October 3, 2013
Ask Br. Paul Richards, OSB, about the origins of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps (BVC), and he'll point to two trips he made more than 20 years apart.
"I did a year of volunteer service in-between my junior and senior years at Saint John's University, in 1976-77," Richards said. "I did a year of volunteer work at a Benedictine monastery in Puerto Rico. That was a very important formative experience for me. I took all kinds of things that I kept with me for the rest of my life, including my vocation."
In 1998-99, he took a sabbatical from Saint John's Abbey and visited other Benedictine communities around the world.
"I became aware of the fact that there are great communities everywhere doing good work, and everybody can use an extra hand in doing the work," Richards said. "At the same time, Saint John's University was dealing with the fact that men were not jumping on the bandwagon of volunteer service like women were.
"So, I just started pulling these pieces together here, and said, 'Let's give this a shot.' "
The "shot" was the BVC, which provides alumni of SJU with 12 months of service, community life and prayer at participating monasteries around the world. Now in its 11th year, approximately 125 SJU graduates have served around the world, including 17 men at nine sites during 2013-14.
That's a big change from 2003-04, the first year of the program. One volunteer did service in Newark, N.J., the other in Puerto Rico.
Now, volunteers go in pairs (the exception this year is the Chicago site, where one graduate is volunteering). They do a variety of tasks - for instance, the SJU graduates working in Israel serve at a retreat center for the disabled; work in a gift shop; and conduct other retreats which attempt to bring Christians, Muslims and Jews together for cultural exchanges.
"One of the things we don't do is we don't go in and take jobs away (from local monastic members)," Richards said. "This is a value-added thing. We're not replacing hired teachers or professionals. We're not taking jobs away from the locals."
Applicants go through a screening process in January and February. Following their graduation in May, they attend a required two-week retreat at Saint John's Abbey.
The abbey provides a monthly stipend to the volunteer; pays for transportation to and from the site; and contributes $500 to be used toward health coverage. The host community provides food, lodging, meaningful work and community life experiences and transportation within the area.
Richards said there are several reasons the program has grown.
"One, it really is an addition to one's résumé. You're more attractive to employers, and that's the thing that sets you above the other people that are applying for the same job," Richards said. "These guys have been in school for 16 years of their lives, and they say, 'Just give me a break before I have to run off to graduate school or their professional careers.'
"Also what you're seeing here is a result of what is now standard both in public and faith-based schools, and that is the element of volunteer service that's part of a young person's education. It's just part of the culture now. It's also imbedded more and more into the education here at Saint John's and the College of Saint Benedict," Richards said.
Three men who have graduated from SJU and served in the BVC have joined Saint John's Abbey as monks - Brs. Lew Grobe, Michael-Leonard Hahn and Nick Kleepsie, who all made their solemn vows this past summer. A fourth, David Allen, is a junior monk who has made simple (or temporary) vows.
In addition, Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina has started its own program modeled on the BVC. "This suggests that a good chord has been struck," Richards said.
And, it all started with those two trips.