Joe Plumb gave up priesthood for marriage and dedication to social work in Peru

Joe Plumb, who set up his own charity, the Peru Mission, spoke to the Journal about his work with grinding poverty in Peru

Joe Plumb outside the newly-built "Pan de Vida" (Bread of Life) Bakery
Joe Plumb outside the newly-built "Pan de Vida" (Bread of Life) Bakery

Joe Plumb sits in an armchair in his father’s home, the sound of a baby’s cries faint in the background.

Now a dad and a husband, raising a son was not something the 43-year-old ever envisaged for himself.

Until four years ago, Joe was a Catholic priest. Following in his uncle’s footsteps, he left Durham - where he had worked as a priest at Our Blessed Lady Immaculate, Blackhill, Washington Village - for the Catholic Church in Peru.

Then 29, he dedicated himself to helping Peruvians living in grinding poverty in Iquitos, known as the capital of the Peruvian Amazon, with the local parish church.

He built schools and chapels, ran soup kitchens and formed a local football team to stop young kids falling into gang violence.

But after nine years in the country, he was hit by mounting criticism from the Church back home who told him he was undertaking too much social work - just as he fell in love with a Peruvian woman, Gina.

He hung up his robes in 2010 and married Gina a year later. And four months ago, he became a different sort of father to little Joseph.

“In the Church in South America you can’t help but get involved in social problems,” he says from his father’s home in Pity Me, Durham. “People were saying I wasn’t doing enough sacramental work.

“Working closely with Gina and getting this pressure from back in England made it clear to me that God was showing me a different path. It was one door closing and another one opening.”

Gina, Joseph Juan Diego and Joe outside the cathedral in Iquitos, Amazon region of Peru
Gina, Joseph Juan Diego and Joe outside the cathedral in Iquitos, Amazon region of Peru
 

Now he has returned home to Pity Me from Peru, which he has called home for 14 years, for a month to raise money for his own charity, The Peru Mission, based in Washington.

The organisation works to alleviate extreme poverty in Iquitos where the War on Drugs, trafficking of women and children, and gang violence are all rife. The Peru Mission, which needs around £40,000 a year to exist, gets most of its money from here in the North East. The charity implements food kitchens and classrooms, and gives young people opportunities to pursue sport and education.

Joe’s work, then, does not sound too different to what he was doing as a priest. All that’s changed, he says, is who he works with.

He now teams up with the police and local government while still working with the Church in Iquitos. Last year, he worked with the British embassy to stop a ring of eight men trafficking women from the town to Lima, Peru’s capital.

“My faith certainly hasn’t wavered,” says Joe. “It’s changed in that I feel I’m called to work in different areas of society. My faith in God and the fact I know God is accompanying the work we are doing is stronger than ever.”

Now the honorary British consul in Iquitos, Joe sees the dangers of the rife local sex trade first hand. Along with a group of Peruvian nuns, he works with a girls’ orphanage to save young women from being preyed on by men and pushed into a life of prostitution.

In spite of himself, he admits he felt a sense of relief when he found out he would be having a son after seeing just how hard life for women out there can be.

“This sounds awful, but I felt so relieved when we found out Jose was a boy,” he says. “As a girl there are so many societal messages in Peru; if you’re a girl you don’t aspire to very much, you have to set the table for your brothers and help mum with the cooking.

“I hadn’t thought it through rationally but I just thought ‘thank God’. I would want my daughter to have the best possible opportunities and feel like she can do anything she wants to do.”

Around 80 girls are housed in the orphanage and receive an education and Christian teaching from the nuns which they would not have access to otherwise. Many come from grinding urban poverty and broken family homes.

Joe Plumb with volunteers building a primary school
Joe Plumb with volunteers building a primary school
 

Last year, Joe and the nuns set up a bakery in the orphanage, rather biblically named the Bread of Life, to give the girls training in running a business. The young women bake around 5,000 buns a day, pay the bills and budget for the staff.

“The bakery idea is a Christian symbolism but it really comes from wholesomeness and nourishment,” says Joe. “It comes from wanting the girls to have a talent and to run a business enterprise in the future.

“The orphanage is there to give them the message that they don’t have to conform to those gender roles that are so confined in Latin American society. They can forge their own path for themselves. It’s all about teaching the girls their own self worth.”

But after almost two decades in Peru, Joe admits it might be time for him to come home with Joseph and Gina to give his son the best opportunities in life.

“I’ve realised that there are lots of valuable things about British culture,” he says. “We have an NHS and an education service, human rights are respected.

“I find life in South America more and more glaringly corrupt the more I reflect on it. Coming back here realigns my value system. When you’re living there all the time, bribery and corruption is part of the culture. That can affect your own values.”

But he will forever be dedicated to his work in Peru, where he has earned him the trust and respect of local police chiefs, judges and residents.

“I feel very much called to work with people to get them to see that you don’t have to be corrupt to get on in life. I think there is a huge need for people in the west who show a concern for justice and human rights.

“There are lots of needs here in Durham but there are people trained for those specific needs. My specific talents and strengths are for working where I am.

“It’s tiring and you’re chipping away all the time, but it’s very rewarding.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer