The Seagoing Cowboy Storytelling Project

My work of fifteen years now has a name: The Seagoing Cowboy Storytelling Project, with thanks to the family of seagoing cowboy Alvin Zook for coming up with this title. The start of a new year is always a good time to look back and ahead; I’m adding a first Friday post this month to do just that.

Seagoing Cowboy Al Guyer and Peggy Reiff Miller

Seagoing Cowboy Al Guyer and I reunite, October 25, 2014. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

It was fifteen years ago this month that I made my first seagoing cowboy interview with a former pastor of mine, Albert Guyer. I knew he had gone to Poland with livestock, and I wanted to know what my Grandpa Abe’s trip might have been like. Al’s story hooked me in and got me started on a journey that culminated this past year with the publication of my first book, the children’s picture book The Seagoing CowboyThat event pretty well defined my professional year, first planning for its release the end of March and then promoting it throughout the remainder of the year.

A highlight of my year was a 3-day visit to the Maple Ridge Bruderhof community in Ulster Park, New York. Many older members have long ties to Church of the Brethren, Heifer Project, and seagoing cowboy history. Vonnie Burleson's (left) father and Marlys Blough Swinger's (right) brother were seagoing cowboys. Martin Johnson (top right) was my delightful host. Photo by Reuben Mow (grandson of Anna and Baxter Mow.

A highlight of my year was a 3-day visit to the Maple Ridge Bruderhof community in Ulster Park, New York. Many older members have long ties to the Church of the Brethren and its Heifer Project and seagoing cowboy history. Vonnie Burleson’s (left) father and Marlys Blough Swinger’s (right) brother were seagoing cowboys. Martin Johnson (top right) was my delightful host. Photo by Reuben Mow (grandson of Brethren icons Anna and Baxter Mow).

 

A local book signing and release party was followed by speaking events and signings for all ages that have taken me from coast to coast, with stops in Indiana and Iowa, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, New York state, Maryland, Virginia, back to California, on to Arizona, and Texas, often connecting with seagoing cowboys. I’m grateful to my many readers for the warm and enthusiastic reception of my book and the seagoing cowboy story. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I’m looking forward to a different pace and focus for 2017.

Sharing the story with Maple Ridge Bruderhof upper elementary students. Photo by Reuben Mow.

Sharing the story with Maple Ridge Bruderhof upper elementary students. Photo by Reuben Mow.

I’m excited about the year to come. It will start with a trip next week to Germany, where I will be able to visit the seagoing cowboy exhibit at the Upper Silesian Museum in Ratingen. Then my focus turns to the writing of a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, including the seagoing cowboy story as it relates to Heifer. I plan to sequester myself for six months during the year at the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, to that end. Three months in the middle of that will be spent in “Oma and Opa time” assisting our daughter in Ohio with child care while she tests the waters of running a friend’s market garden for the summer.

If all works as planned, the year will end with another trip abroad — this time to Finland for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the S. S. Park Victory and the ten sailors who lost their lives in the sinking of the ship off the coast of Finland in December, 1947. The Park Victory had been one of UNRRA’s livestock ships, making six trips prior to its demise while shipping coal. It’s a famous ship wreck in Finland, but the livestock portion of the ship’s history was unknown there until one of the men working on the commemoration found my website.

I will only be taking a limited number of speaking engagements this year. I’m looking forward to being the speaker for a Heifer International event in Michigan April 8, in being the featured author to kick off the children’s summer reading program at the Goshen, Indiana, public library in June with the theme of “Build a Better World,” and in being a keynote speaker at the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference (NOAC) in North Carolina in September. Aside from that, my plan is to write, write, write!

Many wonderful pieces of seagoing cowboy and Heifer Project history happened in 1947, so look for lots of 70-year commemorations in my blog posts throughout the year. I’m looking forward to a great year, and I wish you one, as well!

The Brethren Service Center Serves and Is Served by Seagoing Cowboys

Dormitory and gym where much of the relief work was done at the Brethren Service Center, New Windsor, MD, March 1947.

The Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, March 1947. The gym in center of picture is where much of the post-World War II relief work was carried out. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

As noted in my post of May 22, many a seagoing cowboy and cowboy supervisor ended up spending time at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, while waiting on his ship to sail. The seagoing cowboy office was located there, along with a swarm of activity related to other Church of the Brethren relief programs.

Ernest Bachman, supervisor of the SS John J. Crittenden crew of November 1945, noted that his men were assigned the task of raking leaves. J. O. Yoder’s time at New Windsor overlapped with Bachman. Yoder arrived on November 13 and was surprised to meet Carol Stine from his home town in Goshen, Indiana, working there as a secretary for the seagoing cowboy program. After that, he didn’t stand a chance.

Carol Stine, right, works out details for a seagoing cowboy. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Carol Stine, right, works out details for a seagoing cowboy. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

The next morning, Yoder notes in his journal, “Carol Stine collared me after breakfast and made me say I’d do dishes. Lots of ‘em and about 3 of us did it. Couldn’t sneak away quick enough and so found 3 potato peeling knives in my hand and potatoes in pan all set to go. Never imagined a whole bushel under table was to be peeled for supper. Well – peeled for 3 hours right up to dinner time and had about ¾ bushel done. Ate a good dinner and went to my room and wrote.”

Yoder then spent a couple of days getting squared away in Washington, DC, to be a supervisor with UNRRA. There he met Bachman. They traveled back to New Windsor together on the 16th, and Bachman got collared, too. “Backman [sic] and I washed and wiped dishes,” writes Yoder, “while a speaker on CPS camps (Mr. Banta I—–) started talking to a meeting in mess hall.”

Saturday, the 17th, Yoder strolled around campus looking for work and ended up helping to build a new bed on the Center’s V-8 truck. That night he got in on some of the culture of the Center. “Ora Zeigler gave a very colorful talk on this trip through devastated Europe -,” Yoder wrote, “had many contacts with the most horrible evidences of starvation throughout entire war area…. Nearly every single person in that area has lost considerable weight due to insufficient amount of calories. Babies and small children are housed in large auditoriums, etc., where all windows and doors have been blasted out and cold winds are sweeping through. He told of picking up stiff and lifeless bodies – the way millions will go during the next year. The people of these countries will quite definitely favor the country giving the best relief….”

Sunday at the Center provided a day of rest. Yoder skipped church, “as I ain’t got a suit [with me],” he quipped in his journal. “I played the victrola in lounge and enjoyed it very much – Bolero, Lord’s Prayer, etc.” He went out to the nearby Roger Roop farm in the afternoon to see the Heifer Project cattle collected there for shipping. Later that night, he reveled in a game of Rook with a group of Kansas seagoing cowboys.

Volunteers bale and package used clothing to send to Europe after World War II. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Volunteers bale and package used clothing to send to Europe after World War II. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Yoder’s time in New Windsor was lengthened when UNRRA lost his papers. As the next week rolled on, he made himself useful. He helped “pack and truck bales of used clothing to store room. Then went with truck to Post Office and got several hundred packages of old clothing, etc. – sent here by churches and peoples from all parts of U.S.A.”

Women sort relief clothing to be sent to Europe. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Women sort relief clothing to be sent to Europe. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Another day he wrote, “went to the gym and helped unload a truck of relief boxes brought up from P.O. Weighed and noted each box then heaved it up to the top of the stack – clear up to ceiling! Toward noon I helped fill a shipping box with all sorts of toys, dolls made and donated by various church groups.”

Later, he helped prepare shipping cases for old shoes that had been rebuilt at the Center. “Nearly 40 cases containing from 85 to 150 pr. shoes are ready for shipping,” he wrote.

Volunteers repair used shoes sent to the Brethren Service Center after World War II. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Volunteers repair used shoes sent to the Brethren Service Center after World War II. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Other days found him helping carry boxes in the food canning department or helping Carol Stine sort cowboy application blanks.

Volunteers help can food to be sent to Europe. Photo courtesy of Kenneth West.

Volunteers help can food to be sent to Europe. Photo courtesy of Kenneth West.

