by SUSAN M. BRACKNEY
While Virginia Hall’s experience with Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA) had been life-changing, it had also been, until recently, relatively uncommon. “In all these years, I’d only met one person who [had also participated in OCA],” says Hall, interim rector for Trinity Episcopal Church. Then she met three other Crossroaders in Bloomington. “It was a big surprise,” she says.
A Peace Corps precursor, Operation Crossroads Africa was founded in 1958 by African American clergyman James H. Robinson. Hall recalls hearing Robinson speak. “He said, ‘No man soils his heart by soiling his hands.’ That was a profound statement. It stayed with me,” she says.
Since its inception, the New York–based nonprofit has facilitated service trips to Africa by more than 10,000 North Americans—including Hall and Bloomingtonians Rick Beebe, Peter Dorfman, and Sandra Churchill. Participants pay their own travel expenses and help build necessities like clinics, orphanages, and schools over stays of seven to eight weeks.
For her part, Hall traveled in 1961 to Dahomey (now Benin) to build schools. “We literally made concrete blocks and helped the masons,” she says.
A few years later, Rick Beebe traveled to Egypt. “We worked in the desert setting up irrigation systems and planting trees,” the retired forensic psychologist says of his OCA experience. There, in 1964, Beebe witnessed the Nile’s last flooding. He climbed the pyramids, now verboten. And he met Malcolm X. “I shook his hand and he handed me the speech he’d just given at the Organization of African Unity meeting,” Beebe remembers. “He was killed six months later.”
Beebe eventually gifted the speech to Malcolm Shabazz City High School in Madison, Wisconsin.
Fast-forward to 1977. Peter Dorfman is a new college grad headed to Nigeria, mimeograph machine in hand. He hoped to help start local newspapers. “My project was actually adopted by the Ministry of Health and turned into a malaria education project,” the freelance writer and Bloom contributor says.
Shortly after moving to Bloomington, while assisting OCA with social media and communications, Dorfman stumbled upon the other local Crossroaders. “There’s a whole community of people [in Bloomington] who are from Africa or who are interested in Africa, and everybody kind of knows each other,” he says.
Now Sandra Churchill can be added to that list. Thanks to a conversation about OCA with Dorfman, Churchill recently returned from her own OCA trip. While most Crossroaders are 20-somethings, Churchill set out at 77. While there, her group helped a South Africa–based nursery school establish a garden, upgrade its playground, and add cultural elements to its curriculum, among other things. “I got to know people and really learn what their lives were like,” the retired Indiana University administrative employee says.
“To me, it’s amazing that I was able to do this,” Churchill says. “When I traveled before, it was always as a tourist. This was very different.”