Monday, November 21
MY TOUR OF DUTY 22 years ago informs my idealism today. It founds my belief in “community,” in brotherhood, in peaceful co-existence among people, races and nations of the world and within my own country. The memory of those years sustains my hope. And sustains my devotion to the principles of my country - a devotion which transcends politics and the rise and fall of passing ideologies.
Twenty years ago I had grown up in a segregated society with no sense of connectedness to my country, save the compulsory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the National anthem and hymns. But in serving in the Peace Corp in Sierra Leone (West Africa), I became a part of the greatness of America - a living beneficiary of the high esteem in which the people of Freedom, Sierra Leone, placed my country. For the first time in my life, I became an American - an American in the best sense of what America is and stands for.
Along the streets where I walked and shopped, near the church I attended on Sundays, and on the compound at the Annie Walsh School for Girls where I taught and sometimes assisted with Vespers - I could hear the voices of children shouting, “Peace Corps!” “Peace Corps!” with a love and admiration unheard of in American theatres, concert halls, or even political rallies. Their cries rose from the heart and from a wellspring of hope because of America’s presence there.
Like the call of John F. Kennedy, the love of the children challenged me to be the best that I could be, to give all that I could give, and to demonstrate that my country was worthy of the high esteems in which they held her.
The experience of serving in the American Peace Corps in Sierra Leone broadened my reality to an ideal of what could be. It transported me from a limited reality born of segregation, ignorance and isolation in a Georgia neighborhood - to a sense of world community in which great changes occur, seen and unseen changes, when people of many nations work together cooperatively for a common good.
We of difference nations and colors and backgrounds worked together over there for a common good - for the common goals in teaching youngsters. We learned to admire and respect one another. We of European, African and American descent were colleagues - thrown together in teaching situations - who became friends.
When days were done and vacations begun, I visited their homes, at their invitation. We broke bread together. And for years to come we would remember our friendships. For two years we lived “community” and brotherhood and took away from the experience a sense of what could be - among nations of the world and among divergent people within our own countries. The seeds of idealism, born of my experience in the Peace Corps, were sown in those years. That idealism lives within me today.
I was 20 years old when the Peace Corps recruiter came to my campus in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had heard the challenge of John F. Kennedy - “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” I took that challenge seriously (as I still do today), and I was more than willing - yes, grateful for the opportunity - to serve. But the miracle of Peace Corps service is in the receiving. The Volunteer - regardless of her dedication - always receives far more than she can ever give. My life really began in those years - with a transformation of thinking and the seeing of a new reality. I learned a deep and abiding love of country and a commitment to the ideal of community.
For this I am grateful to John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey, to Sargent Shriver and to all of us who believe that ordinary people can make a difference, by serving the cause of peace through cooperation with many peoples of the world. And that this cooperation - this response to the call to serve - can and does create lasting bonds among us and increase moral stature and mutual respect within and among nations of the world.