August 14, 2014
While it’s normative to note the realities of cultural difference early in a mission experience, whether short or long-term, I find that after nearly 3 years in South America I still think about cultural difference. It’s a reality that’s embedded in our daily lives. From buying groceries to meeting people on the street while walking the dog, I encounter and live cultural difference daily.
I’ve experienced a great deal of cultural difference in the context of having a dog. For example, I use a lead for walking my dog that goes around the snout and connects to a leash under the head. I learned many years ago from a trainer that this type of lead provides greater control, particularly for training, and in the case of Springer Spaniels, notorious for snatching edibles off of the street, it also helps the walker keep them from eating street items that might make them sick. I find I have to explain the lead to someone just about daily. Some people do everything they can to avoid us, because they assume that anything that’s placed near the snout means your dog is vicious. People ask me all the time if my dog is “bravo” (angry), the common term used for an aggressive dog. Still others feel the need to stop and lecture me about how cruel it is to use that kind of lead, saying things like, “Can’t you see he doesn’t like it?” On one occasion, someone stopped me … I thought to pet the dog … and actually pulled the lead off of the dog’s snout!
Another interesting discussion I’ve had with people has to do with neutering. If you’re not planning to breed, most dog owners in the U.S. will have their pet neutered (male or female) at a young age. If you get a pet from a shelter, it’s typically already done or is a requirement for adoption. Advantages of neutering (or what’s referred to these days as de-sexing) include the reduction of behaviors such as mounting, urine spraying, and some forms of male aggression due to the decrease in hormone levels. In addition, it can reduce or eliminate other undesirable behaviors such as separation anxiety and barking, and also pretty much eliminate the chance of ovarian or testicular cancers (there’s always a chance of some form of stump related cancer, though extremely rare). Every time I’ve mentioned neutering Wilson, I’ve had pretty heated discussions. I’m told it’s cruel, he’ll get fat and lazy, he’ll have emotional problems, and any number of other things. On one occasion, as I tried to explain the reasoning behind neutering a dog, including health and security benefits like not running off to mount a neighboring female in heat, the man I was talking with quickly retorted, “If it’s so healthy, then why aren’t you neutered?!” (And, of course, I had the wit to respond, “Because I’m not a dog!”) I’ve discovered that in some instances, resistance to neutering is a convenient cover for not wanting to spend the money for the surgery. In others, it’s plain ignorance about neutering (which, of course, is universal and not unique to Colombia or any other country). But even more culturally relevant is the perspective based in natural law. The Roman Catholic Church holds the view of natural law provided by St. Thomas Aquinas particularly in his Summa Theologia which is that it’s a system of law that is determined by nature. I’ve been told more than once that it’s “natural” for my dog to have testicles and that I’m going against nature, hence the will of God, by neutering him.
On another occasion, I asked a colleague if he could look after my dog for a day. He responded that he “didn’t have a balcony at his apartment.” I had to think about that one for a minute to determine why that had anything to do with what I was asking. I’ve since learned that one way in which people care for their dogs here is to put them “outside” for the day when they go to work … as in on the balcony. Keep in mind that most balconies couldn’t hold more than a chair or two. I guess that might make sense to an apartment dweller here in Bogota, a city of 12 million people with high rise apartments being the norm. It just never crossed my mind that caring for my dog would mean leaving him on the balcony for the day. I suppose it’s doable, just not an idea I’d ever considered. … I guess that is yet another cultural difference. (I would have been happy to have him use my apartment for the day, but it was clear he didn’t consider that an option.)
As I continue to think about cultural difference, I also find it helpful to reflect on it in the context of other activities. In a recent conversation with a friend we were discussing a number of things related to getting work done in Colombia and he used the word “incompetence” in the context of my indicating how a particular task might get accomplished. While that wasn’t the word that came to my mind, and my immediate reaction was that he was speaking from his own (North American) cultural perspective and associated expectations, it got me thinking about how we define those things and what they say about our thinking. Is a particular behavior or action necessarily a sign of “incompetence” or is it a reflection of “cultural difference”? How do we decide? Aren’t those distinctions both culturally defined? If so, in what ways do they reflect culturally defined expectations? Might something I think is a sign of “incompetence” just be a reflection of my own cultural perspective and expectations? At the same time, at what point do “culturally defined” and “cultural difference” simply serve as an excuse and avoidance of the reality that a behavior or action may, in fact, be a reflection of incompetence? Is our unwillingness to name something as “incompetence,” and/or to hold others accountable and to a particular standard, actually our fear that we’re being neo-colonial, culturally hegemonic, paternalistic, and so forth? When do we stop being knee-jerk liberals and begin treating others with dignity and respect, which includes being willing to hold them to similar standards to which we hold ourselves, at some level of expectation that we can mutually define and agree upon?
Is everything challenging just a matter of cultural difference, or are there things on which we can agree are wrong or need to change in some way? For example, if our governments create trade agreements with certain economic behavioral expectations, is it enough for one party to renege on those expectations on the grounds that, “Well, it’s just a matter of cultural difference”? At what point can we justifiably have expectations of one another? How do those expectations get defined? … by whom? … and for whom? At what point do we stop beating ourselves up, or allowing others to beat us up, over our paternalistic, colonial, and imperial pasts? In what ways is it healthy for us to continue to journey in our understanding about these issues, and in what ways is it dysfunctional for everyone involved to allow that journey to dominate our relationships and interactions? In what ways can and should we engage one another regarding issues of expectation and cultural difference?
… and maybe none of this has anything to do with the price of tea in China, and I need to stop being the sociologist and get on with caring for my dog.
