Wednesday, December 13, 2006
HARDWORKING MISSIONARY, "Down by the River Side"
Missionary I am!
"Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." ( Matthew, chapter 28, verses 19 & 20)
"Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" "Here I am," I said, "send me." (Isaiah, chapter 6, verse 7)
Over the last few months we have been hearing a lot about the missionaries who have come to this country from abroad to help resolve the "shortage" of priests. They come from Latin America, Asia and India and other places around the globe. They are missionaries, all right. Just as much as the missionaries that we know who have left the United States and Europe to go abroad to spread the Gospel.
When we think "abroad" we picture Africa, Burma, China, Nepal, India, Philippines, Samoa, Micronesia, Northwest Territories, etc. Never do we think that Indians, Irish, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Bolivians and others think of us as being "abroad". I’m here to tell you that yes, indeed we are abroad. It takes as much of an adjustment for these immigrants to adjust to us as it does for us to adjust to them. Here are a few glimpses into the adjustments required.
U.S. Priest, newly ordained
You say:“I am so happy, I am being sent to the Philippines as a missionary. Hurray, no more winters.”
You get there and you discover that there are no more Summers, Springs or Falls. The time difference between the solstices and the equinoxes is about 6o minutes, not 240. The coldest it gets in January is rarely 70 degrees F and next year you'll be running for your jacket when the mercury slides to 80°. In the meantime you’ll have to get used to 5:00 AM sunrises and 7:00 PM sunsets.
It is quaint for a while to deal with unpaved roads, outside facilities, corrugated metal roofs, ambient temperature running water, only; mosquito nets, bamboo slat floors strung on log joists of elevated houses, daily runs to the central market for the day's victuals and the barber's string quartet practice delaying your haircut. You’ve got two choices, enjoy it or leave and come back tomorrow. When it ceases to be quaint it means that you have either adjusted or it’s time to go home.
Language is always a fun challenge. Do you realize that some of the languages on the planet do not have the verb “to be”? Nope, it’s nowhere to be found. Now how do you figure that you’re going to say “I am” in that language? That’s easy, you don’t. Here's the mystery, in the language the Jesus spoke from birth, there is no verb "to be". So there, take that ! There is an equivalent, but you better believe that it doesn’t have the verb to be in any way, shape or form. That same language with no verb “to be” also always puts the action word at the very beginning of the sentence, just like Yoda, “running this big church for two years we are”, without the “are”, of course.
Just to make things a little more interesting, every municipality contains people who represent at least four or five different language communities, two or three of whom may get along, but never the same few with the other same few. Real fun for Mr. Missionary no matter how many Western languages he speaks.
For most missionaries who go into the third world, getting accustomed to the living arrangements takes some emotional discipline. For the most part cockroaches abound, both on the floor as well as in the air. You hear them before you see them. BBBBBBzzzzzzzzzzz / WWWhhhhapppppppppp! Then you see then, and then you hear them again as they slam into the wall. They fly well, but they can’t seem to steer. Then of course there are the house lizards, the mosquitoes, the geckos and the friendly scorpions in the shower. You learn to either never take a shower after sundown or without a flashlight sweep of the area if you really must wash before going to bed.
In the first world we see mold on our cheese and on the food that we forgot on the corner shelf for about a month. In the tropical third world, you live with mold as a constant companion. It’s ubiquitous. The only saving grace is that it has a nice shade of green. It looks good on the sleeves of your new red shirt. It’s also a dandy decoration on the only pair of brown shoes that you may have, but don’t wear too often.
I did mention food. It’s no accident that I mentioned it along with mold. Don’t get me wrong, not all food is moldy. Just the day old stuff. The good thing is that there is always someone hanging around to make sure that there won’t be any leftovers. Remember, what you don’t eat goes to people, not dogs nor cats. In the third world, people eat people food. Some of the people food of the third world would not be judged suitable for the dogs and cats of the first world. So, I guess it is but normal that the dogs and cats themselves turn out to be people food in much of the third world. Along with chicken legs, beetles, locusts and a variety of green water plants that are just yuc…uh…yummy. Even the fruit trees get picked clean. That’s because the minute the fruit gets to be about the size of a pigeon egg, still green and hard, it gets picked and someone has devised a way to prepare it for human consumption. By the time the low-hanging, tough, ornery green stuff has all been eaten, the higher- up fruit has had time to grow a bit and even get half ripe before someone climbs the tree to start harvesting it.
