The Peace Corps 60 Years Later: Were We Missionaries of the Social Gospel?

The Kumasi Academy in Ghana (Photo contributed by the author)

By Jim Kimmel

Sixty years ago this spring, a week after I graduated with a degree in biology from Baylor, I flew from Waco to San Francisco to begin Peace Corps training at UC Berkeley, preparing to teach in secondary school in Ghana. That flight began one of the major influences on my life.

Looking back on two years in Ghana and the many decades since, it’s clear that my life has been shaped by the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel, a social movement among U.S. Protestant churches in the early twentieth century, still had considerable influence in the early ‘60s when the Peace Corps was established under President Kennedy and continued under President Johnson.

I postulate that we Peace Corps Volunteers were unknowing missionaries of the Social Gospel. What were the elements of the Social Gospel we were missioning? It was not overtly political nor focused on social justice. By the time I was there, Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, had become a repressive dictator, declaring himself president for life. Because Nkrumah was pro-Russian, we were limited to teaching only science and math to prevent us from influencing our students politically.

But I think we did influence our students by teaching science. Most of my students at Asakore-Mampong Secondary School were from small “bush” villages where their homes had no electricity, running water, or sewage disposal/treatment. Yet they were destined to live in the same technological world we live in today. Those students are now in their 70s and Asakore-Mampong Secondary School is Kumasi Academy, a prestigious college preparatory school.

As with most of what we used to call the “developing world,” Ghanians are now in the midst of profound transitions we (in the U.S.) made in the post-WWII era. Texas, for example, was 60 percent rural agrarian before the war. Now less than two percent of our population is employed in agriculture. More importantly, that transition often involved relocation, transforming the realities of family life from the extended family to the nuclear family, sometimes consisting of only one adult.

A 2018 study of the family in Ghana observed:

Traditionally, Africans tend to revere and arrange their lives around the extended family line whose membership include, spouses and their children together with other relations of common descent such as grandparents, uncles, aunties, nephews, nieces and cousins. Social change in modern times has however, cause (sic) great transformation in every area of society with the family not spared.

The study’s findings revealed that the traditional extended family has undergone some transformation marked by a drift towards modernized nuclear family system. The study also revealed that in spite of this drift, the extended family still has quite a strong hold in Ghana continuing to play some effective social welfare roles on occasions such as birth of a child, marriage and funeral rites. Finally, the study revealed that with some consented effort on the parts of both the family and the state it is possible to reduce the impact of modern trends on the extended family by the introduction of Guidance and Counselling programmes in our communities to improve our way of life.

The extended family as expressed in the United States before WWII did not have the deep roots of time and lineage as the extended family traditionally has had in Ghana, where it is still valued. The study quoted above raises hope that Ghanians are taking steps to maintain this very important aspect of their culture. I doubt that my presence in Ghana as an unknowing social gospel missionary had any effect on Ghanian’s reference of the extended family. However, I can attest personally that the value I saw in the extended family in Ghana influenced the way I have tried to form my own family. One of the unrecognized benefits of the Peace Corps is its effect on the volunteers.

After the mid-20th century the Social Gospel became less visible as the mainline churches in the U.S. where it was strongest began to lose influence. Fundamentalism, the prosperity gospel, culture wars, and Christian nationalism attracted more commitment. Some university programs reflected the social attitude and generally shunned applied research. After I returned from Ghana I continued my education in environmental science at Baylor, Yale, and UT-Austin. At Baylor and UT I was cautioned to work only within “value-free” science and not to become a “damned popularizer.”  In other words, I was told not to shape my academic work to try to meet practical needs of the world. However, at Yale I was in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now the School of the Environment. With its background as a forestry school it recognized the value of applied, practical research and action.

The Social Gospel has re-emerged in universities in the past forty years as environmental degradation has been recognized as a vital area for research and teaching. A look at the websites of the various departments from which I have degrees or took courses reveals strong statements of relevance of the Social Gospel. (Emphasis added in following quotations.)

