Monday, April 27, 2009

Happy April!

Well, I have discovered the main pitfall of blogging now...It's been more than three months since I got around to this project. Turns out it's very easy to procrastinate on blogging (as if I needed to tell anyone that!)

Last week I spent three days with my parents-in-law without my husband or his English-speaking sisters to speak for me and to me. Dan's mom and I discovered that we can communicate quite a bit if there is no one there to take over the conversation. Life there seems narrow, with a lot of hard work in the fields, and not much to do otherwise except gossip with the neighbors or go to church. But the inner lives of people can still be rich in reflection, experience and humor and the people of that area are known for their tenacious maintenance of traditional customs and ways in the face of the homogenizing trend of the modern world. Last week they celebrated the completion of rice planting in the traditional way, butchering a pig in almost every household, and performing thanksgiving rituals at each rice field. There was also a Thanksgiving Mass at the Episcopal Church, which used the prayers of 16th century England to celebrate the same events. Nobody seems to think this is a clash of culture or a peculiar mix at all, it's what they have been used to for their whole lives, and that's just what worship is like here.

For three days, I ate boiled pork and glutinous rice steamed in woven sugar cane leaves, and drank lots of coffee. They only eat meat on holidays, or at weddings and funerals, the rest of the time, the diet is mainly boiled beans and rice, with maybe some dried or canned fish for variety. Whenever we go there, we bring sugar and bread for treats, but these are mostly shared around with all the neighbors, you don't eat much of the bread you bring.

Have to admit, I was glad to get back to my own house and my own kitchen again later, and cook some vegetables, but it was a nice interlude and helped us develop a deeper relationship, which feels good. While I was there, Dan had to travel to Manila for a meeting, so he came back tired out and I came back refreshed. Since then, I've been trying to cook his favorite foods and let him get some rest. Now I have to get writing again!

Monday, December 29, 2008

What Clash of Civilizations?

News of the death of Samuel Huntington, political scientist at Harvard whose book "The Clash of Civilizations" caused so much debate around the time of 9/11, has come at the same time as Yahoo! News published a sad little story about a debt slave from Egypt who was brought to Los Angeles to work 20 hour days as a maid for a rich Egyptian family. Eventually the situation was reported by a neighbor, and the child was taken into foster care and the employers were tried and convicted of child abuse and slavery. After serving their two year jail sentences, they went back to Egypt and were seen by a reporter entering their high priced condo accompanied by a small child carrying their bags.

It is tempting to say, "well, it's too bad, but after all, they have their cultural customs..." but this is not a good way to commemorate the American workers who were shot in cold blood on American streets for daring to demand such uneconomical and unAmerican things as an 8-hour work day and a six day work week. That's not so long ago, it's within living memory. In the 1930's a rich Los Angeles family would not have had to go all the way to Africa for a debt slave. There were plenty of Anglo American girls available, and people then thought that would be giving them a chance, too. At least they could work in a big house with running water.

Human Rights are not natural to any one human culture, they have to be fought for. Again and again.

The question really is, what is the best way to help other people fight for their rights? The world is littered with ill-fated programs of well-meaning people who failed to help the miserable people they wished to serve. That's not to say "let's just leave them alone" that's to say, "let's be careful and understand what's going on before plunging in." There are useful things that can be done, but the first impulse is not necessarily the best.

So clarity of purpose is really very important in this area. Speaking out for human rights is not imposing "our culture" on others, but of course, we have to know how to separate our culture from universal human rights. Otherwise, we risk being like those old-fashioned missionaries who mistook clothing styles and musical instruments for civilization. Not an easy task!

Friday, December 5, 2008

On Being a Missionary

"Mission" comes from the Latin "missio" which means "sent". Although we now more commonly use it as a noun: "I have a mission", most Christians nowadays are quick to acknowledge that we don't have a mission, it is God's mission, upon which God sends people to various parts of creation for various tasks. The history of Christian mission is much more than the last 200 years or so, during which time Christianity got almost fatally tied in with the project of empire and "civilizing" the non-Christian world. We still have a long way to go to extricate ourselves from that era, but at least we are well started on becoming a global body in which no culture is privileged.

Personally, I started work as a professional missionary with a lot of misgivings. I believed that all people had access to God and everybody was on their own journey that must end in some kind of holy mountain. My years of work in Nepal taught me more deeply about the reality of evil in our world, its tenaciousness and its ubiquity in every human life. Just being good will not cut it for the people of the world who suffer the most - we are all ensnared in a system that has winners and losers, a system that cannot be conquered from inside, only from outside.