July 24, 2014
Recently, I was out for a morning walk with Wilson, my Springer Spaniel. As it often happens in the early morning, we passed a homeless man on the street. From across the street he spoke to me, though I’m not quite sure what he said, and I simply nodded my head in acknowledgement that he was speaking to me but, essentially, ignored him and continued walking. On our daily walks, most often the first walk in the morning, Wilson and I encounter many homeless people. You see feet sticking out from under vehicles or other locations, bodies bundled up in alleys, alcoves, and doorways. On a given morning, during a 30 minute walk, it’s likely we will encounter at least six to eight homeless men. Some will still be sleeping, others will be digging through the trash, and still others will be making their way down the street with a bundle of belongings over their shoulder or pushing some kind of makeshift cart. It’s pretty easy to distinguish who is homeless, as I live in a middle class neighborhood and these men not only look out of place, but are usually covered with layers of dirt, have matted hair, are wearing ill-fitting clothing, and if they have shoes they’re usually in pretty bad shape. And, of course, those are just the obvious people. As most of us know, not all people surviving on the streets are readily identifiable and many make themselves invisible. For example, it‘s estimated that over 5,000 children live under the city of Bogota. In an attempt to protect themselves from further victimization, most only come out at night.
As I passed the man on my walk with limited acknowledgement of his existence, I found myself pondering whether or not I am becoming desensitized to poverty. I see a great deal of it every day. One day, during this cold rainy season, I passed what appeared to be an elderly woman curled up in blankets sleeping in an alcove. On another occasion, I saw a bundle in the corner of a building. As I got closer, I noticed the bundle had feet. On yet other occasions, I’ve passed middle-aged women begging for support for their children, men defecating in a public park, and men digging in trash cans looking for anything they can eat, reuse, or sell. Even if I don’t see people, I see signs that they are in the neighborhood–scattered trash, for example. Yes, there are many stray dogs in the city who could be the culprits. But it’s been my experience that in the majority of cases the trash has been scattered by humans, not animals.
One time I was walking Wilson and a woman came running up to me in tears. She was running between people on the street … to anyone and everyone. She said she had a young daughter who was ill and didn’t have the money to purchase her medicine. She seemed frantic, so I couldn’t help but reach into my pocket, though I tend not to carry much money on me. I explained that I only had ~$10, and handed it to her. She grasped my hand, thanking me, and ran to the next person on the street.
Each time I as much as look at a homeless person when I’m with my colleagues and friends, they rebuke me. They say it’s too dangerous to give anything to someone on the street. You attract the attention of others living on the street when you give a hand-out. Sometimes people will follow you home. You might also find yourself being pursued by thieves, having just demonstrated that you have sufficient money on you that you can give some away. You may be attacked by someone who is mentally unstable, or who wants to take greater advantage of the fact that you have disposable funds. The list could go on, but you get the idea.
It breaks my heart to walk past people who look innocent and in great need. I feel guilty for what I have, and also guilty for treating people like they’re invisible. But I’m aware that my friends and colleagues have a point about the dangers, and am also aware that I’ve given my life … or at least a few years of it … to try and make a difference in some people’s lives. While my work is in an office, it’s in service to the poor … single mothers, political refugees, children, those displaced by injustice, political conflict, and natural disasters. And intellectually I know I can’t help everyone. But it doesn’t make it any easier to see poverty daily, to not be able to respond to it all of the time, and to know that in some cases there is probably nothing I can do. It also doesn’t make it any easier as I ponder the possibility that I may be becoming desensitized to the poverty around me through my daily encounters. I guess all I can do is pray for God’s help in keeping my eyes open and aware of the poverty around me. I also pray that God gives me the strength to do what I can do, and the grace to accept what I can’t.
August 6, 2014
Out on our morning walk, I decided to stir things up a little. My initial purpose was to get Wilson out of “auto pilot” mode so he’d pay a little more attention to my commands … one of those puppy training tricks. But as we shifted to the other side of the street, I began to realize that the world looked a little different than it did from the initial side of the street we usually walked on. I began noticing things I’d never noticed. Gardens I had never really seen before … doorways that looked entirely different up close or further away … entire buildings that took on a different appearance from a new vantage point … and so forth. It was like we were taking an entirely different walk.
I remember reading something years ago about how one of the best ways to stimulate your thinking was to drive a different way to work every once in a while. The idea was that you would have to think about your trip to work, rather than simply go through the motions of your everyday commute, which subsequently would turn on your brain and stimulate your thinking. I tried it, and it seemed to work. So for years I would walk or drive a variety of different ways to the office as a way of stimulating my early morning thinking.
So walking down the other side of the street got me thinking. While there is a very literal aspect to seeing the world differently from the other side of the street, as I’ve stated, there is also a metaphorical aspect to my comment about perspective. Living somewhere else enables the same affect … you see the world a little differently than you might otherwise while being in the same place. For example, many of us note the dysfunction in our political system in the States. But by living outside the U.S., I also see the dysfunction in political systems all over the world, and likely, in a different context.
I’ve noticed that many pundits, academics, and authors have been talking about the rise of “crony capitalism” and the failures of capitalism. We’ve seen, they note, tax systems that favor the rich, government regulations that protect companies over consumers, abuses in financial systems, and election to the U.S. Congress as a ticket to wealth and membership in the upper class (or what some today refer to as the “political” class). In the States, political pundits on the left decry all of these issues and more as a failure of capitalism. And while they may have a point, you don’t have to look far to see that it may not only be a U.S. manifestation, and it may not be capitalism that’s failing, but democracy.