Canned food ready to box for Europe. Photo courtesy of Kenneth West.

Canned food ready to box for Europe. Photo courtesy of Kenneth West.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoder’s three weeks spent at the Center weren’t all work and no play, however. Evenings were filled with games of checkers, Chinese checkers, jigsaw puzzles, singing around the piano, folk game activities, reading, and writing letters. Finally, on Monday, December 3, Yoder had his orders to report to New York City where he would lead the cowboy crew of the SS Clarksville Victory on their journey to Poland. There, he would have the opportunity to see firsthand the devastation which Ora Zeigler had described.

Next post: The Roop Farm

 

Seagoing cowboys mingle with returning World War II soldiers

As we have seen in previous posts, several of the early UNRRA livestock ships brought soldiers home from Europe. With their cargos unloaded, space was available for cots to be set up; but having had livestock as cargo, there was some serious cleaning that had to take place! Even though their work was supposed to have been finished after the animals were unloaded, many of the cowboy crews were coerced into helping to scrub the decks. As Byron Royer, supervisor of the Zona Gale cowboys, said,

 We agreed because of the emergency in regard to getting the troops home, to help clean up the ship. . . . It was definitely not a part of our duties. However, we did work all day and got the ship in a shape much as I doubt if it’s been in before.

Their eighty-eight G.I.s boarded the next day.

Gordon Bucher, on the F. J. Luckenbach, recorded in his journal for Sunday, July 22, 1945,

At 3:30 150 soldiers came on board & what a mess. We had to set up our cots in a stable & move our mattresses & stuff. If it means 25 more can come back to the U. S., it’s all right with me.

Most of the early cowboys were from the Church of the Brethren, one of the Historic Peace Churches, and many were conscientious objectors. Having G.I.s on board gave them a unique opportunity to dialogue with the soldiers. The S. S. Virginian crew includes a section about contact with the soldiers in their report of their trip titled “Relief for Greece” that gives a good idea of what these conversations might have been like. I’ll share that report in my next regular post.

On the Zona Gale, the G.I.s were invited to the worship services the cowboys had, and many good friendships were developed between cowboys and soldiers. Byron Royer records their homecoming in his account “A Seagoing Cowboy in Italy”:

     We ate our lunch and when we came out after lunch, we could just see the Coast of Virginia coming into sight. I wish you could have seen the GI’s as we were coming in. Those boys, most of them, had been away for from two to four years and they were one happy lot coming home.

Some were cursing and cracking obscene jokes to cover their true feelings. But most of them were thinking pretty seriously. There were even some who were crying — men who had been through months on the battlefield. I’m very glad they could come home with us.

We pulled into Hampton Roads (?) [sic] which is a sort of a bay which is the entrance into Newport News and Norfolk, Virginia. After a lot of red tape and examinations by the Health Service and Customs, the boat came out to take the GI’s ashore. We hated to say, “Goodbye” to them. You know, it’s surprising how well you learn to know people in a short time like that when you have nothing to do.

The boat had three WAC’s aboard. . . . The Red Cross had doughnuts and a cold drink of some kind for the boys as soon as they checked off and there was a GI band to furnish music for them as they went in.

They pulled away with a lot of yelling and waving and exchange of farewells.

I’ve found no photos as yet of these returning soldiers or of their accounts of coming home on a cattle boat. If anyone has any, I’d love to see them!

Next post: Conversations with the soldiers.

 

A Seagoing Cowboy evaluates his trip to Europe

The last days of June 1945 were a busy time for UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee. In six days’ time, they had five livestock ships complete with seagoing cowboy crews on their way to Europe – three to Greece and two that docked in Trieste, Italy, with animals for Yugoslavia. The fifth was the Liberty ship Zona Gale with 31-year-old Clarence H. Rosenberger on board.

Crew of the SS Zona Gale

The seagoing cowboy crew of the SS Zona Gale en route to Yugoslavia, July 1945. Clarence Rosenberger is the man on the left leaning against the rail. Photo courtesy of Weldon Klepinger

Clarence was the pastor of the Church of the Brethren in Shelocta, Pennsylvania, at the time. He wrote the following reflection on his trip that appeared in the September 22, 1945, Gospel Messenger, the magazine of the Church of the Brethren.

