Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Christmas (!), Conversion

This is a mosaic made out of bean seeds. It is in the parish
church at Pangia, Southern Highlands Province.
I have had plenty of time to blog over the past few weeks, but haven’t. There have been several things I’ve meant to write about, but I haven’t forced myself to sit down and write them out. Now I’m about to leave Madang for a couple weeks and am forcing myself to sit down and get them out before I leave.

Where am I going? I’m about to fly out to Kimbe on the island of New Britain (still part of the country of Papua New Guinea). I’ll spend Christmas there and will try to get around to see some other parts of the “islands region” of PNG, a part of the country that I have never been to before. I’m excited to see some new places. I have also been told that there is a great choir at the cathedral in Kimbe, which is where I plan to be for Christmas services.

On the Title of this Blog

We get a few television channels via satellite here, and one of them is EWTN (“the Catholic channel”). I saw an interview on it a while ago in which a woman named Sherry Weddell said some things that really resonated with me. She, too, is a convert to the Catholic Church who used to fit into that broad umbrella term of evangelical Protestant.  For her the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a key factor. She said she very much felt that she was “literally” just following Jesus into the Catholic Church. That is how I feel, and that is pretty much what the title of this blog is based on. I blogged about this desire to receive Jesus in the Eucharist just a couple of months before I was received into the Catholic Church, when I had been meditating a great deal on Luke chapter 24.

This lady now works with a place called the Siena Institute and wrote a book on forming intentional disciples. I found it heartening to hear her speak so frankly about the needs for evangelization even within the bounds of the Catholic Church. 

On Convert Stories

Thinking about her story made me realize that I’ve never posted a link to probably one of the coolest “convert stories” I’ve encountered: Leona Choy. Her book (My Journey to the Land of More) is one of the few ebooks I’ve paid money for, and it was worth it. She was as “vanilla evangelical” as you can get. (by which I mean that she graduated from Wheaton and she’s the sort of person who I imagine probably has copies of Decision magazine and Our Daily Bread on her coffee table right near the piano where song sheets for "Amazing Grace" and "In Christ Alone" lie open… I fully grant that my idea of “vanilla evangelical” is entirely subjective and probably silly.)

But she only started to consider the possibility of becoming Catholic when in her late 70’s. ("God rocked her rocking chair" says one of her websites.) She says of herself in her book: “I was the wife of a minister for forty-six years. We cofounded a para-church mission organization and a Chinese church in our nation’s capital. I have written and published many books, established a publishing company, and I am the president of a Christian radio station.”  I think pretty much anyone would admire the courage it would take to fairly consider something as alien as the Catholic Church at that point. Her story is worth a read.

A Convert of a Different Kind

I may be the last one to get on this boat, but Bartholome de Las Casas is awesome! I finished reading a book that has excerpts from his writings in translation, and I was blown away by his story. (The foreward by Gustavo Gutierrez is itself worth the book) Has anyone made a movie about this yet? It deserves a good movie—a great movie. This guy’s father went with Columbus to the New World on what I think was his third journey. He himself made the crossing while a young man and was one of the first priests in the Caribbean. All sorts of unjust social structures were being formed, and de Las Casas was complicit in all of it. He “owned” natives and land. He was well established and had the potential to acquire immense wealth. But then some Dominican friars preached a sermon…and told everyone that they were all in mortal sin and could not be saved while they persisted. He himself didn’t listen to them at first, but eventually experienced a complete conversion, got rid of his land and rights to native labor, and became the most committed advocate of the native peoples of his era.

Christmas in PNG

And since I don’t anticipate being online often or at all over the next couple weeks, I have tried to begin and finish this post with the most Christmas themed pictures that I could find from my first trip up into the highlands. Merry Christmas to one and all! God became a human being! He still loves us and desires to live with us! 

In St. Francis of Assisi parish in Tari. Tari is in Hela province and home to the
 Huli people. Their men are famous for their wigs, and you can see that St. Joseph
even has one in this portrayal! 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but have delayed. That may be because I have some observations but no real conclusion that I feel I can share. Still, this is something I’ve been thinking about.

In the circles I’ve been in the States, people have often noted that white people have the luxury of not having to really think about race. And I think this is true. We may try to be as aware as we should be, but when one is in the majority, one has to try to think about it. If being white is normal, and I am white, then I won’t really notice anything when everyone treats me in a normal way.

