June 11, 2015
While living abroad, I read about the Aurora movie theatre in Colorado where James Holmes gunned down 12 people and injured 70 more. The following year (2013) I learned about the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three, injured 264, and traumatized the residents of Boston and the Northeast. I also learned about Adam Lanza, the 20 year old who gunned down 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT.
Then when I ask if a mission team might be interested in developing a parish-to-parish relationship in Colombia, I get a standard reply, “Oh no, we couldn’t go there … it’s too dangerous.”
Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, and Cincinnati … yes, Cincinnati … are listed as among the most dangerous cities in the U.S. and among some of the most dangerous in the world. Most people wouldn’t think twice about visiting any of those cities, but people don’t want to come to Bogota, because “it’s too dangerous.” For three and a half years I lived in a middle class neighborhood in Bogota. I never felt afraid or threatened in anyway and never had a concern for my personal safety. I didn’t experience any acts of violence, and there were no reported incidents of terrorist acts. There were a few occasions when the government was on higher alert than normal, but that wasn’t any different from the last time I was in New York City when there was a heightened alert (since the terrorist attacks in 2001).
When discerning mission trip possibilities, parents freak if Colombia is mentioned, and yet sign off willingly to send a youth group to El Salvador, a country that the Department of State lists as having high levels of crime that include “stolen passports, extortion, muggings, highway assaults, home invasions, and attacks at ATMs,” and further notes that it has one of the highest gang violence rates in the world. Thousands pack off to Honduras on mission trips even though the Department of State “continues to warn U.S. citizens that the level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high” and the UN states that it has the highest homicide rate in the world. In fact, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala are 4 of the top 5 most dangerous countries, making Central America one of the most dangerous regions in the world … and yet, mission trips abound in all of those countries while Colombia is deemed “too dangerous.”
In the early 2000s when violence was the norm in Haiti, the local bishop was so concerned about the safety of mission teams working in Haiti that he started requesting that they consider not coming because he couldn’t guarantee their safety, yet mission teams still went. But, again, when asked about the possibility of engaging in mission in Colombia, the standard reply is, “Oh no, we couldn’t go there … it’s too dangerous.”
Mission teams pack off to various locations in Africa that are not only experiencing high levels of religious and political violence, but those teams invite their lesbian and gay parishioners to participate while many African countries have instituted either life imprisonment or capital punishment for being homosexual. No one in Colombia has ever been beheaded or thrown off the roof of a building simply for being accused of being gay, but “we couldn’t go there … it’s too dangerous.”
I’m not sure why it is that people can’t see the dangers in going to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Haiti, or any number of African countries, but seem to have ingrained in their minds that Colombia is “too dangerous.” While many have read in the press that Colombia has had a violent past with kidnappings, para-military activity and active drug cartels, if they continue reading today they will learn that those were a part of their past and shouldn’t continue to define them … just the same as we wouldn’t want the murder of Martin Luther King, racial violence in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or the more recent racially-driven incidents between police and the public to define the States.
Colombia has been engaged in peace talks for the past 2 years. Indiscriminate (chemical) spraying of farm lands is being completely phased out. Coca production has dropped so significantly in recent years that Colombia is no longer considered the primary supplier of coca for the production of cocaine (Bolivia and Peru have attained that distinction). Today, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security states that “Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations like Cartagena and Bogota.” The State Department lists no major travel advisories and states that “tens of thousands of US citizens safely visit Colombia each year.” [the bold is my emphasis]
I’m not sure what to think about all this or how to change it, but for the benefit of Colombians and for the sake of the church I believe it needs to change. Maybe the issue has to do with what we know about each country. We know the poverty rates and inequality faced by Haitians, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans. We know a little about the indigenous populations in those countries, and we know about the programs the respective dioceses and local parishes have been developing and supporting. We also know people who have been involved in those various programs.