Politicians around the globe benefit from crony capitalism and political corruption. Politicians vote themselves top salaries while in the same breath try to justify the need to cut social programs. Their staff and family members become millionaires during their time in office. To use an example, it’s estimated that since Cristina Kirchner’s husband, Nestor, was elected President of Argentina in 2003 through a period of her own presidency (up to 2010) their net worth grew from $2.5 million to $17.7 million (not a bad return on 7 years in office). In my mind, the wealth of politicians begs the question, “Do the rich become politicians, or do politicians become rich?” And while these need not be mutually exclusive questions, it seems that they raise a bigger question regarding the relationship between political power and economic wealth.
Many of us have joked about “the grass being greener on the other side of the fence,” expressing a certain point of view that reflects looking at other people’s lives and maybe seeing things we like, but don’t have. While walking on the other side of the street helps me see a different perspective, I find it helpful to note that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on either side of the fence. In fact, in my not so humble opinion, the world is overdue for a major renewal. Frankly, to use a Western expression, Rome is burning. Just look at Libya, Egypt, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, and the Ukraine … the murder rates in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala … the political violence in Rwanda and the Central African Republic … the rising tensions between Asian neighbors … and the list could go on. Our political structures and institutions, social structures, and economic systems are all failing us. Capitalism has been twisted and perverted by cronyism and greed … a $6,000 shower curtain, anyone?
Democracy has been so distorted in parts of the world that it makes a mockery of any semblance of political representation. A variety of socialist systems have tumbled down due to corruption, cronyism, and mismanagement. Monarchies and Parliamentary Monarchies haven’t fared much better. But before we despair and prepare for the second coming, we’d do well to remember that we’ve been here before in the past and not-so-distant past. The fall of a number of world empires, The Dark Ages, The Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and two World Wars all come to mind. The struggle for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and anarchism reflected times of great social turmoil and upheaval, and arguably, were the results of the Industrial Revolution. And it wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. was struggling with the assassination of a President, the embrace of civil rights, facing the political corruption of Watergate, and dealing with a very unpopular war (Vietnam). And then there’s the fact that a fair amount of what we’re seeing and experiencing globally today has everything to do with the failures and downfall of colonialism. For example, borders throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were arbitrarily drawn by departing colonial powers, leaving behind messes like we see in the Middle East such as with ethnic Kurds spread across four different national boundaries (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria).
We’ve seen failures and abuses of structures and systems throughout the years, all of which have led to upheaval, refinements, and eventual changes. Empires and tyrants have fallen, monarchs have been deposed, political revolutions have raged and fizzled, political systems have collapsed, and economic systems and structures have had to be transformed. In 1637 there was the Tulip Mania Bubble that had a major impact on the emerging world economy. In the 1790s there were multiple post-war financial crises in the U.S.. And then in 1929 the crash of Wall Street led to a world-wide economic meltdown that we know today as the Great Depression.
History is replete with examples of socio-cultural, political, and economic messes. As I ponder the various turmoils of today’s world, I’m reminded of my metaphor of Rome burning. According to historical records, Rome burned for 6 days and the fire took with it over 70% of the city. In the weeks following the fire, some blamed the Emperor Nero while Nero took the opportunity to blame a relatively small group of Christians living in Rome who he subsequently fed to the lions. But when all was said and done, Rome bounced back into a glorious city of marble and stone, and eventually into a city, ironically, that became known as the home of the Pope … Bishop of Rome, Holy Father, Vicar of Christ and leader of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church.
So where will our struggles lead us this time? … to electronic democracy?… to direct democracy? … to benevolent dictators who evolve into new forms of tyranny?… to new economic structures and systems? … to the development of a new kind of “world” bank? How will (or will we) share the world’s resources? … How will we think about global warming and climate change? … What role will emerging technologies play in the future of governance? … in the future of daily economic activity?
For me, personally, it always comes back to my faith stance. Before I’m anything … Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Capitalist, Socialist … I’m a Christian. And part of my faith stance is my sense of hope and a belief that all will work out as God intends and in God’s time. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do what I’m doing … live out my faith in the best way I know how, live out my baptismal call in service to others, do my civic duty as best I can working for the greater good, and continue to discern God’s purpose for my life, the church, and the world.
… and all that from walking on the other side of the street.
July 4, 2014
I suspect most North Americans are either engaged in Independence Day activities or thinking about them if they’re experiencing the impact of Hurricane Arthur. It’s also an appropriate day to be thinking about mission, though. Today we remember the 4th century bishop, St. Martin of Tours. As legend has it, while serving as a Roman soldier in France one winter, Martin encountered a shivering beggar dressed in rags. Having no money to offer, Martin removed his cloak and used his sword to cut it in half. He gave the beggar half and wrapped himself in the other half. According to the stories, that night he had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing that part of the cloak he had given away. The next morning he decided to be baptized.
Many of us who engage in mission would express a similar sentiment to what Martin experienced in his dream. We, too, would say that we encounter Christ in the form of the poor. Through our various mission efforts, we provide food to the hungry, housing to the homeless, medical care to those in need, and so forth. Most global mission efforts tend to focus on these types of activities. We facilitate medical mission teams … we build housing, schools, and churches … we develop potable water projects … we provide assistance and seed money to start sewing cooperatives … we facilitate micro-loan projects for self-sustainability … and more.
The last weekend of May was the convention of the Diocese of Colombia. Convention began with a Eucharist and business matters on Friday night and then shifted into programming and presentations on Saturday morning. In one of the first presentations, several non-Episcopalians invited by Bishop Duque gave a substantive presentation on a number of justice issues, presentations on gay rights and women’s rights. As we heard about and discussed women’s rights, we had discussions about issues such as reproductive rights, justice and equality in employment, family planning, and domestic violence. In the presentation and subsequent discussions about gay rights, we heard about public and domestic violence against gay people, the internalized conflicts that many experience living in a homophobic culture, persecution and marginalization in society, persecution in housing and employment, lack of medical care due to the inability to be honest about sexuality and related medical needs, and the lack of ability to form healthy households.
As many Episcopalians are probably aware, Archbishop Welby spoke about the violence against Christians in Africa and the link between it and rising violence against the gay community. While I’ll leave the commentary on the Archbishop’s statement to Bishop Robinson (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/13/what-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-should-have-said-about-gay-rights.html), I will share that the gay community in Colombia, and I suspect elsewhere, would say they are experiencing increased levels of violence that they believe is in direct response to new rights and equal marriage decisions in Western countries. In other words, for better or for worse, they believe their experience directly relates to the consecration of gay bishops, the ordination of openly gay people, and the ability of gay people in many Western countries to get married. In some cases, the violence they are experiencing extends to entire communities such as the church in Africa (and, again, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with statements made by folks such as the Archbishop, but simply sharing my observations of a 2/3 world perspective, the term my friend and mission colleague, Titus Presler, would use to represent all those who are not part of the 1/3 of wealthy, developed nations.
As I ponder all of the above, two things come to mind. First, what many of us perceive as “mission,” and second, the ways in which we are connected that we tend not to admit. As I reflect on the many ways in which we all engage in global mission, I find myself pondering things like human rights, social justice, economic justice, peace activism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia/heterosexism, and sexism. Is our mission work … the church’s work … about something more than building a school, digging a well, and so forth? Is it about something more than just serving the poor (which also begs the question of how we define “the poor”)? Yes, these are rhetorical questions, because I think we can all agree that God’s mission, which is or should be the church’s mission, is about all of those things. But the real questions for me are if and how they are reflected in our mission actions in the world.
As for the second issue, can we ever really believe that our actions are just our own? Do we have some kind of responsibility to others around the globe as we nudge the arc of justice in our own environments? Can we really believe that our actions don’t have an impact on others … again, for better or for worse? To use a U.S. example, I would suspect that most gay people living in states with equal marriage bans would say that their lack of ability to get married had everything to do with the court’s 2004 decision in Massachusetts. In direct response to that decision, bans were enacted throughout the country. Similarly, the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA) by the US Supreme Court, it could be argued, was the stimulus and motivating influence on more recent court cases striking down equal marriage bans as unconstitutional.
While a resulting impact or backlash should never be the reason for holding back the arc of justice, I think it’s irresponsible to move forward without an appreciation for the many ways in which we’re all connected. We have a responsibility, at the very least, to acknowledge the broader impact of our actions. As I sat and listened to the presenters at convention, I pondered how our global mission activities could reflect this reality by engaging in more than the practical and offering some kind of hope and assistance for addressing the larger systemic issues of injustice. I understand these issues are complicated, and I’m the first to say that it isn’t my place to step out into the world with the mindset that “my way” is the right way or the only way, which is how addressing injustice in another culture could appear to some. In fact, you may recall that I struggled with this very issue in an earlier post … http://tedabroad.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/systemic-injustice. While we may not be in a position to start a social movement, maybe we can provide funding for a women’s program such as the one in Soacha, or an outreach program to the gay community like the one in Cali.
As I try to put my thoughts into a theological framework, I’m drawn to the fact that we’ve just celebrated Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. Isn’t Pentecost a sign of both our unity and diversity … a sign of a unified and diverse church? Doesn’t it point to the fact that we’re all connected? Doesn’t it call us to account in some way other than building a school or digging a well?
I thank the ecumenical presenters at diocesan convention for the reminder and challenge that mission … the work of the church … is not just about serving those we understand to be economically poor, but about so much more.
May 15, 2014
On May 15, 1130, Isidore, a Spanish peasant farmer, campesino, passed away after an ordinary life. Isidore was born in Madrid and lived in Spain his entire life. He was a farmworker for a wealthy landowner, as many were at that time. He was married, and he and his wife were blessed with one son, who died in childhood.
Isidore was what some might call “a fool for God.” He attended mass daily, and was known to pray in the fields while he worked. He once felt sorry for hungry birds, and gave away half of his bag of corn as feed. Isidore and his wife opened their home to people more unfortunate than themselves, even though they were poor and had very little to offer. Others would often follow Isidore home for a meal and end up eating better than Isidore and his wife.
Isidore had a profound faith that was attended by visible signs and wonders … miracles, if you will. Stories (and complaints) about this peasant farmer and his piety were common. His colleagues complained that he didn’t work very hard, wasting time praying when he should have been working. Then there was a story about the time he gave the corn to the birds. Many chastised him for feeding the birds, only to learn that when he arrived at the mill his bag was full. Other stories included the sighting of angels assisting him in the fields.
He was clearly a simple farmer, and yet not so simple. In 1622 he was canonized a saint along with four others. He wasn’t of noble birth, nor did he have a high-end education. He didn’t come from a famous or extremely wealthy family. He wasn’t a big name church father. He was a humble, pious, peasant farmer. And the church, in its wisdom, chose to honor his piety and the stories of miracles in the life of this ordinary, and yet not so ordinary, man. Ironically, the list of other saints with whom he was canonized reads like a Who’s Who of famous people … St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa, and St. Philip Neri.
