Quaker-led Friends Service Committee celebrates 75 years TTC of 'waging peace'

May 02, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Marshall Sutton refused to fight in what Americans call "the Good War."

Donald Gann helped ship relief supplies to enemy territory during the Vietnam War.

And Gary Gillespie kept a nightly anti-war prayer vigil on Charles Street while other Americans cheered U.S. "smart bombs" and Patriot missiles in the Persian Gulf war.

Members of the Quaker-led American Friends Service Committee have consistently "waged peace" for three-quarters of a century -- and have consistently been unpopular for it.

Last night, the AFSC celebrated its 75th anniversary with an open house at the mid-Atlantic regional headquarters, 4806 York Road.

The Philadelphia-based organization has more than 400 staff members in the United States and in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, as well as hundreds of volunteers and thousands of contributors, many of them non-Quakers.

"What is the basic theme behind this organization? In one word, it is non-violence," said Dr. Gann, a physician and member of AFSC's national board. "In the Gandhian sense, non-violence is a means of producing change, based on faith and taking risks."

"If we are sufficiently committed to our basic principles so as not to participate in war, then our responsibility to prevent war becomes very much larger," he said.

Mr. Sutton, a 73-year-old Quaker who was a conscientious objector during World War II, said: "It's a way of life, a difficult thing to live up to. I had to ask whether my loyalty was to my father or to my country, or was there a deeper loyalty to . . . God as witnessed in the life of Jesus Christ?"

The AFSC was founded in 1917 by the Religious Society of Friends, as the Quakers are officially known, to train World War I conscientious objectors to do relief and construction work in Europe.

Ever since, the group has put its pacifist principles into practice and followed the Quaker dictum to "speak truth to power."

Its history reads like a laundry list of radical causes: spearheading the peace movement in the 1930s; opposing the Cold War and the atomic bomb beginning in the 1940s; campaigning against racial segregation in the 1950s; calling Vietnam a "dirty little war" early in the 1960s; advocating a Palestinian role in a Middle East peace settlement since the 1970s; and attacking U.S. policy in Central America and southern Africa in the 1980s.

AFSC positions often have been met with anger. When members offered Polytechnic Institute students leaflets on how to become conscientious objectors early in 1967, many of their intended targets burned or tore up the literature on the spot.

"You are helping the enemies of our country. It's almost like you were Communists yourselves," one student told an AFSC activist, according to an account in The Sun.

The reaction was much the same in 1961 when the group opposed fallout shelters, saying "the only shelter is peace"; or sent representatives to Hanoi in 1971 to hold talks with the Viet Cong; or hung a banner at the Homewood Friends Meeting House last year that said, "Nobody Wins a War. Nobody."

However, the group's relief efforts in Europe after World War II earned it a share of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, along with British Quakers, for "silent help from the nameless to the nameless." It has always shipped supplies to victims on both sides of conflicts.

In the Baltimore area, the AFSC counsels youth on alternatives to military service, provides mediation training to help communities resolve conflicts without violence, finds mentors for inner-city students and lobbies on southern Africa issues, among other things.

AFSC veterans have their share of peace stories to recount.

As a World War II pacifist, Mr. Sutton worked with mentally disabled youngsters in New Jersey, fought forest fires in California and took part in a yearlong starvation experiment at the University of Minnesota that cost him 60 pounds.

Percy Baker, 86, a retired Morgan State University biology professor, took a seven-year sabbatical of sorts to work with Southern migrants in California, American Indians in the state of Washington and the poor in several big cities.

Dr. Gann lost many close friends for sending medical supplies to North Vietnam, although he said, "some of them got back to me in the 1970s to say I was right."

And when Mrs. Sutton taught Montgomery County children about the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, the "PTA asked if I was a Communist. Everyone laughed, fortunately."

Dr. Gann said the civil rights movement changed AFSC activistsfrom "witnesses" into protesters and demonstrators. It is in that role that they face the future.

"Friends basically believe everybody has something of the divine spirit inside of them," he said. "Our job is to develop that not only in ourselves but also in others."

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