I’ve been writing parts of the Friends Volunteer Service Mission (VSM) story from journal entries. At one point I consolidated the various pieces into a separate document to tell the VSM story, which will appear as a series of posts over the next few days.
Friends Volunteer Service Mission (VSM)
It is difficult to express my experience with Friends Volunteer Service Mission (VSM). VSM demanded the application of every aspect of me and my life to the VSM house and the neighborhood around it in inner city Indianapolis. For two years there I would receive much, give some, and change tremendously.
VSM is a unique approach to social work. An application to VSM through Friends United Meeting (FUM) is followed by an interview with the board of the specific VSM unit the individual is interested in. Upon acceptance, one moves into the VSM unit’s living quarters, located in the area the unit seeks to serve. One then seeks employment, and places the wages into the unit’s financial pool. A monthly budget taken from the pool covers necessary expenses. One usually holds a job for about one year; getting to know the neighbors and the neighborhood during free time. At the end of this year the individual has some idea of a need or concern he/she would like to work on, and there are enough surplus funds in the financial pool to provide for this individual’s expenses, that they might be released from regular employment to devote all their time to their particular concern.
The philosophy of VSM can be most accurately depicted by the concept of released Friend. In the past, a Friend could be released to pursue a deep concern with the spiritual and material support of their meeting. VSM is designed to be financially self-sufficient, but an individual should have the spiritual support of their meeting.
A Friend is led to a deep concern by listening to and following the will of God. This experience of knowing God’s will in one’s heart is the foundation of Quakerism and Christianity. Quakers have always believed there is that of God in everyone, that everyone has the ability to communicate with that of God within them, and the responsibility to respond to that of God in others. This is the driving purpose in a Quaker’s life; to discern and respond to the will of God.
The manifestations of this concept must of necessity be very personal, growing from an individual’s personal spiritual experience.
Quakerism has always been a large influence in my life. All my mother’s family are members of the Religious Society of Friends and many of them lived near us. We attended Bear Creek Monthly Meeting most of my childhood. Many of my friends belong to this meeting as well as many of my family relations.
In my experience there was little formal religious education. Quakerism was just there; and it permeated every part of our lives, even as a child or perhaps especially as a child, when it is a mysterious yet secure force. I grew up with members of the meeting among my heroes, and I love the many stories of the courageous acts of early Friends for human justice and religious liberty. Attending Scattergood Friends boarding school helped my development in Quakerism, especially in my friendships with young Friends.
Pacifism and the Selective Service System
While at Scattergood I was confronted by the decision dealing with the Selective Service System. I took this decision very seriously, seeing it as one of my first opportunities to take a stand base upon my religious convictions. This decision proved very painful but was significant as a period of maturing and religious experience while considering the issues of war and violence and church versus state.
Some of my most vivid childhood memories are related to war. While in 1st or 2nd grade some kids said that the planes passing overhead were Japanese bombers. Seeing that I was scared, they continued the game in the classroom by making screeching sounds with chalk on the blackboard; saying the bombs were falling. I was so upset I had to go home.
I was around 10 years old and talking with my mother about something someone had said in meeting that morning. She said war was wrong. I didn’t think so, and asked how we could defend against invasion. She said we didn’t have to fight, or work for them, or do anything they (invaders) wanted. How could they make us? How could they stay long under those circumstances? That seemed a perfectly reasonable answer to me and I have often looked upon that incident as the beginning of a mature view of pacifism and nonviolence.
Scattergood Friends School and Farm
I was beginning to get something out of meeting for worship and a lot of things I was learning about Quakers began to make sense. As mentioned above, my high school years I attended Scattergood Friends School, a coeducational college preparatory boarding school on a working farm that is run by Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). At Scattergood Quakerism would be implanted at the core of my being. Quakerism had always been a part of my life. Now I was beginning the serious process of maturity and must look at things my way, accept and reject ideas and practices on my terms.
Scattergood was not just a school, it was a Quaker community on a working farm. Integral to the educational approach was that students did all the work at the School and on the farm, under adult supervision. Students were assigned to specific jobs, like laundry, dinner prep, working on the farm, baking bread, etc. on a rotating schedule. Teachers not only taught academics in the classroom, they instilled ideas as we worked, ate and played together. We were all involved in almost every aspect of each other’s lives. The example of the teachers and students, my reading, and meeting for worship all greatly influence me and drew me deeply into Quakerism.
Nonviolence, pacifism and the draft were often topics of discussion, especially for me and my classmates during our Senior year, when most of us boys would turn 18 years of age and be required by law to register for the draft. My 18th birthday was November 21, 1969.
At the beginning of that Senior year, I began keeping a journal. One of the passages written around this time follows:
“One of George Fox’s major insights was that the mark of a true believer, Christian, is a changed life. It seems to me that this is what I’m wrestling with. I fear that if I go to college and get a well-paying job, I’ll settle down into the same rut that I see most everyone settling into, and I don’t like it really. It looks comfortable–an easy way out. I feel I’m at the turning point. If I feel compulsion is wrong, I believe I’ll have to take a complete stand against it now, or I’ll never be able to take a stand against the government, with all the responsibilities I’ll soon acquire. I see the choice essentially between a way of life I idealistically believe to be best, but am not totally sure how to pursue, and a “normal” way of life which I am idealistically uneasy with but believe would be a comfortable way of life.” Journal, October 6, 1969
This emphasizes how far reaching I considered the draft decision to be. Was my life to be based on principle, to follow absolutes no matter what the apparent cost, or was I to compromise, obey the law, and be conforming?
I went home the week before my birthday to talk with Mom and Dad about it some more. I felt I should make the decision at home. At Scattergood it seemed so easy to believe in nonviolence and Quaker witness. At home I was challenged to think of the practicalities of the decision, the probable affects, and forced to think of myself.
My parents were really involved in and concerned about the decision. They didn’t want me to be hurt and we all realized the serious consequences of breaking the Federal law. I only blame myself that I couldn’t make them see that I felt the consequences of not acting on principle could be more serious.
I vacillated between registering as a conscientious objector and not registering at all. At the time, my parents were so against noncooperation, and I hadn’t really made the decision myself, that I went ahead and registered, knowing I could refuse to cooperate later.
I was very unhappy about registering but felt I must be very sure before I took a step against the law and society and I hoped my parents might be able to accept noncooperation, if that was to be my decision, before I acted upon it. I registered on a Friday. Sunday, we arrived at Scattergood just in time for meeting. Afterward one of my best friends came up to me and said, “You registered, didn’t you? You don’t look like the same old Jeff.”
Of course, the draft weighed heavily upon me until I made a decision. Home for Christmas vacation, I was thinking of the new year and decided to turn in my draft cards. I told Dad that’s what I thought I’d do. He said he didn’t want to stand in my way if that’s what I really thought I should do. I told Mom I would turn them (draft cards) in one day when I went downtown, but neither of them realized I was going to do it that day. When I got home everyone was really upset. We finally agreed that I would try to get the cards back. If I did, I would wait a year. Then I could make my own decision—I would be away from the “influence” of Scattergood, in college, more mature, and they might be more able to accept it then.
So, I asked to have the cards returned and they were, eventually. The draft continued to occupy a lot of my time; reading, thinking, talking. I was getting a lot from meeting for worship. I was developing my own outlook on life, grounded in Quakerism but the result of my personal spiritual experience.
In the spring of my Senior year at Scattergood Al Inglis of the Office of Conscientious Objector Service of Friends United Meeting (FUM) visited the school. He was on his way west, looking for jobs for C.O.’s to do for alternative service. Most of the boys in my class met with him that evening and we had a beneficial discussion. He was interested to hear I was considering draft resistance. That summer I was to get a letter from him describing Friends Volunteer Service Mission. I don’t know how much it impressed me at the time. I did keep it in mind throughout the next year, which I spent at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where the FUM Central Offices, including the VSM, i.e. Office of C.O. Services were located.
I was very dissatisfied at Earlham; I’m not sure of all the reasons. The draft issue was part of my general dissatisfaction. I applied for a student deferment without thinking much about it at the time. But I did realize how unfair it was to be deferred just because I was a student and this increasingly troubled me.
I was tired of the constant academic pressure with its emphasis on the intellect and reason when I was trying to discern the Spirit, the will of God. I wanted to try to approach ideas and people with my heart, with feeling rather than intellect and reason. I was accused of being an idealist and not practical. How could I respond to that, or know myself, unless I put my ideas to the test? To be on my own in the world, away from books and ideas and things in peoples’ heads was where I felt I needed to be.
I was also frustrated about the war (Vietnam) and concerned about what I could do to promote peace.