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Interview: George Brown, former president, Friendship Force International

08 March 2024

‘My most memorable experience was organising a trip to Moscow. Little did we know that the friendship wouldn’t last’

The basic idea of Friendship Force International is that, if people can spend a few days visiting in each other’s homes, they can break through the differences that otherwise seem to keep us apart.

It was started in 1977 by Wayne Smith, a former Presbyterian missionary, who’d organised a home-stay exchange between our state of Georgia and a province in Brazil, in 1973. He persuaded Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter to support it, and, when Carter was running for President, Wayne challenged him to make the concept bigger. With his help, the non-governmental, non-profit organisation was established, with Mrs Carter as the honorary chair.

The first exchange was between Newcastle and Atlanta, who later twinned as cities. A chartered plane brought more than 300 people each way, staying for a week in the home of a volunteer family in the host city. The programme grew over the years, with an HQ here in Atlanta.

I joined the staff in 1983, and served as president and CEO from 2004 until my retirement in 2013. My most memorable experience was organising a trip in May 1992 that took 350 Americans to Moscow, to celebrate with Russian friends the first May Day after Communism. Little did we know that the friendships between our two countries wouldn’t be as lasting as we hoped.

By the time I retired in 2013, there were about 350 clubs in over 50 countries, and 5000 friendship ambassadors travelling annually. Each club would agree to host one or more groups of 20 each year. In return, they had the opportunity to be hosted in another country. It began as an American organisation, but, over time, became more international: the exchanges don’t always include an American partner.

There are always issues to deal with — natural disasters, economic hard times, wars and threats of wars, as well as visa and other travel issues — but through it all the Friendship Force continued. The numbers have declined with Covid and other challenges, but it’s still active.

My parents went to Korea as Presbyterian missionaries when I was seven, and for ten years that was my life: living in Korea and boarding at high school in Japan. Both sets of my grandparents were also missionaries in China and Korea. I got a Ph.D. in international relations, and taught for a few year, before joining the staff of the Friendship Force. I’ve had other jobs along the way in international non-profits and colleges, but always ended up back at the Friendship Force.

I’ve had the great privilege of travel, from going on a freighter when I was seven from Texas to Japan, swimming in Lake Baikal in Siberia, riding the overnight train in Thailand, cruising around Cape Horn in South America, sailing to Iceland and Greenland, and on the Danube from Budapest to the Black Sea. I’ve stayed with and hosted friends from across Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

There are a few places I’ve not been to that are still on my list; but now, at the age of 78, I’m focused on places I’d like to return to. I like visiting Japan, and I’m fascinated with England — the history, the natural beauty, the towns, the footpaths, the pubs.

Salisbury and Sarum College has been one of the highlights of my life. Last year, I took 34 American seniors to England, and we spent time there. I’d like to find ways to get more Americans to have their own Sarum experience, and I’ve developed some sample itineraries and themes for Americans.

I’ve always imagined the value of having congregational exchanges between American and British churches, the way the Friendship Force has done with its secular clubs. For too many Americans, having tours through empty cathedrals is their only encounter with the Church in England today. Why not take time to learn about today’s religious experiences in the UK?

I was told to know and love God; so I did, as a boy. By the time I finished college, that had changed. I no longer believed in the literal Bible and the other aspects of Evangelical Christianity, but, for the most part, I remained an active Presbyterian. It’s part of my heritage, and I’ve affiliated with Presbyterian churches that put a high priority on social justice. Family’s important, but it isn’t enough.

Since my wife is Jewish, I’ve gotten to know something about that faith — at least, the American Reformed Jewish tradition. At its best, it’s a more fundamental faith: God gives us life, and we should be good to ourselves and others. There’s a song by Debbie Friedman based on God’s call to Abraham, called “L’chi Lach”: “Go forth to a land that I will show you, to a land you do not know. And I will bless you —and you will be a blessing.” If we follow where God leads us, we’ll be blessed, but, just as important, we’ll be a blessing.

What makes me angry? These days, our politics, and specifically the terrible hold that Trump seems to have on so many Americans. Don’t get me started on that. . . But it isn’t just Trump: I’m angry and disappointed that my country hasn’t done a better job solving social problems, despite the tremendous wealth in our country. Not to mention guns.

Americans are great people, and I don’t know why we’ve ended up the way we are. Our tremendous diversity — of people and geography — represents strengths, but maybe also makes it difficult to be unified. We have a political structure that’s very difficult to change, even though changes are needed and are desired by the majority of the population.

I’m happy having a cocktail with friends, doing everyday activities with my wife, seeing my dog welcome us home, spending time at our mountain cabin, seeing my four grandchildren flourish. And I should mention my three daughters and one son — I’m very proud of them.

I’m hoping that Biden will be re-elected: that would bring some hope. Otherwise, there will be a lot of despair, I’m afraid. I’m hoping that, somehow, the end of the terrible war in Gaza will lead to new leadership on both sides that can bring about peace for Israel and Palestine. I also feel hope when I hear the Salisbury choir sing: “As it was in the beginning, is now and evermore shall be, world without end”. I’m not sure the world will make it “without end”, but that chant is centuries old, and has been sung through wars, poverty, plagues, and more.

I don’t pray so often in a formal way. Maybe in informal ways. My mother, who had five children, prayed for a different child each day. I was the second child; so I was Tuesday. Maybe I should do that for my children and grandchildren. With eight, someone would have to share a day. Seriously, I pray for good health for me and my wife and my family, and, in church, prayers of our community for social justice and peace.

I wouldn’t choose to be locked in a church with someone famous. I already know a lot about them, and I might be disappointed. Maybe my grandfather Brown, who was a missionary in China from 1910 to 1949. He died when I was a teenager, and I find myself wondering about him and his life. Or, maybe, if it’s Salisbury Cathedral I’m locked in, then with Ken Follett, the writer of the Kingsbridge novels, based in Salisbury. I’d love to talk with him about his novels, and find out if they have any kind of spiritual attraction for him as they do for me.

George Brown was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

friendshipforce.org; or the UK branch: friendshipforce.org.uk

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