When I tell this story, I usually add the story of my friend Duane. He tells of going from the USA to Nepal as a young missionary with the belief that his mission was to save souls. "I'd just tell them about Jesus, and they would accept him, and they'd be all right," he says. But his years in Nepal taught him that life is a whole. People's needs for life are not divided into spiritual in one place and physical somewhere else. Now he works in integrated development, programs that include drinking water supply, education, health care, and sharing love in community.

Duane and I were both evangelized by Nepal. Far from converging, our theologies remain different in many ways, but we were both forced to deepen and mature in our knowledge of life.

I have struggled with the image of being a missionary for many years. I have spent sleepless nights telling myself that I am more part of the problem than part of the solution. But I still hold on to the faith that a stranger in a new place can speak usefully to people in a different context and provide help on many levels. And I also have learned that the only missionary of any use to the world is one who is himself or herself always being converted and challenged by new situations.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nepal Again

The whole topic of migration is dear to my heart because I have spent so much of my life moving around this beautiful world. I have worked as a professional "do-gooder" in several different contexts and have faced the question of relations between foreigners and natives from many angles.

After I graduated from college, my one thought was to get back to Asia and make a real contribution while adventuring in new frontiers. I had been introduced to the work of Paolo Friere in Brazil, and was deeply moved and excited about the potential of adult literacy programs to improve people's lives.

After flirting with the Peace Corps for a while, I decided not to accept their offer to be a nutrition educator in Benin, but to keep searching for a job in Asia, and after a year of letter-writing, I was offered a position with a Christian mission in Nepal. The only thing I knew about missionaries was the ugly stereotype common to most Americans, but my year of research had taught me that it is only the church that has people working in the field on direct service instead of sitting in an office supervising.

The training received by modern missionaries can be summed up in one sentence: "don't be like the old-fashioned missionaries!" Don't be insensitive, domineering, imperialistic, racist. The modern missionary is open-minded, respectful, culturally aware and supportive of local aspirations.

OK, fine. But as a new missionary in Nepal, I found some challenges to this ideal. How, exactly, do you demonstrate your sensitivity towards a man who has three wives and ten daughters and is about to marry a fourth woman in hopes that she will bear the long-expected son? Am I respectful enough to warn my hosts when I am menstruating so that men can be careful not to come close enough for my pollution to be transferred to them? Should I ask the servant in my landlord's house whether she is a debt slave and if she is, what will be my open-minded and supportive response?

Interesting times. Foreigners will challenge your culture's comfortable points of view no matter how sensitive they are. Just by being different, their presence demonstrates the possibility of difference. You can see why they are often vilified and legislated against throughout history.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


There was a fascinating article in the Guardian Weekly of September 12 (if they get it up on the web later, I'll add a link), called "The Voyage of Humanity" by Robin McKie, it looked at how DNA mapping can show the routes of the human diaspora from our beginnings in East Africa. Sixty thousand years ago, the first group of sea voyagers crossed the Red Sea in tiny boats and began the human odyssey to explore the Earth. DNA sampling can show the routes taken by different groups in prehistoric times as they moved throughout Africa and Eurasia and on to the rest of the planet.

Moving on into times of which we have historical records, we can also see the importance of travel and migration in human history: the story of Adam and Eve driven out of the Garden must be an early memory of migration. Consider Noah, Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Isaiah: moving from one country to another must have been a regular and common experience for people of the ancient world. Throughout the Bible, "home" is more of a symbol than a lived experience for the Israelites.

In European history, we have a vague idea that until the so-called "Age of Discovery" people just sat around and cultivated their own gardens, but this is not borne out by other stories we know of the Middle Ages. Troubadours, peddlers, missionaries, Crusaders, pilgrims, and other travelers seem to have kept moving all the time. Also, the frequent famines, wars and plagues of the time would have sent refugees seeking for a safe place to live on a regular basis.

In the Pacific, people were making rafts, longboats and sailboats from prehistoric times, and moving around for war, trade, and greener pastures, as archaeological, linguistic and genealogical evidence shows. Indeed, Filipinos were such skilled sailors that within 150 years of first contact, there was hardly a Spanish ship in European waters without some Filipino crew members. Perhaps we need to modify our ideas about the modern nature of the "Global Village" and globalization.

The phenomenon of the "nation-state" with its attendant requirements of citizenship, passports, and impermeable borders is a modern one, its beginnings lie in the late Middle Ages and were originally developed by the feudal rulers who needed more convenient channels of taxation. Apart from that, nobody thought there would be any particular reason to prevent people from moving from one place to another. It is not a privilege, or even a human right, it's just a normal part of human nature to pack up and move on at times.