If water falls into the category of food, then I can mention to you that the missionary has to either learn to drink warm beer or boiled water or the well water. Now most missionaries are generally able to reline their intestines in about three months. That gives them the ability to drink the water. A missionary never sends a water sample to the lab for assessment. He already knows that by first world standards it is not fit for human consumption. That puts missionaries in a strange category of being. Actually, most of them train themselves to drink the local beer. Those who get sent to the Philippines have the greatest difficulty with this aspect of missionary life. San Miguel beer is hard to get used to---having just one.
A healthy missionary is one who thrives on “see” food. He sees it, he eats it. This is sometimes very daunting. Being offered a one pound head of stewed fish with the eyes wide open because you are the guest of honor at a house blessing will test your human resolve and your missionary zeal. Just grin and don’t start into it until after your third gin and beer boiler maker. You’ll never feel a thing. As a part of your instant therapy, remember what all the dads and moms of the little kids tell them, “The head is the best part”.
Being a missionary in a third world country is really quite an experience. Everybody caters to you, even if they don’t like you. You are the center of attention at all the important events. You know, you're the white guy, right? Even if the communists are hosting the thing, they will defer to you for a little prayer. This is especially true if you haven’t mastered the language yet. Once you become fluent in the local language, you will find yourself being asked to do the blessing at the very beginning of the event. That’s when there are only about five people there because no one ever arrives on time, especially the dignitaries who might be offended at your lack of cultural sensitivity and required political deference. But you’ll find yourself being offered beer with a rather substantial piece of precious ice in the glass. Yes, a glass, and Ice! Don’t ask me where it came from, but they ALWAYS have a glass for the priest, especially the White priest.
The missionary also notices that when he enters into a house or arrives in the dwelling area of friends or acquaintances, he is always presented with drink and some snack. He is never asked if he wants anything. It is proffered and to refuse is impolite. Later on, if it is an occasion where a meal will be served, there are different ways of refusing food that is forbidden to you because of health or some other such weak pretext, but you can never say “no” for any other reason.Conversely when the missionary has guests, he often makes the cultural mistake of asking his guests if they want to have something to drink or eat. They, of course, will politely refuse the offer. The missionary then says, “OK. If you get thirsty, don’t be shy, just help yourself.” HHHMMmmm! That’s going to be a short visit and fodder for the gossip mill for a long time. He’ll be lucky if he discovers his faux-pas for months. He’ll be lucky if one of the hearers of the gossip gets up enough nerve to tell him what he did wrong. You can be sure that it will be a long conversation, beating around a whole garden full of bushes before the Good Samaritan gets to the point. The missionary will climb back up into the good graces of the people because remember, we all know that the priest can do no wrong, right? Don’t worry; the people will take care of him.
Interpersonal relationships are really different in places outside of the United States. The art of circumlocution is a national sport in many countries. Until you’ve been there for at least three years, you’ll never know what people are thinking or what you thought they are trying to communicate, if anything. It can take as much as five years before you get to know the difference between yes, yes, and yes. You’ll never hear anyone say “no”. Trust me; it will take you a long time before you get the message. In fact, you will find that the people will be reluctant to teach you the word that directly means “no”. That’s only the most vexing of the language culture. Some countries refuse to say that something has been stolen. People go around saying that they can’t find their dog or that they lost their sow. It sometimes takes a missionary by surprise when after five years or seven years he is slow on the uptake in the face of these euphemisms.
Third World Priest, Newly Ordained:
Oh, my God, I am going to the United States! I can’t believe it. This is marvelous! I won’t have to learn another language! Oh, thank you God. This is going to be easy.
One month later, I am writing to my brother who is still living in Barrio Villafuerte, San Mateo, Isabela, Philippines and I am telling him that I am glad to be the United States, but that I am wondering what I have to do to understand what the people are saying. Why are they telling me that they do not understand my reading of the Gospel? When they come to the office, why can’t I understand what they are saying? I always was the best English speaker on my class! Why do so many of them speak Spanish?
It is true that we have a cook in our “convento” (rectory) but we do not have any rice to eat. There is no bago-ong and the breakfast is very small, also with no rice. My friend from India is wondering why there is no spice in the chicken and no curry in the vegetables.
