Honoring service on MLK Day
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?'”–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today is the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Day, and the MLK Day of Service. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of Americans will set aside at least part of their day to volunteer for causes dear to them.
President Obama, as part of his “United We Serve” initiative, has issued a challenge to every American to do 25 things in 2011 that serve the many needs in our communities. In Milwaukee, it’s not too late to join a local project listed on All For Good’s website, or to simply give blood. And if today’s not a good day, never fear. It’s always the right time to help, and impossible to overestimate the way it makes you feel. In fact, it can be addictive.
Ask Vincent Noth. A Milwaukee native and graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, Vincent was living in LA, but came home in 2000 to work at the Summit Educational Association, a faith-based mentoring program that serves Milwaukee inner city youth. A year earlier he’d met his future wife, Jessica, and fell in love with both the girl and the work. He came home to stay, working collectively with her for a decade running the youth ministries at Eastbrook Church on Milwaukee’s northeast side. During that time he obtained his MA in Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
One of the things that connected Vincent and Jessica was the desire to serve, specifically in a struggling or developing country. After a great deal of research, they applied to the Peace Corps, and were granted their request to serve together. They have been in Cahul, Moldova, since August 2009 and will serve there until summer 2011. I corresponded with Vincent about his calling, and about his and Jessica’s experience serving in the Peace Corps.
What drew us to the Peace Corps was its emphasis on relationships being the key to development work. In other words, we liked the idea of working among the host country nationals, at around their income level, learning their language and living their cultural traditions. Personally, we wanted to be stretched both culturally and economically. Professionally, we wanted more community development experience to complement our Christian ministry background.
Talk about your Peace Corps assignment. What work are you doing?
Cahul in Moldova (a country about the size of Maryland) is known as the capital of the south, but the population has been cut at least in half due to emigration since the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the late 80s.
As a Community and Organizational Development volunteer I am partnered with two small NGO’s (non-profits), one in the domain of education and the other mass-media related. I’ve helped the Educational NGO, Speranta (Hope) run a project in 19 communities trying to help civic education in Moldova become more participatory.
Needless to say, this young democracy has had quite a bit of political turmoil and corruption, and there is a lot of disillusionment regarding participation in democracy. The mass media NGO is trying to launch a local TV station in Cahul to foster independent media. Recently I have also had the privilege of working on a project that could create opportunities for inclusive education for children with disabilities in schools in the south of the country.
Jessica is a Health Education volunteer primarily working with a high school and two medical centers in our town of about 30,000 people.
Has your experience met your expectations? What has surprised you most so far?
Absolutely. The Peace Corps is truly an incredible organization. From the moment of application until now Peace Corps and Peace Corps Moldova have done an amazing job helping us set goals and meet them. You are instantly immersed and need to adjust every aspect of your self-conception to this new world.
I’m pretty results-oriented. Helping my host grandmother Valentina slowly hand-grind corn and wheat to feed the chickens was a shock to the system. But more of a shock is that this sharp lady has no interest in a mechanized grinder. She enjoys having hard work throughout the day and a diversity of tasks. She would always take a book and nap under a tree in the garden at the hottest part of the day. There are so many ways in which I envy her.
What do you think will be your most profound learning experience as a Peace Corps member? How will you be changed?
What is teaching me the most personally has to do with self-worth and capability. All of us on some level define ourselves by what we’re able to bring to the table, what we offer society, our community. But during the first 4 to 8 months as a Peace Corps volunteer, you don’t seem to offer those around you much of anything. You can’t even survive without your community’s help, you can’t be articulate, much less offer professional expertise. Yet our Moldovan friends and host families really cherished us. This was really good for me because I saw how our personal value and worth transcends what we offer or produce.
How will you be changed by this experience?
I hope to come home with more humility and patience, and that I will be able to learn from the weak and needy in Milwaukee.