Throughout the two-year period of UNRRA livestock shipments, several special seagoing cowboy crews were put together. The first, a group of 33 Brethren, mostly seminary and college students, left seventy years ago this week. The idea for this special crew was hatched by a group of Bethany Biblical Seminary students the spring of 1946 as an experiment in Christian service. Having heard reports of questionable behaviors in some cowboy crews, they felt that a carefully selected group with high standards of conduct approaching their job in a strictly Christian attitude could set a pattern for the future.
The group met at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, for orientation. Before sailing, they made a concerted effort to gather relief goods to take with them to distribute overseas. Ivan Fry writes of collecting money and going on a shopping spree, on which they bought two cases of baby food, a case of condensed milk, a half carton of raisins, a carton of liver soup, a case of dried pea soup, and two bottles of cod-liver oil, in hopes of finding a children’s home to give them to.
On June 8, 1946, this select crew left from Newport News, Virginia, on the S. S. Queens Victory, carrying 785 horses destined for Czechoslovakia. They docked in the port city of Bremen, Germany. Upon arrival, some of the cowboys set out to find deserving people to whom they could give the supplies they had brought with them. They also sought out German Christians with whom to engage in dialogue.
A couple of the cowboys headed into the city to find a pastor and happened upon Pastor Erik Urban, who turned out to be the head Lutheran pastor of Bremen and an associate of theologian Martin Niemöller. Some rich experiences developed from this contact, including a dialogue between the cattlemen and a group of German Christians – enemy meeting enemy – each realizing that they were in Pastor Urban’s words “as one in Christ.”
The affects of the war on the German populace was brought home to the cowboys when a plan laid at home was scuttled. They had desired to have a fellowship meal with a group of German Christians. The seminary students had decided a large quantity of dehydrated soup would serve the purpose well – all the Germans would need to do would be add hot water.
After meeting Pastor Urban and delighting him and his wife with the prospect of this substitute Lord’s Supper, the disadvantages perpetuated by war made themselves known. First, there was the lack of dishes. Then, there was nothing in which to heat the soup, and if there were it would be difficult to find any fuel with which to heat it. But the clincher was that “Pastor Urban was unable to find a room anywhere in the city which was both intact and large enough to allow the group to sit around a table and eat.” [from “The Enemy was Christian” by Byron P. Royer, Bethany Biblical Seminary Bulletin, October-December 1946]
These experiences of Christian fellowship, along with witnessing the leveled rubble of the saturation bombing poured on the city of Bremen by the British and the Americans, left an indelible mark on these cattlemen of the S. S. Queens Victory. Conrad Snavely says of the trip: “It made me more interested in working for social justice.”
Roger Ingold says his life was completely turned around by the experience. It started him thinking in a more international way than ever before, leading him to become a missionary to Nigeria. In looking back at the seagoing cowboy program, Roger credits it for being a great recruiting tool for church workers of all kinds. He says, “People who had gone and had been part of that program came back and wanted to do something to make a difference in the world.”
Next post: Special Crew #2: Mennonite high school and college students come of age on a cattle boat