When I entered my Peace Corps service in October of 2008, I thought most of my cultural dilemmas would be from the mixture of American and Mozambican aspects of life, but I soon discovered that the Peace Corps crowd itself definitely has a strong and distinct culture itself that at times had me feeling a bit out of place much in the same way that being a single white Americana in a predominately black, Muslim community sometimes does. This PC culture seemed even more robust to me with the frenzy of the presidential elections hot underway. I remember sitting in the middle of many intensely lively discussions with my new colleagues who are also subsequently one’s new family and basically everything. I was thinking if these people knew that I didn’t vote in this election, a torrent of hot ridicule and shame would certainly be pointed in my direction. I knew this because I watched it happen to someone else. (Side-note, I do think it’s very important to vote. Americans should vote. I decided not to. During the presidential election, I was more preoccupied with my 6 week notice about my service assignment in Mozambique, getting engaged, and trying to wrap up life in the states. There was no amount of energy/emotion/brainspace left for politics. And part of me was looking forward in many ways to a vacation by way of isolation from Americanish things)
Anyway, when I saw other volunteers so venomously insult people like Sara Palin, actually chucking objects at the TV in our hotel and cry tears of joy when Obama was elected, I knew I was a minority. Not because I didn’t want Obama to win or because I’m a Sara Palin fan (I’m not, please don’t throw anything), I just knew that so many of my passions are directed toward different things.
The stereo-typical PCV walks around in cuffed jeans, Chacos or flip flops, and bandanas with a back pack slung over the shoulder and probably a duct-taped Nalgene bottle hanging off the side unless it was stolen. The PCV is super friendly, helpful, intelligent, super aware of world-happenings, politically passionate, amazingly multi-talented, liberal, upper middle class, 20-something, was/is/at least seriously considered being a vegetarian, creative, hopeful yet slightly bitter about one thing or another, driven, goofy, independent, a little self-righteous, opinionated, and either apathetic toward or opposed to religion-especially American Christianity.
When it was announced at the church I grew up in that I would be joining the Peace Corps, I lost count of the number of people from my church family who asked me why in the world I would want to join Peace Corps instead of choosing to do mission work because Peace Corps doesn’t allow you to tell people about Jesus. This annoyed me. What’s wrong with simply helping someone with anything? But it also made me question things internally about the ultimate “point” of helping people. Why do I help and what ultimately will “help” people the most?
I have grown to enjoy and respect Peace Corps and the PC crowd, but I am such a minority in some ways. I love Jesus and want to talk about Him, call myself a Christian, have quite conservative values, and am rather politically moderate and sometimes apathetic. I don’t mind confrontation when necessary, but generally avoid it. During a lot of hot PCV conversation, debate, and discussions; I haven’t really participated much and I’ve learned a lot listening. So many PCVs (and many ppl from my generation it seems) bristle at Christianity or anything relatively conservative.
I remember in training, I joined a small group of volunteers who met for Bible study. I skipped out one of the last weeks because I wanted to say goodbye to a larger group of volunteers who were meeting at our favorite bar. I never exactly advertised that I attended the Bible study so no one felt inhibited when I walked into the bar to continue making fun of the idea of studying the Bible. It’s such a weird thing. PCV’s pride themselves on being open-minded, but I think it’s more of a selective open-mindedness which really isn’t open. I really think that if it had been a group of people studying the Qur’an, no one would have said a word. Why? My generation and mainly people like PCVs, seem to hate American Christianity. Not that I can blame them. I’m not much of a fan either. And sitting all the way over here for 2 years watching the United States from a distance and talking to a lot of non-Americans, and starting to feel more and more removed from Americanisms, I’ve started to see things a little bit differently. I don’t get what’s going on in the church in America and it’s interesting to hear the rest of the world talk about Christianity in America. Whenever evangelicals are spoken of, it’s to talk about the evangelical vote. People also talk about the “Christian right.” Some people are surprised that I pray because they heard that American scientists don’t pray because of science and religion issues. Oh Galileo, we still don’t have it figured out. Where does faith/religious stuff/spirituality belong?
From here and from other perspectives in the world, it seems Christianity in America is all politics and issues. How does that happen?
In Mark chapeter 12 when the Jewish religious leaders ask Jesus about whether or not it’s lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, they were trying to trap him in the often difficult to define relationship between church and state. Jesus responds “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” I think he was recognizing the need for maintaining earthly organizations like governments to keep order (because he’s an orderly God) while also calling people to remember that God is still ultimately preeminently God.
Christians and churches should participate and care about government and politics, but when the American church is seen as a political entity by many people in the world, known only by the political issues that they passionately argue about, I think we’ve gone wrong. I think many evangelicals would rather debate gay marriage than Jesus and participate in a political campaign than devote their lives to serving their communities humbly.
In the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” A kingdom of priests. Priests were the intermediary between people and God. When God told them that they would be a kingdom of priests, he was calling them to be the “go-between” the early nations of the world and God. They were to be faithful to God and serve the nations around them so that he could bless the world through them.
In Ephesians, Paul calls the church the “body of Christ” – the organization that is to carry out Christ’s work on the earth.
In his book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Rob Bell writes “a church is an organization that exists for the benefit of non-members.”
Maybe if churches in America busied themselves with being this priesthood, the body of Christ, the blessing that they are to be to their communities Nehemiah-style, people like PCV’s wouldn’t be so turned off by Christianity and churches might have influence on culture, values, and subsequently political issues because of respect rather than power obtained by vote.
I certainly have failed along with the American church to serve as I should. I don’t mean to be such a Negative Nancy, but I think we can do so much better.
So back to the question of why I did Peace Corps rather than mission work. Learning. Experience.
Being here and doing Peace Corps has done nothing but reinforce by beliefs that people need changed hearts if the world is going to change.
PC is all about teaching behavior change. Education, education, education. I’m a teacher. I think education is important, but it’s not the answer. If it was, there would be no such thing as smart ass-holes. As it turns out, educated people can and often still do really shitty things and make the world even shittier. Behavior change is just behavior.
Here in Mozambique, one of the demographics where HIV is on the rise is young educated professionals in Maputo. The best and the brightest. They know why and how to use a condom. Why doesn’t behavior change work?
People who are strong willed white knuckle their lives and keep themselves in line. Weaker-willed people fail. Still others, don’t care.
A student told me last week that he would rather have sex “carne a carne” (flesh to flesh) than use a condom even with the risk of contracting or spreading HIV.
What more can be taught?
What if our desires changed? What if our hearts were different? What if we could change what we wanted the most so that we wouldn’t have to always fight off everything we really desire?
I certainly don’t know everything, but I have seen Jesus change hearts. I think ultimately people need Jesus. There, I said it. I’m out of the closet. Sorry Peace Corps, sorry PCVs. Maybe I don’t belong, but I loved the Peace Corps experience and learned so much!