In 1978 I went to work in the Issan region of Thailand developing cooperatives that gave rural families the opportunity to raise pigs and fish. The foundation with which I was associated built farrowing and hog raising facilities, dug fish ponds which were deep enough to hold water throughout the dry season, planted fruit and vegetables on the banks of the ponds, and supplied ducks and fish for the ponds. Seven families were brought together in each remote location to learn to raise and care for these animals; each family had one day’s worth of responsibility to be at the facility each week. And every family shared equally in the benefits, both for their own food supply as well as with the money they received from marketing their crops and livestock. For families that made an average per capita income of less than $100/year it was revolutionary.
I did not go there as an expert; I went there as a resource. Having previously purchased pig feed the foundation wanted to set up their own feed mill and needed someone who could evaluate and test local sources of animal feed as well as balance the final feeds for pigs at various stages of their lives. I could do that. Back then this was a tedious process. Electronic calculators were the only advanced electronics available. Basic laboratory equipment needed to be collected and set up. I compared my lab results against those in books on tropical livestock production. Step by step I whittled down the feed balancing to a final product. We freely disseminated our results with local farmers outside of our projects. They produced better pigs more efficiently. Social problems that were the outgrowth of poverty began improving. People had choices they had never had before.
I never once considered myself an expert. I was there to experience Issan culture, to have it influence and temper my own way of knowing and cultural background, to work in cooperation with locals, and to offer any support that I could. I was not there to impose myself. I was there to listen. I went there because I love people; I went there because I wanted to learn to love better. Love seeks only the good of the one loved. Everything other than love becomes secondary…everything else is left to take care of itself. When this is done love then becomes its own reward. Nothing more was sought by me. I went for their economic good and my own psychological good. And I was reminded time and again when I was there that in their culture I was a second-class citizen, even though they appreciated my presence and work. This was all a very humbling experience, rewarding in its own right. But I was chagrined to learn that other Westerners were not there with those assumptions and intents.
The husband had begun this project. Raised in Southeast Asia he spoke the language fluently and understood the culture which gave him great rapport with the people there. But his business strategies when it came to development work were decidedly aggressive. At the time I was blind to his depredations. Years later I would come to see that many were unethical. Nor was there anything redemptive about his wife’s work there. Born and raised in the West she often spoke of the superiority of the culture in which she had been raised and how she was there to enlighten these people. Do you think I really want to be here?, she rhetorically repeatedly stated in response to the hardships she faced in being a farang. Her actions often struck me as crassly self-centred. She had been the runner-up in a major beauty contest…the loss being something she had not been able to resolve. In her mind being the second-best beauty was to have been no beauty at all. She carried this chip on her shoulder and you did not dare knock it off. It was apparent that she had married and moved there because of her love for this project’s lead man. But what was not clear was whether she was there in an attempt to vicariously associate with success as well? With my later training in psychotherapy I see this more clearly now; but what could a nineteen year old have known? And so I was ambushed and then abused.
I had been provided with a bedroom in their house for the duration of my stay. For doing so they received financial compensation. I came to question whether this arrangement was not due to a compromised desire for income; they certainly did not do it out of a desire to know me better as a human being. I was and still am a quiet homebody. I try and make pleasant conversation, respect other’s wishes, be helpful, enquire, compliment, do my work, and stay out of other’s ways in their own home. But none of these worked with her. I kept getting the sense that I was intruding. And looking back I now realize that she simply did not want me in her house. It was that plain and simple. But her husband did not honour her wishes and openly minimized its effect on her, dismissing her minor protestations which were largely passive-aggressive.