Although some find it a rather childish hymn, I’ve always liked The Saints of God …
I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong; and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake the whole of their good lives long. And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast; and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.
They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door; they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.
One of the reasons I like that hymn is due to its reflection of the saints among us. Isidore is my idea of a saint, and was definitely a common man among us. People like Isidore give me hope. He tried his hardest to live into his faith, praying and serving God in his daily life. I’m sure many thought him a fool, praying in the fields when there was work to be done, feeding the birds from his sack of grain, and taking in those in need when he had so little for himself. But I have to ask myself, “What’s a fool? And who gets to decide?” Who knows, maybe I’m a fool, too, living and working in Colombia instead of laboring to climb the professional ladder of culturally defined success in the U.S. Maybe I’m a fool for holding up Isidore as a role model. Well, if that’s a fool, then so be it. I’m happy to take Isidore as my model and guide any day.
May 4, 2014
Sometimes God provides pleasant surprises, or at least some of us choose to see them that way. Last week I was sitting in the waiting area of the veterinarian’s office with Wilson, my Springer Spaniel. Another man came in and sat down and we struck up a conversation. After speaking in Spanish for a few minutes, he asked if I’d prefer to speak in English. It turned out he attended a bilingual university here in Bogota and was quite fluent in English. In addition, he was quite articulate. In the course of our conversation I learned he is a speech writer for President Santos (presidential elections in Colombia are scheduled for May 25).
We talked a little about the mood of the Colombian public and some of the potential results of the May elections (which will probably end up in a run-off election on June 15 before the choice of president is finally decided). Most of us in the States are aware of the on-going political and military conflict with the FARC, the Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and are aware of the peace talks that have been taking place over the past year and a half. While many of us may cheer the possibility of peace, we not appreciate that not all Colombians are enamored with the peace process. And, of course, as we noted in our conversation, Colombian political perspectives are multidimensional and not just based on the peace talks.
What occurred to me is the fact that we could have a political discussion that wasn’t based on our personal political perspectives, and the arrogant stance that “of course, one of us was right and the other wrong.” It was delightfully refreshing. Soon we found ourselves moving beyond the political environments of the U.S. and Colombia and talking about bigger picture political issues.
Some of you have heard me use the expression, “the demise of democracy,” as I believe our current problems and the geo-political transformations taking place are expressing something about evolving perspectives on governance and bringing into question the validity and legitimacy of democratic institutions. In our discussion, my new colleague used the more accurate and articulate expression, “The crisis of legitimacy facing Western democracies.” What he had to say was fascinating and put a number of socio-cultural and socio-political issues in perspective. Regardless of any of our personal political bents … right, left, center, or anywhere else along the spectrum, I think we’d all be wise to pay heed. We have a tendency to see things in the immediate, and as if answers are all clearly black and white, rather than in an historical perspective and much more gray than we’re usually willing to admit.
In our conversation we were pointing to a crisis period in global socio-political development. The democratic institutions we’ve built and trusted are failing us, and some might say are no longer functioning. As scholars have noted, crony capitalism has become the norm in today’s democracies, leading to what many economist are now calling a tragic level of income inequality (though, again, our politicians don’t seem to be listening).
I think it speaks loudly that all Western countries are experiencing political polarity and culture wars, along with significant global economic jolts … both highs and lows … such as the crash in 1987, the tech boom of the 1990s, the tech crash of 2000, and the financial crash of 2008. Any student of economic history will tell you that there have always been economic booms and busts, but few would note this kind of economic activity in such a short period of time. We’ve moved away from what we knew as the Industrial Age, experienced two world wars, and are now in a constant state of war with a massive military complex. Intellectually, we’re in a post-modern environment where things we thought we knew are now open to debate. And for many, our religious faith has been displaced by science, or bastardized by a variety of social forces to the point that the average person searches elsewhere for answers to life’s tough questions. The technologies that drove our intellectual attainment since the Renaissance, such as the printing press, are being replaced by new technologies, and no one has fully grasped the ways in which these changes are impacting the ways in which we think and learn. Among those social forces, our governments and subsequent social programs, which were products of the Enlightenment, are failing us. We’re transitioning into a technological panoptic world in which everything we do and say, and everywhere we go, can be tracked and known by others such as our web surfing, nearly all forms of communication, and GPS on our cell phones.
I think the major challenge for most people today is where do we turn with our questions and from where do we seek hope for the future? … to our faith? … to a government we can no longer trust? … to science which we no longer accept has guaranteed universal truths? … ??? As I noted in our conversation … which, again, was delightful being able to talk about such complex social issues … I, personally, think this is a great time to be a person of faith, and in particular, to be a priest. It’s in the midst of this kind of social chaos that the church has a tremendous opportunity. People are looking for solace and guidance in this period of great change, and the church has the capability to provide both. We have the opportunity to be innovative and respond to cynicism and despair, by providing leadership that reflects the kind of church I think God means for us to be … by doing things like putting our faith into action to develop micro-finance programs and housing for the poor, providing food and advocacy for more effective social programs for the hungry, providing healthcare to the sick and dying who lack adequate care, reaching out to inmates in our overflowing prisons, advocating for human rights, and reaching out to those around us as a reminder that we have more in common than that which divides us. We may not always be that church, but I, for one, am going to keep trying.
