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Ministry of Workcamping

By Harold Confer, Adelphi (Maryland) Meeting

No one has been active than Harold Confer in responding to the burning of African-American Churches. Harold is Director of Quaker Workcamps International, Washington, DC. QWI was instituted in 1997 by Baltimore Yearly Meeting to provide workcamp volunteers for rebuilding African-American churches burned by arson fires. As a conscientious objector, Harold spent two years doing voluntary community development work in Tanzania for the AFSC in 1963-65. In 1973-76, he held the position of Human Rights Legislative Secretary for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Harold is the recipient of the USA Racial Justice and Domestic Tranquility Partners in Achievement Award, given by National Council of Churches of Christ. In 1996 he received the Southern Christian Leadership Council's Kelly Miller Smith Interfaith award. Both awards were for his efforts in the rebuilding of burned churches.
The AFSC has also responded to the needs and concerns of African Americans and other peoples of color both here in the United States and abroad. For more information, see the AFSC homepage or Simone D'Aubigne's article on the Haiti Project.



Let me express my thanks for this invitation not just because of my joy in being asked to give this lecture but to the honor you give to Quaker Workcamps International and the many Friends from near and far who have become involved in what I have come to call the Interfaith Ministry to Burned Churches. 

Today I feel led to share with you what I have for years called the ministry of workcamping.
Why is it that our primary service arm, the AFSC, had no mechanism to respond to the church burnings? The AFSC laid down workcamping for various reasons in 1961, but more importantly, they laid down their entire youth services division. This division was a ministry to the Society of Friends
in that it allowed young Friends and others to "practice" discipleship in real world situations. When you talk to the elders of the Society now, such as Bob and Sally Cory, they recall with enthusiasm their early workcamping in the 1930's.
I believe that we lost these youth programs because we were unable to articulate to the AFSC the importance of this ministry
to the Society of Friends. Perhaps this is because as a Society of Friends without clergy we are not comfortable talking about ministry. Yet we know that both discipleship and ministry are parts of a spiritual response to God's love and we have seen through the universal Christ messages of  Fox and our subsequent history that discipleship and ministry are not confined to Christianity.
Let me assert that there is a ministry in workcamping and, like a beautiful gem, it has different facets.

Ministry of Physical Work

Early workcampers moved a lot of earth with pick and shovel. Workcamping predated earthmoving machines. The early stories of Pierre Ceresole and his flood relief workcamps in the flood plain of the Loire River are a testament to strong backs and many blisters. But the work got done and a ministry got accomplished and was recognized. Early critics of workcamping said that now that we have earth moving equipment, there are no other tasks for workcampers to do. I wish such critics could have seen the amazing work done by church rebuilding volunteers in rebuilding 48 of the 146 churches rebuilt over the last two years! From floor to roof, Quaker volunteers and others have built whole churches working side-by-side with the church members and their contractor. By teaching our youngsters how to work with modern tools, how to build by modern methods, how to work safely so that there are no tragedies, we give them tools of this ministry. There are thousands of communities all over this world that need people with the right values who also have the knowledge of tools, materials, and building principles so that they can minister in these communities, a ministry of physical work. As the Habitat poster says, God's people can still use a good carpenter.

Ministry of Being With

This is another facet of this gem we call workcamping. In every workcamp there is a host community. Whether it is the new homebuilders in a self-help housing project or the chronically mentally ill inhabitants of a shelter or transitional housing, our workcampers are working side-by-side with others. Quaker volunteers have worked beside the orphans of Romania and the AIDS street orphans of Tanzania. Our workcampers are carrying out a ministry of work in which they get a chance to interface with the real world.
This ministry of accompaniment allows our volunteers to feel what John Woolman must have felt when the slave owner asked him to write a bill of sale for the young female slave and Woolman refused, saying, "As brothers and sisters we should not be buying and selling each other!" It was said that the young slave looked up in his face and said, "You give me hope!
" We work  to give hope.
I cannot tell you how powerful it was when the FBI and ATF removed the yellow tape screaming "Fire Line! Do Not Cross!"
from around the ashes of the Full Gospel Powerhouse Church of God in Christ, and allowed the parishioners, pastor and Friend Laurie Williams to sift through the ashes and recover a twisted trophy for gospel singing and another plaque for first place in the church basketball league. Tears flowed quickly as these remnants of the devastation were recovered. The

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