Church celebrates 50-year tradition of volunteering Volunteers: Church of the Brethren, a small Protestant denomination, has sent thousands of volunteers to places around the world.

October 04, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Years before President John F. Kennedy tapped America's spirit of volunteerism for the Peace Corps, the tiny Church of the Brethren quietly dispatched its own corps of volunteers to help people from Appalachia to Czechoslovakia.

Though the Brethren is one of the smallest denominations in the United States (142,000 members), since 1948 it has sent more than 5,400 volunteers to serve one- or two-year stints in more than 40 countries. They distributed blankets in postwar Austria, worked with the mentally ill in Illinois and Massachusetts, built playground fences in Greece and made sandwiches for soup kitchens in Texas.

This weekend, the organization is marking its 50th anniversary. About 400 volunteers -- past and present -- from all over the country are expected to gather at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, a serene former college campus.

The Church of the Brethren, a German Protestant denomination whose U.S. branch was formed in 1719 in Philadelphia and is based in Elgin, Ill., is one of America's "peace churches." The church opposes war and violence on scriptural grounds, and teaches that a Christian life must bear fruit, encouraging members to volunteer for service.

When World War II broke out, the Brethren created community service assignments as an alternative to the military. After the war, a broader plan of volunteer service was developed for members.

Many volunteers train at the center in New Windsor, a town of 1,000 that retains some of the ambience of its 19th-century role as a spa and summer resort for wealthy Baltimoreans.

Volunteers travel with the clothes they can carry. During orientation, they buy and cook their own meals on a budget of 50 cents for breakfast, 75 cents for lunch and $1 for dinner. On assignment, they get room and board and a stipend of $45 a month.

But volunteers have long known how to get things done without much cash.

The experience of Vernon F. Merkey, who left the New Windsor training center in 1948 to help build a community center in Bacon Hollow, Va., illustrates how work can be accomplished with little money.

"There was a lot of moonshining, but you couldn't be judgmental about that because their income was so low, what were they going to do with a patch of corn?" Merkey said.

The moonshiners were among the few area residents who had trucks, so when volunteers needed someone to haul felled trees to a sawmill and bring back lumber for the community center, one of the moonshine runners lent his truck.

Merkey decided to become a Brethren minister after his volunteer service. He retired in 1994 after a 40-year career and lives in Ankeny, Iowa.

Troy Lucas, 23, represents the current generation of volunteers. He is spending his honeymoon -- "or at least they keep calling it that," the bridegroom of 11 days said with a laugh -- at the orientation program in New Windsor.

Lucas joined last year, after earning a bachelor's degree in psychology.

"I was working in a behavioral health clinic and I had to choose between a full-time job and going to graduate school," he said. "I hated my job, and I was kind of burned out with education."

So he chose the Brethren Volunteer Service and was assigned to a children's camp in Keezletown, Va., where he met his wife, who worked for a local chiropractor.

Now Jennica Lucas is in Brethren Volunteer Service orientation. She and Troy are looking for a project that needs a married couple.

The Brethren Volunteer Service operates on a shoestring budget of $400,000 a year, which covers support costs for the overseas volunteers. In the United States, host agencies split volunteer costs with the Brethren Volunteer Service, said Dan McFadden, director of volunteer service ministries.

The program means a lot to agencies such as the Friendship Day Care Center in Hutchinson, Kan. In addition to volunteers who work with the children, the Church of the Brethren provides financial and emotional support for the low-income families who need the center, said director Nancy Hildebrand.

She recalled a day when the center had no toilet paper and no money to buy any.

"That doesn't sound like a big problem, but we go through a lot of toilet paper and tissues. One of the women [from the church] came with rolls of toilet paper and boxes of tissues," she said.

It's difficult to assess the overall effect of 50 years of volunteer service, said the Rev. Chuck Boyer, a volunteer from 1959 to 1961 and former Brethren Volunteer Services director who serves a California congregation.

"You so often wish you could see firsthand the impact of what you've done," Boyer said. I have to believe really by faith, which I do as a pastor and my wife does as a teacher, that what you do has some impact."

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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