The organization was conceived in 1948 by a small group of pacifists, representing several peace organizations in Birmingham, England, who were joined by an American conscientious objector to war, Bob Luitweiler. While a student at one of Denmark’s well known folk schools (Askov Hojskole), Bob studied cooperative communities and alternative methods for settling disputes. The founders were deeply committed to social justice and the prevention of another tragic World War II holocaust. They believed it was possible to build stronger foundations for world peace by helping concerned people meet and learn from one another.
This informal group formed a small Peacebuilders team, which later became the coordinating body of the European program. Volunteers were first found in countries of northwestern Europe who gathered lists of people who could offer free hospitality to approved foreign travelers. In grassroots fashion, staffed completely by the voluntary efforts of concerned people, the movement spread. It was hoped that, by traveling in an “open door” style, people would work together to develop new intercultural and service programs in their home communities. These relationships and the local projects they spawned would in turn become the building blocks of a more just and compassionate world.
The first hosts were mostly families wishing to help, but supporters were also found among ashrams, workcamps, Quaker and other cooperative communities. Their concern led them to establish a global network of hosts, which would make it possible for dedicated people of various nations to visit each other’s homes, learning to know each other through shared experiences.
Meanwhile in California, “Grandma” Esther Harlan, a Quaker and dedicated disciple of Gandhi, expanded the hospitality system in North America using only her correspondence and index cards to compile a roster of people identified as potential Peacebuilders. Early US hosts included leaders in race relations; Quaker, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic leaders; leaders of cooperatives, peace leaders and village rehabilitation workers. From the dedicated efforts of a small group of volunteers Servas reached out to people all over the world. Within a few years, the movement had taken root in a number of other countries.
Here in the US, a medical social worker, Reva King, called together a New York-based working committee. Through her contacts with the Ethical Culture Society, the War Resisters’ League, Churches, and personal friends, Reva built up the US host list. Among Reva’s many accomplishments was to secure federal tax-exempt status for the US branch of Servas, enabling the organization to raise funds in order to pay staff and rent a permanent office space.
This new hospitality system came to be known by several names: Peacebuilders, Work-Study-Travel, and Open Doors. The name “Servas,” meaning “we serve” (in the sense of “we serve peace”) in the universal language Esperanto, was later adopted to highlight the spirit of international mutual service which characterizes this movement. Today, with hosts in more than 135 countries, Servas has become a global program of more than 15,000 member hosts and thousands more travelers. Servas members are educators, artists, laborers, business people, students, retirees, scientists and social activists—as broadly based as society itself.
Volunteer national committees have expanded into countries around the world and provided bridges of understanding between people of many languages and cultures. Servas has never rejected anyone because of his/her ideology: open mindedness and a commitment to cooperation are the only criteria for membership. As it has grown Servas has become more inclusive, rather than exclusive, but it has never relinquished its goal of striving for world peace by providing opportunities for people of all cultures, races and backgrounds to meet and share their mutual concerns.