by Tamara Cissna | email@example.com
Ronald Tschetter, national director of the U.S. Peace Corps, came to the university in spring to address this year’s graduates and to honor his longtime friend David Brandt for his retirement. The two served many years together on the board of Daystar U.S., a nonprofit support organization for Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
Improving the lives of others has been Tschetter’s lifelong passion. He has received many awards for his leadership and community service, and last September he left behind a 30-year career in the financial securities industry to lead the Peace Corps, a federal government agency dedicated to promoting world peace and friendship. In its 46 years, the Peace Corps has sent more than 187,000 volunteers to 139 developing countries to work on issues ranging from AIDS education to information technology and environmental preservation.
Tschetter and his wife, Nancy, were Peace Corps volunteers from 1966 to 1968 in India, where they served as community health workers. He has continued his volunteer work, serving as chairman of the board of trustees of Bethel College and Seminary, chairman of the National Peace Corps Association, and chairman of the board of Daystar U.S.
Before addressing the 560 students preparing to graduate and some 5,000 visitors at commencement, Tschetter shared his insights with George Fox Journal about meeting needs and serving God.
George Fox Journal | What fuels your passion for working to improve the lives of others?
Tschetter | That passion began when I was a child back in the tough farmland of South Dakota. I observed how my father and mother treated others. We were not a family with a lot of money at all; we were comfortable. But I remember when neighbors who had disasters — one was a fire, and one was a tornado — my father didn’t care what we had. He took cupboards full of food to them, and did anything he could to help. So that’s where it all started. Also, through my training at a Christian high school and at Bethel College, I learned that was the way Christ would do it.
One of the first things my wife and I did together was join the Peace Corps. We thought it was a more unique way to serve than joining a mission organization. There’s nothing that precludes Christians from serving in that way, and nothing precludes you from sharing your faith when the opportunities present themselves. You’re not a missionary, so you don’t go out on the street doing that. But we had many opportunities to talk with young school children and coworkers when they would ask us. That’s the way Christ lived. So servant leadership should be an integral part of who we are.
GFJ | You didn’t believe in separating the sacred and the secular.
Tschetter | Right, I still don’t believe in that. I think more than ever that in secular organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental, more Christians need to be serving in this way. I just feel very strongly about that, and I’ve consulted with a number of really well-known academics who confirmed my thinking in that realm. And I’ll tell you, in the Peace Corps, for example, there are a lot of Christians, a lot of them in headquarters and many of them in the field. And they come from places like George Fox, Bethel, and Seattle Pacific.
GFJ | Is that a better way for Christians to serve than through mission agencies?
Tschetter | I’m not saying it’s better at all. I believe missionaries need to do their work. I’ll be honest with you and tell you that having traveled the world in this job back when we were volunteers in India, we saw mission situations that were appalling, quite frankly. Now we also saw some that were phenomenal. I think it’s wonderful, and they make a difference.
I think what Christ would have us do is, first of all, meet the needs of the people. That’s what he did. Then that opens doors to have further discussions and talk to them about being a Christian and what that means.
Going through the Bible, that’s what I see — the needs are met first, and then the ministry came with that. That’s what I think the Peace Corps does so well, because it’s really all about meeting needs. One of the most common questions a Peace Corps volunteer is asked is, “Why do you do this?” They wonder why you come from comfort, luxury, television, and all the things they think are so wonderful in Third World countries, and live in deprivation and work with their people. The door is open almost every day if you want to share.
GFJ | Is the American Christian church balanced in what we seem to be focusing on and how we define ourselves?
Tschetter | No. I think first of all denominationalism takes far too much dominance in what we consider important in American Christianity. If I had my choice, I’d eliminate denominationalism. I’d eliminate a lot of authoritarianism, as well, and look at what Christ would do. I go back to that all the time. We get all hung up with interpretive issues of the Bible, and to me that’s not what Christianity is all about.
GFJ | Your perspective is an encouragement to Christians who are conflicted about that present focus.
Tschetter | Well, I feel ever so strongly about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked God, “Why me? Why am I the director of the U.S. Peace Corps at this time, at this stage in America’s dilemmas, at this stage in the world scene?” We’re a small agency, but it’s pretty big out there, and there’s a reason there’s a Christian here now. There’s a reason there are so many Christians in the agency.
GFJ | It sounds like you would like to see more Christians consider the Peace Corp as a means to meeting people’s needs.
Tschetter | My pastor and I talked about this. He said, “I’ve had people come to our church and ask for $40,000 to go abroad to do Christian work.” I’m going to tell them (to join) the Peace Corps, because they can do the same thing there.
GFJ | Their financial needs will be taken care of?
Tschetter | Their full needs — travel, living allowance, housing, and insurance. And we have medical teams in every country that we’re in.
GFJ | Do you have advice for the individual who has a heart for making the world a better place, but isn’t prepared to live in a foreign land?
Tschetter | Find a way to serve right here. There are plenty of opportunities right here in the United States to be a servant leader, to be salt and light. There are governmental opportunities, such as AmeriCorps, and there are church-related opportunities. They are around every corner. You just have to look for them. But be a servant leader — that’s the message.
Bruins in the Corps
Kris (G00) and Haunnah (Klug G02) Sorensen El Salvador
Kris Sorensen and his wife, Haunnah, (Klug) Sorensen have lived in one of the most violent countries in the world the last two years: El Salvador, coping with growing gang activity in wake of civil war in the 1990s.
Kris is a municipal development volunteer. He helped plan construction of a rural school and coordinated efforts to secure computers for 11 schools and provide a water system for 400 people.
Haunnah is a youth development volunteer, teaching children everything from rabbit husbandry to cooking. She also organizes recreational activities. “Youth are hungry for activities and stimulation, and these activities fill a big need as youth often attend half days of school and are left with little else to do,” she says.
She also taught a group of women how to paint Salvadoran beaches and volcano scenes on greeting cards to sell.
Sara Black (G00) • Tanzania
Sara Black serves as a health education volunteer in a small village, Morogoro, where she teaches HIV and AIDS awareness to primary and secondary school students. She also teaches biology, assists a health club, and serves as an instructor at a local health clinic.
Her two-year commitment ends in August, but Black already knows the experience is one she won’t soon forget. “The people of Tanzania will forever be etched on my heart,” she says. “My time here has really opened my heart for the people of the world. It has allowed me to put my faith into action by the simple act of loving others.”
Courtney Phelps (G05) • Cape Verde
Courtney Phelps is putting her psychology degree to use as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde, where she works at a center for abused, orphaned girls between the ages of 6 and 17.
Phelps does behavioral evaluations of the girls and gives them positive reinforcement for completing chores at the center, located in the town of Assomada. She also organizes hikes, field trips, and parties for the kids.
In addition, Phelps works at another youth center, where she coordinates educational and community service activities with local youth volunteers. She oversees an income-generating project of making styled hats with locally imported material and marketing them in surrounding communities.
She also teaches English and photography and accompanies girls on family visits to assess conditions, evaluate cases, and possibly facilitate a child’s reintegration into her family or substitute family. —Sean Patterson