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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Not So Faithful

“God bless you,” said one of the men in my office – a representative of a well-known international Christian NGO. I will spend the next five years working with him if we win the latest proposal we’ve submitted to USAID.

“We’re doing God’s work here,” said the other. “HE is guiding our way.”

Well that would be nice, I thought. Then we’ll be sure to win this thing.

I hope I managed to contain how uncomfortable I felt with that small exchange – but somehow I know I wasn’t successful. Try as I might, all this faith-talk in the office makes me nervous.

But I suppose I made the first guy a little bit nervous earlier in the week. I knew that this particular Christian NGO requires people who work for them to be “believers”. At work they have a group prayer every morning – even in their Washington, DC office!!! (And even though they get load and loads of public tax-payer funds to implement development programs.) But one of the two DC-based public health (and prayer) experts who showed up in my office on Monday that week has the most Jewish of names. I don’t want to write it here – in case he decides to Google his name and finds himself in my blog – but let’s just say it was as Jewish as “Jerry Seinfeld”.

“So “Jerry”,” I said later that Monday morning, “that sounds like a Jewish name. Are you Jewish by any chance?”

You should have seen the look of shock and horror on his face.

“Who me? Jewish? I work for (Christian international NGO)! We pray every day and can’t even apply for a job unless we declare that we are Christian! How can you assume I’m Jewish just from my name???”


Really I had no reason. I should have known better. Despite the name my Jew-dar was not beeping. This guy was Christian "believer" through and through. Later it did occur to me that he could be like Madeline Albright… with a secret Jewish Holocaust-era past. But really… I didn’t give a shit.

God bless him.

On the “pages” of this blog I’ve written several times about my struggles with very faithful folks (VFFs). In particular I have issues with the religious missionaries I sometimes overhear at the local hotels or oftentimes on the airplane into Dar – with their talk about sharing the Word with ignorant locals.

Go home, I always want to tell them. The people here need lots of things. But Western spiritual values promoted by VFFs is not one of them.

(I guess that’s more of the Jew in me. I don’t really believe in proactive conversion. I figure if you are born into it, great. If you find it later in life after an extensive search for your truth, wonderful. But please don’t walk around trying to convert people like you are marketing for a new bank – Hey… convert today… get a new toaster, free!)

On the other hand, there are many religious people doing incredible work all around me. I am working with lots of Christian and Muslim local groups that are doing high-quality HIV, child survival and malaria work – albeit within the boundaries of religiously imposed or perceived limits. The best therapist in Dar is an Irish Catholic nun who has been here for 30 years. She is currently good friends with one of my friends who is a lesbian and has really helped a gay friend of mine who is struggling with his partner. And many of my Tanzanian colleagues, who I really respect, have close personal relationships with Allah and/or God.

So what makes me so uncomfortable?

Thinking about this – after the many God-ful experiences of last week with "Jerry" and his pal - I had an epiphany. It seems that it is really only religious Westerners that make me uncomfortable. I guess it is the paternalist nature of religion morphed with race and north-south relations that really bothers me. Lay that on top of US faith-based organizations getting tax dollars to implement programs… and that pesky separation of church and state thing... and it all really gets to me…

Eight years ago, I traveled to Uganda to facilitate a training workshop while I was on spring break in graduate school. On that trip nearly everything went wrong. One of my colleagues broke her foot as we pulled into the training site on the first day. Another spent the whole two weeks in bed in her room with a flu/stomach issue. My bags didn’t arrive until five days into the two week training. Everything was a mess.

But on my last evening in Uganda I sat in the Business Class lounge of the airport thinking “I only need to get on that plane and then everything will be OK.”

My flight was called and I walked down the hallway to the gate. The “gate” was actually a massive, three-story staircase. I had a pretty big suitcase with me and so I grabbed it, grabbed the railing, and repeated my mantra “I only need to get on that plane and then everything will be OK.”

One step at a time… Finally I made it to the bottom. As I walked out onto the tarmac I didn’t see my plane. I kept walking and looking and walking and then BAM… I tripped over a curb and went flying all the way forward, scraping my knees along the rough tarmac past the edge of the airport building until POP… I heard my ankle give way and twist.

When my body finally stopped moving, I was sprawled out on the tarmac, body twisted, bags, papers, passport spread around me. I managed to sit up enough to grab my ankle and repeat over and over, “oh shit, oh shit”. I thought I had broken it.

And as I sat there I realized that I finally saw the plane – past the end of the building… British Airways… almost close enough to make it home unscathed, but not enough.

And as I sat there, men, lots and lots of older white men, walked right past me sitting on the tarmac grabbing my ankle, barely even looking down. They were my fellow Business Class passengers, but I guess their business was too important to help me with mine.

Finally… one of the last in the stream of white men actually walked over to me. And I thought, “finally someone has come to help”.

The man leaned over me, put his hands on my head, and said,

“Lord Jesus, use your power to heal this woman.”