So then maybe what people need is to know more about the aftermath of over 50 years of civil strife and drug wars in Colombia. Maybe they need to understand more about Colombia’s displacement rate, one of the world’s highest at 5.2 million people. Displacement means being forced to live somewhere other than what you call “home.” Often the displaced are local farmers with limited education and skill beyond their farming talents. Landless, they have no way to care for themselves and their families, so they end up in slums on the edges of any of the major cities in Colombia. Yes, you read that right … 5.2 million out of 46 million people, or said another way, 11% of the population. The displaced are a major contributor to the economic inequality in Colombia, with an inequality rate that rivals Haiti for the highest in this hemisphere. Together, they contribute to the fact that 47% of Colombia’s economy is “informal,” which translates to all of those folks entertaining in the streets, selling from baskets they carry through a neighborhood or from a cart pulled by a horse, and so forth. In real terms that means that 47% of the population isn’t paying taxes and subsequently doesn’t have access to the country’s “universal” healthcare system, have any kind of pension, or have access to social security in retirement. Bogota is a world class city in many respects, yet of the 12 million in and around the city, millions lack employment, adequate housing, healthcare, running water, or electricity. It’s estimated that anywhere from 10,000-15,000 orphaned children live in the sewers under the city. Many are drug addicted as they participate in drug running to making money and use drugs to dull the pain of life and their chronic hunger.
Another thought is that maybe people need to know more about what the Diocese is trying to do to address social ills in
Colombia, and how they might be able to get involved. There are 40 priests, three deacons, and two transitional deacons in the Diocese serving 36 parishes and missions located around the country. Clergy are primarily bi-vocational, and most finance their own ministries, demonstrating significant dedication to their vocational call and their respective communities. Diocesan and church-based programs include micro-finance, low-income housing, youth leadership development, women’s empowerment, refugee assistance, food security programs, and medical clinics. The tasks are many, and the laborers few. So while I think we’re called to serve everywhere, including those places I’ve identified as potentially dangerous, I encourage you to also seriously consider Colombia the next time someone raises the question of mission discernment and engagement.
March 25, 2015
I’ve started writing a number of blog entries recently, but haven’t completed any of them. For example, on Tuesday I thought about writing something
on St. Patrick (March 17). In Boston, St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal. Parades and routes are planned, local restaurants and bars serve green beer, and just about everyone in the city is considered to be honorary Irish. Today celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is more about Irish culture and heritage than about a religious holiday. As noted in an article in the Huffington Post by Christine Dalton, Timothy Meager of Catholic University explains that St.
Patrick’s Day celebrations began in the 18th century in American cities with large Irish immigrant populations. “It becomes a way to honor the staint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity. What gets lost in all of the partying and celebration is the fact that St. Patrick was oppressed by the Irish. Like so many people of his time, there are different theories about St. Patrick. But most believe his first trip to Ireland was as a captive of Irish pirates where he was subsequently enslaved and mistreated for six years. What I find most interesting is how he was eventually led back, through a spiritual calling, to serve among those who were his oppressors. As I considered writing about St. Patrick, I happened to think that reaching out to your oppressor was pretty powerful stuff and something that could make for an interesting reflection.
But then I found myself thinking about Wilson. I started to reflect and write about how he is handling the New England winter which has been relentless. Cabin fever, separation anxiety, and raising the roof with Maggie would probably make for an interesting read for anyone who read my Advent post about my trip home with Wilson.
Before considering either of the previous blog posts, I started writing about St. Maximilian (martyr, 295; March 11) who was beheaded in North Africa under the authority of a Roman proconsul for refusing to be conscripted into the Roman army. The life and times of a martyr … particularly one who refused to fight for the army … often provide for good spiritual reflection.
Then I considered writing about St. Joseph (March 19) as the “J” so many of you know from my name … as in Ted J Gaiser … stands for Joseph. I find Joseph interesting as he’s ultimately a silent biblical character with quite a story. He’s a poor laborer, stands behind his young wife who mysteriously became pregnant, his wife gives birth in a stable, and to protect his family he leads them into Egypt. Then after all of that adventure, upon their return to Nazareth Joseph pretty much disappears from the story. Again, there seems to be the makings of some interesting reflections in Joseph’s story.
