Mission and Ministry Board makes decision to close Material Resources program

The Mission and Ministry Board has decided to close the Church of the Brethren’s Material Resources program based at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Md. The decision made on Oct. 21, during the board’s fall 2023 meetings, is to wind down the program over a period of up to 30 months.

Brethren Disaster Ministries and Children’s Disaster Services are not affected and will continue to work out of the Brethren Service Center. The decision also does not affect the warehousing operation of partner organization SERRV.

Employees in Material Resources were informed of the decision on Monday morning, Oct. 23. Those who stay through the end of the program will receive standard severance packages.

Loretta Wolf, who has been director of Material Resources for almost 40 years, since 1984, is among the 9 full- and part-time employees who are affected. The program also has temporary workers “on call” to assist when needed in the warehouse and when picking up donations.

The decision to close Material Resources was not entered into lightly by the board, said chair Colin Scott when he publicly announced the consensus reached during closed session. He named that there was prayerful discernment and that the decision was difficult.

Noting Wolf’s 47 years of service with the Church of the Brethren, Scott also shared, on behalf of the board, appreciation of the staff that have worked at this program, and of the congregations that contributed many resources towards this ministry.

A significant history to celebrate

Material Resources is a legacy program of the Church of the Brethren, with a long and significant history of collecting, processing, warehousing, shipping, and distributing disaster relief aid, blankets, clothing, medical supplies, medicines, and goods for humanitarian assistance.

The seeds for the program were the collections of relief clothing that Church of the Brethren members and congregations began in 1939, on the eve of World War II. The first relief shipments of clothing were sent to Spain for distribution by Brethren workers there. By 1940 and 1941, clothing was being collected across the country and shipments were being made to China as well.

It was in 1944 that a processing center for relief goods was established in New Windsor, on the former campus of Blue Ridge College, under the auspices of the Brethren Service Committee. The location was noted for its proximity to the port at Baltimore. At that time, the denomination already had four collection centers for relief goods, in Indiana, California, Oregon, and Kansas.

When the program was officially created, the Church of the Brethren was leading the way in both providing material aid to war-torn Europe and working ecumenically to extend Christian service to the world. From that year on, the program now known as Material Resources continued to grow in the volume and types of relief goods, the situations and countries where aid was provided, and the numbers of volunteers and staff who were involved. Over the decades, many thousands of people worked and volunteered at New Windsor and at satellite locations around the country.

Since its creation, hundreds of millions of pounds of material aid and medical supplies have been shipped throughout most of the world and millions of miles have been driven by Material Resources trucks. The shipments of aid soon grew from the first bales of clothing and shoes to soap (at first made from used cooking grease), then was extended to food such as canned and dried goods and grains like wheat and rice. Soon the relief shipments included blankets and quilts, medicine and first aid supplies, farm tools and implements, hygiene kits, school supplies, and more. The program also had a connection to the shipping of farm animals for Heifer Project.

Early partner organizations were the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA) and the newly formed Church World Service (CWS) and CROP, and related Christian and ecumenical relief organizations. Some of the Brethren involved with the program ended up helping to administer additional service centers under the auspices of CWS, which at their height numbered nine across the United States. The manager over all the centers was based in New Windsor and managed the staff there as well. The trucking operation crossed the country and, according to one account, at one point unloaded an average of 25,000 pounds of goods each day.

With additional partner organizations contracting for services, a Distribution Center was built at New Windsor and began to be used in 1969. This included space for Interchurch Medical Assistance (now IMA World Health), which became a longterm partner with its own dedicated secure warehouse space for medicines and medical supplies. That partnership ended in 2018.

The Distribution Center was expanded in 1981-1982 and again in 1984 to accommodate the high volume. Large shipments were being made, for example as many as 50,000 blankets shipped at any given time. In 1985, the program shipped more than $5 million worth of clothing and more than $22.5 million worth of medical supplies on behalf of 18 partners. In the 1980s, there was an average of 20 employees working for the program.

Since then, the size and scope has dwindled gradually over the years. The other service centers were closed as CWS had less need for collection points. Clothing collection, processing, and distribution was ended. By 2006, the average number of employees was 11.

In the past two decades, in years of great need caused by large natural disasters–such as the tsunami in South Asia in 2004, Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005, and the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010–the amount of work for the program and the volume of supplies shipped has increased. In years without large disaster events, however, these numbers decrease significantly.

Now the decline in Material Resources volume mirrors the current experience of other faith-based material aid programs. The Material Resources budget is intended to break even, but in the last 8 of 10 years has experienced financial losses.

Factors in the decision

A subcommittee of the Mission and Ministry Board carefully reviewed the Material Resource program and worked closely with executive and director-level staff before recommending that the program close.

The review included consideration of current best practices in material aid, which have shifted over the decades of the program. In certain circumstances, often for international partners, it is no longer considered best practice to ship aid from overseas. Additional considerations included the decreased number of partner organizations, the decreasing volume of donations for those partners, and related financial shortfalls.

The closing process is expected to last two and half years, with normal operations continuing for at least the next year. Donor churches and individuals will continue to send their kits or blankets to New Windsor until notified of a new location.

Currently Material Resources has three primary ecumenical and humanitarian partner organizations: Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief, and the Brothers Brother Foundation. Earlier this year, each was consulted about their interest in taking over the program, without result. Material Resources also works with several smaller partners.

The programs of CWS and Lutheran World Relief will continue through and beyond the closing of Material Resources. Church members and congregations are strongly encouraged to continue supporting the kit programs of these partners after they move to a new location for processing.

— For questions, contact Roy Winter, executive director of Service Ministries for the Church of the Brethren, at rwinter@brethren.org.


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