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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???”

Well…uh…

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.

Amen.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Rockets' Red Glare

Overt acts of patriotism make me uncomfortable.

All that flag waving, unnecessary boasting, and talk of the superiority of American values and ways has driven me away from celebrating the Forth of July with any sort of style or substance for many years now.

(And this despite the fact that I really do think America is the best place in the world. I just don’t think it pays to brag about it.)

What is it about patriotism in America that is so distasteful – especially for the liberal-minded among us? I’ve thought a lot about that over the past years as I traveled the world and observed the equal levels of patriotism and pride with which other countries celebrate their national holidays.

The French boast about the superiority of their food, wine and culture on Bastille Day. Tanzanians celebrate peace, unity, and recent years of relative growth and prosperity on their national days. Just last week (July 1) I found myself in a bar in Dar surrounded by a bevy of Canadians celebrating Canada Day with “traditional” Canadian foods involving potatoes, gravy and cheese. (Yes, who knew there were traditional Canadian foods?)

But clearly these people haven’t gotten the memo. The America is the best. They can only hope to be as fabulous and free.

Right.

Last year I blogged about the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam’s 4th of July celebration for the American community and told you all about the interesting groups of Americans that can be found so far from home.

This year I managed to score invitations to TWO 4th of July parties!

Let me start with the second party, for the American community in Dar, which was held on the 6th of July and featured (for the second year) overcooked hamburgers and inedible hotdogs, but at least the bouncy castle stayed full of air and the company was good.

The highlights of the party were a US Marines vs. the American community tug-of-war (hmmm… is there a pun in here somewhere?), the dunking booth (when word got out that the head of CDC was in the booth I watched at least five people run across the lawn to get their turn at dunking him), and finally a pie-eating contest.

Why a pie-eating contest? Well… because as Americans living overseas we clearly don’t eat enough pie!

(Did I mention that there was a separate pie-eating contest for the kids? We start them binging early in America!)

Earlier in the week, in a clear sign that I’ve moved up in the pecking order in Dar over the past year, I received a formal invitation to the Ambassador’s official party for the diplomatic community which was actually held on the 4th. The organizers did a fabulous job beautifying the already impressive Embassy (fortress) grounds with giant (car bomb barriers) planters decorated in red, white and blue and Christmas lights. We were escorted up a red carpet to a formal receiving line consisting of the Ambassador, the head of USAID, the head of CDC and the Military Attache.

I felt so special and warm inside – like I was actually an important person.

Inside the Embassy garden was a cornucopia of color… people of every shade in costumes of every type. It was beautiful… like the whole world had joined America to celebrate our special day. The wine and samosas were flowing freely… the conversation was intriguing… and I thought it was going oh so well until (four beers into the evening) I leaned over to ask the Chinese Ambassador if it was he who had personally prepared the fireworks show.

He wasn’t particularly amused. Or rather, in the sober light of day, I like to think that the death look just meant that he just didn’t understand my question.

The whole event was beautiful – except for the awkward moment when the Tanzanian Foreign Minister (the Government of Tanzania’s official representative at the party) asked the group to toast to the health of “George Bush and the United States of America”. (Oh why the double toast?)

All the foreigners lifted their glasses. But most of the Americans (at least the ones I could see) looked around them awkwardly for a cue about how to handle the moment. It was uncomfortable to say the least – but mainly because of the mixed audience and the enthusiasm of many of the non-Americans.

But for me, the most interesting part of the evening (even surpassing the excellent fireworks show NOT put on by the Chinese delegation) was an exhibition that everyone entering and leaving the event had to pass.

It seems that the US Embassy recently held a contest for popular Tanzanian cartoonists to depict the relationship between the US and Africa. (I know… what were they thinking!!!)

On the 4th of July, displayed very nicely in the most public of places, for all the world to see, were 10 of the most critical and scathing cartoons about America I’ve ever seen. As I walked from one end of the exhibit (where George Bush was featured under a Mission Accomplished banner mocking all the fabulous missions accomplished by the US 50 years ago and longer but questioning what America has accomplished since) to the other end (where a giant George Bush was sucking all the mineral wealth from Africa while filling his pockets with money) I was stunned that someone in the Embassy actually had the balls to put these on display at all.

But at that moment I was intensely proud of my country. Because the country that I want to come from feels comfortable sharing and reflecting on outside criticism, even on the day meant to celebrate how fabulous we are.

I realized in that moment why overt acts of patriotism have always felt so awkward for me. It is because in America, patriotism is defined as unquestioning support for country. We are expected to love our country blindly, no matter what it does in our name. Anything less is open to attack as being un-American.

My definition of patriotism is different. It means I can love my country intensely (I do) and feel proud of all it has accomplished (I do) while still reflecting on the things we are not doing well (a lot at the moment) and work to change those things (I gave money to two Democratic candidates in June).

I love my country now. But the day that negative cartoons about America are exhibited on the front steps of the Capitol building on the 4th of July… my cup will runnith over with pride.