By now you’re probably seeing a theme. No I don’t have ADD, though I’d probably be hard pressed to prove it given the first paragraphs of this post. What I have noticed, however, is that I’ve not been sleeping well lately. I’ve been waking up at odd hours, having difficulty falling asleep at night, and sometimes finding it difficult to focus. I jump from one thing to another during the day, and when I wake after a restless night, I always have something on my mind. Again, no I don’t have ADD, nor do I believe I’m developing late on-set ADD. I also don’t believe I have any kind of serious emotional, mental, or psychological issue. What I do think is happening, though, is what I refer to as not being able to quiet my mind.
When I was in graduate school, particularly when I was studying for my doctoral qualifying exams, I had issues with an overactive mind. I would be buried in books all hours of the day, and would still be thinking through the fine details of theories, methodologies, and research studies as I was heading to bed. Often, it was hard to quiet my mind. One trick I learned was to watch reruns for 30 to 60 minutes before bed. That would usually be distracting enough to quiet my mind so I could fall asleep.
Another tool I use is prayer. One of the benefits of spiritual discipline is having a specific tool to help quiet my mind. I find that during times when my mind is racing with so many different things, sitting quietly in prayer, asking for guidance and help in quieting all that’s swirling around in my head, can bring me some mental rest and help me focus … if only for a short while.
I remember a conversation with Bp. Shaw one time during which he shared that someone once asked him how he found time in his busy schedule to pray, to which he responded, “How can I not?” He was right. It’s when our minds are spinning and when we’re at our busiest that, counterintuitively, we need prayer and quiet time more than ever.
I have a lot going on right now, and Holy Week is just around the bend (there’s a reason why many clerics take holiday the week after Easter). So I’m sure if I thought about it for a few minutes I could probably come up with a list of possibilities for why my mind is so restless. And I suppose, in a strange sort of way, I should be honored to have a restless mind as it may be reflective of a healthy and active mind. Seriously, though, the reality is that there isn’t any particular issue that is haunting me, no issue stressing me out, or anything in particular that I’m worried about. I’m not overworked, preparation for worship is typically quite enjoyable, and I’ve had some good times recently with local friends and visitors. I guess it’s just one of those times in life when there’s a lot going on and I seem to be holding everything in my head. So for now, I guess it’s back to prayer.
February 20, 2015
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent during which Christians engage in sacrifice and self-denial. My understanding of the reasoning behind Lenten discipline is that it dates back to the early days of the church during which individuals used Lenten disciplines to “purify” themselves in preparation for baptism at Easter. For the rest of us, it became an opportunity to recall and renew our own commitment to our baptism.
You’ve probably heard about “Ashes to Go,” a program that brings Ash Wednesday out of the church and into the streets. I have to confess, I tend to be a traditionalist and often feel like these types of programs are more a fad or a funky trend than a reflection of our faith. My initial feeling about “Ashes to Go” was that it waters down the spirit of the reflection and repentance of Ash Wednesday (much like my feeling about the “sacrifice” of giving up of chocolate for Lent). That’s not to say that I don’t think a Lenten discipline has value, because I do. It’s just that I’ve had trouble with what actions I consider trite and not all that sincere.
Now, having said that, I need to say that I’ve had a change of heart … a shift in perspective … or more specifically, I was wrong. Yesterday I stood on the steps of La Catedral de San Pablo in Bogota for a two-hour shift of “Ashes to Go.” [There were several other clergy who took shifts throughout the day.] During my time I had some interesting experiences, a few of which I’d like to share.
When I first started my shift a man walked up the steps escorting his elderly mother. She asked if I would give her ashes and then asked if it was okay if she went into the Cathedral to pray. Before I could reply, she indicated that she wasn’t Anglican and so wasn’t sure if it was okay for her to pray in the Cathedral. Of course, I invited her in and encouraged her to take her time. I also invited her to speak with me if she had any questions or needed anything. She and her son proceeded to kneel in the first set of pews and prayed for about fifteen minutes. When they left, they asked about Sunday services and thanked me both for my hospitality and for the ashes.
A short while later, a couple of young women stopped and asked if I had ashes. There is a nursing school up the street from the Cathedral and they were both in nurse’s uniforms and carrying book bags. So I think it’s safe to assume they were nursing students. They asked a few questions about church and Ash Wednesday, and then asked if it was okay if they went into the Cathedral to pray. After they received ashes I extended an invitation to enter the Cathedral for prayer as well as to ask any questions. Their only question was about Sunday service times.