But here I am a minority. I can’t help but notice that my skin color constantly dictates the way that I am treated. Now I should note right away that that does not mean that I feel discriminated against. No, I won the social lottery by being born as a white, American, male, and the benefits of that fact still apply and often apply even more so here in PNG. The benefits are just more noticeable to me than they are in the States. Here are some examples:

  •          It is usual to have a male and female security guard posted at the door of any store who pat people down or check their bilums (the ubiquitous woven bags carried by most people here) for stolen goods. I will always be waved through. If I open my bilum for them to examine the guards will be more likely to laugh than to check.
  •        I never really have to worry about not belonging anywhere. A local from a rural area will slow down and only with trepidation enter the lobby of a hotel, a restaurant, or certain sections of certain stores. I can walk with confidence into hotels or stores that are actually well above my budget. I will always be treated with respect in stores.
  •        At any event or function, even Church ones, I will be invited to be among those who eat first, and will be given preferential treatment in seating and other such things. This will be the case even if I show up with no one really knowing who I am.
  •        A couple times I have had people in PMV’s (public transport) refer to me as “boss”. One man even made a public service announcement to everyone that there was a white man in the bus, so no one should smoke at all while he was in the bus. (Needless to say I did not ask for this little announcement!) No one gave the impression of thinking this was out of place (although later on into our trip some people did begin to smoke anyway!)
  •        When trying to buy a snack at a kai bar (fast food) in town, I was told by a security guard that I simply could not order from the main counter, but had to go to the little shaded seating area with fans and a shorter line.
  •        A PNG brother recently told me about being initially told at a store that they did not accept “personal checks” even though the same store had accepted checks from the same check book regularly when a foreign, white brother had come in to do the shopping. (This is one example of the sort of things that I can only notice by their absence in my life.)

There are many more little anecdotes I could share, but I think those get the point across. They instinctively make me a little uncomfortable (and even a little guilty sometimes), but I usually just observe and reflect on them. Sometimes I make little token actions to try to emphasize that I’m not anybody particularly important, but not too often. I have been amazed at how little resentment I sense there to be towards the many privileges that expats are instinctively given. I may not perceive all of the resentment that is there, but it should be noted that there is sometimes a palpable sense of resentment in the country directed against Asian expats (perhaps because they are more likely to run stores and be in direct contact with employees?)

And of course it is also true that I have to be doubly cautious in order to avoid the crimes of opportunity that are quite common for everyone in the market and town areas. No matter how much I attempt to dress simply, there is no way I can completely blend in. This is simply a necessary corollary of the fact that my skin color is linked with wealth and social status in the cultural mindset.

But I also think about the ways in which people’s actions toward me in these situations make a certain sense. Here people don’t pretend to be color blind even though they aren’t. No! It’s quite easy to see what color someone’s skin is, and quite often (even more so here than in the States) the color of their skin can tell you a great deal about that person. I think in many western countries people still expect certain correlations between skin color and other characteristics, but we have been trained to pretend that we see no correlation at all. People then walk a fine line as they subtly adjust their actions and expectations, but also pretend to not notice a person’s race/skin color/ethnicity at all. Here there is less duplicity in that regard.

PNG is not a multiracial society in the same way that the US is. Many times when I am treated differently, I think this may actually just reflect very well on the culture. People value hospitality and when they see someone who is clearly an outsider, they want to go out of their way to show a good face to him or her.

It is also true that the same deferential treatment will be shown to other Papua New Guineans who clearly seem important. This would include being better dressed, and stereotypically, having gray hair and a big belly. That is, there is decent reason to believe that I am treated with preferential treatment because of what people think my skin color indicates rather than because of a believed racial superiority in and of itself. And in Church contexts, I am of course correctly presumed to be a missionary (though often initially taken to be a priest or religious brother).

So those are some of the thoughts. I have perhaps been hesitant to sit down and write this post because race issues understandably can excite a lot of emotions and I worried that I might say something offensive. If so, I do apologize. My hope is to help clear up my own thinking by writing my thoughts out, so I am open to correction.

What does one do with all of this in the light of the Gospel then? How can a westerner be a missionary in an age of neo-colonialism? How can a waitskin imitate Jesus, who “being in the form of God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are”? (Phil. 2: 6-7)

My initial thought is this: The sin of racism is a sin because it denies the inherent dignity of being a human being created in the image of God. If I become aware that I live in a system in which race (in addition to wealth, nationality, sex, physical and mental health, age, and many other factors) wrongly determines the value placed on an individual person, then the solution is to show in my actions the “more perfect way”. That is, I should strive to treat every single person as a person, being aware of the fact that this person is mentally disabled and that person is of this or that ethnicity, but being even more aware (intensely aware as opposed to theoretically or casually aware) that they are children of God loved by Him with an incredible, relentless, and unconditional love. If I live and act based on that reality then I might begin to intuitively know when it is prudent to be more purposeful in trying to shake myself and others out of the unjust social structures and mindsets that we unwittingly participate in so often.

Easier said than done! May God guide me and all of us to the more perfect way of love.