A “Cowboy” Evaluates the Trip to Europe With Relief Cattle

Our experiences as “the cowboys of the S. S. Zona Gale” is at an end. As I look back I can begin to appreciate what a wonderful opportunity we’ve had.

Primarily, we filled a pressing need by aiding in the moving of relief goods to war-stricken people. Stock tenders are almost impossible to find around a seaport and we spanned the gap. We have the satisfaction of knowing that the stock we cared for is now helping to provide food for hundreds of people.

Some of us whose consciences will not permit us to further the war effort found in this an opportunity to serve Christ, our nation and mankind in a constructive way.

As a result of observation and study, I have gained at least a bit of insight into the physical, economic and political needs of Europe. I have begun to appreciate how much of our good fortune in the United States is due to a combination of circumstances.

We’ve also had the opportunity of knowing intimately hundreds of soldiers and sailors. [The Zona Gale, like the F. J. Luckenbach and the Virginian, picked up soldiers in Naples to bring them home.] We’ve talked with them frankly. We’ve heard their problems, fears and anticipations. We’ve heard of experiences under fire on land and sea. We’ve shared the danger of mine-infested seas.

Finally, we’ve had the opportunity of knowing the joy that comes with setting foot once again on good American soil.

These first trips were a sort of feeling of their way for the Brethren Service Committee as they decided how much of a commitment they wanted to make in servicing UNRRA’s cattle attendant needs. Reflections of the cowboys like this one no doubt helped the B.S.C. sign on for the long haul.

Article used by permission, http://www.brethren.org/messenger.

Next post: The cowboys mingle with soldiers.

 

How ten Manchester College students ended up on the first UNRRA cattle boat to Europe

When UNRRA contacted M. R. Zigler, the executive of the Brethren Service Committee [see Nov. 14, 2014 post], in late spring of 1945 to say they had a ship ready, M. R., with his vast network of contacts, got on the phone and put the Brethren grapevine in action. Among other things, word was sent to the Church of the Brethren colleges, which by that time had completed their academic years and were gearing up for their summer sessions. Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, was one of those schools.

MC grad Keith Horn recalls having seen a notice on a bulletin board at the college about a ship going overseas with animals. Others learned of the trip through the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference being held at Manchester that year. On its opening day, June 6, 1945, the Brethren Service Committee brought news to the Conference: “[R]elief soon may be possible from the church in America to the church in Europe,” including “heifers by freight shipment.” M. R. Zigler spoke the next day of “news of big shipments.” In just a short time from UNRRA’s first call to M. R., much had transpired – from one vessel to big shipments.

These reports created a buzz throughout the campus. People talked about it on the sidewalks, in their rooms, over dinner – and it was while waiting on tables in the old Oakwood dining hall, that Manchester student Ken Frantz learned of the need for cattle attendants.

In all, ten Manchester College students signed up for this first cattle boat trip. The Gospel Messenger reported that there were 135 students enrolled in the Manchester summer session of 1945. Take ten of those students away, and the college lost over 7% of their student body that summer! But President Schwalm was supportive, as Richard Moomaw, a student leader on campus, relates. When he went to talk with the President to get permission to un-enroll, President Schwalm told him, “So many people are going, you should go, too!”

Because it was mostly a rural denomination, UNRRA had felt the Church of the Brethren would have enough men on farm deferment to provide the cattle attendants for their ships. But there was another deferment that figured into this story, as well – the ministerial deferment. Many of the MC students who went fell into this category. To maintain this status with the draft board, they had to be in school all year round – and that’s why so many of them were in summer school. But whatever the deferment, these students had to get permission from their draft boards to leave the country. Ken Frantz, who lived in North Manchester, recalls that he had no trouble with his board in Wabash. But it was a different story for his brother Dean, who was living in Sydney, Indiana, at the time. The Kosciusko County Draft Board refused to let him go, or he would have been on the ship with Ken, too.

For many of these students, this was something positive they could do to help put a broken world back together again. Gordon Bucher recalls that his mother, in particular, wasn’t too keen on his going. He was just 19, the war was just over, and she was afraid for his safety. But Gordon stood firm. He said to her, “a lot of people have been endangered for the last four years. We hope to do something good, whether we’re in danger or not.” It was a form of service and ministry for many of the cowboys. And two of them – Floyd Bantz and Ken Frantz – even postponed their weddings from early summer to late summer to be able to go.

In a very short period of time, the ten Manchester students had made their applications, gotten their draft board permissions, and were on the train to New Orleans by June 13. They sailed on June 24, 1945, on the F. J. Luckenbach headed for Greece with 588 horses and 26 cattle attendants on board – the first of the 360 UNRRA livestock trips made between 1945 and 1947.

F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropolis.

The F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropolis in Greece, July 1945. For whatever reason, the cowboys on this ship were not allowed to take cameras on board. This is the only known photograph taken on this trip, likely by an unidentified professional Greek photographer who took pictures of tourists at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Ken Frantz

Watch for an extra 5th Friday post next week! Next regular post: Five Elizabethtown College students make the 2nd UNRRA ship out, but arrive first in Greece

 

UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee Partner Up

As World War II was ravaging Europe, a number of the allied nations hammered out a plan to help the devastated countries recover when the war ended. On November 9, 1943, forty-four nations, meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, chartered the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

M.R. Zigler, Executive Secretary of the Brethren Service Committee

Brethren Service Committee Executive Secretary M.R. Zigler was a real mover and a shaker, destined for his time in history. Source unknown.

The Heifer Project of the Church of the Brethren Service Committee was already underway at that time. Heifers were being donated and raised for shipment to Spain (see last post), with growing interest in shipping to Belgium, as well. M.R. Zigler, the executive secretary of the Brethren Service Committee (BSC), lobbied UNRRA during its formative time to ship Heifer Project animals to Europe. But many UNRRA officials believed shipping livestock was too hazardous an undertaking. Meanwhile, the Heifer Project successfully made their first shipment of animals to Puerto Rico in May 1944.

A year later, in early May 1945 as the war in Europe was coming to an end, the Agricultural Rehabilitation Division of UNRRA finally obtained permission to ship livestock. A request had come in from the Near East Foundation for bulls for Greece to help rebuild their devastated dairy industry through artificial insemination. UNRRA called on M.R. Zigler for help, and Zigler called on Benjamin Bushong, a Brethren dairyman and cattle breeder from Pennsylvania.

Ben Bushong

Benjamin G. Bushong. Courtesy Mark Bushong.

The bull Parnassus in Greece.

The bull Parnassus being led to the Greek Orthodox bishop for blessing. Courtesy of United Nations Archives and Record Management Section.

Bushong located six purebred Brown Swiss bulls that fit the bill. Heifer Project paid for and donated the bulls for UNRRA to ship to Greece. The bulls left St. John’s, Canada, May 14, 1945, on the SS Boolongena. That same day, the Ag Rehab Division of UNRRA requisitioned 600 mares and 600 head of cattle to be prepared for shipment.

Ships were lined up. Feed was purchased. But UNRRA had a problem: where would they get the men to take care of the animals on the ships? The UNRRA Livestock Program Historical Report says,

[M]ost available manpower was either in defense work or in military service. Faced with the problem of a ship soon ready to sail, the BSC was asked to supply enough men for this first vessel. Since the constituency of the Church of the Brethren was of rural background, it was believed that enough men could be found who had farm deferments and thus would be available for this voyage. In a short time enough men had signified their availability to man several ships and thus the program of recruiting ‘sea-going cowboys’ was begun.

An agreement was worked out between UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee that the BSC would recruit the estimated 8,000 cattle tenders UNRRA would need for its projected shipments; in return, UNRRA would provide free shipping for the Heifer Project animals sent on UNRRA ships. By the end of the program less than two years later, about 7,000 men and boys ages 16 to 72 had served as seagoing cowboys on UNRRA’s 360 livestock shipments. They accompanied some 300,000 animals to Europe and China, of which 4,000 were from the Heifer Project.

You might wonder, why on earth did a church organization take on such a monumental task for a non-church agency? UNRRA’s historical report says,

The Church of the Brethren was and is actively interested in dynamic Christianity. The willingness to provide men for the first ships was due to a realization of an urgent need in a justifiable project which was in critical circumstances. However, the contracting for 8,000 men was based on broader and perhaps more fundamental reasons. First of all was the belief that the livestock program was one which was extremely significant for the rebuilding of war devastated countries. Because of the rural background, the denomination could use some of its abilities in this unusual work. It was also believed that for many such a trip would be an unusually broadening and educational experience which would express itself in an increased interest in the relief program, a better understanding of the effects of war on the lives of people, an active desire to build a better world. These may have been idealistic motivations but numerous examples can now be cited to prove the justification of such reasoning.”

And my interviews of well over 150 of these men bear this statement out.

Next post: Cowboys at sea and abroad on Thanksgiving

Pierre Ferrari Talks about Heifer International

Heifer International, the award-winning development organization that grew out of the Heifer Project, is celebrating 70 years of service with events all across the country this year. One of those events, which I’m co-chairing, begins today right here in the land of Heifer’s beginnings. I’d like to kick off that event by sharing a phone interview I had this week with Heifer’s President and CEO, Pierre Ferrari.

Me: Thank you, Pierre, for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview! As you are aware, this blog is about the history of the seagoing cowboys, and that history can’t be told without also telling the story of the Heifer Project, the early years of Heifer International. As its current leader, I’d like to know what drew you to Heifer International. What was there about the organization that made you want to become its leader?

Pierre: First, the job was available. Second, Heifer was the right size for me to have an impact on its operation, and it had sufficient size that the organization would have an impact on poverty and hunger for the things that matter. So it’s really an interesting combination of feeling that I could have an impact as a leader, and also that I could be actively involved in the direction of the organization so it could have a substantially greater impact than it has had. I very much like the idea of community development and firmly believe in the poor being a principal agent for their own future so they can gain confidence, accountability, and self-reliance; and I thought, wow, an organization that is committed to that ideal and philosophy is where I want to work.

Third, the level of independence that Heifer has because it collects donations that essentially aren’t restricted gives the organization tremendous capacity and leverage to try the things that really work and to try to do the right things even better.

Me: This is a special year for Heifer as you celebrate the organization’s 70 years of service with events all across the country. The committee for the northern Indiana event to be held at Camp Alexander Mack in Milford this weekend is thrilled to have you coming to the land of Heifer’s roots to participate. Can you tell us what the theme of these events, Beyond Hunger, means to you?

Pierre: Our mission is to end poverty and hunger. By working in a variety of ways in a more sophisticated approach, we want to go beyond just subsistence. This will end hunger and eliminate poverty in those places where we work, and we can have a genuine fundamental impact on the environment and a whole series of other variables, such as empowerment of women, development, political power, advocacy, beginning to right some of the injustices of existing systems, political, social, economic; that’s the idea – to go beyond hunger. It’s a much bigger agenda and we can do it, because we’re all set to go. We have the resources, and we can be flexible because we have unrestricted funds; we don’t work at the whim of government or major donors; we are strategy makers rather than strategy takers. We have a commitment to be agents of the poor if they want us to; we can stimulate them and encourage them to find the interior motivation to change their lives. That’s part of the answer to “beyond hunger.”

We’re tapping into Heifer’s roots as we celebrate all across the nation in our Beyond Hunger program. I went to Castañer, Puerto Rico, [where some of the early heifers were sent], and what’s left of the work Heifer did in that little town is this: it has held on to the fundamental values about how to be responsible for its own welfare, and so it has a set of democratic practices to hold itself accountable. It established boards for the school, boards for the hospital, and for 70 years has been working on its own responsibilities and a way of looking at how it manages its assets for its own benefit. And it’s evident. Very, very evident. And I think it comes out of the Heifer Project, how it got started. There’s a history, there’s a wisdom, there’s a level of gratitude for what Heifer gave them that is palpable from the children and grandchildren of the people who were first touched by Heifer.

