Stories of the Ages: World Neighbors

World Neighbors was founded 60 years ago by a Methodist preacher who spoke from the heart and worked with his hands. Over the years, the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit has helped remote villages in 45 countries – teaching agriculture and forestry, helping women create credit and savings plans, spurring economic growth and improving health and nutrition. There are no quick fixes, no gifts of food or equipment or money. Instead, World Neighbors works beside residents, helping them make the changes they want -- even if those goals take years to accomplish.

By Ken Raymond, Staff Writer

Share this on Facebook

ndepth series brought to you by newsok advertisers

John L. Peters stood before the congregation at St. Luke's Methodist Church with no idea what to say.

Earlier in the week, he'd penned a proper sermon, but held in the grip of a conviction greater than his own, he'd tossed it out a few hours earlier. He felt compelled to speak the truths he'd learned as a military chaplain during World War II … but what would come out? Would anyone understand?

In the Philippines, he could say, he'd held a young soldier he knew in his arms, feeling him shake and shudder as life and blood gushed from a fatal chest wound. Kneeling in a filthy foxhole that night, Peters promised God: "If I get out of here alive, I'm going to do something, somehow, somewhere." He just didn't know what.

He could talk about the strange epiphany he'd reached while sweating out malaria in a South Korean station hospital at war's end. "Wouldn't it be tremendous," he'd thought, "if each of us … would do what we knew we should — and not worry about who gets the credit?" The notion hit him as unexpectedly as shrapnel, and his perceptions altered. He felt he could see the world at a molecular level, aware of all the things that bind us together and all the petty prejudices that keep us apart.

He could tell the congregation that people in other countries are just like us. He'd talked to opposing soldiers. They wanted a safe place to call their own, raise a family, prosper and help their children build a better life. He could say that as an impoverished graduate student, he'd discovered for himself that those who hunger resent those with too much to eat.

Earlier that week, he could say, he'd heard Gen. Douglas MacArthur describe the poor in Asia in much the same terms: "What they strive for is the opportunity for a little more food in their stomachs, a little better clothing on their backs, a little firmer roof over their heads and the realization of the normal nationalities' urge for political freedom."

He could say any of this. He wanted to say it all.

Staring out at his audience that day in 1951, Peters suddenly realized he was talking. "Are we, who have so much, aware of the plight of those who have so little?" he asked.

The words tumbled out, and World Neighbors was born.

John L. Peters, founder of World Neighbors, talks with Masai tribe members in this photo from 1973. Peters believed everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. He wanted to work side by side with people in impoverished communities to improve their way of life.
John L. Peters, founder of World Neighbors, talks with Masai tribe members in this photo from 1973. Peters believed everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. He wanted to work side by side with people in impoverished communities to improve their way of life.

File Photo 1973 - The Oklahoman Archives

God tapped me on the shoulder

Carol and Charles Blackwood pose beside a bust of World Neighbors founder John L. Peters. Charles Blackwood witnessed the nonprofit's beginnings. He and wife Carol have been involved in the organization for many years.

Ken Raymond - The Oklahoman

Charles Blackwood, then a teenager, was in the church that day. He listened, captivated, as Peters delivered the best sermon he'd ever heard.

"It was completely extemporaneous, no notes at all," said Blackwood, now 76. "He said we have to deal with basic issues. As long as there are many people living in poverty, that will be a starting point for dissatisfaction and rebellion, for war. If too many don't have enough, it will lead to trouble."

Peters recalled that day in church in his 1976 book, "Cry Dignity!"

When he finished talking and the benediction was given, he wrote, few people left. The congregation surged toward the altar. A local restaurateur grabbed Peters' hand and declared, "God tapped me on the shoulder this morning. What can I do?"

Others felt the same way.

"Down the corridors," he wrote, "in the church offices, the phones rang and rang. We had been on the air (on the radio) and some of the thousands who listened were calling.'What do you plan to do?' they asked. 'What do you plan to do?'

"I was dumbfounded. … To call for global action is one thing. … To construct the effective machinery was another. Almost overwhelmed, I knew I must attempt it."

World Neighbors was incorporated as an Oklahoma City-based charity in 1952.

