IVS: Role Model for Peace Corps

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 5687-5725:

IVS emerged from a confluence of church and government engagements with the decolonizing world. Shortly after President-elect Dwight Eisenhower announced late in 1952 that John Foster Dulles would be his secretary of state, Dulles declared in a radio address that US foreign aid programs needed to be supplemented by organizations of volunteers who would go abroad to help the peoples of the non-Western world to develop the resources of their own countries. This idea appealed to Harold Row, the director of the Church of the Brethren’s social service agency, the Brethren Service Commission. Row approached his counterparts on the Mennonite Central Committee and the Friends Service Committee, the social service agencies of the other “historic peace churches” which, like the Brethren, had been eager to find foreign postings for the “alternative service” that conscientious objectors performed under the terms of the Selective Service Act of 1940. The Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers all maintained missionary programs, but it had not been possible to assign conscientious objectors to missions because of the latter’s official involvement in religious proselytizing. Hence, most of the conscientious objectors served their two years of alternative service stateside in a variety of medical, construction, and agricultural endeavors. Row rounded up his Mennonite and Quaker friends and they went to Washington together and started to knock on the doors of officialdom.

While the churchmen were making their rounds, a middle-ranking officer of the State Department’s Point IV Program—President Truman’s foreign aid project—returned from a posting in Iran and voiced to colleagues his wish that churches or some other private party would send volunteers abroad to do vocational training and other work to enable the Iranians to modernize themselves. Dale D. Clark knew nothing of Dulles’s speech, but had come up with this idea while contemplating the needs of people in Tehran. Clark had been a Mormon missionary in Europe for two years as a youth, an experience that may have influenced this episode, although he did not say so. Clark was delighted when his aides excitedly told him that there were church officials in town at that moment trying to get someone to listen to exactly such a plan of their own. Row and his friends had found an official who was ready to work with them. In February 1953, the Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers established a new NGO, International Voluntary Services (IVS), a name suggested by Row as a variation on his own denomination’s Brethren Volunteer Service.

IVS came into being at a time when ecumenical Protestants were divided about the viability of their missionary programs but more committed than ever to the service ideal. IVS was a means for expanding service projects without having to deal with the uncertainties of missionary purpose and ideology. IVS’s director for its first eight years was John S. Noffsinger, a Brethren minister who in his youth had been a teacher in the Philippines, then spent most of his career in the United States working for vocational training organizations, including the Federal Board of Vocational Education. Once in place, Noffsinger quickly dispatched young men and women abroad. They almost always operated “missionary style,” interacting directly with local populations in villages and learning to speak the indigenous languages.

IVS was a secular organization that welcomed volunteers with no religious affiliation, but throughout its history—including the volatile Vietnam years which I discuss below—its volunteers were overwhelmingly ecumenical Protestants. Noffsinger himself seems not to have pushed the analogy to missions, but some of his staff did. “You are still missionaries,” one staffer told a group of volunteers, “for like Christ you are working to improve peoples’ lives. Your job is to bring your great American know-how to Asia.” One volunteer from the mid-1950s recalled that the Foreign Service officers in Laos, where he was serving his alternative service, referred with some derision to his IVS group as “the missionaries.”

By the late 1950s, IVS had “won a reputation,” historian David Ekbladh explains, “as an exemplar of community development with its programs in Africa and Asia.” In 1961, immediately after President John F. Kennedy announced that Sargent Shriver would head such an agency, Noffsinger wrote to Shriver offering assistance. Members of Shriver’s newly appointed staff began attending IVS staff meetings to get a sense of the operation. IVS was not only the ideological model for Shriver’s agency, but the practical one as well. Historian Daniel Immerwahr notes that IVS staffers “showed Shriver’s team how to set up payrolls for international work [and] screen recruits.”

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Filed under education, language, military, NGOs, philosophy, religion, U.S.

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