At one point, a taxi drove up and stopped in front of the church steps. The passenger rolled down his window and asked if I would walk over to the car so he could receive ashes. As I walked down the steps, I noticed he was praying while waiting for me. After I imposed ashes, the taxi driver slid over into the passenger seat, rolled down the window and stated, “Me, too!” After imposing ashes to the driver, we all prayed together for a minute or two, and I offered them a blessing, at the passenger’s request. As the taxi drove off, both were smiling and the passenger shouted to me, “Muchas Gracias, Padre!”
There was a steady flow of people throughout my time on the Cathedral steps. I had elderly visitors who ask for a prayer for their health after I imposed ashes. A young man on crutches and without a leg climbed the steps before I had a chance to tell him I’d come down to him. Several mothers pushing strollers stopped for ashes and were grateful when I offered a blessing for their babies. But the most powerful experience I had was with an older man who first wanted to talk with me. He told me he was separated from his wife and wondered if it was okay for him to receive ashes. Based on my experience with other people in Colombia who have been separated from the church for many years due to a separation or divorce (if you were married in the Roman Catholic Church you can’t get divorced without permission from the church, which is rarely given), I had the sense that this man was spiritually troubled. We had a brief discussion about the church’s stand on separation and divorce after which he asked, with tears in his eyes, if I would be willing to impose ashes, which I did. We stood together in silence for a short time just looking at each other, and then he walked away.
Again, I have to say that based on my experience I was wrong about “Ashes to Go!” I think my engagement with folks on the street was as powerful for me as it was for them. People seemed to long for an opportunity to step away from the world for a few minutes and reflect. I realized that there are those who might want to be in church, but for whatever reason feel estranged from the institution. There were young people longing for a sense of spirituality in their lives, who used the opportunity to have an encounter with Christ. And I think there were people simply longing for a connection with God. I watched people walk by, reflect a moment, and then return to ask for ashes. I prayed with people, offered blessings, and invited people to sit in the Cathedral for private prayer and reflection. There were children on their way home from school, college students, employees from local businesses, people young and old, male and female, those estranged from the institutional church and some who are parishioners. While I learned some of their stories, and knew others, there were many of whom I know nothing about what is, or was, on their hearts. But what I do know is that God was there with us today. I had an encounter with the Holy, and it changed my heart. I stand corrected.
December 23, 2014
The expression, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” most of us know as Murphy’s Law. As I reflect on my recent experiences, Murphy’s Law seems most apt.
I’m currently winding down projects for 2014 and getting ready to head back to the States for the holidays. As I’ve noted in my newsletters and annual report, my travel home for the holidays this year includes taking Wilson, my Springer Spaniel. Traveling with a pet, as some of you know, can be a real challenge. I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a headache arranging for Wilson’s travel has been for me. Little did I know, though, that when things started getting crazy, I was actually just getting started.
I’ll spare you all of the initial details, but suffice it to say that I had several different conversations about pet travel, with several different people, all of whom gave me different information. After many frustrating conversations, I decided on my own game plan and things started looking up.
I returned from a board meeting in Atlanta in November to discover Wilson had a funny red spot on his foot. Not wanting to learn at the last minute that it was something bad that would prevent him from receiving a clean bill of health to travel, I decided to err on the side of caution and took him to the vets. That was a really good thing! It turned out he had a parasitic infection that enters the blood stream through the feet … usually between the toes. So, I had to clean and protect his foot for 10 days (he wore a sock held on with Velcro) and he had to take antibiotics. I was relieved to have been cautious with a vet’s visit.
Following on his foot infection, I noticed that his right eye had some swelling. So, again, not wanting to discover a problem late in the game, which was already getting too close for comfort, we returned to the vet’s. This time, the vet and I had a good laugh. The swelling on his eye lid was an allergic reaction to either a bug bite (of which there are very few in Bogota) or possibly a scratch. Noting my Medic Alert the vet commented “he’s definitely your dog.” In any event, a little antihistamine lotion for a few days was all it took for the swelling to go down.
