Brethren Volunteer Service
“You could just feel the power of God in that place!”
At the 1948 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a group of young people offered an unorthodox proposal: to create a volunteer service program for young adults. Youth and young adults in the Church had been volunteering in various ways for decades, giving up a year of their lives to serve in denominational work camps and Civilian Public Service (an alternative to required military service for conscientious objectors). What they wanted was an organized, denominational program that would allow young people to volunteer for year-long service positions that would promote peace, prevent war, and be about justice in the world.
The young people didn’t have an official space on the agenda for the Annual Conference, but they managed to persuade the moderator to let the delegates hear their proposal. Ted Chambers, a 22 year-old man from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was selected to make the speech from the floor. Ted was a short guy, so when it was his turn to speak, he carried an orange crate down the aisle, climbed up on top of it, and after the crowd finished giggling at the sight, made the proposal. No one spoke in opposition, and when the body voted they were unanimous in their support. Brethren Volunteer Service was born.
Alma Long, one of the young people present at that conference, remembers the excitement in the room: “When the young people stood up and cheered, the whole Conference was surprised. I remember that evening at suppertime everybody was talking about it. It was a big thing…The Holy Spirit was just so in evidence. It was just like Pentecost! Just like a football game! You could just feel the power of God in that place!”
Much about BVS has stayed the same in the last 60 years. From the beginning, volunteers participated in a long and intense orientation, served in a wide range of projects working for peace and serving human need, and lived very simply on a small stipend. Of course, BVS has also changed, shortening our orientation from the original 3 months to the current 3 weeks, broadening our volunteer base, adding projects and growing geographically. Over seven thousand volunteers have served through BVS in the last 63 years, participating in on-going solutions to the world’s most deeply rooted problems and having life-changing experiences. On any given day, approximately 100 BVS volunteers can be found serving in over 100 projects in 16 countries across the world. From its unorthodox beginnings in 1948 to today, Brethren Volunteer Service has been sharing God’s love in the world through acts of service. Won’t you join us?
*Many thanks to Jim Lehman, whose extensive research on the history of BVS informs much of our story today.