emphasized the essential quality of translating fundamental belief into daily action in many ways, large-scale voluntary service did not take shape in the United States until the First World War.  Then, the American Friends Service Committee was established initially to provide channels for service.  I was first exposed to the concept of voluntary Quaker service through a conversation with Rufus Jones in 1930.  He talked of that initial mission of AFSC as being a testimony in a time of war-suffering to a way of life that took away the occasion for war.  I served in 1942-44 as a conscientious objector overseas, and in 1945 and 1946 I assisted Clarence Pickett as a staff member in his efforts to orient the AFSC around the concept of providing channels of opportunity for Friends and other likeminded people to demonstrate their religious belief in service to others.  Since then, through volunteer activity with programs for college students, urban rehabilitation, and conferences for diplomats, I have observed with continuing interest the changing role of the AFSC in this field.  With the exception of four cooperative service projects with yearly meetings lasting a week and exposing the participants to visits and a few days of work with needy communities, it no longer provides domestic workcamps for young people.  It has two internships with the Quaker United Nations Office and one with Davis House in Washington, D.C., but does not seek to find appropriate channels for service by concerned Friends.  The fulltime unionized professional staff in the national office is more than 80 percent non-Friends.  The staffing patterns in the regional offices tend to follow this trend.
To my view, the AFSC has focused on advocacy of desirable social change to deal constructively with imperfections it perceives in society at home and abroad.  The staff is recruited to work effectively in those directions, and any discrimination according to gender, ethnic group, or religion is avoided.  It has largely abandoned primary responsibility to provide service opportunities.  "Promoting peace and justice: A plan for AFSC's future," emphasizes that it is to be a Quaker organization and that its programs will have a significant impact on social change directed at peacebuilding and demilitarization, social justice, and economic justice, with youth primarily as a program constituency having its own network.  While an office of volunteer opportunities is to be established, and careful attention is to be given to affirmative action, I find no explicit mention of channels for volunteer service or workcamps.
I realize that the recent boards and staff of AFSC have taken this course of policy for reasons they regard as sound and desirable, but I believe that they neglect two major considerations.  One is the demand on the part of Friends for opportunities to live their deepest beliefs in daily action.  In our increasingly complex society it is difficult for concerned individuals to find such opportunities unencumbered by strong commitments to particular social reform ideologies.  There are now a few such openings, as in the case of the Quaker Workcamps International ministry to burned churches, but the number, while not large and widely available, is growing in creative ways.
A second consideration has to do with the long-term health of the Religious Society of Friends.  There is reason to believe that much leadership for the enduring Society comes from women and men who have given volunteer service.  For several decades much of the imaginative, devoted participation in Friends affairs came from those people, and it is fascinating to follow the subsequent lives of former members of weekend or summer workcamps.  Many of us can look with warm appreciation at the contributions of dedicated Friends such as David Richie in weekend camps, or Sam and Miriam Levering in shaping the Law of the Sea, or Leonore Goodenow in reforming attitudes toward Colorado prisons.

Most current judgments as to the impact of volunteer service upon the life of individuals giving and receiving, and of the society as a whole, have not been tested by rigorous scientific analysis.  Since studies sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation in the 1950s on the effects of workcamp participation, there have been almost no searching appraisals of those  effects on behavior and organization.  A few scholars have evaluated the consequences of community service among graduates of Haverford and in other religious traditions, notably Roman Catholicism.  It is to be hoped that additional studies of Quaker actions will be undertaken.  Meanwhile, one can only speculate or exchange impressions about some of the outcomes.

      There is no doubt, however, about the enthusiasm and sense of shared devotion currently expressed by a large and growing number of Quaker groups.  A gathering of more than 100 concerned Friends at the old Burlington, New Jersey, Meetinghouse on April 18-20, 1997, served to exchange diverse experience with Quaker voluntary service and to focus attention on