Milton E. Nebblett (1924-2012)

Milton E. Nebblett was a driven force who helped transform local Seventh-day Adventist humanitarian outreach in the early 1980s into a major player on the international development scene.

The former refugee advisor for the U.S. State Department in Vietnam secured the Seventh-day Adventist World Service’s (SAWS) first grant – $10 million from the United States Agency for International Development – based largely on his understanding of government agencies.

Nebblett, who died September 13 at age 88, served as deputy director for SAWS, which then employed 12 people in its home office and 300 people worldwide. After securing the grant, the organization soon afterward became the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which now employs 85 people in its international office and 6,000 people worldwide.

Nebblett worked non-stop on multiple projects and traveled extensively throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America to assess humanitarian needs with government leaders. Colleagues said he constantly pushed the agency to expand its operations. It’s estimated that he helped to secure roughly $100 million in grants for ADRA’s projects.

“Milton was someone who I would try to emulate and replicate his passion in my work,” said Mario H. Ochoa, ADRA’s vice president for Network Relations, who worked with Nebblett. “He was a dynamic, vibrant, exuberant guy. He did a lot of mentoring for me and others in the office in those days.”

Nebblett’s wife, Ivy, said he visited 150 countries, and the couple lived in 42 different houses during his ministry.

Nebblett was the son of a custom tailor in Honduras. Like his father, he made clothes for himself throughout his life and was known as a dapper dresser. His wife said sewing was the only activity on which he would focus all his attention at one time.

He graduated from Oakwood University in Alabama, United States, and in 1953 earned a master’s degree in divinity from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, then located in Washington, D.C. He was known as the “love” pastor for usually preaching on the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Ivy Nebblett said.

He pastored in the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s, at one point pastoring 12 churches simultaneously. He also served as president of the denomination’s Guyana Mission. The U.S.’s Food for Peace Program selected Nebblett to head a Guyana’s food distribution during civil unrest.

Later, while pastoring in California in the United States, the U.S. government asked him in 1969 to serve as an advisor to the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War. He coordinated and built refugee camps for millions of displaced persons fleeing from the bombing in their villages.

He returned to the United States in 1974, pastoring in Maryland and Pennsylvania before accepting a call in 1980 to the Adventist Church’s world headquarters to serve as a deputy director of SAWS.

He left ADRA in 1985 to pastor in Washington, D.C. He also formed an independent humanitarian organization for a few years before Alzheimer’s disease set in, which he lived with the final decade of his life.

He is survived by his wife, four children and 10 grandchildren. A funeral service is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Saturday, September 29, at the Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland, United States.

-Ansel Oliver