Volunteers mark 50 years of giving Tiny denomination a worldwide presence

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 for prayer, discussions, music and reminiscences at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, a serene former college campus that houses programs for relief and development, disaster response, social justice and peace education.

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," like the Quakers and the Mennonites. 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. There they learn the philosophy of peace, how to live in community, resolve conflicts without violence and live simply.

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.

Fran Nyce was still paying off college debts when the volunteer program started in 1948, so she didn't join. A church employee, she was assigned to train volunteers in 1953. But in 1959, after being assigned to direct a work camp in Greece, she decided to become a volunteer.

She went to Germany as administrative assistant to the director of a program to help Protestant churches provide social and welfare services. Her duties involved helping get other volunteers to German relief institutions or refugee agencies.

"The reason the Brethren Church went to Germany was that they'd been our enemies during the war and there was a lot of destruction," said Nyce, now a Westminster resident and

co-chairwoman of the reunion planning committee.

When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, West Germans were barred from East Berlin. But foreigners were allowed to cross, so Nyce became the liaison with representatives of East Berlin churches who had been cut off by the wall.

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 pinched a nerve in his back and had to go to a chiropractor. He met the chiropractor's medical secretary, and they began dating and fell in love.

Now Jennica Lucas is in Brethren Volunteer Service orientation. She and Troy are looking for a project that needs a married couple. Married couples are eligible for projects such as day care centers. Some agencies, however, can accept only one volunteer or volunteers of only one gender.

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