The seeds of mission planted in the 1830s are still bearing fruit
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — A reunion between a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran in the 1960s and one of her students made the national news recently.
The former student, Iran Murphy, who pronounces her first name “E-Ron” and who lives in California, had been searching for her favorite teacher, Lynne Meena of Louisville, for more than 56 years — a record, according to the Peace Corps. Murphy, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in the 1970s, spent most of her life thinking about how much her teacher had changed her life. With help from the Peace Corps and the internet, these two friends reunited in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day. CBS News covered the reunion.
More than five decades had passed, but the bond of friendship that connected these women in English classes in Iran was still as strong as ever.
Murphy’s son, Rosstin, also served a term in the Peace Corps in China eight years ago, in part because he had heard his mother talk about “Miss Meena” his entire life.
It was President John F. Kennedy’s challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” that prompted Meena, then 22, to join the Peace Corps after graduation from the University of Louisville. She asked if she could be assigned to work in the Middle East because her grandparents were from Lebanon. When she learned she was going to serve in Iran, Meena said, “I had to reference a map to see where Iran was.”
Meena’s brother, David, also served in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, and her step-grandson, Ben Rapp, 24, will be teaching English with the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka, beginning in June.
Before leaving the U.S., Meena completed a 12-week training program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the site where, on Oct. 14, 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy shared his vision for what would become the Peace Corps. In his unscripted, middle-of-the-night speech to about 5,000 students, Kennedy challenged them to pursue justice and peace through service in developing countries.
When Meena’s group of 70 Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Iran in September 1964, they stayed at Alborz College in Tehran for two weeks of in-country orientation. The educational work of the Peace Corps in Iran from 1962 until all volunteers were pulled out in 1976 was made possible, in part, through the groundwork and seed planting of the American Presbyterian Mission, which began in 1834 when the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions appointed Rev. Justin Perkins as its first missionary to Iran, then known as Persia.
Perkins planted a church, opened a school for boys and a school for girls and established a printing press. He also translated the Scriptures into the Syriac language, a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet.
The American Presbyterian Mission established the country’s first Presbyterian churches, the first schools — primary to college level — as well as the first modern hospitals, clinics and nursing schools; the first college and the first college for women. Many of the professional leaders of Iran were graduates of the American Presbyterian Alborz College, where Meena and so many other Peace Corps volunteers over the years completed orientation upon their arrival.
Meena received her assignment to teach English in three girls’ high schools in the southwest city of Abadan. Once she got established, the Peace Corps’ acting director of the Division of Volunteer Support said, “Lynne, there’s a TV station in Abadan. Get on it if you can.”
So Meena visited the TV station, knocked on the door of the station director and said, in the Farsi language, “My name is Lynne Meena. I’m with the American Peace Corps. I’d like to see if I can teach an English class on your television station.”
The director replied in English, “Oh, heck, come on in. I went to San José State.”
“He was just a wonderful guy, and he gave me this TV slot,” Meena said. “He said I could have five minutes, three nights a week.” Due to the popularity of the show, the time slot grew, first to 15 minutes, then to 30 minutes. People watched from their homes, teahouses, bazaars; some saw the show from as far away as Iraq and Kuwait. According to the U.S. consulate, more than 10,000 viewers tuned in to learn English with Miss Meena.
When the temperature climbed to 120 degrees in the summer of 1965, the Peace Corps sent Meena and two other volunteers to run a summer program for 150 12-year-olds in Rasht, Iran, the largest city on Iran’s Caspian Sea coast. They taught the students arts and crafts, puppetry, drawing and painting, and some English.
In Abadan, Meena worked in partnership with the Ministry of Education of Iran, teaching regular and honors English classes of 40 to 50 girls per class in three Abadan high schools. As part of her work, she and an Iranian teacher colleague organized an English Teachers Association that met every other week to discuss teaching methods of lecture, demonstration and panel discussion. She met twice a week with English teachers who wanted extra help in conversational English, grammar and pronunciation. She also coordinated five English clubs for secondary school girls for two years.
At Community School, originally established for the children of missionaries, the mission included advancing international ideals of community, inclusiveness and public service. The school had an English language curriculum (K-12), serving an international student body of Americans, Iranians and other nationalities (embassy and foreign business personnel). It began in the 1930s as a school for missionary children, directed by Commodore and Frankie Fischer and located in Hamadan.
Peace Corps Iran Association members Vida Bourbour Schultz and her brother, Sassan Bourbour, attended Community School, growing up in Hamadan, and both subsequently worked with the Peace Corps language training program. They taught Meena’s group Farsi language skills during their training in Michigan. She, in turn, used some of the same language learning techniques to teach English.
In the late 1940s, the Community School was moved to Tehran, and in 1951 Richard Irvine became the principal. Since the instruction was entirely in English and Community School offered an international degree, the curriculum did not need to be reviewed by the Iranian Department of Education. The curriculum was rigorous with courses in humanities, science, math and religion. Classes prepared students for college abroad. Graduates were placed in top universities in the United States and Europe.
Since the Peace Corps was established in 1961, more than 240,000 Americans have served in more than 140 countries. Volunteers are currently serving in some 60 countries, making a difference just like Meena did in 1964–66.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not currently have mission co-workers in Iran but supports partners who work there.
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