I had been there a couple of weeks. After a particularly productive morning we returned to their house for lunch. We were eating hamburgers…something not available anywhere locally. So it was a real treat, which I deeply appreciated. We loaded up our burgers with all sorts of toppings on the table, talking out loud to one another as we did so, laughing about the work we had accomplished that day and what it would lead to that afternoon and onward. Mustard, ketchup, relish, pickles, onions…and then there was a pause in our words, and I simply said…cheese. And he was on it right away, Yes, cheese would be GREAT!, the husband erupted. And then something was wrong, because there was a heavy, dead, silence that fell over the room. And when I looked up it was like looking at the heaviest, darkest storm cloud that was hanging right over you, along with the silence that immediately precedes a soon-to-be monumental thunderclap. Over forty years later I still experience that moment. And she arose from her chair and glared at us. And then the lightening struck. CHEESE? YOU WANT CHEESE?!!, she yelled. She stormed out of the room and we heard the refrigerator door being flung open. There was a crash of the door on the cabinets. And then she was racing into the dining room and then, screaming, HERE’S YOUR CHEESE!!!! And with that she hurled a solid brick of cheese onto the table! Plates and bowls shattered. Food flew in every direction. Children cried. I threw my hands up to protect my face. We were all drenched in liquids from our upset table glasses. And she stormed out. And I sat there. Stunned. Feeling guilty. For having said the word. Cheese. Her husband made excuses. I apologized even though I was never told what I had done wrong. And for the rest of my time there I walked on eggs, which is not a good thing, because by doing so I became a target and a target never makes a good impression. I realized that it was her home. Homes are the only safe place for each of us in the whole world. And for her, in this very alien place where she had thought that she would be an expert but had instead lost her entire identity, it was everything. I knew that then and I still know it now and have never ever challenged anyone in their own home, nor shall I – not that cheese is a challenge. But one way or another, there was simply no need for her to have responded in that way. I would return to work there permanently several years later with hopes that with even greater love I could win her friendship. But no one could win her friendship. No one could love her enough to draw love out in return. And now, after years of work I realize that some people can simply never love; but you can still love them. She tortured the lives of over a dozen people like me who went there over the years to simply love the people of Issan and who in the end became tired of being abused – and that is precisely what it was – and so left.
If you cannot love people, then you should not be in development work. If you are not there to sacrifice your own reputation and to serve as a slave in the underclass of another society, then you should not be doing cross-cultural work. It is the same when it comes to ministry in your native culture as well. If you only care about who gets the credit for something, then you will always be imposing yourself on others, and no one deserves to be so treated. Unfortunately the church around the world and in every denomination is now driven by a protectionist professionalism and not love, and has both forgotten and forsaken love. I went on for my doctorate because there were deeper questions I wanted answered in terms of how to love…how to better honour and serve the lives of my parishioners out of love, not to prove my own status. I entered my doctoral program in part to honour the rich, organic epistemology of feminism – how to begin to relate to others by first of all honouring their life experiences rather than to start from a standpoint of ideology – I was not looking for an academic placement because of my eduction. I went on for my doctoral work in order to clear ground in the church for honouring in all respects the lives of anyone who was drawn to Christ. I did not apply for doctoral work because I had anything to prove about myself. My only goal in being clergy was to serve others, ultimately equipping those with the right gifts in the church to take over my role…I had no need to protect my denominationally prescribed professional self.
Protectionism is counter-productive to love. The former is ideological, theoretical, notional, impoverished, and full of cut-offs; the later is real, lively, emotive, holistic, joyful, sorrowful, rich, and life-giving.
And there is only one solution to all the protectionism in society and the church today. It is not protesting or confronting. It is, well, loving; you cannot create a community of love by attacking others. Instead, it is creating a place that models and exudes the care and compassion set in community that is part and parcel of the heart of God and God’s ensuing loving actions. Fighting against injustice only creates greater strife. Oh, there is definitely a place for witnessing, and protesting, and naming, but out of that witness you had better have a concrete plan to build a loving community, or it will all simply fall back into the same pattern that reflects and is constructed by the unloving culture against which you witness. And not everyone will be able to come along with you into this imperfect love, which it will be bound to be. But it is the best we can do and is why there is hope for accomplishing this through the Catholic Worker Movement.
I was recently reminded of Henri Nouwen’s resignation of his teaching post at Harvard University in order to live in a L’Arch community in Ontario where he said he was subject to slugs and punches, but where he found the love of God.
I have been on the road for the past six days and was reminded of this dynamic in so many ways, both good and bad, while roaming. The bad saddens me, but still does not make me hate or lose heart. The good is heartening, although I do not consider it to be a done deal when I find it.
And I think that success in love might be as simple as asking someone if they need assistance with a heavy suitcase with which they are struggling in a crowded airport, or a kind or courteous word among a shoving crowd, or questions that help you see the world through someone else’s eyes. or a willingness to step back and take a lower position. Dying to yourself. In fact I think that that is all that it is.
I just finished a major rewrite of the workbook I wrote on learning to live a compassionate life back in 2002. I will start printing and binding this new edition soon. I already have two requests to lead retreats on it, which is humbling. It is a heartening time heading into winter here. I will write more about this soon…