Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Peace Corps and a Convergence of Kindred Spirits


I’m teaching a course on the U.S. Peace Corps at Lourdes University this fall, for its Lifelong Learning Program, so I’m doing some research and reading.   

I just finished Mark K. Shriver’s A Good Man (Henry Holt, 2012), his adoring biography of his father Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps.

It perfectly complements another book I’m reading, given to me as a gift by my cousin Kathy Curro (the same cousin who gave me the gift of Mary Oliver’s poems): Parker J. Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy: THE COURAGE TO CREATE A POLITICS WORTHY OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT (Jossey-Bass 2011).   

Sargent Shriver had that courage in spades, as his son tells us.  A man of deep faith, Shriver was the best first director the fledgling Peace Corps could have had.  President John Kennedy picked the right man for the job, no doubt about it.  Shriver never lost his faith in the Peace Corps’ purpose and promise, almost a religious devotion without end.  Peace Corps, for Shriver and the many volunteers he nurtured, in Africa, Southeast Asia, South America and around the world, was a triumph of the human spirit. Because of his belief in it, because of his actions and his faith, Peace Corps is still going 50 years later.   

Sargent Shriver and Parker Palmer represent a convergence of kindred spirits and shared beliefs, a precious flash of  hope in our often harsh, mean-spirited, and conflicted world.  It’s a convergence I discovered by accident, serendipity, because I care about Peace Corps and the future of our democracy, and about teaching, and because I have wonderful cousins and family and friends who do, too.   

Palmer closes his book with a quote from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, another kindred spirit, one of many that Palmer shares with us:
       “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”

It’s a philosophy of life that could have been written, and indeed something like it was written, by Sargent Shriver, before and after the Peace Corps became a reality:  “I believe in faith, hope, and love,” Shriver wrote.  “I believe that they have power.”    For Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps was a testament to that power.

Rising above the cacophonous sounds of contemporary politics, the voices of Shriver, Parker Palmer, and Reinhold Niebuhr give us hope for a future rooted in compassion.  Change toward a just and equitable society and peaceful relations in the world, may not happen in our lifetime, but it will happen in time. To me that's what Peace Corps and the  convergence of kindred spirits is all about.


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