From MD to Justice: Peter Gyves’ Path to Nonprofit Leadership
Peter Gyves: I wondered how I might offer to others the experience of self-transformation
Strife in Central America led Peter Gyves to shift his focus from being a physician-scientist to helping others in their struggle for justice and, ultimately, founding A Faith That Does Justice, a Boston-based nonprofit that raises consciousness about social issues affecting the most vulnerable people.
Here is his story:
During November 1989, the government of El Salvador assassinated six Jesuit priests and their two female co-workers for defending the human rights and dignity of the poor of that country. That tragedy emboldened my growing desire to leave behind the life of privilege I had known, and a promising career, to enter a world of human suffering where so many people die before their time.
I am a pediatric endocrinologist by training and was then working as a physician-scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1989. In the aftermath of the assassinations, I made the decision to leave the NIH and accompany the Salvadoran people in their struggle for justice.
El Salvador was then in the midst of a 10-year civil war that resulted from years of systematic and violent repression of its citizens by a military-backed government that eventually claimed the lives of 70,000 people.
Once there, I offered health care in some of its marginal communities and conflict zones to people who had been abandoned by their government. What I received in return was an experiential education that superseded anything I ever learned from all my years of study.
I was confronted with the realization that the vast majority of this world lives under conditions that do not enable them to realize their full potential as human beings and partake of a fair share of the goods of God’s creation.
In the years following this experience, I entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), influenced by Jesuits in El Salvador working for those less fortunate than themselves and my own Jesuit education, including Boston College, Georgetown University, and Weston School of Theology.
Since then, I have worked on behalf of the poor in various parts of the world, including Guatemala and several countries in English and French-speaking Africa. Through it all, I often wondered how I might offer to others the experience of self-transformation and transcendence that comes from living beyond oneself and on behalf of others.
That opportunity came unexpectedly when I was asked to participate in a pastoral opportunity in San Diego in 2015 because of the growing immigration issue that had developed there due to its proximity to Tijuana, Mexico. There, I lived in a barrio of mostly Mexican descendent people. Some were citizens of the U.S. and some were undocumented. Spanish was the language of the day, as there was only one church service in English each week.
Soon after my arrival, I conducted a series of talks in both English and Spanish on issues of social justice and the challenge of living faith in action. With access to simultaneous translation, the groups were soon combined, and the number of participants grew rapidly. Within one year, we were holding monthly meetings of 120-200 people consisting of Spanish-speaking people from the church and English-speaking people from the surrounding area of San Diego.
This work led to the establishment of A Faith That Does Justice (AFTDJ) in 2015. The next year, I brought AFTDJ to Boston, and since then, it has developed into a national organization.
We host faith-based workshops that challenge our participants to live their faith in action on behalf of others. In addition, we host community meetings that discuss social issues and how unjust societal structures marginalize the most vulnerable among us.
We also distribute two email bulletins each week to more than 3,000 subscribers as a continuing form of education on issues related to social justice. Finally, we offer English for speakers of other languages at no cost to those who need to improve their English language skills.
Today, AFTDJ is a thriving interfaith organization that welcomes the participation of all people of good will. We believe our religious institutions are meaningful only to the extent they move their followers to the practice of justice on behalf of all God’s people, especially those most in need of our help. AFTDJ does this by offering a way to move beyond an intellectual ascent to faith to living faith in action by working to create a just world order.