Brethren Service Europe office to be closed at the end of 2019

A slate paperweight from the Brethren Service Europe office bears the Brethren Service logo that is still used by Brethren Disaster Ministries today. Photo by Kristin Flory

The Brethren Service Europe office of the Church of the Brethren will be closed at the end of 2019. It is hosted at the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Center in Geneva, Switzerland, the city where it has been located since 1947. Currently the work of the office centers on placement and supervision of Brethren Volunteer Service workers in Europe.

For more than three decades the office has been staffed by Kristin Flory, the BVS staff person in Europe for almost 33 years. She has announced her retirement as of Dec. 31.

Factors in the decision to close the office include cutbacks in the denominational budget, less numbers of BVSers serving in Europe, mirroring a trend in the BVS program as a whole, and difficulty in acquiring visas for BVSers to work in several European countries.

“Some programs [of BVS Europe] phased out naturally, but we eventually had to part from some areas due to budget cutbacks,” Flory reported. “We shifted from fully funding the BVSers at their projects, to sharing the support, to now asking the projects to provide the volunteers’ upkeep.” She has worked part-time since 2003.

BVS project sites in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are expected to continue:

— Quaker Cottage in Belfast, N. Ireland, a cross-community family center where BVSers work with children.

— IncredABLE in Richhill, County Armagh, N. Ireland, which offers social, recreational, and educational activities for people with learning/intellectual disabilities and/or autism.

— Corrymeela Community in Ballycastle, N. Ireland, a peace and reconciliation organization and residential center.

— Mourne Grange in Kilkeel, N. Ireland, a community and farm for people with learning disabilities.

— Three L’Arche Communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together–Belfast, N. Ireland; County Kilkenny, Ireland; and Dublin, Ireland.

A long and storied history

The Europe office was established in February 1947 by the Brethren Service Commission (BSC), the group that was responsible for the church’s relief and rehabilitation work after World War II. According to “The Brethren Encyclopedia” the location in Geneva was related to the commission’s association with the World Council of Churches (WCC), which also established its headquarters there. In 1948, M.R. Zigler was called to direct the BSC work in Europe and to be the Brethren representative to the WCC.

In 1968-69 the BSC was terminated “by an organizational realignment at the Church of the Brethren headquarters,” according to the encyclopedia. Its work was merged with the mission work of the denomination, including the Brethren Volunteer Service program that had been started in 1948. The Europe office began to focus on placing and supervising BVSers and maintaining connections with project sites across the continent.

Over several decades, those who staffed the office continued the BSC tradition of engaging with places suffering from war and violence. For example, the first BVSer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was placed in 1972 at the height of the “Troubles” between Catholics and Protestants. Similarly, during and after the wars in the Balkans, BVSers worked in Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The staff working in Geneva also served as Church of the Brethren representatives participating in historic peace church consultations in Europe, engaging with ecumenical leadership at the WCC, and at times with world leaders and staff at the United Nations in Geneva.

Although the BSC had established other centers for the church’s post-war efforts–such as Kassel, Germany, and Linz, Austria, among others–the Geneva office was the one that survived as the center of Church of the Brethren presence in Europe for some 72 years.

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