John Rex ’62
Peace Corps volunteer
by Sara Bodnar '03
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 75, No. 1, Fall 2003
At age 62, John Rex stands on the brink of change. John was one of the first two Bowdoin graduates from the Class of '62 to be admitted into the Peace Corps. This June he turned back the hands of the clock and applied to the Peace Corps again. "I have an awareness that that action back in 1962 formed my life and my perspective on life," John said. "It seems almost inevitable that I came to it again."
John's life perspective began to take shape 39 years ago, on a long bus trip across the Ethiopian desert. The Peace Corps sent John to a two-year teaching post in Ethiopia. During one of his journeys, he found himself traveling with a Muslim student. When the bus stopped for lunch, John's companion grew concerned. The only place that served food was for Muslims, and at the time John was Episcopalian. As he made his way to a thatched shelter and asked for permission to eat with a group of Muslim men, John came to a realization. "It hit me that if I had been born in Ethiopia, I'd be Muslim," he said. "And that made an enormous impression on me. We're born into our whole belief system."
In 1964, John returned to America and continued to teach in New York. Four years later, John married another Peace Corps volunteer. Together they had two children. But while John was settled with a job and family, spiritually he was still roaming. He remembered that fateful bus trip and the imprint it made upon his thinking. John wanted to find a religion that respected differences in spirituality. He embarked upon an ecclesiastical exploration that led him to the doors of a Unitarian Universalist Church. When John heard his first Unitarian sermon, he breathed a sigh of relief. "The minister touched upon issues related to the bible and the Native American spirit," John recalled. "He brought them together and it was like 'wow, they can do this in a church; this is wonderful.'"
John embraced Unitarianism and eventually became the church's religious education director. He grew so involved that his next step took him to seminary school. In 1990 he enrolled in the Starr-King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. "When a person goes into ministry, [he or she] takes a great leap into ambiguity," said John. "From the time I left to go to seminary until now, I've changed my address nineteen times."
By 1993, John's address was in Calcutta, India. Unitarians needed volunteers; John was recently divorced and felt he was ready to travel again. "In India, I didn't really know what I was getting into," he said. "But part of that grows out of my Peace Corps experience. I know that I can function in a different culture." Three afternoons a week John worked at the Ghandi Center with the Mother Teresa order. After the death of his son Christopher, John bestowed a lasting gift upon the northeastern Kharang Village. He contributed insurance money to the construction of a village dormitory named the Christopher Rex Hostel. People told John the dormitory enabled their daughters to attend school. "This brought tears to my eyes," John said. "I've made a life long connection with the people there."
John retired from the ministry this year and resides in Lake Park, Florida. Waiting in hopeful anticipation for news from the Peace Corps, he describes his future as "a big question mark." But one thing is certain: John is grateful for a life that is rich with experience and discovery. "I've had a full life and I feel so blessed to have that," he said. "I could die today happy because I lived."
In early September, John received word that he had been invited to train as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Namibia on the south-western coast of Africa. Scheduled to leave October 21 for his three-month training program in Namibia, John expects to serve there for 27 months.