And then he walked away.

He just walked away and left me there on the tarmac. He didn’t ask if I needed help. He didn’t ask if I needed prayer.

It was a pray and run.

And it really really really pissed me off. It was the final humiliation in a bad moment.

Luckily… the BA Business Class purser, who saw me fly across the tarmac when I made it past the end of the building, had by then managed to get to me. He helped me up, somehow got me on the plane (up the stairs) and comfortably seated. He helped me clean my bloody knees and elbows and even found an ace bandage to wrap around my angle.

Later in the flight I got up to go to the bathroom. It was night time, the plane was dark, and my ankle was as swollen as a basketball. But I walked up and down the aisle trying to figure out which one of the assholes was the one who prayed without asking and then just left me there to bleed. But Business Class was a sea of older white men – and bloody, youngish, swollen, me. I couldn’t figure it out. The guy got off easy. I’m not really sure what I would have said if I had found him (How DARE you pray over me without asking first?) but instead I just stewed about it for the next 24 hours flying home.

So you can see… I have a lot of baggage which I’m bringing into this new relationship with the international Christian NGO where all the staff pray together every day – and were I can expect to be blessed and praised and amen-ed for the next five years should we be lucky enough to have our partnership consecrated by the United States Agency for International Development.
Just spending your tax dollars to save Tanzanian babies and women from illness and death from malaria – in the name of the Lord.



Blogger margalit said...

There is NO WAY this Jewish single mother of twins (yes, true!) would ever put up with that Christian evangalism. I don't care that their religion is one that feels it's necessary to convert the heathens like us, who have only had our own powerful religion LONGER than they have and on which their freaking religion is based. Nobody does that shit to me without me freaking out. I just will not tolerate it.

And it's typical that that asswipe would pray for you but not help you. If that doesn't speak volumes about evangalism, I don't know what does.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

I've been lurking on your blog for a while now, but this one is bringing me out of lurkdom. I was all set to add some rational well thought out comment about how uncomfortable I am with the idea of proactive conversion and how strange I feel when people are so overtly and in your face religious, but I'm too completely flabbergasted by the whole pray and run thing to come up with a coherent sentence. I'm so angry on your behalf that I can barely type, I can't even begin to imagine what was going through your head actually being there.

In a former life I used to bid on jobs in your area of the world, some with the same clients (and I'd win some too), but luckily my industry doesn't end up in bed with the faith-based groups, at least not openly. The closest I came was a major run-in years ago with a VFF who came to Israel to work on one of my projects and criticized a major museum on the history of Jerusalem "for not emphasizing how the Jews killed Jesus". Sigh...

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is my favorite blog so far.
amen sister.
those self righteous people spreading the word make me sick. i have met far too many of them in my international travels. go home is the right thing to say to them.

5:57 AM  
Blogger mrsgreen said...

Bravo. This is an excellent entry. There's not much more I can add...

11:13 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

I can't even believe that he figured "eh, Jesus will take care of her so I don't have to." That's not very Christian of him (as they say in the midwest).

Meanwhile, the toaster for conversion thing - did the evangelists steal that from the gay community?

3:51 AM  
Anonymous dish6228@comcast.net said...

The last 2 entries have been right on. Good job relating what many of your compatriots stateside feel.

4:23 AM  
Anonymous Brian in AK said...

As a lifelong churchgoer, I know I’ve met this guy – the one who committed the pray and run – about a thousand times over again. I know the type. It makes me sad and angry to know that he’s out there, wearing Christianity and his own arrogance on his sleeve while hurting you and others, around the world. If he’d done this to me, I’d wanna kick his ass too. I am sorry, for this and every other hurt inflicted by so-called Christians. Jesus would have stopped and helped you up.

10:09 AM  
Blogger suburban dyke said...

In one of the Gospels(yes, those ones), there is a story of a man lying in the road who is by-passed by very important religious people who do not have the time to give him the time of day. Finally, he a lesser man approaches him, give him his cloak and helps him on his way. This is in brief the Good Samaritan. The pray and run guy should look it up but I doubt he'll recognize himself.

I too am wrestling with religion. I am ok with it in non-Westerners so long as they do not apply it to me, a Westerner. I ashamed that we still Westerners still feel compelled to help others to what we think is best for them rather than asking them their opinions much less respecting them.

4:41 AM  
Anonymous Julie said...

Wow. I'm surprised you didn't see the humor in the incident. It made me laugh out loud. Heck, it was just a sprained ankle - painful but not life-threatening. I agree with the previous poster - the parallels to the Good Samaritan story are there, but remember - the traveler was beaten by thieves and left for dead. (Not that I at all agree with any human who walked by without helping you! The only time I'd do that is if the person had a clear-cut look-at-me-I'm-a-victim attitude. But I can be a real jerk.)

I'd like to see more humor in your postings, and less emphasis on stuff disappointing you - even those incredibly annoying VFFs.

8:15 PM  

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