World Neighbors operates out of a unique building at 4127 NW 122. The interior is a hushed maze of unfinished wood. A shop selling fair trade products -- including coffee, jewelry and drums -- is set up near a towering handmade globe just inside the main entrance.
World Neighbors operates out of a unique building at 4127 NW 122. The interior is a hushed maze of unfinished wood. A shop selling fair trade products -- including coffee, jewelry and drums -- is set up near a towering handmade globe just inside the main entrance.

Jim Beckel - The Oklahoman

Starting a nonprofit is difficult. Maintaining one is even harder. Funds rolled in from supportive congregants and businessmen, but it wasn't enough to pay salaries or buy supplies.

Peters went to Washington and New York to speak to congressmen and the United Nations, trying to share his vision with anyone who could help. Gradually, his plan took shape, forming in part around a notion his mother had instilled in him when he was a child. No one is better than you, she'd told him, but you're no better than anyone else, either.

That sentiment shaped the charity from the beginning.

"He used to say we're walking along a road beside people," said Carol Blackwood, 76, who has made several World Neighbors journeys with husband Charles. "We're not behind them pushing them forward. We're not in front of them pulling them. We're just right beside them, and when the moment is right, we disappear."

You get involved

A Kenyan woman tends to the cattle in this World Neighbors photo. The group works with residents of this East African country to increase food security, expand revenue, decrease environmental degradation, establish savings and credit groups and more.
A Kenyan woman tends to the cattle in this World Neighbors photo. The group works with residents of this East African country to increase food security, expand revenue, decrease environmental degradation, establish savings and credit groups and more.

World Neighbors

A group poses for a photograph in Indonesia, an island nation in southeast Asia. World Neighbors has worked with Indonesians to develop forestry, improve health care and AIDS programs and develop local businesses, among others.
A group poses for a photograph in Indonesia, an island nation in southeast Asia. World Neighbors has worked with Indonesians to develop forestry, improve health care and AIDS programs and develop local businesses, among others.

World Neighbors

Dr. Susan Chambers has traveled overseas with World Neighbors several times. She has delivered babies in remote villages and helped teach basics about hygiene and sanitation.
Dr. Susan Chambers has traveled overseas with World Neighbors several times. She has delivered babies in remote villages and helped teach basics about hygiene and sanitation.

David Faytinger- for The Oklahoman

World Neighbors was born inside Methodist church walls, but it is not tied to any denomination or religion. It is independent of government funding. And, most crucially, it takes a long view. Instead of providing quick fixes, it sponsors long-term development in the most remote and impoverished areas of the world.

"It's a very different methodology and almost unique in our experience of international development," said Melanie Macdonald, the charity's current president and CEO. "We don't go in to give people food or money or jobs. We don't build buildings. We help people find solutions to their own problems."

Finding solutions doesn't involve making unilateral decisions. World Neighbors works with local leadership and residents to identify each community's unique challenges. The nonprofit lets the locals decide which problems to tackle first, then works with them to help them succeed.

Often, the general problems — hunger, poverty, disease — are intertwined. Teaching a community how to drill water wells using native materials can lead to better hygiene and increased food production. Improved agricultural techniques can transform into revenue streams.

The changes sometimes come with unintended consequences.

In Peru, for instance, World Neighbors is working with people who live high in the Andes. The Peruvian diet includes plenty of potatoes, Macdonald said; at one time the country was home to as many as 4,000 varieties. The organization decided to introduce green beans to farmers in a bid to improve nutrition for children. The new crop was successful; production soared.

But the children weren't eating any better. It didn't make sense until World Neighbors realized the beans had turned into a cash crop. Farmers were selling them to other villages as fast as they could grow them. Once aid workers emphasized the importance of keeping some of the beans for food, nutrition levels improved.

"We have continued to change and adapt and learn from those mistakes," Macdonald said.

Mistakes are far fewer than successes, largely because of the commitment and expertise of the nonprofit's small staff. Of its 58 employees, only about 15 are from the United States.

"All of the people out in the field are locals from the same area in which they're working," Charles Blackwood said. "It's not a bunch of Americans coming in telling everyone what to do."

Macdonald, the Blackwoods and others do travel overseas to lend a hand.

"When you go on a World Neighbors journey, it's really more to interact with the people and the programs in the communities, encourage them and observe what they're doing," said Dr. Susan Chambers, an Oklahoma City obstetrician/gynecologist who served on the board for nine years.

"You get involved. I delivered babies in Mali."

