Friday, February 5, 2021

Quaker service: living our Quaker testimonies

 Greg Woods is writing a book about Quaker service and asked to interview me because I helped start a Quaker service project in Southern California in 1993 and was coordinator of it for over ten years. This piece that I wrote twenty years ago, in 2001, describes not only the philosophy behind Quaker service, it also includes testimonies by the teens and adults whose lives were transformed by living their faith under challenging circumstances, in an impoverished community called Maclovio Rojas midway between Tecate and Tijuana on the Mexico-US border. There most of the inhabitants live in shacks made of garage doors and work in the nearby factories, called maquiladoras. Living and working side-by-side these Mexicans opened the hearts and minds of these young workcampers. 

Friends Service embodies all four social testimonies of Quakerism, as they were defined by the Quaker educator and peace activist, Howard Brinton.

It demonstrates community because it endeavors to unite the whole human race into one interdependent community;   it demonstrates equality because of its impartiality; it demonstrates simplicity  because of the standard of living required of its workers; and it demonstrates  harmony by its main mission—the promotion of peace.”— Friends for 300 Years, p. 174.

In Brinton’s view, Friends Service is an essential component of Quakerism. He preferred to call it “Friends Service” instead of “Quaker Service” because he felt very strongly that service should always be undertaken in the spirit of equality—one friend helping another—and not in the spirit of Lady Bountiful’s bestowing favors on those “less fortunate.” Friends do not try to convert others or provide assistance with strings attached, whether religious or political. Friends seek to help others with no other motive than love. Hence, the name given to them by the Germans: Stille helfers. “Quiet Helpers.”

As Brinton points out, the main mission of Friends Service is to promote peace. The American Friends Service Committee was born during a time of global conflict, WWI, when Friends who objected to war wanted to demonstrate in a tangible way their commitment to peace. Many of these ardent pacifists went to Europe to do relief work and to help re-build Germany and Russia after the War.

The AFSC/SCQM Youth Service Project was also started in a time of conflict—during the period of the Gulf War and the Los Angeles uprising. At that time, the Service Committee wanted to reach out to disadvantaged communities, and to involve youth in the quest for social justice.

In this talk I would like to look at how our service projects promote each of Quakerism’s four social testimonies, and particularly that of  peace.


I will begin with community, since that is where peacemaking (as well as conflict) begins. If you ask most teenagers why they come to service projects, they are likely to say, “Because I like the people” or “I want to be with my friends or make new friends.”

Friendship is an essential part of the service experience; it is also the basis for community and non-violence. For Quakers, Friendship arises out of a shared experience of knowing the Truth.  The Religious Society got its name from the well-passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus says to his disciples: “Henceforth I call you not servants but friends for the servant does not know what the master does, but I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15).

According to Howard Brinton, “inner peace comes through obedience to the Divine Voice not, as Jesus pointed out, blindly as a slave obeys a master, but as a friend complies with the wishes of his friend because the two are one in spirit” (The Quaker Doctrine of Inner Peace, p 10).

The friendships formed during service projects are often significantly different from those formed in school because they are based on a desire to “make a difference,” to help those in need, or to comply with the wishes of that Inner Voice we call God or the Truth.

This inner need to help others was called “the Seed” or “the Seed of Christ” by early Friends. Quaker educator and mystic Thomas Kelley wrote these moving words about how work camps nurture the Seed of Christ, or what one might call the “Seed of Compassion”:

“Each of us has the Seed of Christ within….The Christ that is formed  in us is small indeed, but…great with eternity. That’s why the Quaker work camps are important. Take a young man or young woman in whom Christ is only dimly formed. Put him into a distressed area, into a refugee camp, into a poverty region. Let him go into the world’s suffering,  bearing the Seed with him, and in suffering it will grow, and Christ will be more and more fully formed in him.”—The Eternal Promise   (42-43)

Over the past nine years, I have watched this Seed grow in the hearts of many young people as well adults who have become involved in our service projects. These seeds are now blossoming and bearing fruit. Some are conducting service projects on their own, and others are becoming involved in social justice movements.

Teens and adults may read about injustice and oppression in books, and they may intellectualize about the root causes of poverty, but what truly transforms us is the experience of “being there” and seeing for ourselves what poverty and injustice look and feel like.

