Church World Service was born in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II. Seventeen denominations came together to form an agency “to do in partnership what none of us could hope to do as well alone.” The mission: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged, shelter the homeless.
Now 75 years later the mission remains, though where and how we accomplish it has changed dramatically.
In 1946-47, U.S. churches opened their hearts and provided more than 11 million pounds of food, clothing, and medical supplies to war-torn Europe and Asia. Protestants and Catholics pooled talent and resources to meet a staggering refugee crisis. Today the Immigration and Refugee Program of CWS is a vital, internationally-recognized operation, having resettled nearly half a million refugees since its inception.
Also in 1947, CWS, Lutheran World Relief, and the National Catholic Welfare Program created a joint community hunger appeal, the Christian Rural Overseas Program, also known as CROP. The acronym is gone but the name and life-saving work remains as CROP Hunger Walks in some 800+ communities across the United States.
That early CROP initiative captured the imagination of America’s heartland. Soon “Friendship Trains” roared across the country, picking up commodities such as corn, wheat, rice, and beans to be shared around the world. The experience of the trains led to “Friendship Food Ships.” And, a multi-denominational program called One Great Hour of Sharing was formed to raise in-church gifts to help fill these ships. CWS continued to provide community-wide opportunities for sharing.
In the 1950s and 60s, CWS expanded its reach across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
As the ’60s dawned, CWS began to augment its emergency assistance work with support for long-range, problem-solving efforts – what came to be known as development.
Development begins at the grassroots. CWS recognized early on that to be successful projects and programs must come from the people themselves, not be imposed by others.
CWS sought out local agencies who share this vision of empowering self-help and long-standing partnerships were forged.
Over the years the success stories have been many. One of the first was in Algeria, in North Africa. Over four years, using more than 5 million human-days of volunteer labor, some 20 million forest and fruit trees were planted to anchor the soil against nature’s persistent erosion.
In India, CWS helped countless villages construct reservoirs, dig wells, and lay irrigation systems. The result: “drought insurance” and improved food production.
The same partnerships that enhanced our development efforts have enabled CWS to maximize our response to disasters.
The story of the CROP Hunger Walk goes back to 1969. Teens in Bismarck, North Dakota and York County, Pennsylvania decided it was time to do something for families who had to walk miles for food and clean water. So they walked…and, because they took that first step, hunger has forever been changed. Today, millions of people across nearly every state have participated.
In the 1970s CWS work evolved in significant ways. Our work in grassroots development inspired a deeper analysis of the root causes of hunger and poverty. As a result, in 1974 CWS – in collaboration with Lutheran World Relief – established the Development Policy Office in Washington, D.C. to represent CWS concerns about hunger to U.S. government bodies.
The importance of this work was further ratified in 1978 by the findings of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, which noted that the primary cause of hunger was poverty, i.e. human-made. Thus what was missing to end hunger was the political will to do so. The Report also called for a concerted effort to increase education on hunger and its causes. Staff from the CWS Development Policy office served on this Commission.
In 1976, in order to provide greater support to refugees and their sponsors in the USA, CWS established refugee resettlement offices in various parts of the U.S. They played a pivotal role in supporting the growing number of refugees from Southeast Asia who were resettled to the United States in the years after the Vietnam War. While the number of offices ebbs and flows with refugee admissions, they continue to form the foundation for CWS work in resettling refugees in the US.
It was also in the 1970s that CWS first began responding to U.S. disasters at the request of its member churches.
CWS work in international emergency response and development through the 1970s and 1980s focused on working in partnership with other NGO’s and with local groups. In some instances this led to the creation of new, independent organizations such as the Middle East Council of Churches, the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh or CEPAD in Nicaragua. Working in partnership remains one of the hallmarks of CWS work. These groups remain valued partners to CWS.
More recently, CWS was one of the founding members of a global partnership of faith-based humanitarian agencies, ACT Alliance, with members in 140 countries. With 130 member organizations, ACT Alliance provides a dynamic environment for collaboration in responding to human needs around the world. By working together agencies can maximize their impact.