Me: That’s a wonderful example of going “beyond hunger.” What excites you most about Heifer’s work today?

Pierre: It’s building on this huge history of 70 years worth of community self-reliance and autonomy. With that asset, that wisdom, if a community wants to, we can begin to leverage and help it extend its reach and activity into the marketplace or wherever it is that it wants to extend. There’s a very profound power in collective action. Our community development taps into that, engages that, at no cost. We help communities gain collective understanding towards a commitment and then say, okay, here are some things you can do if your community is interested. And generally, they are. I’ve yet to come across a community that says, no, we’ll just hang out. We’re doing good at this level. Which is fine if they wanted to do that, but we don’t get that response. Even if they cross the poverty level to some level of dignity, there’s always more – better roads, better schools, better water. People have dreams: better homes, university education, and whatever it is.

Me: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces to get that work accomplished?

Pierre: Resources are obviously one, right? But we are very blessed to have stable resources. Although I named it first, resources aren’t our principal challenge. We’re headquartered in Little Rock, in the northern hemisphere, and the practice of the aid sector is to be very technocratic and impose – and I hate that word – but impose solutions; and so some of the culture [at Heifer] is sometimes this, why is it that they don’t adopt things that we obviously think they need? So even though our culture is oriented towards our Twelve Cornerstones [watch for these in another post], how do we ensure that we allow communities to have agency for their own decisions? This is a challenge. Success is getting communities we work with to commit themselves and getting them to help themselves get out of poverty; it’s staying flexible and seeing ourselves as helpers rather than doers. That’s the biggest challenge. To see ourselves as helpers, not doers.

I’ll give you an anecdote. I was in Guatemala, up in the hills talking with farmers who were doing quite well from our perspective. Towards the end of the day of our visit, we sat down for a presentation that was made about the numbers, and the data, and what had been achieved. It was very well done. And when I reviewed the day with staff at dinner later that day, I said, it was a great day, and much has been accomplished, but there was one false note in all this: that the presentation about the success of the movement and the progress the community has made was made by our staff. I said, that’s just not right. I said to the guy that made the presentation, I’m not criticizing your presentation skills. That’s not the issue. I said, why is it that the community allowed you to make a presentation about them? What’s going on? I hope that the project is all about the community doing it and not us doing it.

Me: What significance does Heifer’s history have for its work today? How does its history inform the amazing work it continues to do all over the world?

Pierre: I think I mentioned the self-reliance, autonomy, and commitment to the interior change for which Heifer works. And I think this springs out of the spiritual roots of Heifer Project, which is from the Church of the Brethren and Christian. At a spiritual/metaphysical level, I think all religions are about interior change, right? So there it is, you know: when you commit yourself to interior change, then everything is possible.

Me: Anything else you would like my readers to know?

Pierre: This is going to sound a little bit like a fundraising appeal, but here’s what I think is important: that the long-term support for the Heifer Project continues from the everyday donors, so that we can have confidence that we can continue to speak truth to power and that we can look at and challenge systems that are not functioning well and that perpetuate oppression and poverty. We need this support to insure the level of independence that we have, an independence that is deeply needed in development. It allows us to be one of the voices that say, the government policies, the USAID policies, and their staff eventually make the problem worse. Too many of the people that we work with – I don’t mean the project partners, I mean some of the other aid organizations – are captured by the very system that perpetuates it; and so our level of financial independence and long-term commitment is important. It’s what gives us the courage, the vision, and the activism to always be our best selves. It’s not about Gate’s money, it’s not about a major donor, it’s actually the half-million small donors that give to us consistently – that’s the unspoken, vital power of Heifer Project.

Me: That’s a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much, Pierre. And a hearty thanks to you and your staff for your good work at Heifer International, an organization that continues to capture the hearts of those who support it and to provide a more positive and sustainable future for those who benefit from its many programs.

Next post: Snippets from the Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana event taking place this weekend.