Lately I’ve been thinking about the Beatitudes, as well as the Corporal Works of Mercy, thinking that if I could just grasp and follow these fundamentals of the faith, I could actually live the Christian life and truly do what Jesus asks of us. It should be simple enough to care for those less fortunate, but it always seems so difficult when you get down to the practicalities of it: I work 40 hours a week, my commute to and from work takes a lot of time, I need to keep up my social life, friend and family time, my movie watching, and I should probably try and fit exercise somewhere in there — so where’s the time to try to take care of others when I’m so busy just taking care of myself?
But then I think back to my time as a Peace Corps volunteer when my friends and I didn’t really need to worry about fitting in works of mercy outside of work, because it was kind of our full-time jobs. I wonder if I will ever have the courage to reach that point again. Even on your bad days, where you don’t accomplish enough (or anything,) you’re still there, devoted not to yourself, or making money, or climbing corporate ladders, or for some abstract ideal, but simply present and there for the benefit of those in need.
Sargent Shriver, the first leader of the U.S. Peace Corps, who passed away early last year, worked his entire life for the benefit of others. In looking back on his life and career, I’ve discovered that not only did his work and accomplishments extend far beyond the scope of the Peace Corps, but that his projects spanning over four decades always combatted injustice and instability in the world through peace and action. And at the heart of it, always, was helping those who were less fortunate.
In the 1950s, he addressed America’s racial conflict, working to integrate Chicago’s public and parochial schools. The initiation of the Peace Corps in the 1960s was, along with his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy, his worldwide goodwill response to the international conflicts of the Cold War. His efforts with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty created the now well-known programs of Head Start, Job Corps, Americorps VISTA and Upward Bound among others. In the 1970s he focused on easing inter-religious tension in the Middle East by convening the Trialog of the Abrahamic faiths, as well working to ease international tensions over the intensifying nuclear arms race. In the 80s and 90s he worked with his wife and son to create and promote the Special Olympics. The list goes on and on, and his life’s work even inspired Bono, another modern peacemaker.
All these programs and initiatives amaze me. How can one man do so much good? Did his faith inform him (he was known as a devout Catholic, a daily Communicant who always carried a rosary,) or was he just a natural? As I sit here and reflect on this one man’s life, I see a life that has touched millions. Because when the Peace Corps and all those programs listed above get it right, and so often they do, those mentioned in Beatitudes and the Works of Mercy (the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, the homeless, the persecuted and the sick) are taken care of as they should be. And the legacy those programs continue today owe so much to the vision, values and leadership of Sargent Shriver, a true peacemaker of our time.