Peace Corps service as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
My religious beliefs center around service to others and following the example of Jesus Christ, who helped those in need.
I had already served a two-year mission in France for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) as I considered the Peace Corps, and I felt confident the program would be an incredible experience.
During my decision-making process, my family weighed in with their opinions for and against the Peace Corps, but the moment I committed to joining, I had their support. I served as a Health Volunteer in Togo from 2017 to 2019, and during that time my mom and brother even flew to see me! Their visit was a highlight of my time in Togo.
In my Togolese community, Christianity was the predominant faith (Catholics mostly, but also Baptists, Protestants, Evangelists, and Jehovah's Witnesses). Throughout Togo, a range of religions are practiced. Certain regions are dense with Muslim individuals, with mosques around every corner. Other parts of the country are majority Animist, which is what we often refer to as Voodoo.
Religion is extremely important in Togo. There are many religious festivals, celebrations, and traditions and many of the sayings in the local language have to do with God being in control. Also, many political campaigns take place in the Catholic Church with a priest officiating. However, being an atheist or agnostic was frowned upon. Some Volunteers that I knew pretended to be Catholic or converted to Islam in order to better integrate in their communities.
Many Togolese have the misconception that almost all Americans are atheists and are baffled by the idea of not "knowing" God. I explained that, while there are many Americans who do not believe in God, there are millions who practice a variety of religious faiths.
I attended a few religious services in my Togolese community and there are many things I love about the way Togolese worship. There doesn't seem to be a lot of tension between Muslims and Christians, and those who practiced Voodoo would often attend Catholic mass in a secular way. As long as you believed in something, you were pretty good to go.
Most Sundays I traveled to another city to attend the nearest LDS service, a habit my community really respected. They didn’t know much about my church but were happy to know I was practicing.
In addition to attending Sunday services, I played an active role in the congregation. I attended occasional parties or baptisms, and I taught fellow members of the church. However, I committed to the Peace Corps that I would not take part in proselytizing activities, and I honored that promise.
I practiced my faith at home in my village by simply living according to its principles. I didn’t drink alcohol, engage in premarital sex, objectify women, or treat others disrespectfully. I studied the scriptures on my own and occasionally listened to spiritual talks downloaded from my Church's website. I also had a flash drive with church music that I plugged into my little radio and played on Sundays.
Religion kept me grounded and connected to who I was, and who I wanted to be, throughout my service. For me, faith is an everyday practice, so keeping a daily routine of reading scriptures, praying and taking time to ponder was really important.
People in my village noticed my lifestyle and seemed surprised that I was “all in” with living my faith and its principles. A few members of my community called me "pasteur" (French for pastor) because they knew that I had served as a missionary previously. Although I wasn’t a real pastor, I humored them and let them call me that anyway. They asked questions about my faith, and we conversed about Biblical principles and stories. At school or at our clinic, however, I avoided religious topics as it was neither the time nor place for them.
Other Volunteers in my cohort noticed I was different pretty quickly. When we were together they would ask why I didn’t order alcohol at restaurants or bars. When I told them I was an LDS member they started calling me "Mormon Zach” to differentiate me from the other Zach in our cohort.
My faith was a surprisingly popular topic of discussion among Volunteers, who had many questions about my "mysterious" Mormon faith. I was happy to debunk many of their misconceptions. I had spent two years in France answering questions about my faith, so it was easy to do the same in Togo.
During pre-service training, several Volunteers felt they needed to hide their religion in order to be accepted by other members of the group. They confessed to me privately that they didn’t feel they were being true to themselves, and I enjoyed being able to counsel them. I was pleased when they asked to pray with me or study the Bible together. Whether or not other Volunteers thought my beliefs were peculiar, they were very respectful to me.
In the LDS religion we focus on being "doers of the word" not just "hearers of the word." Serving my brothers and sisters in Togo as a Peace Corps Volunteer helped me put my faith into action and connect with my religion on a profound level.
I also endured several tests of my faith as a Volunteer, which led me to reflect and dive deeper into my own personal belief system. I am even stronger spiritually because of my two years in Togo, which is something I wasn't expecting, but am really proud of. My Peace Corps service was an incredible journey.
For those of faith who are considering Peace Corps service, I say: hold tight to your values and your identity. I believe your service will be more authentic and beautiful if you stick to your personal value system and grow in your faith. You’ll be amazed at what you discover about yourself in a world of new perspectives and challenges.