Partnering for Service: The Faith-Based Initiative at the Peace Corps
November 29, 2016
Recognizing the motivating power of faith and the role of community organizations driving Americans to serve, the Peace Corps established a faith initiative in 2015, building upon President Obama’s commitment to supporting effective partnerships with communities of faith and neighborhood organizations.
The Peace Corps Faith Initiative has focused on three key areas: connecting with faith and community organizations and universities in the United States to reach out to potential volunteers, working with organizations abroad on areas of common purpose such as combating poverty, improving the health of women and children, and promoting intercultural understanding, and supporting the Peace Corps’ diversity and inclusion efforts by promoting interfaith dialogue and celebrating the rich traditions of staff, volunteers, and the communities in which the Peace Corps serves.
Volunteer Tre’ Giles, the Gambia
Tre’ Giles joined the Peace Corps because “I wanted to do something out of passion and love, to do my part to make this world a better place, and to figure out who I really was. Peace Corps service is challenging and those challenges help one to define one’s self.”
As a primary school teacher trainer, Tre’ leads mentoring and coaching trainings for teachers in his region. Tre’ is also actively involved in Camp GLOW, a youth empowerment camp that focuses on examining the impact of gender roles in Gambian society, cooperation, and having fun.
In his community, Tre’ has experienced what he calls “active love.” “My community shows their active love by the way they live their daily lives.” Tre’ notes that “there is an unshakable source of active love – God is love.”
Volunteer Peter Ter, Azerbaijan, China & Georgia
Peter Ter, was born in South Sudan. Growing up, he had never heard of the Peace Corps. Not in his early childhood years, when his family was killed during Sudan’s long civil war, nor during his years in a Kenyan refugee camp, where he learned to read and write by tracing letters in the dirt, and developed a fascination with U.S. history.
Peter’s journey to the Peace Corps may be as unlikely as his journey from a refugee camp to the United States at age 20. After graduating from the University of Florida, Peter “joined the Peace Corps to say thank you to the United States of America for adopting me and for restoring my dignity, and for giving me an invaluable education that no one can take away from me.”
Peter’s only request was to serve in a Muslim country, because he did not want his life defined by hatred for the men who had killed his family. , and served as an English teacher in remote Azerbaijan: “What surprised me the most was how human love and connection became stronger than my family’s history and deeper than the color of my skin.”
Returned Volunteers Taj and Qamar Noori, Zambia & Niger
Taj and Qamar moved to the United States from Pakistan in their early 20s and raised their family in California. When they retired, they were motivated to join the Peace Corps. Taj said she “felt compelled to work with everyone with compassion” as the “Quran clearly states to serve humanity; to serve your neighbor, any neighbor, regardless of faith tradition.” Therefore, she and her husband readily accepted an assignment in Zambia, where Taj served as a health volunteer and Qamar as a rural aquaculture volunteer. They were warmly welcomed by their community and the community quickly became part of their family. Taj was “respected for having deep religious convictions even though they were different” than those of her community. When they heard that Taj was helping the community, local church leaders visited and asked Taj to help the church as well. Taj worked with church youth teaching small income-generating activities such as building chicken coops and gardening. At the same time, she provided health and malaria education. Through the profits of these income-generating activities, the church became self-sufficient. Taj found that her success in her community was based on “serving humanity as instructed by my faith.”
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Priya Ramamurthy, Togo
“Peace Corps service is a time of incredible growth. It is a time when you learn about who you are and what you believe in - by walking with others, sharing stories and understanding others’ values and beliefs. Hindu faith and culture is a part of who I am, but not a part that I had planned to share with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers. However one of the most powerful days in my Peace Corps service was when I and four of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers visited the Hindu temple in Lomé, Togo together. The feeling was indescribable – we came from very different backgrounds and faiths including Hinduism, Bahá’í, Christianity, Islam and Agnosticism. We spoke openly, allowing one another to express the depth and strength of each other’s beliefs in a place of mutual respect and kindness. That day was special for me. After more than a year of feel disconnected from my Hindu faith and community – not only did I leave the temple that day feeling reconnected to my faith, but I also felt deeply connected and at home with members of my new Peace Corps community.”
Returned Volunteer Jalina Porter, Cambodia
Jalina Porter served as a secondary English co-teacher alongside a Khmer counterpart in a remote countryside village in the Cambodian school system. One experience that stood out was teaching Buddhist monks in a village pagoda. The head monk understood the Peace Corps mission and asked Jalina to teach his young monks. This was groundbreaking moment for her and the village. Through this experience and cross-cultural exchange, she learned about Theravada Buddhism and its impact on Cambodian society, gained the respect and trust of her community, and was able to engage in interfaith dialogue with her students and community. Having grown up in the Catholic Church, she believes Peace Corps has “an un-tapped resource in the faith community to show the countries served on a greater level the true diversity of America.”
Returned Volunteer Katherine Gray, Morocco
One of Kate Gray’s favorite moments from her Peace Corps service in Morocco was celebrating Eid al-Adha, a major Islamic holiday. She and her husband, who served together, dressed in traditional clothing, helped prepare food for the celebration and spent the whole day with family, neighbors and friends feasting on meat and cake.
“There was always an air of excitement and joy on the first day,” Gray said. “Neighbors, friends and family would stop by or call, and we just sat around feasting on meat and sweets all day long. At the end of the day my husband and I would walk home and talk about how happy we were and how lucky we were to be integrated into such a wonderful family, community, and culture.”
Gray holds onto those memories and others from her service as a youth development volunteer. Now back in the U.S., she uses skills and experiences gained in the Peace Corps to shape her career and to teach people in her community about Morocco and Islam.
Fulfilling a desire to further the Peace Corps’ Third Goal of sharing other cultures with Americans, Gray found an internship with the Minnesota Council of Churches. She promoted the organization’s Taking Heart program, which facilitates interfaith dialogue during the celebration of Ramadan.
“I had never met the Minnesota Muslim community, and I really felt at home and comfortable with those who were at the dinners, thanks to my Peace Corps experience in Morocco,” Gray said.
About the Peace Corps: The Peace Corps sends the best and brightest Americans abroad on behalf of the United States to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Volunteers work at the grassroots level to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development. Through their service, volunteers gain a unique cultural understanding and a life-long commitment to service that positions them to succeed in today's global economy. Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, nearly 220,000 Americans of all ages have served in 140 countries worldwide. For more information, visit peacecorps.gov and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.