The phenomenon of the "undocumented" is an even more recent one, and has developed as a result of the increasing gap between rich countries and poor ones. Only in the past 60 years has this gap grown to the point where people in rich countries have begun to see themselves as threatened by "waves" of poor immigrants. To the extent that a problem exists, the solution can hardly be to "secure" the borders. Rather, much more reflection needs to go in to the question of affluence and whether and how we can or cannot "protect" what is "ours". Immigration is not a problem, the problem is fear and greed.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Happy All Saints' Day

Happy November 1! Here in the Philippines, All Saints' Day is as big a holiday as Easter, and even bigger than Christmas Day. All Saints' is a time to go home to the family home town, have feasts, picnics, parties, and catch up on all the news with friends and relatives. And of course, to remember the dead. I don't know about other parts of the Philippines, but here in the mountains, there is no tradition of masks, processions, and certainly no trick or treat, rather, there is a special church service on the First where all the names of people remembered by members of the congregation are read out, our church had about 400 names. Afterwards, candles and pine wood are blessed and then lighted torches, reminiscent of the Light of Christ, are taken to the cemetery and set by each grave. Then the family brings food and has a picnic by the family graves, it's a chance for the living and the dead to get together and share a meal once a year.

It reminded me of Nepal, where the Hindu tradition is that the dead are remembered on the anniversary of their death with a special feast prepared for them. Once, I was with a rather pushy Christian evangelist who demanded of our host whether the spirits actually ate any of the food offered. Undismayed, the old man laughed and said, "They eat the juice of it, and we eat the rest."

I was reflecting today that we of the Western Enlightenment are the odd ones, not believing in spirits. Whether we believe in one Supreme God who runs creation on a scientific basis, or whether we believe in no supernatural at all, the idea that the dead are just gone, and nothing unseen can trouble us puts us in the minority of humans throughout history and around the world today. Most people have been and are perfectly comfortable with the spirits of the dead and other beings going about their business all around us, and sometimes overlapping their business with ours. And why not? Maybe the majority is more in tune with reality than we think!

Whoooohoooooo! Enjoy your autumn!

Monday, October 27, 2008


Well, it's been a busy ten days! On Oct. 17, here at our church, we had an ordination service for a young man whose family are members of this parish. He graduated from seminary a few years ago, and according to the system, served as an intern for a year or two, then was ordained as a deacon. After another two years' service, he was ready to be ordained priest. The whole town turned out the night before to butcher a pig and a cow and to cook the feast for all the visitors. Women don't help with butchering, luckily for me, I just helped peel vegetables, and wrap half-cooked rice in banana leaves to be steamed in little packets as a snack food for in-between meals. On the big day, the Bishop arrived early, and all the priests from nearby parishes. We served breakfast and lunch for the VIP's in our kitchen, while everybody else ate out in the yard. It was a lot of fun, but tiring, too.

Then there was a break on Saturday, then the usual three services on Sunday. On Tuesday, we went to Sagada for the funeral of one of the former Bishops of the church. He had been a special mentor of Dan's and was widely respected and known. Since it wasn't at our house, we just had to attend. He had been a leader of the whole Province of the Philippines, so all the serving and retired Bishops came for his funeral. With a lot of pomp and circumstance, his ashes were buried right beneath the altar of the Sagada church, as he had requested.

Thursday was the Consecration of a new Bishop. The Prime Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines plans to retire next year, so they elected a successor for him, who is now the Bishop of this diocese. So this diocese elected a new Diocesan Bishop at its last Convention, and he was consecrated by all the Bishops in another giant service, this one at the Cathedral in Bontoc. This service had a program afterwards with many presentations, including a song by the clergy spouses fellowship, of which yours truly is a member. We also danced to the traditional music provided by our spouses.

Not exhausted enough yet? Saturday was a wedding of the children of two priests, one of whom is a distant relative of Dan's. This time, only three Bishops were present, the others having gone home. Dan and I served as Sponsors, kind of like godparents at a baptism. You have to stand up and promise to support the young couple in their marriage. And then, surprise! Another feast!

So I have eaten an awful lot of boiled pork and boiled beef with fried noodles for the side dish this month! And danced and sung and worshiped more than usual, too. One of the perks of being married to a clergyman is that you get to attend more life cycle rituals than most people do. Especially when you don't know the people, it's a chance to reflect on life and life changes. I have also been reflecting on the differences between this tradition and the Congregational churches I was raised in. For somebody who had hardly ever heard of Bishops, I sure have a lot of them in my social circle now! And incense and wine in the communion, not to mention the use of about four different languages in all these services, depending on which part of the Bible is read, and which songs are chosen. I've decided that when it comes to ecumenicity, I'm a "grass is always greener" Christian. When I'm in a place like Nepal where worship services are very spontaneous, I'm in favor of more liturgical practice. Then when I come to a high church tradition like they have here, I'm all for spontaneity! Never satisfied, that's me.