March 13, 2014
When was the last time you heard anyone mention Rutilio Grande? … or maybe you’ve never even heard of Rutilio Grande. In case this is the first you’ve heard of him, Fr. Grande was a Jesuit priest in El Salvador. In time, he came to understand his vocational call and God’s expectation of him to be one of self-sacrifice and loving service. As the seminary director of social action projects in San Salvador, he encouraged his students to spend time living among the poor in the countryside learning to understand their struggles and their faith. By empowering the poor to understand their own sense of dignity and their rights as children of God, he became known as a “radical” priest and a troublemaker. Since his ministry was active in the 1960 and 1970s, a picture might be forming in your mind if you have any knowledge of what was happening in Central America at that time. He regularly preached on social justice issues and named the hypocrisy of those who called themselves Christians yet stood by silently while their brothers and sisters were being oppressed. After a particularly feisty sermon in which he denounced the sham of democracy in regard to a Colombian priest who was deported from El Salvador without a hearing he was machine-gunned down in his van that afternoon.
When was the last time you heard anyone mention Sister Katherine Drexel? … or, again, maybe you’ve never heard of her. Sr. Katherine was the daughter of Francis Drexel, an extremely successful banker who died in 1885 leaving Katherine and her two sisters a trust of $14,000,000. Katherine was a generous philanthropist, but was also concerned for those on the margins of the church and U.S. society … specifically the black and indigenous communities. In 1891 she founded a new religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People and used her $400,000 a year from her father’s estate to support projects and programs in the black and indigenous communities throughout the U.S.
While I’m assuming neither of these people are on the tip of your tongue, arguably they both had a significant social justice impact. Fr. Grande was a close friend of Bishop Oscar Romero, and his death proved to be the catalyst to move Bp. Romero to become a staunch advocate for the poor (Bp. Romero was assassinated celebrating mass in 1980). Katherine, as mother superior of her order, provided a significant witness in serving the under-served, bringing awareness of the marginalized black and indigenous communities to the fore up until her death in 1955, the same year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama.
Fr Grande and Sr. Katherine both worked for the greater good, and both died not knowing whether or not their work had had any impact. I think all missioners have to wonder, at times, if what they are doing matters. When we’re in the field, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we have days when we wake up and wonder if anything we’re doing really matters. We hear stories of people who worked for years in a given community only to learn after they returned home that the community in which they worked digressed. Hospitals deteriorate and are abandoned. Housing deteriorates and is abandoned. Schools deteriorate and are closed. Projects lose their funding. We return to a community after building the foundation for a school only to discover years later that the school is still just the foundation we built. We learn through contacts that Diocesan priorities have changed and the program we and so many were convinced would be the catalyst for significant change in that particular Diocese … is no longer in operation.
While I hope and pray that the work I’m doing, and the approach to development I’ve started, one that does not rely on me, but rather empowers others with tools and training, will continue long after I’m gone, I have no way of knowing what will happen in the future. And the reality is that none of us knows what will happen. We don’t know God’s plan. We may never see the fruits of our labor. We do not know if we’ll one day be called upon by God to do something other than what we’re currently doing. We may never be called by God to lead a social justice movement. Our work may not become the foundation for an internationally recognized organization. But, we do what we do anyway, because what we can do is continue to discern and be the person God calls us to be.
I can relate to people like Fr. Rutilio and Sr. Katherine. They didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize (though Sr. Katherine was eventually canonized by the Roman Catholic Church). Their names didn’t become internationally recognized. They didn’t set the world on fire by their actions. But they did make a difference. They both lived in to who they were called to be, and both did their part in working toward the Kingdom of God. I hope and pray that’s what we’re all doing, whether it’s around the globe, around our home country, or around the corner from our home.
February 25, 2014
Many of us have seen the movie Sister Act. After Whoopi Goldberg turns a San Francisco monastery upside down with her ideas, Maggie Smith, the Mother Superior, tells her she has requested a transfer. Her comment to Whoopi explaining why she is leaving is something like, “You’ve got the sisters thinking life in this community is some kind of ongoing bake sale.” The point she makes is that life is hard, can be unsafe in their neighborhood, and as such there will be bad days. And when Whoopi tries to convince her she can still be a part of the changes happening in the monastery, Maggie states, “I’m sorry, but I’ve misplaced my tambourine.”
In some ways, I think missioners and people back home have that same kind of vision of mission work … an ongoing bake sale. Somehow responding to the call to serve in mission is some kind of spiritual elation or exotic vacation. Everyone seems to understand that the electricity might go out, the internet might go down, you might live in or regularly visit houses without floors, there might be insects around you that carry disease, and so on. But there is this sense of the “noble savage,” the idealized poor person who somehow has this perfect and meritorious life. And when we live among them, what could be perceived as challenging somehow gets glorified as part of an “adventure” or “exotic vacation” with the implication of it being always positive. The reality is that life is life … no matter where you live. We’re all human. There are good days, and there are bad days. Along with the highs of successes and accomplishments come the lows of frustration and disappointment. There are days when you want to celebrate life and God’s many blessings, and there are days when you don’t want to get out of bed. It doesn’t matter where you are, what you’re doing, or what in particular is going on your life. Most of us just go through a normal rhythm of life that includes the highs and the lows.
To be completely honest, lately I’ve experienced the lows; I’ve been in what you might call an emotional slump (which, by the way, is a real thing and completely normal). I couldn’t tell you why. There isn’t anything in particular you could contribute it to. I’m not someone prone to depression (so don’t panic), and as a rule I think I’m typically an optimist and see the rainbow behind most clouds. As a business guy, I tend to see an opportunity when others see a problem. But a part of my humanity is I occasionally get into a slump … or what we call at home becoming “Mr. Attitude.”