Finally, our week before travel approached … the fateful week during which Wilson needed to have his physical exam and certification for travel. I had made arrangements to take Wilson to the vet’s office for his official evaluation, review of vaccinations, and ultimately, a documented clean bill of health. We then had a reservation for a taxi to take us to the airport in the afternoon for the final certification of his travel documents (aka, his pet passport). All of this had to be done within a window of 72 hours prior to travel (our tickets were for Sunday night).
You’ll notice I’m using the past tense and today is Tuesday. Last Wednesday Wilson tossed his lunch on my office floor and stopped to go to the bathroom multiple times on the way back to the vet’s office. She did a quick evaluation and deduced that he needed to stay in the hospital overnight … NOT good news for someone wanting travel papers in 2 days. Needless to say, Wilson had an infection. He’s been completely fine and healthy for months … and a month before we need to travel he has 3 different health issues in a row. Go figure! So I had to change our flights, family members had to change their holiday plans, I had to cancel appointments planned for when I’m home, I remade our appointment for Wilson’s physical on Monday, and changed our transportation reservations for getting to the airport.
By now some of you are probably thinking to yourselves, “What a major drag. Ted must be completely frustrated by now.” Ah, but it gets better. In the midst of dealing with Wilson’s issues I received a travel advisory from the U.S. Embassy informing international travelers that there will be travel problems. Colombia’s Immigration Services went on strike last week which has made getting through immigration a nightmare. Just what I needed! … What was it I said earlier? … “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong!”
As it turns out, though, there was something fortuitous about all the travel craziness. My good friend, Padre Jose, had been extremely ill and in intensive care at the hospital for a few weeks. I learned on Sunday afternoon on my way to church that Jose lost his battle and funeral arrangements were being made for Tuesday. Given the changes in my travel plans, I was able to be with my friends and participate in the service.
I suppose now is when I’m supposed to reflect spiritually on all of what I just shared, noting things like “it was meant to be,” and so on. But, frankly, I don’t know yet what to think. I haven’t had time to process, and I’m inclined to think that sometimes things are just what they are … no deep spiritual meaning … no theological significance … just stuff that happens. I’m more inclined to reflect on something more personal. Being from Boston, I’ve lived in a city where everything moves fast and everyone is expected, to a certain extent, to move with it. When life throws you a curve ball, you get miffed and it screws everything up. Things like stress come from getting upset having to deal with the curve balls … the car that breaks down, the person who doesn’t show up on time for a meeting, a major illness in the family, a vacation that turns out to be something less than relaxing, a sick pet, and so forth. While my holiday travel plans haven’t quite gone as intended, one of the things my life in mission has taught me is, “Such is life.” It’s not worth the stress and aggravation of getting upset. When all is said and done, I trust that everything will be fine. Wilson and I will eventually make it home for the holidays, I’ll enjoy spending time with family and friends, and all will be well. Maybe there is something spiritual in there after all … doesn’t that sound a little like the message of Advent?
November 23, 2014
I’ve been reading a book on Fair Trade. Although there are many issues I could offer regarding the Fair Trade model, the ultimate concern for many of us, including the author of the book, is that “Fair Trade” is not achieving its goals. Fair Trade started as a movement to address the injustices that began under colonial mercantile systems primarily by providing a living wage to producers. Its purpose was, and is, noble, and there are really good folks engaged in the fair trade movement, some of whom are experiencing success. However, categories of Fair Trade products such as cotton, coffee, and cocoa, have been less successful. We pay extremely high premiums intending to do the right thing, and yet little has changed for the local producers. In some cases, producers have even abandoned their Fair Trade contracts to seek better prices on the open market. As I ponder the issues pertaining to Fair Trade, and my own involvement in the movement (I, too, sell Fair Trade products such as coffee and chocolate in church-based fundraising events, and often make a point of purchasing products labeled as Fair Trade when I shop), I have to ask myself why so many of our well-intentioned efforts, such as this one, seem to go awry.
