The news of the death of Elder Jermaine Luther Walker in Kingston, Jamaica, this week made me think about missionary safety and its context relative to another volunteer group: The Peace Corps.
Last Sunday, I happened upon an ABC 20/20 story about a young Peace Corpolunteer from Atlanta named Kate Puzey, who was killed in Africa in March 2009. She was stabbed as she slept on her porch, allegedly by a fellow male African teacher. The story included a half dozen female former Peace Corps volunteers who served throughout the world, recounting being sexually assaulted, beaten and raped during their service. Of the nearly 8,000 current Peace Corps volunteers around the globe, 60 percent of them are women.
The story was an indictment on how the Peace Corps failed these young people, as it closed ranks as an organization to protect its image rather than protect its volunteers. I was especially interested because I had Peace Corps teachers as a boy in elementary school in Tonga. Over the years, the families of Peace Corps volunteers from the Philadelphia area serving in Tonga would contact me with questions about my country and to connect me to their sons and daughters. Currently, I e-mail weekly with a young man named Todd Freedman from Philly who teaches middle school on the island of Ha'apai. My wife and I have hosted dinners for many of these kids and their families when they return from Tonga, as a token of our appreciation for their service to my people. Without fail, every single Peace Corps volunteer we've met have been incredibly bright (they're required to be college grads), idealistic and simply, good.
I have enormous respect for the Peace Corps. Though we're very civic minded as Latter-day Saints, the Peace Corps isn't something we've traditionally engaged in, I suppose because of the missionary program. If you're not LDS, I think it's the closest thing to missionary service that exists. Except, it's not. Despite the goodwill the Peace Corps creates around the world for America, it is still a government agency that is bureaucratic, political and sadly, at least in the case of the young women I saw in the 20/20 story, seems to serve its own interest first before its volunteers.
Contrast that with how the LDS Church handles issues of safety for the 50,000-plus missionary force. They are instructed in the numerous Missionary Training Centers around the world and throughout their missions to work and stay in pairs. I wondered, as I watched the story of Kate Puzey's murder, if her life could have been spared had she had a companion at her side. Of course, there are accidents and violence from time to time, but given the sheer number of missionaries serving worldwide, missionary deaths are actually very rare.
The LDS Church employs 80 fulltime volunteer physicians worldwide and another 200 or so nurses and medical personnel to care for the missionary force. The infrastructure of missionary work itself helps assure safety – mission president, assistants to the president, zone leaders, district leaders and companionships provide a chain of command for reporting and are instructed to avoid placing missionaries in unsafe places. As local church leaders, we are often consulted by the mission president about the safe placement of missionaries, especially sisters. The work must penetrate every clime, so thank goodness for 19- and 20-year-old elders who willingly serve in our inner – cities and other dangerous places.
As a local church leader here in the East, sometimes I can't believe where I find myself. As a bishop, I once had to go with our ward mission leader to confiscate a gun from a woman who threatened to shoot her husband when he returned from work, which I later turned over to police. Another time, a counselor and I went to move a pregnant ward member from her home and secretly moved her to a home for battered women while her abusive husband was away on a military assignment. Another time, a new member who had evicted her live-in boyfriend before her baptism was beaten and thrown out the window of her second-story apartment by that boyfriend, fracturing both hips and her back.
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