Peace Corps volunteer fired up to change lives

LA COMUNIDAD, El Salvador — Rhett Williams believes the people of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., can learn a lot about faith from their fellow Catholics in Latin America.

Williams, 23, a Mount Pleasant, S.C., resident, is spending two years with the Peace Corps in El Salvador. While working in the town of La Comunidad, he has learned about the needs of the people and the rich faith that is interwoven into much of their daily life.

The young man is a graduate of Bishop England High School in Charleston, S.C., and Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who majored in history and Spanish. While at Furman, he attended RCIA classes at Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, S.C., and was welcomed into the Catholic Church in 2004.

He discussed his experiences in El Salvador and perspectives on faith through a recent e-mail interview with The Catholic Miscellany.

La Comunidad is a town of about 750 people located in the municipality of San Pedro Nonualco in La Paz, the south central part of the country. The municipality’s total population is about 11,000.

While in La Comunidad, Williams is performing a wide variety of tasks with members of the community, such as working with students at a community school.

He said the town is almost 100 percent Catholic, and people turn out in droves to celebrate feast days with processions, fireworks and other activities. The local church is extremely organized, with activities and classes for every age, high Mass attendance and frequent prayer meetings, he said. In his view, people who are illiterate in El Salvador often know more about the Bible than many Americans.

Williams described Catholicism as a very “physical thing” when it comes to local celebrations. When high school students acted out the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, people from all over town attended. In a nearby village, residents created huge representations of each station with painted sand.

“The faith here is more alive than most places in the United States, with the church doors and windows all open at all times of the day, with people coming in and out to pray constantly,” Williams wrote.

“All of this gives me encouragement that the Catholic faith can thrive in whatever condition, and thrive in the way it is meant,” he stated. “It should encourage those in the United States to strive for constancy in the faith, and create friendships with those other parishes around the world that we can learn so much from and help so much at the same time.”

Williams described the Mass in El Salvador as very similar to American worship, despite the language difference.

“The biggest similarity … is unity in doctrine and liturgy, our belief and its expression,” Williams wrote. “The liturgy is kept sacred and with its basic structure … a non-Spanish speaker could easily sit in on a Mass … they could tell by the movements of the people what topic is being addressed at the moment.”

Williams said the liturgy includes music on traditional instruments, and that people receive the Eucharist on the tongue and never in the hand.

The volunteer has spoken with some parishes in the Diocese of Charleston and in Louisiana about forming partnerships with parishes in El Salvador. He thinks it would be a wonderful way to share both spiritual and financial resources.

“The idea is to mimic the sister city deal that many cities in the United States have,” he said. “For example, Greenville, S.C., is a sister city with Bergamo, Italy. They share ideas and projects, and send people in between the cities to learn about each other and plan things together. My goal is to create something very similar in the Catholic world.”

American parishes could provide monetary help or mission workers for countries in need, Williams suggested. Latin American parishes could send people to sister churches in the United States to help them learn about their culture or work on faith development.

Williams’ friends and spiritual mentors are impressed by his ongoing faith journey.

Father Jeffrey Kirby, parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Aiken, S.C., was Williams’ RCIA sponsor and taught him New Testament and Christian morality classes at Bishop England.

“Rhett’s is a great story of conversion and ministry,” Father Kirby told The Miscellany. “He was always very sincere, respectful and attentive as a student and enthusiastic about RCIA. Now, he’s excited about his Catholic faith and Christian discipleship. I think he’s really discovered the fullness of Christ, and it’s led him in his desire to give back.”

“He’s very mature for his age and definitely has his perspective on life straight,” said John Marigliano, director of adult and high school catechesis at Prince of Peace Church in Taylors.

Marigliano attended high school with Williams. He also worked with him at Prince of Peace during his RCIA classes.

“I know from him this experience of being in El Salvador has been very much a world-view changing event. He’s realizing how much we have here in this country, but how much we actually need when it comes to faith,” Marigliano said. “He’s learned that down there people often have nothing but their faith, and that’s become a huge theme for him. He definitely has that zeal and passion for the Catholic faith, for sharing it and trying to live it each day.”

Williams said his work with the Peace Corps is teaching him to be more adaptable and to accept the sometimes difficult lessons God brings to his daily life.

“Peace Corps has taught me to smile at all the awkward situations that life throws at you,” he said. “That’s all just the growing pains of our Christian journey. As Catholics we should serve, we should stretch ourselves from what is becoming the norm of comfort, and lead by example in the Christian world.”

To learn more about Williams’s work, visit