Take, for example, Matt Graville, a young  Friend from Lopez, an island of serenity in Puget Sound far removed from the struggles and conflicts of the developing world. Several years ago Matt left this island to go to Maclovio Rojas, a Mexican community near Tijuana where there was no running water or electricity, and where most residents live in homes made out of garage doors. Moved by this expereience, Matt wrote these insightful words:

I have read and heard stories about how people must live in places that experience the effects of oppression every day, but walking through the streets of Maclovio I saw these effects manifested in run-down shacks and frayed extension cords. And then last night at the community center, Hortensia and Artemio [two of the community’s leaders] put words to what I saw, describing that which could not be immediately seen in the streets of Maclovio but which is the story of the people who live there..... While people here must struggle to make $3.50 a day, so many opportunities have been opened for me that sometimes I want to step away from them just to feel as if I am making a choice... It’s hard to see, looking through the soft fog of my comfortable life, who is really paying for….my padded lifestyle.…

Service projects can help us to see beyond our “padded lifestyle” and the “soft fog” of privilege. As a result of these experiences, many teens and adults feel a growing concern for justice and peace. Anna Morgan, our youth clerk and one of the most active participants, wrote:

“The growth I experienced and the friendships I made [during our Mexico projects] are well worth any difficulties I encountered. I learned more this week than any other in my life.”

Another teenager, Holly Summers, wrote:

I should add that the service project experience is not free from conflict. In fact, I have never been a service project in which there wasn’t some conflict and stress—what we euphemistically call “challenges” or “opportunities.” This should not be surprising, Take a group of people out of their comfort zone and place them in difficult and unfamiliar situation, and conflicts inevitably arise. Adults sometimes become excruciatingly judgmental when the youth or the program or the program coordinator fail to meet their high (and often unrealistic) expectations. Teens sometimes act out their anxieties and insecurities in ways that seem bizarre. Interpersonal conflicts can easily escalate when we lack the comforting distractions of our privileged lives.

During work camps, we have had to learn how to resolve conflicts in practical ways based on Quaker spiritual principles. We learn how important it is to have daily meetings for reflection in which adults and teens meet, process their feelings, and share their insights. (I have personally learned that I cannot do these projects without a lot of prayer.) In order to insure that all voices and concerns are heard and respected, we involve youth and adults in leadership and planning. When difficulties and interpersonal conflicts arise, we use Quaker processes, such as clearness sessions, to resolve them. To relieve tensions, we sometimes employ methods borrowed from AVP. I will give some examples of how we use these techniques later in my discussion of the peace testimony.

In spite or perhaps because of the challenges, organizing and participating in service projects has been an enormous blessing as well as a learning experience for those involved. I am reminded of what John Woolman said about the education of children 

To watch the spirit of children, to nurture them in Gospel Love, and to labor to help them against that which would mar the beauty of their minds, is a debt we owe them; and the faithful performance of our duty not only tends to their lasting benefit and our own peace, but also to render their company agreeable to us…

Woolman is right:  we owe it to youth to nurture in them the spirit of compassion and to foster “the beauty of their minds” (what a quaint and  lovely 18th century phrase!).  When we do so, we not only experience inward satisfaction or peace, we also learn to be more appreciative of young people. My life has been deeply enriched by the teenagers who have been involved in our programs. I have watched them evolve into remarkable young adults. Many are now in college and are active in social justice and peace-making work.


Service projects foster a sense not only of community, but also of equality. As Pacific Yearly Meeting’s recent Faith and Practice observes, “Friends testimony on equality is rooted in the holy expectation that there is that of God in everyone, including adversaries and those from widely different stations, life experiences, and religious persuasions.” For this reason, Friends often do service projects among groups or people viewed with suspicion by the majority of Americans. 

One of the reasons that we have been led to do service projects along the US/Mexico border is that many Americans harbor hostile or racist feelings towards Mexicans. Our policies towards Mexicans have led to the exploitation, and untimely deaths, of countless Mexican people.

Crossing the border from the United States to Mexico, one becomes painfully aware of what Jonathan Kozol called the “savage inequality” that exists between rich and poor, here in the USA and throughout the world.

The community where we work consists of 1200 families—most of whom are forced to work in factories for $5 per day. They have no running water, no electricity, and no paved roads. Most of the homes are made of scrap, the favorite building material being used garage doors.

Even though we were less than an hour’s drive from San Diego, one of our teens said that going to this community was like going to an alien planet.

Over the course of a week, we work side-by-side with the Mexican people—putting up sheet rock, digging holes, mixing  cement, painting homes and murals, and even planting crosses around a cemetery to commemorate those who have died trying to cross the border. As we work and sweat alongside the Mexicans, they come to seem less like aliens, and more like amigos.

By standing in solidarity with our Mexican compañeros, and by letting others know of their struggles, we can make a difference. Our presence sends a message to the Mexican government that Americanos are watching and care about what is going on in this community. Persuading our government to adopt immigration policies based on mutual respect, not upon racism and xenophobia, would definitely help to reduce the violence along the border.


