Dr. Jared Burkholder, chair of the department of history and political science and associate professor of American and world history at Grace College, recently wrote “Spreading Light in a Dark World” for Christian History magazine. Burkholder was among the Christian history professors chosen from across the country to write for the magazine’s most recent edition, “Faith in the Foxholes,” focusing on faith during the world wars. In Burkholder’s article, he explores how the world wars served as a pivotal time for Christian relief efforts. The following is an excerpt from the article. The full article can be read here.
In 1944, the same year Allied forces stormed the beaches of occupied Europe, the congregation of Boston’s historic Park Street Church began giving up some meals during Lent. They sent the money they would have spent on food to the War Relief Fund, an initiative created by the newly formed (1942) National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). They were not alone in their desire to alleviate the suffering in war-torn Europe. Now known as World Relief, this fund was just one of many new Christian service organizations spurred into being by the world wars.
The Call of the Refugees
In World War I modern industrial war disrupted trade, destroyed farms, and decimated populations of young men, all while Europe experienced harsh winters and crop failures. Throngs of people became refugees, including women and orphaned children. Prisoners of war occupied temporary camps filled with disease and lacking adequate food and basic services.
In Belgium the 1914 German invasion displaced thousands. The following year the Ottoman government systematically brutalized the Armenian population in what most experts now consider genocide. Then in 1921–1922, the Russian people suffered through one of the worst famines in history, a suffering made worse by the Russian government’s policies and resulting in approximately 5,000,000 deaths.
Protestant missionaries helped to raise awareness about these atrocities, sometimes collaborating with nonreligious humanitarian groups such as the Near East Foundation (founded in New York in 1915). Others worked with international organizations such as the League of Nations. Karen Jeppe, a Danish missionary who founded a farming colony near Aleppo, Syria, for Armenian survivors, wrote when she took on the task,
How would I supply for all these people? It is quite certain that if I have got them out of the harems, then I will also be responsible for what becomes of them. And who will finance this huge enterprise? I have very little trust in the whole affair. But it may be a vocation. Well, then I must apply myself to it, however much I resist.
Later, when the League questioned her about the work, she made the shortest speech in its history: “Yes, it is only a little light, but the night is so dark.”
“They Have Never Tasted Milk”
Some of the earliest Christians to respond to these tragedies were the “peace churches,” including the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Mennonites. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), formed in 1917, provided nonviolent opportunities for conscientious objectors to serve their countries, but also became the primary facilitator for all kinds of humanitarian efforts.
Friends made up a small army of ambulance drivers and medical personnel. They cared for orphans, refugees, and prisoners of war and were among the most active in providing relief during the Russian famine. In Austria Friends helped supply milk through a program called “Cows for Vienna.”
The New York Times reported on the “sufferings of the little children” in Austria—where many children, it said, “have never tasted milk.” The AFSC bought cows in Holland or Switzerland and gave them to farmers in Austria, who donated a portion of the milk to Quaker Infant Welfare Centers. Friends considered this a natural embodiment of their religious commitments to peacemaking and social justice. So did American Mennonites, who established the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1920.
Even prior to World War I, the American branch of the YMCA served among military personnel in America and abroad. Although the YMCA and YWCA mostly provided services and aid to American servicemen and women, their work extended to enemy prisoners of war held in miserable conditions in Europe. They partnered with other humanitarian agencies, such as the Rockefeller Foundation.
Prominent Methodist and YMCA leader John Mott wrote directly to oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, pressing for resources to help the 2,000,000 POWs on both sides “in grave danger of physical, mental and moral deterioration unless something is done to occupy their minds, and so far as possible, their bodies.”
In World War II when Hitler’s Final Solution became public, the plight of Jews gave Christians new reasons for activism. Though Christians often were criticized for not doing more, Catholics in Europe did take measures to rescue Jews, and American Protestants supported Roosevelt’s new War Refugee Board. In fact most of the relief agencies that continue to work globally with suffering people today had their beginnings in the years surrounding World War II: the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief (1940), Episcopal Relief and Development (1940), Catholic Relief Services (1943), World Relief (1944), Lutheran World Relief (1945), Church World Service (1946), World Vision (1950), and Compassion International (1952).
Read the entire article here.