Media review | December 1, 2017

Conscientious living

Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Cascade Locks Camp No. 21 was the largest of the Civilian Public Service camps run by the Church of the Brethren during World War II. Refusing War, Affirming Peace, by Jeffrey Kovac is a detailed history of the camp that was located in the forests of Oregon. It also is a fascinating look at the lives of the young conscientious objectors (COs) assigned there.

The camp existed from Nov. 27, 1941, through July 31, 1946, at an old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) site. Kovac’s father-in-law, Charlie Davis, was one of the 560 men who spent time at Cascade Locks. In total, about 12,000 men did alternative service at about 150 CPS sites across the country. Billed as “work of national importance under civilian direction,” the CPS program was made up of work sites administered primarily by the historic peace churches under the guidance of Selective Service.

Kovac tells how church leaders worked with the government to arrange alternative service after COs were jailed during World War I. He reports forthrightly on the struggle of church leaders to walk a line between honoring conscientious objection and preserving the rights of COs, and cooperating with government officials in order to maintain the program.

But this is more than a history illustrated with anecdotes and photographs. Kovac makes an ambitious attempt to shift the typical conversation about “the good war” to acknowledge the contribution of dissenters. With this point of view, events at Cascade Locks gain significance. The reader becomes aware of how effective CPS was in developing and deepening the understanding of pacifism among the COs, church, and wider society. At this CPS camp, young men who spent their days doing hard manual labor for the forest service, also spent many evening hours debating what it means to oppose war.

Cascade Locks was intellectually active. Not only were the Brethren leaders who ran it—notably founding director Mark Schrock, a minister from rural Indiana—open to a range of religious backgrounds and philosophies, they aimed to create a unique community of pacifists. They also encouraged creativity and the arts. This was enhanced by the personal gifts of COs who were artists, musicians, actors, writers, photographers. Kovac notes that the formative nature of CPS came, in part, from the way it placed young farm boys with limited education in the same camps with university graduates and professionals.

The influence of artists is noted throughout the book. For example, an old CCC building was renovated by architects and artists who created a library, reading room, periodical room, music room, classrooms, and an office for the camp newspaper, which was written and published by COs. They also renovated the CCC chapel, opening up a floor-to-ceiling window that faced the mountains and dividing it into four parts with a gold cross. (For some of the more prominent men, Kovac provides brief resumes of what they went on to accomplish after the war.)

Education was also a key factor at the camp. After it became clear that the war—and CPS—was going to go on for much longer than anyone had thought, Brethren CPS administrators began offering special schools at various camps: School of Fine Arts, School of Cooperative Living, School of Food Management, School of Race Relations. The School of Pacifist Living was offered at Cascade Locks, led by Dan West.

The book doesn’t downplay the weaknesses of CPS, the daily struggles of the COs, and conflicts that arose, but argues that, at its best Civilian Public Service succeeded in creating a unique and valuable community.

Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren, and associate editor for Messenger. She also is an ordained minister and a graduate of Bethany Seminary and the University of La Verne, Calif.