‘One of the best things the Church of the Brethren has done’

75 years of Brethren Volunteer Service

By Frank Ramirez

“In spite of all the changes, people have not stopped being human,” author Jim Lehman said, summing up remembrances of the founding of Brethren Volunteer Service and reflecting on the difficulties everyone experienced during the pandemic. And concluding, he called to mind the words of Dan West, one of the guiding lights of the Brethren Service explosion, about the training process for BVS. After intensive training the volunteers were sent to strange places. “’Let them flounder and grow. Then let them go back to their homes, ruined for life,’ as Dan West was wont to say.” 

People sitting at tables listening to a speaker.
BVS director Chelsea Goss Skillen addresses the 2023 BVS luncheon. Photo by Donna Parcell.

The Wednesday BVS Luncheon celebrating 75 years of the organization, began with a recognition of volunteers. Former BVSers were asked to stand up according to the decade in which they served. Jacob Miller, of Spring Grove, Pa., served from 1959-1960 in Rapid City, S.D. Miller, who grew up on a farm, recalls serving the Sioux residents “as a utility person. I started a 4H Club, a basketball team, distributed government surplus food,” and many other tasks. Following his return home he used those skills and became a social worker for the next several decades of his life.

Doris Dibert, of Snake Spring Valley, Pa., served from 1958-1960 in the Lybrook Mission in New Mexico. She recalled that they called themselves the “43 Herd,” and their motto was “We can change the world!” Doris served with her late husband, Don, and recalled that her cohort included Chuck Boyer and Dale Minnich.

The Partners in Service Award was given to Jim Lehman who, though not an actual BVS volunteer, has served the organization by taking part in think tanks, writing, and filmmaking.

Speaking to the luncheon, Lehman said, “BVS is one of the best things the Church of the  Brethren has ever done, in my opinion.” He recalled how “In the years after World War II young adults started to have an enlarged consciousness.” At the 1947 Annual Conference M.R. Zigler “mesmerized the young adults with a speech about the suffering, homelessness, and hunger” experienced in post-war Europe. The young adults left wanting to do something.

Quoting Zigler who once said, “It’s the meeting after the meeting that’s the meeting,” he described the two-week prayer vigil and workshop that expanded to three weeks, and a continued witness for a program in which young adults could serve the world.

This led, in the 1948 Annual Conference in Colorado Springs, to a request from the floor by Ted Chambers, who dramatically carried a wooden crate to the mike because he stood less than five feet high, to bypass the usual process of queries at the local and district levels, to request such a program be founded immediately.

Calvert Ellis, the moderator, was a stickler for operating by the book, but after consulting with the other officers of the conference agreed to let a motion be made. It passed unanimously, and, although the conference took place in mid-June, the first set of volunteers was processed in September.

BVS director Chelsea Goss Skillen presents the Partners in Service Award to Jim Lehman. Photo by Donna Parcell.

Despite the changes brought about by the pandemic, Lehman said that the number of BVS volunteers is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Earlier at the luncheon Chelsea Goss Skillen gave a “State of BVS” address and listed several upcoming opportunities for individuals of all ages to serve in the coming year. Walt Wiltschek led a BVS Trivia quiz. The meeting closed with the singing of the unofficial BVS anthem, “Will you let me be your servant.”

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