When Muhammad Yunus received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in micro-finance, many of us shifted into gear and started developing and/or supporting micro-lending enterprises. Today, research such as that by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo published in Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, explains that micro-finance has had little impact or failed miserably in many places. In fact, in some cases the poor have been badly abused by lending systems, and many are now nothing more than indentured servants as they are unable to repay the loans they were encouraged to take. Their research, for example, showed that in India when poor people need money, many have returned to working with local loan sharks. The interest rates in micro-loan programs have been exceedingly high, ranging from 30% – 70%, investors such as hedge funds have entered the market simply to make a profit off of the poor, loan programs are often based on the assumption that everyone wants to be an entrepreneur (and has the necessary training to do so), and much like in the one-third world, individuals have been cajoled into taking loans greater than they can ever repay.
We like to talk about self-help and often note that many believe a hand-up is better than a handout, as the former is more likely to address the underlying issues of poverty whereas the later simply creates dependency. So, for example, at one point agencies provided high-yield seed, access to small farm loans, and access to needed farming equipment … particularly in Africa. But the US and Europe have continued to provide large farm subsidies for their farmers, artificially lowering the market price on commodities like cotton and corn, and ultimately undercutting the ability of poor African farmers to make a profit selling their produce in the market.
Many of us have seen and heard the research on child slavery in the cocoa industry. We’re aware that approximately 70% of all cocoa comes from slave plantations. Children are sold by their poor families believing the promises that they will have access to a good paying job and possibly be able to provide needed support for the family someday. Others are kidnapped and/or sold into slavery by slave traders. Many of us talk about the issues and encourage our friends and family to buy slave-free chocolate. And yet our actions have had little impact on the likes of the Hershey Company, one of the largest chocolate distributors in the world, and which knowingly continues to buy roughly half of its cocoa from slave plantations.
Now that I’ve noted a number of ways in which those of us living in the one-third world of wealthier nations seem to have lost our way and/or failed at our attempts to make the world more equitable, I’d like to keep things balanced and make it clear that we’re not the only ones who fail. I’ve known missionaries who gave years of their lives to build up hospitals to bring quality medical care to the poor … only to learn after their departures that hospital funds were diverted to other programs and local medical staffs pillaged hospital supplies. I know people who have created and staffed mobile clinics in extremely poor regions, providing basic medical services and donating large quantities of medications to meet the needs of those with chronic illnesses … only to return and discover that people weren’t taking their medicine, because the local nurse who was placed in charge of distribution was selling the medications to embellish her income. I’m well aware of church-based grants for orphanages, AIDS programs, and the like, that have purchased automobiles for diocesan staff, repaired and replaced diocesan facilities, and provided the funding to build someone’s home instead of the funds being used as donated. I know of foundations created to channel needed resources into poor communities across the globe for schools, clinics, and low income housing, only to discover that few, if any, of their donated dollars actually made it to the projects they were funding, but rather found its way into community leaders’ pockets.
Again, I’m not implying that all of our efforts are fruitless or that everyone is a cheat. Nor am I suggesting that becoming involved is a waste of time. Not every program is a failure or has some element of corruption. My friend, Bob Lange, for example, has been very successful in Tanzania teaching people how to build energy-efficient cook stoves. Locals have created a cottage industry selling supplies for constructing the cook stoves, people using his design see a dramatic reduction in respiratory ailments, and ultimately, he is saving the forest (from becoming cooking fuel) and reducing their carbon footprint. And that’s just one program. We all know there are many others, some of which are of the types critiqued above … micro-lending that has brought women out of poverty like the program Trinity Church runs in Cali; Fair Trade practices that have been successful among coffee growers in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or among indigenous artisans; and organizations like Ten Thousand Villages that have opened markets for artisans in poor communities around the globe.
The fact remains, however, that a good many of our best efforts go awry. Why? What can we do better? How can we educate ourselves and those with whom we engage to be more successful? Is this “awry affect” an inevitable outcome of capitalism? … I don’t think so. Do we keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome? … Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Do we throw up our hands and cry “uncle,” as if nothing we try will ever work? … Isn’t that just an acceptance of the status quo?
It’s both an honor and an awesome responsibility to serve in mission. If we’re honest with ourselves, we appreciate that we need to be asking ourselves these kinds of questions when we step out in mission … be it short, medium or long-term mission engagement. Will our work and projects go awry? Will we make a bad situation worse? What can we do effectively and what’s outside of our scope? Will our work enable us to take a step forward together with our new friends and colleagues, or will we take a step backward, increasing dependency and dysfunction?
