The Peace Corps

“The Peace Corps?  Is that a missionary thing?”

Surprisingly, this is often the response I get from people when I tell them I have been accepted into the Peace Corps and will be working overseas for the next two years.  Very few people have a clear idea of what the Peace Corps is, how it works, who runs it, how to apply – or even if one can apply (rather than having to be selected from a special group of “missionaries.”)

The Peace Corps has been continously active since March 1961, when it was founded by John F. Kennedy as an inspirational challenge to Americans to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.  It is a challenge that has been met by over 200,000 of us to date.  Currently, seven percent of volunteers are over fifty years old, like me.

Peace Corps costs every American roughly $1.23 a year, the average cost of a pint-sized bottle of water in the United States. The Peace Corps’ budget request represents approximately one percent of one percent of the total federal budget.  Compare this with the trillion dollars now estimated to be the minimal cost of our war on “terror.”  Which purpose would you rather have your tax dollars serve?

The other day as I was out walking my dog, I witnessed a perfect example of the efforts we need to make to balance our fears of “the other” with acts of compassion and understanding.  As I strolled through the public courtyard of our downtown I saw a police cruiser leave the street to trail a homeless man as he shuffled across the flagstones.  The man was obviously lame, dragging his left foot heavily under the swaths of grimy cloaks and and unraveling scarves he had draped around his thin frame.  He was dirty, disheveled, and mumbling to himself as he approached the perimeter of a group of children splashing amongst the jets of a sidewalk fountain.  Their adult minders eyed him cautiously and begin circling round the fountain. Just then the cruiser cut between them and the man and the officer cut the engine.

Now I became a little alarmed, as I currently reside in a city that lately has become notorious for the beating death of a homeless man at the hands of some police officers who were summoned to intervene by a bystander who reported the man to be peering into cars parked at the train station.  This person turned out to be mentally ill and off his medications; the situation escalated (by whose impetus is heavily debated ) and the involved officers are now being tried for murder. Our city is sorely divided into separate camps with disparate views on this incident.  Whenever I see a policeman approaching a street person these days, I get a little shiver of wariness.

As the officer got out of his vehicle he said something to the man, causing him to stop abruptly in his tracks.  I watched as the officer rounded his vehicle and opened the trunk.  He reached in and emerged with a plastic bag filled with what appeared to be packaged snacks – crackers, energy bars, etc. – and a couple bottles of water.  He handed them to the homeless guy, who stared down at them blankly.  The officer nodded, said a few words I couldn’t hear, then gently touched the man’s shoulder before getting back into the cruiser.  I watched a smile spread slowly across the gentleman’s face. Tucking the food under his arm, he unscrewed the cap off the water and took a long pull before shuffling off into the heat of the day, still beaming as he passed the fountain and the cavorting kids.

I was flabbergasted.  This was not at all what I had been expecting.  Hesitating for only a second I hurried across the courtyard to stop the police officer’s vehicle before he pulled back out onto the boulevard.  Unrolling the window, he put the radio handset he had been speaking into on hold and looked up at me.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

As I searched for words, I felt my eyes fill tears.  Oh my god, I was going to cry in front of this uniformed law enforcer.  Without thinking it through, I told him I that I saw what he had just done and I wanted to thank him.  As my voice cracked, words tumbled out like pebbles carried along in the rivulet of tears now coursing down my cheeks.  I said that my father and grandmother had both been police officers, and that it scared me how violent our civil society has become, and that I once worked with mentally ill youth who  had physically attacked me at times, and now I was joining the Peace Corps and moving overseas, and that I mourned the loss of America’s idealism and the beacon of light we used to be for the world, and that I wish more people could have seen what he did just did, and that I admired him so much for being kind.  As soon as I was done I wanted to crawl under a nearby picnic table and disappear; my babbling had made little sense and I was sure I’d come off as another crazy person wandering the downtown streets.

He looked at me a little funny and I swear his eyes misted over faintly.  He thanked me for my sentiments and gave credit to a friend of his who had purchased the food and water for him to distribute during his shift.  He said that not all police officers were so bad, despite what some people might  think.  Though he smiled briefly, a fleeting shadow of what may have been sadness clouded his brow as his rolled up the window and pulled away.

And that little exchange gave a much needed infusion to my withering aspirations for us a nation.  I felt a bit wistful, but more hopeful than I have been for a long, long time.  Just a brief act of kindness yet  it exemplified our potential to live in community, to care for one another rather than be scared of each other, to transcend futility and hopelessness with a charitable gesture, to hand each other bread rather than bullets.   And that, in a nutshell, is why I joined the Peace Corps.  I need to put my hope into action.  Give tangible evidence to my idealism.  Manifest my silly dream that compassion can overcome fear and peace can win over war.

Those seeking more information on the Peace Corps can click here.

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