Baylor University Department of Biology
In the Department of Biology, the science we teach and the science we research are all about understanding our world. I think you might even say that we have a Biblical mandate to understand God’s world. We are supposed to be stewards and care takers of the world that we inherited. We don’t own it and so we must understand it in order to preserve it and care for it. This goes for all of humanity as well as for the planet. 
Dwayne D Simmons, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Biology

Yale University School of the Environment
Vision and Mission
We are leading the world toward a sustainable future with cutting-edge research, teaching, and public engagement on society’s evolving and urgent environmental challenges.
The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology is an international multireligious project contributing to a new academic field and an engaged moral force of religious environmentalism. 
Yale Divinity School Center for Public Theology & Public Policy
Our Mission
To prepare a new generation of moral leaders to be active participants in creating a just society using academic, practical, and research tools of past and present social justice movements.
Our work is built on the fundamental idea that theology is not an isolated practice, but must necessarily challenge the things that adversely impact people’s lives. We work at the intersection of theology, social justice, and public policy.

University of Texas Department of Geography and the Environment
Core Purpose
To explore and understand bio‐physical and social environments, and their interactions and transformations, thereby contributing to a more just and sustainable world.

And the department where I taught for 25 years: 
Texas State University Department of Geography and Environmental Studies
Mission & Vision
The mission of the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies is to provide its students with educational experiences of the highest quality, to conduct vital research that benefits society, and to serve our communities, from the local to the international.

We might ask if it is “Gospel” if it is sponsored by secular entities. I think so. From the outset, Social Gospel churches sought to influence government policy and action. As a Christian environmentalist I hope creation care becomes part of the culture’s ethos, without being dependent upon encouragment by religion nor enforcement by law.

I don’t mean to imply that environmentalism is the only application of the reemerging Social Gospel. CNN recently published an article titled “There’s another Christian movement that’s changing our politics. It has nothing to do with whiteness or nationalism.” The article described the influence of the Social Gospel in the recent agreements between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three of American automobile manufacturers.

The article continued:

It might sound like hyperbole to say that this resurgent form of the Social Gospel is changing our politics. But its proponents have helped reshape many Americans’ perspectives.

More Americans now believe that Big Tech monopolies are a growing threat to prosperity; more support a dramatic raise in the federal minimum wage; and more believe that government should help those least able to help themselves — whether it’s young people struggling with staggering student loans or the government sending money directly to families and small businesses impacted by the Covid pandemic. All these shifts in attitudes and policy reflect in part the influence of the Social Gospel.

This encourages me. I think most of our major social issues can be addressed only by transformation of our core values, both individual and cultural. I think religion and spirituality are the primary influences on core values. I taught until I was 70, always with a grounding in what I understood as the Social Gospel. For the past ten years I have worked as a volunteer within the Episcopal Church, serving as the Chair of the School of Wisdom Committee at St. Mark’s in San Marcos, and working on the Creation Care committees of both St. Mark’s and the Diocese of West Texas. My current project is a program titled Interspiritual Earth Care. The variety of ministries of The Episcopal Church reflects a substantial commitment to the Social Gospel.

I stepped on that Trans-Texas Airways DC-3 in June, 1964, as a brand new Baylor grad, a committed member of the Church of Christ, and a sixth-generation Texan from Waco who had never had a conversation with a Black person. Was I changed two years later when I arrived back in the US and called my parents for the first time in two years? My Dad did not recognize my voice! I had a West African British/English accent. (Which impressed a girl I met a few weeks later, to whom I’ve now had a wonderful 57-year marriage.) She and I agreed from the outset that there was more to life than the pursuit of money. Together we have tried to live an expression of the Social Gospel, which our daughters continue in a secular mode. I think the Social Gospel is alive and on a major resurgence. Bishop Steven Charleston, former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska and Elder in the Choctaw Nation states the vision so well:

Would you believe me if I told you we were the forerunners a great spiritual renewal? What if I said this renewal would change our global culture at the end of this century? That it will see the emergence of a new mysticism in contrast to technology and a strong social conscience of sustainability and justice. We are at the very beginning of this movement. We will not all live to see its first moments of birth, but we will have the joy of knowing that we were the shoulders on which others stood to make it a reality. History will show that what we did today to lift up an open-minded spirituality, welcoming to all people, made a difference. Our choice to stand together, to advocate for justice, and to heal this planet will be recognized as the breakthrough. Because we did not give up, they excelled. Would you believe me if I told you that?

I believe that!

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