The people here are so direct. They tell us what they expect us to do and they tell us how we should manage the affairs of the parish. Imagine, there was a parishioner who told me that I should go to school to learn how to speak English. He told me this while I was in his house when he invited me for a meal. I did not feel very comfortable because there was no one there but me and his wife and two children. When I arrived the lady of the house asked me if I want to have something to drink. I politely refused. She just said, "OK, my husband will be here in a moment." She never brought me anything to drink. I was lost when they invited me to the table and there were only the five of us, and the children, 8 and 11 years old were sitting at the table with us. The man of the house was the one to offer the grace and the blessing of the food and he did not invite me to do that.
It is so difficult to gather people together. During the day all the adults are at work and all the children are at school. During the evening some of the adults are available here at church, but many have to go to attend events at the school of the children. Meetings do not start until 7:30 in the evening. Sundown means nothing here. During the weekend, the adults and the children are committed to sports events and they will not attend to church commitments. When you are out in the city you will not see any people walking by the side of the street. Most of those you see walking are the school children before and after the classes.
The management of the parish is different here. The diocesan office has a lot of power and authority. If the parishioners do not agree with the directives of the pastor, if they are discontented with the work of the assistant in the parish, they are quick to report their discontent to the bishop’s office. This is not something that is easy to get accustomed to.
I am also surprised with the way the people here give money directly to the priest. They are very generous and they are not shy about giving the priest cash for even very little things. Sometimes when you are leaving their house after a friendly visit they give you a “small gift” of 10 or 20 dollars. I don’t know if I should be embarrassed to them or not.
Missionary? Who, Me?
The life of a missionary is not easy. The life of a prophet was not easy. We only have to read the stories of Balaam, Isaiah, Amos, Jonah, Judith, Jeremiah and the Apostles to understand what the missionary is expected to do. God does not call anyone to the “easy life.” God calls us all to the “impossible life”. We are all called to be the exceptional shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep behind to go seek the 1 who strayed. We are all called to be the 1 leper who came back to recognize the love and the power of the Savior. We are all called to be the missionary who does not stow away but who goes willingly to Niniveh to do the work of God for as long as it takes to get it done. We are all called to convert ourselves from blind to seer in order to testify to the divine love of God in our midst.
The missionaries, no matter where they go, even in this day and age have to face the same challenges of the early Jesuits, Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues who came to the New World in the late 17th century. They faced human challenges on the natural front as well as on the supernatural front. They were murdered by the Hurons for their efforts and their faith.
The missionaries of today, like those of yesteryear devote themselves entirely to the call of Jesus. While it is true that there are creature comforts available to the missionary of the present day, the challenges of adjusting to culture, language, economics, climate, food and complex political behavior and expectations are the same as they ever were and are every bit as demanding.
Finally I say,
To all of us who think that we are not “missionaries”, I say, “Think again.” If we’re baptized, we are missionaries. We may not go more than one mile away from home, but we are missionaries. We are sent to our spouse. We are sent to our children. We are sent to our parents, to our In-laws (Now, that is foreign territory, right?); we have to answer the challenge of new eating patterns (just ask my new daughter-in-law); we find ourselves in new economic situations more often than we would like; we find out that even though we all think that we speak the same language, we often do not understand one another; we think that we have retired from raising children when all of a sudden we have a houseful of our children’s children, etc., etc.
We are SENT by God to everyone with whom we come in contact. Everyone around us has the right to reach out to touch the “hem of our garment” in the search for healing and comfort. We are all a piece of God in flesh and blood. We are all required to walk side by side with Jesus, all the way from the Manger to the Cross.
The Manger is just around the corner. It is time for us to renew our commitment to the God who created us in His image and likeness. It is time to renew our conviction that His image and likeness includes the creating and sanctifying Word that is about to come again. We missionaries are procreators in and through God’s Love, God’s Word and God’s Loving Spirit, now and forever.
Like Jesus therefore,
Let’s carry the wood of our own holocaust bravely, every moment; Lie down upon the altar of sacrifice; Never lose sight of Jesus who is just a few steps ahead of us showing us how it is done; Keep our sense of love and let the zeal of His house consume us.
After we’ve done that, there won’t be a tear shed at anyone’s funeral, especially not mine!