The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) affiliated organization which provides humanitarian relief and works for social justice, peace and reconciliation, human rights, and abolition of the death penalty. The group was founded in 1917 as a combined effort by American members of the Religious Society of Friends and assisted civilian victims of war.
Because Quakers traditionally oppose violence in all of its forms and therefore refuse to serve in the military, the AFSC's original mission was to provide conscientious objectors (COs) to war with a constructive alternative to military service. In 1947 AFSC received the Nobel Peace Prize along with the British Friends Service Council, now called Quaker Peace and Social Witness, on behalf of all Quakers worldwide.
They also developed plans for dealing with the United States Army, since it was very inconsistent in its dealing with religious objectors to previous wars. Although legally members of pacifist churches were exempt from the draft, individual state draft boards interpreted the law in a variety of ways. Many Quakers and other COs were ordered to report to army camps for military service. Some COs, unaware of the significance of reporting for duty, found that this was interpreted by the military as willingness to fight. One of the AFSC's first tasks was to identify CO's, find the camps where they were located, and then visit them to provide spiritual guidance and moral support. (Howard Brinton, for example, visited a prison holding COs in North Carolina; this journey led to his going on an AFSC trip into the war zone itself.) In areas where the pacifist churches were more well known (such as Pennsylvania), a number of draft boards were willing to assign COs to the AFSC for alternative service.
In addition to conducting alternative service programs for COs, the AFSC collected relief in the form of food, clothing, and other supplies for displaced persons in France. Quakers were asked to collect old and make new clothing; to grow fruits and vegetables, can them, and send them to the AFSC headquarters in Philadelphia, AFSC then shipped them to France. The AFSC also sent young women and men to work in France, where they worked with British Quakers to provide relief and medical care to refugees, repair and rebuild homes, and they jointly founded a maternity hospital.
After the end of the war in 1918, the AFSCs began working in Russia, Serbia, and Poland with orphans and with the victims of famine and disease, and in Germany and Austria, where they set up kitchens to feed hungry children. Eventually AFSC was chartered by President Herbert Hoover to provide the United States sponsored relief to Germans.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the AFSC helped refugees escape from Nazi Germany, provided relief for children on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, and provided relief to refugees in Vichy France. After World War II ended, they did relief and reconstruction work in Europe, Japan, India, and China. In 1947 they worked to resettle refugees from the partition of India, and in the Gaza Strip.
As the Cold War escalated, the AFSC was involved in relief and service efforts around the world in conflicts including the Korean War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and the Algerian War. Beginning in 1966, the AFSC developed programs to help children and provided medical supplies and artificial limbs to civilians in both North Vietnam and South Vietnam. During the Nigerian-Biafran War, the AFSC provided relief to civilians on both the Nigerian and Biafran sides of the conflict.
In 1955, the Committee published Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. Focused on the Cold War, the 71-page pamphlet asserted that it sought "to give practical demonstration to the effectiveness of love in human relations." It was widely commented on in the press, both secular and religious.
In the United States, the AFSC continued the Quaker tradition of support for the American Civil Rights Movement, and the rights of African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans, including providing support for Japanese-Americans during their internment during World War II. The AFSC also has worked extensively as part of the peace movement, especially work to stop the production and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Today the AFSC has more than two hundred staff working in dozens of programs throughout the United States and works in twenty-two other nations. In the United States AFSC has divided the country into nine regions, each of which runs programs related to peace, immigrant rights, restorative justice, civil rights, and other causes. AFSC's international programs often work in conjunction with the Canadian Friends Service Committee, Quaker Peace and Social Witness (formerly the British Friends Service Council), and Quaker Service Australia.
The AFSC is still based in Philadelphia in Friends Center, a building attached to the Cherry Street Meetinghouse, one of the oldest churches in the United States.
Among the many ongoing programs of AFSC, in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, AFSC launched the Eyes Wide Open Exhibit This exhibit travels around the United States displaying in public spaces one pair of combat boots for each American killed in the ongoing fighting in Iraq. Additionally, more than one thousand pairs of donated civilian shoes are displayed as a reminder of the Iraqis killed in the conflict. The exhibit is intended as a reminder of the human costs of war.
AFSC also provides administrative support to the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in New York City. This office is the official voice of Quakerism in the United Nations headquarters. There is a second QUNO office in Geneva, Switzerland; support for that office is provided by European Friends. QUNO is overseen by the Friends World Committee for Consultation.
For its anti-war and anti-capital punishment stance, the AFSC receives criticism from many socially conservative groups alleging that the AFSC has supported Communist activities and because of its assistance to illegal aliens wishing to stay in the United States. Since the 1970s, criticism has also come from liberals within the Society of Friends, who charge that AFSC has drifted from its Quaker roots and has become indistinguishable from other political pressure groups. Quakers expressed concern with AFSC's abolition of their youth work camps during the 1960s and what some saw as a decline of Quaker participation in the organization. The criticisms became most prominent after a gathering of Friends General Conference in Richmond, Indiana, in the summer of 1979 when rank and file Friends joined more prominent ones, such as Kenneth Boulding, to call for a firmer Quaker orientation toward public issues. Some Jews have taken aim at AFSC for what they charge is an anti-Jewish bias because AFSC has a long history of listening sympathetically to, even sometimes siding with, Palestinians. Also, throughout much of the group's history the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has monitored the work of the organization.