In 1978, following my third year studying agriculture in university I was given the invitation to work in agricultural development in the Issan region of northeast Thailand. The project there was one of holistic agricultural development in remote areas of a region that had been decimated by industrial logging in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The eco-cycle throughout the region had been thoroughly broken. Where lush jungle had previously grown farmers now had a difficult time raising even one crop of rice to feed themselves. Digging fish ponds in difficult to access areas the project built farrowing units and supplied bred sows and training so that members of these cooperatives could spend one day a week caring for the hogs, managing the fish, and planting vegetables and crops on the dike, fertilized by hog manure to supply their daily needs and as a source of cash income. It was a great project. All this was supplied to villagers for free. I went there to balance feed rations from local feedstuffs and give technical support in raising pigs.
While there I was drawn into another aspect of the region. Assisting a doctor who worked at the refugee camp in Nong Khai I first met those who fled the bombing of their homeland in eastern Laos precipitated by American bombers. From 1964 – 1973 the US had dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions in that region alone. It was the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years. It was the largest bombing campaign in history. The US was not at war with Laos but carried out these actions in order to destabilize the region which bordered on Vietnam. The people I met in the camp were simple Lao farmers who suffered from amputations, blindness, deafness, concussions, shrapnel, phosphorous burns, and psychological trauma. Some of these simple, gentle, beautiful people had been displaced for over a decade. At first I was traumatized, not so much by the physical monstrousness of the wounds (as an animal science student I was used to the grittier side of livestock peoduction), but more so I was shocked by the social malaise of this senselessly inflicted chaos that I was told by the Lao themselves. As I started to work through their issues my own life came into question. I had seen things that I did not like, things that I had no way to make sense of, things that my own country had inflicted through my own tax dollars. Where was the sense in all of that? What was the meaning of all of that? I took these experiences in stride and they sat bottled up in me for months. And then on my flight home out over the Pacific Ocean I broke down and started sob uncontrollably. I was thankfully seated by myself. I could not contain myself. A stewardess enquired if I were alright? I assured her that I was. I made my way back to the washroom and spent time there. I washed my face several times. I cried some more. I returned to my seat and fell asleep, exhausted. When I landed I realized that I was not the same person as I had been when I left. My life had split in two.
Back home I could not gain a hearing. No one wanted to listen. They listened to my presentations on the development work. This was a project that they funded. This represented progress to them. Their logic was that if they gave these people enough aid that then they could care for themselves. Business could develop. Standards of living would rise. They could become like we were. This was common sense to the people with whom I had been raised. After all, they saw themselves as having the highest standard of living in the world. I had been raised on that premise. But my encounters in Thailand exposed it for the selfish myth that it was. What was I to do with my life where I would not be party to this blind narcissism? And that word do became a mantra for me. I had made a difference…over there. So I in very short order resolved to return there and to work there for the rest of my life. My trajectory was set. First I finished university. Then I took a year’s job on a research farm to develop my skills in observation and research and laboratory work. And then I went to seminary since it was a church sponsored project. It took me six years of arduous application to qualify to return. By then I was married and my wife had gone on for graduate work herself in order to contribute there as well. And then we were commissioned and packed our bags and returned there.
We eventually came home. I entered church ministry. Teaching, counseling and pastoral work went very well. But I found it difficult that any time I suggested moving out into the community to meet the physical needs of people as a response to the gospel working on our own lives, it was always thwarted. So I came to spend a lot of my time as clergy seeking out and meeting these needs, many times without the knowledge or permission of church leadership. Regional and national church leadership was uncaring when I tried to speak on the topic. Conversions and building middle class congregations that met the expectations of parishioners were all that mattered…that and promoting mission work in foreign countries such as that of which we had been a part.
Eventually I became thoroughly horrified by the calculated, rational, empirical nature of the Christian church in North America. My love for Christ, my conversion, its creating in me a crisis of my ego in response to the overwhelming love of God for people, and the call of Christ to sacrificially serve others in response – even as I would serve Christ – had led me into professional service to the church. It took me twenty years to realize that something that I dearly love had somehow gone astray. The way of boldness and the way of responsibility inherent to what it meant to be a Christian in the early church had become reduced to a rational proposition; the church was a religious country club. Modern Christians could not be mobilized by the very message they studied. They put themselves first. God comes second, at best. And sustained, genuine social action is never entertained. I say none of this with bitterness or regret…it’s just a cold, calculated observation.
The church at large in North America reflects its greater society’s aversion to risk. As a Christian I am driven to risk. I see now that my greatest lack of insight in serving the church over thirty years came in the form of misjudging middle-aged adults who in the course of their lives have made compromises for their own sakes of wealth and power and careers and families. It took me my last twenty years in ministry to accept the fact that these would have the greatest distain and contempt for people who accepted risk. At best they will listen, and understand the risk involved in dying to themselves and following Christ, and then proceed to ignore it. The church today has experienced a collapse of Christian identity and integrity of the first order.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, Cast your whole vote. That is, use every art and artifice to fully live, which I take as a Christian to mean to fully accept God’s total love for people, and to fully give myself in every aspect in response…to hold nothing back…sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor and follow me. And that’s the difference between Christ and everyone else and what makes us fully at home in the Catholic Worker movement.