The trick, of course, is being able to deal with it and get beyond it. My approach is through spiritual discipline. A friend once asked me about my discipline. I told him that in some ways a great deal of my spiritual discipline is practice for when I really needed it. My spiritual discipline includes reading and reflecting with books like All Saints which I’ve referenced in a number of my blog entries. I also like to use both my small Episcopal Prayer Book (The Book of Common Prayer) and Praying Our Days by Frank Griswold, the 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
While it might be considered a little inappropriate, one of the things I noted recently in my reading that I took some comfort in was that the saints also had bad days. In particular, I guess you could say that martyrdom in the form of a beheading, being shot, or being burned at the stake probably reflected a bad day. Although we often read about the martyrs experiencing an epiphany, praying with great joy, or experiencing some kind of spiritual glory, which I have no doubt in my mind they do and did, I also have to believe that in their humanity, at some point prior to their executions, they had their “slump.” Even Christ is quoted as having said on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Again, it may not be the most appropriate message to take away from the lives of the saints, but I find it reassuring that I don’t have to be perfect and that it’s okay to feel a little cranky once in a while … aka, be “Mr. Attitude.”
Another thing that my spiritual discipline tends to do for me is point me back to the many blessings in my life. It’s easy to see only the negative if you allow yourself to wallow in your slump. I find that when I talk and listen to God, I begin to assess my blessings. An email from a friend, a visit in the office from someone I haven’t seen in a while, a positive response to a grant application, a sunny day, the preparing and delivering of an interesting sermon, a mother with a cute baby in the market, a special meal or specific dessert, and more, all serve to remind me of the many blessings in life … in my life. And as of January, another of my blessings includes my new companion, Wilson, a Springer Spaniel puppy. Many of us know of the blessings and joy a pet can bring into our lives. While it’s a good deal of work to raise a puppy, I give thanks for the blessing of Wilson and the joy he brings into my life and home.
I think the most important part of my spiritual discipline is listening and reflecting. Ultimately, I think I’d be sunk if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to talk with God. It’s during this time that I’m reminded of what matters to me … reminded of my vocational call … reminded of the many blessings in my life … and, when needed, find myself coming out of a slump.
February 6, 2014
Last week I gave an online presentation to a group of sociologists at Boston College about Colombia and the work of the Diocese. We had a great conversation about Colombia’s history and its current challenges. We talked about positive change such as a growing economy, the reduction in paramilitary violence thanks to the peace talks, and the fact that Bogota is considered the Silicon Valley of South America. We also talked about ongoing problems such as the fact that violence against women (specifically the throwing of acid in the face to disfigure) is up 25% in the past 5 years, the ongoing human rights challenges related to land reform, the humanitarian crisis of displaced persons (5.2 million), one of the highest rates of income inequality in the Americas, and the fact that Colombia has joined the list of the top 25 countries for persecution of Christians (primarily due to Christians taking a stand in support of human rights).
In my presentation, I shared the ongoing work of the Diocese and the work I do in support of Diocesan priorities. We talked about the diocesan focus on youth leadership programs, addressing the needs of the displaced in our communities, addressing the needs of the elderly, and support and empowerment programs for single mothers. We talked about the micro-loan program in Cali, the women’s program in Soacha, and the elder housing program in San Rafael. I shared some of the projects currently being developed for low-income housing for single-parent families in Cartagena, church construction projects (where the church will double as a community center), and the farming project in Facatativa.
Inevitably, in a conversation with sociologists the discussion will move from social programs to systemic justice. It’s one thing to offer food for the poor. It’s another to provide them with training and skills, and to work toward addressing the social structures and political systems that have contributed to their poverty. It’s one thing to build low-income housing. It’s another to address the political and social challenges behind the fact that single-parent households find themselves poor and homeless. It’s addressing those structures and systems that contribute to social problems that most of us mean when we talk about systemic justice. Yes, there is an immediate need to feed and house someone. But there is another longer term need to ensure that the systems that create situations of hunger and homelessness be addressed. In Boston, I cooked in a soup kitchen for 13 years. I served on boards that addressed the needs of the homeless and the hungry. I also participated in programs and made donations to political organizations that were working to address the underlying issues that created the need for soup kitchens and shelters.
As we talked about these issues in the context of Colombia, we discussed addressing systemic issues. As a missioner working in another country, I struggle with two specific challenges in the context of systemic injustice. While I’m not one to be afraid to speak out, there is a very real danger in speaking out. The fact that Colombia is on the top 25 list of countries for Christian persecution is precisely because those who have spoken out against systemic injustices and sided with the poor have been silenced in some way. (That’s not to imply, by the way, that the problem is with the government, because I don’t believe that’s the case.) The problem is that there are always individuals who benefit from broken systems and structures, and understandably, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and dislike it when someone rocks the boat.
But beyond any practical concern, as a missioner I question whether or not it’s my place to address systemic issues. A quick review of the history of mission demonstrates the ways in which previous missionaries went into countries and “thought” they were addressing systemic issues and promoting what they considered needed change. While well-meaning, their ideas created systems of dependency, supported the efforts and misadventures of colonial powers, and established “their” version of right and wrong based on their predominantly Western perspective. I won’t go into great detail to explain what I mean by the following statement, but many scholars/people familiar with colonialism and the church’s history of mission would say that a great deal of the international problems we’re experiencing today have their roots in colonial history … and the church shares that blame.
