Theodor von Fellenberg – Archives of Service Civil International

Theodor von Fellenberg

First Contact and Motivations

I met SCI for the first time 50 years ago, in 1956, when I participated in the action of students from Bern University for the people of Budapest. Waiting for my departure for Hungary, I met a man who looked stern but friendly, who was also waiting for his visa. He was Ralph Hegnauer, a Swiss like me, but a radical conscientious objector. He explained the goals of SCI: to promote friendship between peoples, through actions together for underprivileged people. I liked the idea. I have remained faithful to this ideal all my life, as a “lifelong volunteer”.

After 50 years devoted to various activities, it is not easy to formulate my initial motivation. I was born into a rather bourgeois family and a socially privileged environment. ( Pierre Ceresole had family links with my family). My father was a lawyer, but he was critical of the privileged class, although we were part of it. I was influenced by Calvinism, and coupled with the tolerant spirit which prevailed at home we generally felt that we were here on Earth, not only to have a pleasant time, but also to use our privileges to help the people who were not so fortunate as ourselves. At the same time, as a young man, I was also very critical of the church. I was looking for a kind of solidarity which was not connected to a religion or a class, not elitist and above all which would imply a concrete action. All this brought me to SCI, but also my meeting with a strong personality such as Ralph.

After our first meeting, Ralph, (who at that time was on leave from SCI) wanted to send me abroad. But I had to start by an experience at home – in Switzerland. This was a pick and shovel camp in the Bern region (Jura Bernois). I was very surprised to be the only Swiss! Then Ralph wanted to send me with a team in Egypt, in the Suez area which had been destroyed by the British-French military operation. But I was the only one who could get the Egyptian visa; the other volunteers were refused the visa for political reasons (Jewish affiliation). The project therefore fell through.

LTV in India, Sri Lanka and After

I then became interested in a service in India. As I was very idealistic, I thought that I could fight against poverty “with two healthy arms and legs”. In the meantime, I participated in a camp in Belgium, in the mining area, to help a community of ragpickers of d’Emmaus (started by Abbé Pierre these groups of poor people worked to collect and sell things that people give away). Here I was, a young man from a good family background, with a group of unemployed alcoholic tramps! In the meantime the Swiss branch was hesitant to send to India a bourgeois, or even an aristocrat, as representative of a proletarian SCI! When I said that I could go at my own cost, even by riding a bicycle, they finally agreed.

I worked in India for one year, beginning in 1961: in Cherian Nagar (Madras), with the Tibetan refugees (Simla), in Trivandrum (Kerala) and in a camp in Gujarat. But right after my arrival, Devinder and (the Asian Secretaries) sent me to Sri Lanka as a member of an international team visiting the island in order to pioneer SCI there. Despite a charismatic leader, D.A. Abeysekera, it was a failure.

I was rather frustrated during all the time of my stay in India. Once, exhausted by the cold, the lack of money and of a useful work in the Himalayas, I even “deserted”. But despite my weariness, I promised to respect my commitment and to complete my one year contract. Later on, I was so fed up with SCI that I started tramping around the world. But when I was in Japan, I became a close friend of Phyllis and Sato and I joined a SCI workcamp in South Korea and did some service in a farm in Hokkaido. That was all.
There would be a thousand anecdotes to tell. Two of them refer to the house building project in Kerala where I was camp-leader. My health was not good, I was suffering from asthma resulting from the humid climate and since I could not sleep during the night so I was going out in the city, but there were barking dogs all around me. When Valli visited us at the workcamp, I was complaining about the useless work. She was not impressed and she said: “Work is not important. How many Indian friends did you make?” In fact, not a single one. And when I visited the project later, nothing was left of the work after our departure. But people were comforting me, saying: “This is not important. What is important is that you were here with us”.

International Secretary, 1970-76

Being elected on the recommendation of my sponsor Ralph, I was in charge of the international coordination for six years. I gave up my career initiated earlier with the Swiss Government to work for international cooperation, as I did not want to be part of the political establishment even though our team was “progressist” (far left). It would have been difficult for SCI to find somebody competent for a very modest salary.

When I took over the responsibility for the International Secretariat, Sato had told me: “You will walk on fire”. Indeed, I was in the middle between “the left” (Italians, Germans, Belgians) who wanted a politically engaged SCI and “the right” (UK, France, Switzerland) who only wanted to serve the poor people. For the “progressive”, I was a “reactionary”, for the more traditional members, I was too much open to those who were looking for the cause of poverty. I managed more or less, but it is possible that my bourgeois background and my education contributed to put me a little bit aside.

