Serving the world -- via New Windsor

Brethren: A facility run by a small denomination in a small Carroll County town has been assuming weighty global burdens for more than a half-century.

September 04, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Set amid acres of rolling farmland studded with grain silos, New Windsor could easily be dismissed as existing in the middle of nowhere.

Suburban Westminster with its shopping centers and housing developments is seven miles and a world away. And although Route 31 runs through the center of downtown, it doesn't lead to any hubs.

But when it comes to domestic and international disaster relief, the quiet Carroll County town of 1,300 is also on the way to just about anywhere.

When the American Red Cross needed trained volunteers to help care for thousands of Houston children whose homes were flooded by Tropical Storm Allison in June, they called New Windsor.

When Lutheran churches across the country want to send clothing, quilts and bandages to the needy in Sierra Leone and Azerbaijan, they call New Windsor.

And when doctors heading off to the Congo need medicine and supplies to treat river blindness and a malignant tumor affecting young children known as Burkitt's lymphoma, they call New Windsor, too.

For more than 55 years, the town has been home to the Brethren Service Center, now a collection of six nonprofit organizations whose relief and development, disaster response and social justice efforts are known throughout the world.

"On this campus so much is happening," said Deaun Huff, 72, a retired business teacher from Wichita, Kan., who has been volunteering at the center since May. "I've always heard that New Windsor is a special place, and I've found that to be true."

In Maryland, however, the extent of the center's work is something of a well-kept secret. It's not the nature of the agencies to advertise their accomplishments, said Stanley J. Noffsinger, the director of the center, which is owned and operated by the Church of the Brethren's general board.

"It's a quiet place to get things done," Noffsinger said of the center, which employs about 100 people. "We operate quietly. We aren't out there to lift it out in front of people in a way that's arrogant or rude or boastful. We just go about our work as hard and as fast as we can."

One of the nonprofit organizations on campus, Emergency Response/Service Ministries, ships $28 million of supplies for 25 disaster and relief agencies from its cavernous warehouse to 70 countries around the world annually.

Another organization on the leafy 26-acre campus, SERRV International, which promotes fair trade, coordinates the annual sales of $6 million worth of internationally made chocolate, coffee, jewelry and crafts. And Interchurch Medical Assistance, which recently received a $25 million federal grant, will coordinate the treatment of an estimated 1 million people in Tanzania for river blindness from its headquarters here this year.

"To my knowledge there is no campus like this anywhere in the country," said Brian J. Backe, the marketing director for SERRV International. "There's nothing that has this breadth."

For the Church of the Brethren, a 300-year-old Christian denomination with 134,000 members, worship is grounded in the story of the Good Samaritan, in which "bearing one another's burdens" is said to "fulfill the law of Christ."

"Service is central to who we are," said Judy Mills Reimer, general secretary of the Brethren's general board in Elgin, Ill., the body that oversees the service center in New Windsor.

Founded by the church in 1944 on the former campus of Blue Ridge College, the center was established as a place for the Brethren to organize relief efforts for people devastated by World War II. The location - a 45-minute drive to the port of Baltimore - made it attractive then, and still does. And the concentration of Brethren in Maryland and Pennsylvania was a benefit, too, according to Noffsinger.

"It's the heart of Church of the Brethren territory," he said.

The work being done at the New Windsor center is a collaboration of three dozen denominations as well as the nonprofit groups. It relies heavily on the hundreds of volunteers who arrive from around the country each year to process clothing in the distribution center, act as hosts in the conference center and do quality control and inventory processing for SERRV, which stands for Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocation.

Seen from Route 31, the stately brick buildings that house the center resemble a college campus - without the students. But a quick look around begins to reveal the wide array of work that goes on here.

Just down the hill from the campus, inside a 72,000-square- foot warehouse that's home to the distribution center, a dozen volunteers from north-central Pennsylvania stood one recent weekday morning at tables mounded high with T-shirts, jeans and sweaters, sorting and folding the clothing in preparation for baling and storage.

The donated clothing comes via boxcar and United Parcel Service from 3,000 parish groups from across the country who participate in Lutheran World Relief. It is stored at the warehouse in towers of cardboard boxes until it is needed somewhere in the world.

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