Just as inequality can lead to repression and violence, excessive affluence (sometimes called “affluenza”) can lead to economic injustice and conflict. For that reason, John Woolman urges Friends to practice plain living in this famous passage from his Journal:

…we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may we walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.—Journal (New Century edn: 1900), p. 279.

Service projects often leads to profound self-examination and questioning. As we have seen, Matt Graville talked about becoming aware of his “padded lifestyle.” Stephanie Van Dyke, an adult from  Seattle WA, wrote about how painful it was to be deprived of her usual comforts and to witness the environmental pollution caused by poverty. She writes:  “Daily I am faced with difficulty of life—lack of water, the heat and dust. I found myself deeply troubled by the need to dispose of waste by burning or dumping it. It is painful to think of the effect on earth and air of so many people doing this—yet it is a necessity in so many places. My surprise and profound discomfort are signs of my life of privilege...”

Sarah House, a student at Whittier College who has been involved in our program since it began, expressed the hope that her experience at Maclovio would lead her to adopt a simpler lifestyle: “After staying here for week, it has started to feel natural and normal for us to live this way. Hopefully, these experiences will help us to live our lives more simply when we go home….”


As I mentioned earlier, the living conditions in our Mexico project present challenges for some of our participants, including the coordinator. I’d like to conclude this talk with some examples of how we struggle to conduct business and resolve conflict non-violently,  in the manner of Friends.

This past summer many of  teenage participants did not respond as most had done in the best. Our core group of experienced teens had graduated and gone on to college, and most of those who came this summer were first-timers. Many of these teens were confused and disoriented by the heat and poverty, and some reverted to junior high school modes of behavior. Some were reluctant to work, used profane language, and spent enormous amounts of time and money on junk food from the local store.

We adults struggled not to be angry and judgmental, but it was pretty hard at times. The boys’ bathroom was an especially sore point. In Mexico, you are not supposed to put toilet paper into the toilet because it makes the toilet clog up. You are supposed to put the paper into a waste basket. I know it sounds disgusting, but that’s the way it is. We told the group repeatedly what they were supposed to do, but some of the boys ignored the rule, and so the toilets got clogged. The first two times I took a plunger and cleaned the toilets myself. But after that, I told the boys that I wasn’t going to do it any more.

By the end of the week, the toilets were pretty foul, and I was in a quandary. How could I make the boys clean the toilets? None of them would volunteer to do it. So we sat down together and had a meeting. I was in a real bind. If I tried to be a drill sergeant and order the boys to clean the toilet, they would revolt. Besides, forcing kids to do the right thing violates one of the basic tenets of Quakerism—respect for the individual. On the other hand, we couldn’t leave the toilets in a mess. So I just said to the boys, “What are we going to do? We can’t get up until we have a solution.”

Five, ten minutes passed in fruitless discussion. The boys realized that I was serious. We were not going to get up without a solution.  It also  became clear that none of the boys was willing to volunteer to do this dirty job. To volunteer and clean up the excrement left by someone else would be to lose face in front of one’s peers.  Finally, one boy said half-jokingly: “Let’s all of us clean it together.”

“Yes,” I said, “That sounds perfect to me. We can take turns with the plunger. In fact, we can make it a meeting for worship on the occasion of cleaning toilets.”

The boys laughed since Quakers often use the phrase “meeting for worship on the occasion of business.” However, I was serious. I do regard cleaning toilets as a spiritual discipline.

All the boys and I went to the bathroom and took turns with the plunger. The boys groaned at first, but finally we all laughed and got the job done together. It was a bonding experience we will never forget.

While we were working, I told them about how cleaning toilets was a spiritual practice in Gandhi’s ashram. In India, educated people or Brahmans are not supposed to clean toilets. That’s a job for the Untouchables, as they used to be called.  So Gandhi made it a requirement for everyone in his ashram, even his own wife and family, to clean the toilets. For Gandhi, this was a spiritual practice, just like prayer.

Besides, I said to the boys, “You wouldn’t want the Mexicans to be our untouchables, do you?”

I don’t know if the boys got the message, but I know that I felt clear and the toilets got cleaned and remained clean for the rest of our week.

Continuing Revelation

As you can see from these examples, there is never a dull moment with service learning projects. Each project offers unique opportunities to practice and deepen our understanding of the Peace Testimony as well as all the other testimonies of Friends. Right now we are in the process of exploring ways to reach out those who have been affected by the events of Sept. 11th. During our planning meeting in September, our youth indicated that they would like to reach out in friendship to Muslim youth and involve them in our work. As a result, whole new possibilities for service learning and peacemaking are opening up.

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