Serving Christ and Country in a Faraway Land

by Abraham Park

For most people, a trip outside the country involves work or vacation. For parishioner Ellen Bishop, it means service.

When I first meet her, it’s at the home of fellow parishioner Joanna Goldman, a friend of Bishop. She’s 61 years old, stands at five feet four inches, has sandy blonde hair and is in the middle of preparations to go on a journey abroad as a math teacher. A former research statistician who worked for RTI International since 2005, she retired from her job earlier this year to pursue a lifelong dream to serve in the Peace Corps.

“I’ve had it as a dream since high school,” says Ellen, a dream that started when a friend of her brother came back from serving in a country in Asia. She mentions Nepal, though she’s not certain. Still, she remembers the stories he shared and how they inspired her as a teenager.

Yet choosing to serve in the Peace Corps is not something done lightly. Beyond the obvious difficulties of getting accepted into such a prestigious program, there is a level of commitment that can intimidate even the most determined applicant. Every volunteer faces leaving the comforts and familiarity of home, family and friends to serve in a foreign country spread out across the world, often with large differences in culture and language. Candidates must adapt to their new environment, thrust out of their comfort zones, while being expected to serve as hardworking aides and ambassadors.

Oh, and it’s also 27 long months with very few opportunities to return home.

It’s an undertaking that would cause anyone to hesitate. However for Ellen, it’s all part of the charm.

“We had lived in Japan when I was in sixth grade, and I had visited Korea during that time and Thailand and the Philippines,” she says. Foreign lands and different cultures are nothing new, she tells me. In fact, it’s one of the things that interests her the most.

“I like learning about new cultures,” she says.

Her curiosity doesn’t stop there.

“I’m curious about church and how they live their Christianity,” Ellen says. “I would like to be a part of their community.”

Yet now might be a good time to bring up the fact that she’s not going to Asia, but to Namibia, a country in southern Africa.

Located just north of South Africa, Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990. With a population of less than 3 million people, it’s also one of the least densely populated countries in the world. It has multiple prominent geographic features, including the Kalahari Desert, has the largest population of free range cheetahs in the world, hosts 13 different ethnic groups and is almost 90 percent Christian. Their largest city, Windhoek, has a population under half a million people.

It’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Atlanta and America but for Ellen, none of it matters. What’s important is the anticipation of the road ahead.

“I really didn’t care [where I went],” she says. “It used to be that you would just apply and Peace Corps would just assign you. Now, you can put preferences in there and I said I was willing to do whatever and wherever.”

Ellen recognizes that it won’t be an easy road. There will be real sacrifices and hardships that lie ahead but that doesn’t discourage her. Still, she tells me, if there’s anything she’ll miss besides friends and family, it’s the convenience of being able to cook for herself.

In the end, Ellen knows this opportunity is not about her but about being a faithful servant in a foreign land. She accepts that this is an opportunity not only to represent America but also her faith.

“It [Peace Corps] is service and we are called to serve,” she says. “We’re called to love one another. We’re all children of God.”

Service and community has always been a deeply ingrained concept in Christianity, whether it was Paul helping spread the Gospel to the early churches spread across Asia and Europe or individuals donating time and effort at a local soup kitchen. For Ellen, it means being a dedicated and hardworking teacher.

“I would like to be a successful teacher,” she says. “I would like to make a difference and help them improve their math skills!”

Plus, Ellen understands that this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and in particular, the opportunity that she’s pursued and dreamt of for decades. No matter what comes ahead, she feels grateful and excited to be a part of this journey.

“I feel like it’s more a gift to me,” she says, smiling. “I actually kind of feel like it’s a little selfish.”

Then she laughs for a moment.

“It feels like I’m living my dream.”