You might also ask, “Who am I to think I know what’s best for others in another country?” You might ask what kind of credibility I have as a missioner, given the legacy of those who came before me. Some would say that any attempt on the part of someone like me to name and address systemic issues is simply a form of “neo-colonialism,” a repeat of a Westerner thinking he knows better than his hosts what’s best for them.
Beyond the previous points, there is yet another issue. Who am I to tell someone else about their problems when my own country is a mess? What kind of credibility can I possibly have when CEOs in the US have massively disproportionate salaries from their employees contributing to an income inequality that rivals those we consider “developing countries,” there is widespread technological displacement in the labor market, there are rapidly escalating poverty rates, the college-educated middle class finds itself surviving on food stamps, and our federal government is completely ineffective and dysfunctional. I seem to recall a scriptural lesson where Christ states, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” … How apt!
So, then the question becomes, “Since it’s not really appropriate to engage in work toward systemic change, is there anything I can do other than treat the symptoms?” I think the answer is a definite, “yes.” In fact, I’d like to think that’s actually central to my work, and also to the work of most missioners today. Missioners are typically engaged in what we call “empowerment” and “accompaniment.” Though those words get tossed around a great deal and are often misunderstood, at their core they point to our desire to enable others to stand up for themselves and to address systemic injustices in their own social context. For example, instead of fighting for women’s rights, we empower and support women to stand up for their own rights. Instead of addressing the underlying problems behind displacement, we support the displaced by providing the tools and encouragement to stand up for their rights. This is accompaniment … this is empowerment … this is mission.
January 18, 2014
I was in the States over the holidays and met many new people. The standard conversation would start with something like, “So what do you do?” I would respond, “I serve as an Episcopal missionary in Colombia.” The responses varied, but many were of the kind that I call “awe looks.” In some ways, it’s nice to be respected and to have people appreciate what you’re doing. In others, it feels a little strange as I’m still me, and my work in Colombia, or elsewhere, is just a part of my spiritual journey.
I remember the days when I was a doctoral student. As a PhD student there is a sense that you’ve “made it.” You’ve climbed the student ladder to the top. You were accepted into a program. You may have received a really nice financial package. And if you’re teaching, as most PhD students do, at some point you are treated like the professors. Students who don’t know the difference between doctoral students and faculty often refer to you as “Dr. ____” or “Prof. ____.” We often feel like “we’ve arrived.” When we complete our doctoral programs, though, we realize that the PhD wasn’t an end, but rather a beginning … a start of a career … a new opportunity to apply all of that knowledge we spent so many years nurturing.
Similarly, some people think of baptism as an end. It’s kind of like “you’ve made it” as a Christian by virtue of getting baptized. As I said in my homily last week, I think this is an incorrect way of thinking about baptism. Baptism is a fresh start. Paul said we emerge from baptism to walk “in newness of life.” Baptism transforms our lives leading us to think, speak, live, and act in ways that represent to the world the image of Christ. It transforms our behaviors, changing weakness into strength, greed into generosity, and hated into kindness. But all that doesn’t magically happen when we’re baptized. It happens throughout our lives as we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out, and live into, what baptism means. The transformation happens throughout our lives as we continue to be open to what our baptism means to each of us as a member of the body of Christ. I think the Christian life, at its best, is an ongoing transformation in which we continue to be shaped by the presence of Christ within us.
This week we remember Martin Niemoeller (yes, I’m still reading, and reflecting on, the All Saints book I’ve referenced in previous posts), a Confessing Pastor in Germany who became famous for many of us because of the following quote:
When the Nazis came to get the Communists, I was silent, because I was not a Communist. When they came to get the Socialists, I was silent. When they came to get the Catholics, I was silent. When they came to get the Jews, I was silent. And when they came to get me, there was no one left to speak.
While many of us appreciate the quote and understand its sentiment, I suspect few of us fully appreciate Pastor Niemoeller’s spiritual journey behind it. Niemoeller began his career as an officer in the German military in WWI. He later became a Lutheran pastor following in the footsteps of his father. As a discontented German after the treaty of Versailles, he was an early supporter of the National Socialist movement (the Nazis). Also, like other Christians at that the time, he espoused Anti-Semitic sentiment “believing the Jewish people were to be condemned for their rejection of Christ” (All Saints, 1998). It was only after the Nazis began their rise to power, and Christian tradition was being twisted to support a brand of hatred espoused by Nazi leaders, that he began to grow uneasy with what was happening in Germany. And while he was growing concerned, he didn’t appreciate the terrible danger behind the Nazi position both to those who the Nazis treated as “others” and to the church until it was too late. It was only later that he realized how much he had failed to speak out about the wrongs being perpetrated in Nazi Germany, a failure that he journeyed with for the rest of his life.
Given the popular quote and the spiritual journey, in many ways I think Martin Niemoeller reflects the baptismal journey I’m trying to highlight. It’s the journey all of us baptized Christians are on, or ought to be on. My mission work in Colombia is just another part of that journey for me … another part of my living in to my baptismal call. It isn’t better or worse than any other journey. It doesn’t give me a special place in line at the Pearly Gates. It just is what it is. It’s not worthy of the “awe look” any more than all of the things the rest of us do … serving the poor at a soup kitchen … helping an elderly neighbor with basic chores … leading a short term domestic or international mission … working as an elementary school teacher … serving as a lay leader in a church … being an attentive parent … or??? … it’s just how I feel called to live out my baptismal call.
I think the ultimate question for all of us is, “How are we called to live out our baptismal call?” I also believe that as we answer that question for ourselves, we discover that we’re on a spiritual journey … one that helps us learn, grow, and transform into the person God wants and needs us to be.