PHILADELPHIA — When Mary Ellen McNish walks out of the office in her low-slung, understated brick building, she looks up at the peaceful statue atop the tall building down the street.
"What other city has William Penn, the great man of peace, atop City Hall? Where else would be a better place to promote peace?" asked McNish, the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which for nearly a century has been the point organization for promoting peace in conflicts or potential conflicts around the world.
Now, as the Iraq war grows more and more unpopular, the AFSC is again tromping at the front, unfurling the banner of peace.
"Always, there has been the Quaker philosophy that there is a part of God in every person," said McNish, in her cozy, plant-filled office in a warren of other peace-poster-filled offices at the AFSC headquarters. "It is about the dignity and worth of every individual, the oppressor and the oppressed."
Protests against the war have heightened this year with the focus on Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed last year in Iraq. Sheehan co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace and has demonstrated around the country — most prominently outside President Bush’s Crawford, Tex., ranch.
The AFSC has had its own antiwar road show, too: the Wage Peace Campaign, whose centerpiece is a dramatic Christo-like presentation called "Eyes Wide Open." It is an array of combat boots, spread out like cemetery headstones, one for each American soldier killed in Iraq. It travels to parks, mostly in major cities, about once a month.
"We now have a waiting list of about 60 cities," said McNish, noting that it takes a cadre of volunteers to lay out the shoes just right. "Not only is it a visceral example of the human cost of war, but when we go to a city like Minneapolis or Indianapolis or Detroit or wherever we go, it is an opportunity for the local press to do national stories on what the human cost of the war is."
The AFSC, which has a staff of 400 and operates in 24 countries, was founded in 1917 to help conscientious objectors find alternative service during World War I. Though the group was pilloried by some because of its antiwar stance, the fact that the AFSC was directing its mostly Quaker base to serve — sometimes even at the front as nurses or drivers — mitigated fervor against the organization.
After the war, it worked for the establishment of the League of Nations and became a leader in humanitarian aid, feeding children and rebuilding cities and towns in Europe.
The AFSC’s high point was winning the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, shared with the British Friends Service Council, for its World War II work. In addition to its postwar relief work, during the war the group had negotiated with the Nazis to free political prisoners and lobbied Western nations to give asylum to more Jews. By the end of that war, the AFSC had a nearly impeccable reputation.
"The idea was to alleviate the suffering from war, not to find politics in it," said Henry Bowden, a professor of religion at Rutgers University who has studied the Quaker movements. "From its founding to the end of World War II, it was pretty much a denominational Red Cross, but around Vietnam, things changed."
The peace movement during the Vietnam War was so bitter, Bowden said, that the AFSC, when it aggressively sought a leadership role, became more political.
"It makes it less effective. It took a high principle and reduced itself to a political advocacy group," Bowden said. "I think it has become a sub-group with a political agenda. They probably wanted everyone to stop saying they were ivory tower dreamers, but that was the attraction. In getting down to the secular world, it lost a lot of that idealism."
To McNish, that criticism, even if warranted, is irrelevant. Peace is the point, she says, and if Vietnam changed the peace movement to a more viable, if somewhat politicized one, then it was well worth it.
"Parallel to the movement against the Vietnam War was the civil rights movement, which was important to us, as well," she said. "We have been talking for 40-plus years on the issues of race and racism in this country. For the past 30 years, we have railed against the complete and utter unraveling of the social safety net for poor people and the unraveling of the environmental safeguards."
She takes pride in the AFSC being on the board of or leading nearly every peace and humanitarian aid movement. She said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, pushed more people toward peaceful reconciliation, rather than war.
"AFSC is really about bearing witness," said David Potorti, the North Carolina-based co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Potorti’s brother, Joe, worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center and died during the attacks. When the Sept. 11 families meet, Potorti said, the AFSC is always there, even if the particular mission of peace often seems futile.
"I am impressed with their persistence and diligence," he said. "This is a way of life. You just do this, not to accomplish a short-term task, and that is what endears them to me. You are not just running a political campaign and getting out, but doing it as a lifestyle."