The Peace Corps is a government agency, completely separate from religion. Yet, during a recent seminar where we learned alongside our Colombian counterparts how to manage and lead projects, we finished the week with a group prayer. I remember thinking, “This can’t be happening.” But, oh yes, it did. And I think that was wrong.

Here I am with my counterpart accepting our certificates of participation in the workshop.

Here I am with my counterpart accepting our certificates of participation in the workshop.

Two weeks ago, I recorded a podcast episode about my thoughts regarding this topic and also wanted to share them with you on my blog. You can find my podcast episode on www.ChanceDorland.com or at http://www.spreaker.com/user/peacecorpspodcast/praying_at_a_peace_corps_workshop

I want to point out right off the bat that these are my own memories of what happened. I wasn’t able to immediately jot down what happened, meaning the following is only my personal recollection of the events that occurred. But, what I want to stress in this blog entry is how astonished I am that I’m even writing about this event now. After attending an American public school, studying in Germany through a government-sponsored exchange program, and now being a Volunteer in the United States Peace Corps, I’ve always been aware of the line between government programs and religion. While this incident could have been an honest mistake by the parties involved, because I experienced that line most for most of my life, I was immediately aware when it was crossed, and for lack of a better explanation, simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing with my own eyes.

In July, my fellow Colombian Peace Corps Volunteers and I attended what we were originally told was a mandatory “Project Leadership Management” workshop on the campus of UniNorte, a private university in northern Barranquilla. We each had a Colombian counterpart we worked with during the week on different training sessions that revolved around the central topic. On the final day, we all gathered to receive our certificates of participation. As you can see above, most of us got our pictures taken with our counterpart and staff members from the Peace Corps Colombia office.

After all the certificates had been handed out, one of the Colombian counterparts came to the front of the room to address the group. My understanding of spoken coastal Colombian Spanish is not as high as most of my peers, so immediately I wasn’t able to understand most of what she was saying. However, I could tell that her tone was different than I would have expected for the occasion. After she spoke for a few moments, it became apparent that she was going to lead us in a prayer. At this time, I looked over to the corner of the room where our Country Director and other Peace Corps staff had congregated. They all watched and listened respectfully as the woman continued to talk and fold her hands in anticipation of prayer.

At that point, I spoke quickly with the Volunteer standing next to me to confirm what was going on. I then grabbed my few belongings on the table in front of me and walked out of the room. As I left, I could see and feel the stares of those around me as it was pretty obvious why I had chosen to leave at that time. When I entered the adjoining hallway, I discovered another Volunteer had also decided to leave the room, but because her Spanish was so much better than mine, she had made a much earlier exit at a time that was less embarrassing. We shared our mutual inability to understand how we could have been put into such a situation, and more importantly, how none of the Peace Corps staff members had intervened on our behalf.

And that’s really what I’m talking about when I mention a line being crossed. As someone who is not religious, I still recognize the rights of those to chose to be, and if they want to pray, that’s great. But I don’t think a workshop, organized by the Peace Corps for its Volunteers, is the place for this to happen. When the only choice I have to avoid prayer is to leave a room that only seconds before had been used for a Peace Corps training, I think that line I talked about earlier no longer exists. And that’s what was so shocking about that moment. The Peace Corps all of a sudden became religious.

While it might have been an awkward moment, I would have been so fricking happy if my Country Director or another staff member had stood up and said something when they figured out what was going on. That didn’t happen. Yet, in all fairness, the staff could have been just as surprised as I was. From what I remember, the Colombian counterpart just got up and started speaking to the group. As one of the more outgoing and friendly Colombians in attendance that week, this in itself wasn’t out of the ordinary for her. But, as even I could tell something was up, when it became obvious what the purpose of her speech was, the line of separation that has been ingrained in me since kindergarten should have taken precedent. Someone running the show could have stood up and said something.

Instead, I quietly left the room along with another volunteer. Maybe I should have just bowed my head and thought about baseball. I guess I’m just a stickler for what I believe in.