Thirty-five years of Brethren Volunteer Service
This article by Becky Baile originally appeared in the December 1983 issue of Messenger and is reprinted here with expressed permission.
A 4-foot-10 Manchester College sophomore, Ted Chambers, delegate from Michigan to the 1948 Annual conference, watched for the signal. When moderator Calvert N. Ellis stuck up his thumb, it meant Ted was to race to an orange crate strategically situated before a microphone, and introduce a new business item not on the regular agenda.
Brethren youth developed the plan Chambers proposed from concern for youth in the event of conscription. It called for immediate action by the Church of the Brethren General Board to launch a volunteer service program with financial support from the entire denomination. Conference unanimously accepted the statement, which instituted Brethren Volunteer Service.
That was 35 years ago in Colorado Springs, Colo. Today, more than 4,300 volunteers later, BVS is one of the foremost programs of the World Ministries Commission.
BVS began from dreams of well-known Brethren, including Dan West. He helped the youth behind the scenes in 1948 to draw up the plan for volunteer service. Initially, BVS training was three months in length. But in 1949, units were shortened to eight weeks (later increased to nine) because eager volunteers wanted to get to their projects. The first BVS orientation unit gathered at New Windsor, Md., but because of its size, it was divided into two sections. Some volunteers went to Camp Harmony, a Church of the Brethren camp, while others remained at the New Windsor Service center.
"It was an intense orientation under Dan West's leadership," former BVSer Julia Laprade recalls. During the Camp Harmony orientation, the group discussed many social and world issues. "We visited a Quaker family whose son was in prison."
For two years Julia lived out of a suitcase while she traveled with three other volunteers in a peace caravan project. "We visited churches in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida, talking about peace," she recalls. "It was tremendous and gave me insights into what I should do with my life."
From 1949 to 1971 most volunteers were trained at New Windsor, where their physical and clerical work paid for about 60 percent of the training costs. In 1971, mobile training units began and units were shortened to four or five weeks. Camps, urban churches, and inner city projects were among the sites used for training. During this time, the concept of training evolved into one of orientation.
Three specific goals that BVS maintains today are advocating justice, peacemaking, and meeting basic human needs. Presently, BVSers serve in projects related to these goals in 22 states and 8 nations.
Minimum requirements to be a volunteer are 18 years of age, good physical and mental health, high school education or equivalent, and a willingness to examine and study the Christian faith. Volunteers in the United States must commit one year of service including the orientation period. Overseas volunteers serve two years after arrival at the project.
While on project, BVSers receive room, board, medical care, and a $35-a-month allowance (increased to $45 during a second year of service). BVS welcomes qualified persons eager to accept assignments commensurate with their skills.
Note! The dollar amounts per month appearing in the previous paragraph were correct when this article was written in 1983.