For me, this is where my faith comes in. I’d like to think what I’m doing is beneficial and will have a lasting effect, and that I’m not creating problems or causing damage that in itself will have a long-term effect. Regardless of what I’m doing, I do it with intentionality (and, yeah, I’m aware that the road to hell is paved with good intentions), an on-going openness to God and the Holy Spirit, an on-going willingness to collaborate, and the hope that there is a possibility I can make some kind of difference for the better … no matter how small or large. And I also do it with the trust in God’s grace and the hope that I’ll be forgiven if and when my efforts go awry.
October 22, 2014
Monday I was reading about Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish Roman Catholic priest. While no fan of the communist system, Fr. Jerzy also wasn’t an activist. But when the Gdansk shipyard workers went on strike, and the Warsaw steelworkers went on strike in solidarity with them, in August, 1980, the strikers requested that a priest come and celebrate Mass at the factory. Fr. Jerzy was available and went. During that service Fr. Jerzy came to understand that the strikers’ struggle for justice and freedom was a spiritual struggle. Arguably, it was in that moment that he found “his voice,” requested that his bishop allow him to become chaplain to the striking workers, and became an active voice in the Solidarity movement that eventually led to the end of communism in Poland. (Unfortunately, he never lived to see the end of communism with the elections of 1989. He was found dead on October 20, 1984, after being abducted by secret service agents the day before.)
In my prayers, reflecting on the death of Bishop Tom Shaw, I’ve thought about our many conversations. As others have noted in recent publications, +Tom was a relatively quiet person, living the life of a monk. It wasn’t his tendency to speak, but more his tendency to pray and ask for guidance regarding the work God wanted him to do. It was that guidance that led him to run for bishop in Massachusetts, though he’d never really considered it until that time. Similarly, as bishop, journeying in prayer he found “his voice,” standing up for Palestinian rights, gay rights, marriage equality, and the needs of inner-city youth, among others.
As I think about their witnesses and the finding of their voices, I wonder about my own voice. In some ways, I’m constrained by location. I can endanger myself by what I say publicly. Also, when I speak it reflects on the church in Colombia as well as the entire Episcopal Church, whether or not that was my intention. That said, I still wonder about my voice. Yes, I speak in the U.S., sharing my experience of mission engagement in Colombia and elsewhere. Yes, I’d like to think I speak truths from the pulpit when I preach. But I also know there is so much more I could say.
In a recent meeting, we discussed the realities of cocaine trafficking in Colombia. It was noted in the meeting that 34 million in the U.S. will try cocaine … recreational one-time users. To meet that “recreational” demand, however, the cartels kidnap children and force them to work in the cocaine industry. To deter their desire to return home, their families are killed, often during the kidnapping so the child knows their family is gone and there is nothing to which they might return. On other occasions, we’ve shared about the indiscriminant spraying of fields funded by U.S. dollars that is poisoning children in the countryside. (It’s kind of like the father who spanks all of his children to make sure he gets the right one.) We’ve also discussed and are actively involved in programming to support displaced persons, the 5.2 million people who have lost their homes through para-military violence, political inaction and/or dysfunctional policies, and natural disasters.
When I’m back in the States, I wonder what it will take for me to challenge people to question the U.S. government’s funding of indiscriminant spraying, or whether I’ll have the courage to try and educate young people about that one night of college fun that didn’t just cost them a few hundred dollars for their purchase of a snort of cocaine, but rather the lives of many Colombians and the ruined lives of their kidnapped children. I wonder if I’ll find the voice to speak compassionately and respectfully about those in Colombia forced from their homes, many of whom are still homeless, when people complain about having to deal with dysfunctional banks and their respective system for home mortgages.
I don’t know what God has planned for me, nor do I know how my “voice” may evolve in coming years. I can only pray that like Fr. Jerzy and Bp. Tom, I will have the courage to hear and respond appropriately to what God has to say to me.
September 10, 2014
It’s been my experience that when it comes to mission there are some topics that few want to discuss … sex and healthcare are among them. I’ll leave the former to someone else’s discretion and stick to the latter.
