Dennis Dean Tidwell

Dialogue with an Adventist U.S. Foreign Service Officer

Dennis Dean Tidwell is currently working with the U.S. Department of State in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he assists in the coordination of international development assistance.

Tidwell began his career with the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Thailand, and for nearly 20 years worked primarily with the Karen ethnic minority group. In 1989, he joined the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and helped establish ADRA as a nationally-recognized development agency in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In 1992, he moved to Hanoi, Vietnam, as the director of ADRA Vietnam. Next, he was the country director for ADRA India for six years and helped obtain governmental recognition for the aid agency.

After a short interlude as regional program manager for Habitat for Humanity’s Asia regional office, Tidwell joined the U.S. Department of State in 2004. Before moving to Kabul in January 2012, he served as a foreign service officer in Rangoon, Myanmar (political officer); Mumbai, India (consular officer); and Chiang Mai, Thailand (political/consular officer).

Born into a missionary family, Tidwell grew up in India and completed high school at Vincent Hill School in Mussoorie, India. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theology at Andrews University, a master’s from Indiana University in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and a master’s in public health from Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. His parents were both educators and served their entire life in the mission field – India, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong. He speaks Thai, Karen, Hindi/Urdu, and Lao. He is married to Lila Goertzen, also a missionary child. They met at Vincent Hill School, and thus Adventist education has had a lot to do with the life, mission, and service of the Tidwell family. They have two sons, who also work for the U.S. Department of State.

What prompted you to devote a major portion of your life to humanitarian work? And then, what prompted you to switch to the U.S. State Department?

Having grown up in India, I always saw myself living and working in an international environment. I originally went to Thailand to supervise hill tribe pastors, but after seeing the poverty and manifold physical needs of the hill tribe people, I became more involved in community development work. It was a logical step to join ADRA shortly after it was established.

When I was in college, I always thought I would take the Foreign Service exam after I graduated, but I was invited to work in Thailand and forgot about the State Department. When we were living in Hanoi, my sons hung out with the children of a U.S. diplomat who had come to lay the groundwork for re-establishing official relations between the United States and Vietnam. I recalled my earlier interest in the State Department and decided to apply at the earliest opportunity.

You have essentially been a career expatriate. What have been the challenges in working outside your home country for almost your entire life?

It actually seemed quite normal to work outside my home country, because I left the United States when I was quite young to follow my parents to India. It seemed like living and working in the United States was the greater challenge. Being separated from family has been a disadvantage while working overseas, plus I sometimes feel like a stranger to my own culture.

What do you see is the role of an Adventist Christian in the State Department?

I think it is important to be a witness to my beliefs. For example, all my colleagues in the State Department know that I do not drink alcohol, and I try to follow a vegetarian lifestyle. Recently, they had a farewell for me at the U.S. Consulate in Chiang Mai, and they served a vegetarian menu with “Shirley Temple” drinks. They were paying honor to my beliefs and lifestyle.

I view my job as a “tent maker,” and while it is not permitted to conduct religious activities on government property, I have been able to support and encourage the local Adventist churches wherever we have served. I have also been involved in writing the State Department’s annual religious freedom report and felt that with my Adventist perspective I was better able to understand religious freedom issues in different countries. I was also more aware than the average foreign service officer of religious freedom issues and had opportunities to reach out to religious leaders in each country where I served. Twice I organized iftar dinners – the evening meal at the end of each day of fasting during Ramadan – for local Muslim leaders to demonstrate our respect for their beliefs.

What are the most significant rewards of your career – as pastor, NGO employee (ADRA, Habitat for Humanity), and diplomat?

As a pastor, I found it rewarding to help church members spiritually and physically, train village health workers to serve in areas where there was very little or no health infrastructure, and help organize companies and churches among Karen communities along the Thai-Myanmar border as well as hire pastors to shepherd them.

As an NGO employee, I found it exciting to establish ADRA in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and grow ADRA into vibrant country programs. This included establishing a unique “cow bank” project in rural Vietnam to increase farmers’ income, and responding to various disasters in Vietnam and India, including typhoons, cyclones, floods, and earthquakes. It was rewarding to lay groundwork for Habitat for Humanity to establish offices in Laos and Myanmar.

As a diplomat, the rewards have been highlighting human-rights violations in Myanmar, keeping America’s borders safe through careful adjudication of visas for non-immigrant visitors, and detecting and investigating visa fraud. In particular, there has been a strong sense of satisfaction in working with ethnic minorities from Myanmar to help them achieve unity and to negotiate with the Myanmar government for peace.

What are the challenges you face as an Adventist Christian in working in non-church organizations?

There is nothing that can’t be overcome. Sometimes colleagues tend to leave you out because they know you don’t drink alcohol. Occasionally, you are called on to escort a visitor on Sabbath. In such cases, you have to plan unique activities that you feel comfortable doing or request colleagues to help you out. Contrary to what some think, you do not have to drink alcohol to be a successful diplomat. People in the State Department are very tolerant and generally respect other people’s different religious beliefs.

At the request of Dialogue, Charles H. Tidwell, Jr. – elder brother of Dennis – conducted this interview. E-mail: tidwell@andrews.edu.

Charles H. Tidwell, Jr. (Ph.D. University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada) recently retired as dean of affiliation and extension programs at Andrews University. He worked for more than 43 years as a teacher and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist education system in the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong.