Franco Perna

Before learning about SCI I had been involved in work camping with other organizations (Italy, North Wales, Northern Ireland and Palestine, 1955-60), especially through the ecumenical movement. It was only in 1961 that I had my first experience with SCI, taking part in a project to build a rural school in Poland. Those years I worked as European Youth Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IfoR), based in London, and wanted to develop my knowledge of Eastern Europe. SCI was the only organization sending volunteers to the East in 1961. It was a very positive experience, adding a different dimension to my involvement in other East-West projects, such as the Christian Peace Conference in Czechoslovakia and a visit with Church people in the USSR.

One little story about the work camp in Kowalewo/Poland. We had two leaders, one from the West and one locally appointed by the Rural Union of Polish Youth. The Polish leader would only give instructions, but he himself would not undertake manual work until the volunteers decided that only those who worked would eat. Next day, reluctantly, he agreed to join the rest of us and, as the days went by, he even started enjoying this type of activity!

There were also heated and long (everything had to be translated into 3-4 languages!) discussions in the evenings, especially on the concept of peace in the West and in the East. Some of us affirmed the Christian understanding of peace: ‘If someone throws a stone at you, you will respond throwing back a piece of bread’. To that the immediate reaction was: ‘No, we in the socialist society, to a stone will reply with a bigger one’. We must not forget that the world at the time was dominated by the cold war.

I was European Secretary for SCI, in charge of coordination, especially for placing each year some 5 to 6.000 volunteers in summer workcamps, through a clearing house, first in London (1967), then in Luxemburg, where we moved the European Secretariat until 1970. Although based in Luxembourg, I did travel around Europe and beyond considerably, especially in Asia where – at that time – nearly half of SCI branches and groups were situated. There was great vitality and diversity in carrying out SCI ideals.

Admittedly, my practical involvement in SCI has been mainly in manual work, occasionally combined with peace issues. In the ‘70s, however, many projects, particularly in Europe, were organized in the social and environmental field. Visiting some of these camps, I often come across volunteers with a strong criticism of local authorities for not doing their job properly, using the voluntary input simply as cheap labour. So much so, hat some of them – holding strong social and political views – would not always feel welcome on particularly ‘sensitive’ camps. Sometimes such situations engendered tension between the volunteers and SCI, on one hand, and between our movement and project sponsors, on the other.

Our very motto, ‘Deeds, not words’, had not exactly the same meaning everywhere. In Europe, where SCI was more politicised, many volunteers would even suggest to change it into, ‘Deeds and Words’.

I remember that in some countries, such as the Netherlands, several local groups would refuse to hold a workcamp without first undertaking a sort of socio-political analysis of the area concerned. Not to mention countries like Italy and Korea, where all activities in the name of SCI were suspended by the International Committee because of strong political stands taken, disregarding the general trends of the movement which always stressed tolerance of different views. ‘Diversity in Unity’ was, in fact, the theme of a well attended international seminar held in Delhi, India (1979). Although in some cases, for example Spain and Portugal, cooperation with certain official youth organizations was refused. Only in 1981 concrete steps were taken to resume SCI activities in those countries.

Franco Perna (left)

International Meeting

In 1970, because of financial difficulties, the office in Luxemburg and the Clearing House had to close and the European branches took many more tasks. I came back to SCI as International Secretary, taking over from Thedy, from 1976 to 1980. From 1970 to 1976, I had done free lance work with the European institutions and the United Nations (in Geneva and in Iran). In 1981, I was elected President of SCI, until 1985 and I remained fairly active after that in a non official capacity. From 1983 to 1993, I worked with the Quakers as Europe and Middle East Executive Secretary, still based in Luxemburg. In 1994, I came back to Italy, although I have also been living in Britain and France for long periods. I have always worked internationally and travelled a lot (in nearly 80 countries). My children live most of the time abroad.