I think we shy away from talking about healthcare for a number of reasons. For one, no one wants to think about the possibility of getting sick, particularly when diseases like Malaria, Ebola, and Yellow Fever are on people’s minds when they travel to less developed areas around the globe. We know that there are many places that lack potable water, mosquitos can transmit malaria and dengue fever, and illnesses such as Chagas disease, among other parasites, can be transmitted by bugs, in water, by interaction with infected people, or through soil. And I suspect, precisely because of that knowledge, and the fact that health issues are often considered very private and taboo for public conversation, we don’t discuss them.
The reality is that missionaries are exposed to a good many potential infections. As such, healthcare is actually an important topic. I, for example, have had more vaccines than most, having traveled to a good many areas around the globe. I had become friends with the medic at the travel clinic in Brighton … and learned that her brother is a priest missionary. I have a yellow international certificate of vaccination that I keep with my passport which notes a list of vaccinations and dates, verifying that my yellow fever, typhoid, and tetanus vaccines are all up to date. While abroad, I carry malarial prophylaxis, Epipens and steroids to address allergic reactions, and a couple different antibiotics. I’ve also probably had more parasitic infections and blood viruses than most. As a testament to my experiential history, I once met with a specialist in Boston while seeking treatment for an infection I picked up in Ecuador. She asked me to tell her my story, finishing with an explanation of my current situation. When I was done she said, “I’ve never met anyone with such extensive medical knowledge for travel … you could have a graduate degree in infectious disease.” Unfortunately, she was probably right.
So by now you’re probably asking yourself why I’m taking about healthcare and infectious diseases. No, I don’t have an infectious disease … at least not one of which I’m aware. I have, however, been sick recently, which is what prompted this blog entry. As luck would have it, lunching with a friend on a Saturday afternoon I got a bad case of food poisoning … a REALLY bad case. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, though, that I was VERY sick. I ate almost nothing for 4 days, ran a fever, and was so ill that I had to have a friend take my dog, because I was unable to care for him.
One of the real drags of being a single missionary is going through the experience of being sick all alone. We all like to be pampered and cared for when we’re sick. That cup of chicken soup is not just about physical nourishment as much as it’s about someone caring for us. In my case, worrying about having a reaction to a medication, getting so sick that I needed emergency care, and so on, created yet another layer of stress given I had limited choices for getting immediate help.
In the States, we all take emergency rooms for granted. For the most part, they are reasonably close and only a car or ambulance ride away. In the ER, we’re reasonably confident there will be someone available with whom we can talk and explain what’s happening and the details of any complicating medical conditions. I happen to have an overly sensitive body that tends not to like medications. The last thing I wanted to have to do laying in a bed in a hospital was explain to a nurse or doctor why I can’t take certain medications … in Spanish! Fortunately, I am blessed with a friend in the area who is a nurse. While I was reluctant to ask someone for help, I mustered my nerve and contacted her early Sunday morning, explaining that I was sure I was in trouble. She asked a bunch of questions and within 30 minutes was at my door with medication and liquids, including sports drinks with electrolytes. After seeing me and learning more details of my situation, she strongly encouraged me to contact my doctor as soon as possible.
Thankfully, I have a great doctor who has told me to call her anytime … 24/7 … and also happens to be bilingual. While I have been blessed with good medical care in the States, I have to say that I’ve been exceedingly impressed with my medical care in Colombia. People often assume that doctors in other countries lack proper education, skill, and adequate tools. (As an aside, I remember going to a doctor in Paraguay in 1978. As he started screwing on a needle to a syringe, I decided I was much better!) My doctor here has always asked all the right questions, doesn’t order a bunch of unnecessary tests to protect herself from medical malpractice, nor does she have to justify her decisions and recommendations to a dysfunctional health insurance system. She makes appropriate assessments, listens carefully to me while asking clarifying questions, and then presents her analysis and recommendations. On this occasion, I called her on a Sunday morning and by afternoon we had made some decisions, she had ordered medication, and had the medication delivered direct to my door. In addition, she called me or requested I call her daily to check in, and occasionally recommended changes to my care plan.
Being sick is never a picnic, but is even more complicated and stressful for those living abroad. I give thanks for the blessings of good friends and the care of a good doctor.
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.