Chambers also has traveled to Guatemala, Ecuador, Tanzania and Kenya with the nonprofit.

"Malaria is still a huge issue in a lot of countries," she said. "Healthy young people still die from it. They get exposed to it and treated for it all the time. It's like the common cold. They expect to get it multiple times."

World Neighbors trains birthing attendants to practice good hygiene, sanitize instruments and recognize the signs of abnormal pregnancies in time to get mothers to clinics for C-sections. Without that training, birthing practices would remain primitive: Most mothers in these impoverished places, Chambers said, give birth on the ground.

"Little things can make a huge difference," she said, "like washing your hands before you operate, not using the village knife and tying off the (umbilical) cord with a string to prevent infections. These are simple, inexpensive, common sense things for us … but when you train other people to do those things, it can make a huge impact on their communities."

map showing countries where World Neighbors is now or has been active

Graphic by The Oklahoman

It opened up the world

A group of women pose together in India. One of World Neighbors' projects in India involves creating local savings and credit programs for women.
A group of women pose together in India. One of World Neighbors' projects in India involves creating local savings and credit programs for women.

World Neighbors

A boy poses beside a water well in India, the first country visited by World Neighbors. The group's work in this South Asian nation includes increasing access to community and reproductive services, implementing low cost and environmentally friendly agricultural practices and increasing access to water and basic sanitation, among others.
A boy poses beside a water well in India, the first country visited by World Neighbors. The group's work in this South Asian nation includes increasing access to community and reproductive services, implementing low cost and environmentally friendly agricultural practices and increasing access to water and basic sanitation, among others.

World Neighbors

Women are vital to World Neighbors' mission.

"Women do the lion's share of the work, taking care of the kids and everything," Chambers said. "If they're not healthy, then everything falls apart."

Macdonald estimated that 70 percent of the nonprofit's actions are focused on women.

"We all know that if you want to change a family or a community, you only have to support women, because the ripple effect will bring everyone in," she said.

One day in Burkina Faso, Macdonald was approached by a woman and a young child. Her other children, the woman said, were so malnourished that they couldn't walk until age 4 or 5. This child was walking fine at age 2. The difference? World Neighbors had taught the woman how to make a healthful porridge for her kids.

Carol Blackwood, a former board member and longtime volunteer, recounted the story of Sondra, a Nepalese woman who'd lived in fear before enrolling in a World Neighbors forestry program. In earlier years, Sondra had walked two hours a day gathering fodder for her animals. Now she grows her own plants. Learning how to do that built up her confidence.

"Before she took the training," Blackwood said, "she'd never met anyone from another village. When strangers came, she went in her house and closed the door and sealed all the windows. After the training, she didn't feel she had to do that anymore. It opened up the world to her."

Working with women hasn't only produced individual successes. It has helped change communities for the better, in part by establishing credit and savings programs.

"It's a little like a credit union," Blackwood said. "Individuals contribute into this savings plan, and then the group of contributors decides who will get loans from the money. These women have been able, through these loans, to generate income to do all kinds of things, not just buying clothes for their children to go to school but to establish businesses.

"Some have been so successful that their children are going on to higher education, even though their parents may not even be literate."

In Peru, World Neighbors checked in on a woman who'd borrowed money to raise and sell guinea pigs for food. The woman wanted to show them her operation. Macdonald said they expected to find no more than two dozen of the creatures.

"But suddenly she led us into her guinea pig barn, and she had 400 of them," Macdonald said. "She made $9,000 that year. … She was a really high-powered, dynamite entrepreneur."

Another Peruvian woman borrowed money to buy a small loom. She moved to a larger city to show people her creations and teach others to weave. During a visit, Macdonald noticed that people were sitting all around the woman's house, eating. The woman was earning enough to provide lunch each day for anyone who was hungry.

Helping everyone

The world has changed since Peters preached that sermon in 1951. The world's problems haven't.

People are still hungry, uneducated and poor. They don't have adequate access to health care.

"The problems in the villages," Macdonald said, "I don't think have changed at all in 61 years. … These are the forgotten people. These are the hugely marginalized people."

These are the people World Neighbors helps.

"The world is interconnected," she said. "If we can be part of the solution for these people in other parts of the world, then we're helping everyone."

World Neighbors Photo Gallery

Leave a comment about this story