‘The amateurism of SCI and the fact that voluntary work did not imply any serious commitment were discouraging for me. As an active person, I felt that I was wasting my time. I should underline two points:

The transfer of the International Secretariat to the mountain pasture, in the Italian part of Switzerland – Bodio, a rather unique experiment, was beneficial in three ways:

1) The natural surroundings involving a lot of manual work prevented me from being submerged by a paper bureaucracy. It always brought me some fresh air;

2) I was not alone, as I was assisted by a team of international volunteers, from Asia and Europe, who were living with my family and we had a lot of visitors;

3) Some people appreciated the originality of the office of an international organization being located in a natural environment. For instance the Canadian organization for development, CIDA, used to give every year $10,000 to SCI.

The drawback of this arrangement was that it was difficult to be at the same time a farmer and an administrator. When I was working in the field, I was thinking about Bangladesh and emergency actions and when I was visiting SCI branches, I was thinking that I should make hay. From this period as SCI Secretary I keep a, deep friendship with Valli, Phyllis and Sato, J.P. Petit, Bhuppy, Deena and others – a lifelong friendship.
With one year of volunteering in projects and six years in charge of international cooperation, I participated in all kinds of workcamps: the mining region in Belgium, the Tibetan refugees in India, slums in Kerala, rural work in Sri Lanka, service in South Korea, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Armenia, Croatia and Switzerland. This normally implied manual work, sometimes tough (which I liked), sometimes exceedingly easy going. In many cases the organization was poor and there was not enough thorough discussion. I should add that I was not the type of person who is a sparkplug (animator) for group comradeship and social life, and am therefore not the “workcamp type”. I am a rather a “loner” and serious.

The later period

I did not keep an active role within SCI. After resigning and coming back from the mountain I devoted all my time to ecological issues, which seemed to me increasingly important. The battle will be less for social justice and peace: the very survival of humanity is being questioned.

But the spirit of lifelong volunteer did not leave me. When civil war started in Yugoslavia in the 90*s (I was 59) I went to Croatia as an SCI volunteer and the following years I went to Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. With the Intifada in Palestine, in agreement with Pierre Ceresole’s ideas, I went there in 2003 as an observer for the Ecumenical Council and, in order to see the other side; In 2004 I was in Palestine and also visited Israel. And I am still a militant at 71.
I kept (or resumed) the links with SCI in creating the “Ralph Hegnauer Solidarity Fund”, which collected 100,000 Swiss Francs for innovative projects and also with the group of old SCI people with Valli, Phyllis and my wife Therese, who supported me during all my life.

Final thoughts

If I am asked what the value of SCI to-day is, it is always the individual attitude of volunteers allowing for friendship with people from different cultures and also to show solidarity with underprivileged people through a concrete action. From that point of view, nothing has changed. But taking into account the thousands of NGOs who work for peace, it is no more the ideology which is important, but compassion and learning another reality, curiosity for other countries, and solidarity.

My expectations were too high initially. After the end of my voluntary work in India, I was completely disillusioned: I thought it was not serious. The amateur character of SCI and the fact that the voluntary work did not imply any obligation were discouraging for me. As an active man, I felt that I was wasting my time. Therefore, I left and went back to university in Switzerland, obtaining a doctorate.

Why is then that I was a candidate for the job of International Secretary, thus giving up the opportunities for a successful career? Convinced as 1 was of the strength of NGOs to “change the world”, I thought that I could “improve” SCI by taking an international responsibility. But there again, I came to understand that I had neither the personal qualifications, nor the “power” to reform SCI. Many young people thought that “the voluntary work does not imply-any obligation”.
There are everywhere good and bad organizations and people. But, strangely enough, among the number of organizations with which I have worked, no other had had such an impact on all my life. This is despite – or maybe precisely because – the lack of professionalism, the weakness and, I would say, the naive character of SCI. This is precisely this deeply moving simplicity which has been wanning my heart in spite of all my disappointments: a concrete service for those who are suffering, regardless of their colour, religion and culture, based on love and compassion.

“The movement.”

As a whole, the goals, organization and methods of work of SCI are still adapted to the needs and spirit of the day. But, in view of its structural and financial limitations, it should rather focus on the training and motivation of volunteers, rather than on the concrete result of its contribution. Nevertheless, a minimum of efficiency is necessary; to give the volunteer the impression (and satisfaction) that he/she has clone a good job. The concrete experience of the daily life of distressed people, of problems of ecology and – what is missing – of life in areas at war: all this is more important than ever, since we might live increasingly in a “virtual” world, far from reality. This may also help us to give a new meaning to our life, a feeling of being useful and competent and a desire to be committed to something.”

“I remained faithful to the SCI ideals during all my life, as a “lifelong volunteer”. I am 71 and I am going to a meeting of former volunteers. All of them have been friends for life.