God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions

worldFrom the moment of my birth, I have been inextricably linked to three nations – the United States, the land of my mother’s birth; Canada, where my father was born; and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was born. Even though I carry a U.S. passport and have now lived in the U.S. for more than 55 years, I’ve never forgotten my deep roots in and ties to Canada and Zimbabwe (and Zambia, where I also lived as a child). So there’s something in me that instinctively recoils when I hear the words, “America first.” It’s not the association of that phrase with the 1940s and anti-Semitism (disturbing as it is) that makes me recoil; rather, I dislike the idea because it seems to suggest that America is more important than other countries, that we should always be self-interested at the expense of other people in other places.

My own experience and understanding of Christian faith doesn’t fit well with the idea of “America first.” My missionary kid birth and upbringing conditioned me from the beginning to think about other countries besides the U.S. Even after returning to the States, my parents kept in touch with people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they were deeply interested in what happened in those countries. As former missionaries, they also maintained their connections with Brethren in Christ Missions in other countries, such as India, Japan, and Cuba.

Except for Canada, I didn’t travel outside the U. S. after we returned from Africa in 1961 until 30 years later in 1991. By then, I was an at-large member of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. I served on the board for 19 years, including nine years as chair. While serving on the board of MCC, which works in approximately 50 countries, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Zimbabwe , Zambia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia. These visits always affirmed the fundamental value of individual people of all races and colors and creeds. I have wonderful memories of the people I met, and when I think of these countries, I often think of specific people, especially women, who worked hard and cared for their families just like I do, often under very difficult circumstances.

[Aside: I’ve written before about how my international travel taught me much: “Stories from Around the World, Part 1 and Part 2.” I’ve also written about “Books to Expand My World” highlighting books that remind me there is a world out there beyond the United States. Here’s Part 2 of the post about books.]

From a Christian point of view, caring more about one’s own country and its people seems to be at odds with the concept of being citizens of heaven and the kingdom of God, rather than earthly kingdoms. Jesus didn’t say, “God so loved the United States” (or Palestine, where he lived); he said “God so loved the world.” God created everyone in God’s image, not just Americans, and if we truly believe that, then we should care about the welfare of all people, not just those who live in the United States. John’s vision of a huge choir composed of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (a multi-ethnic and multi-national kingdom of God) points to a much less ethnocentric and nationalistic view of the world than what is currently being promoted in many places.

All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic and don’t appreciate the kind of life I enjoy in the United States. I confess to feeling a fairly high degree of patriotism during the Olympics, as just one example, and I can’t help breathing a little sigh of relief when I set foot on familiar American soil again after traveling internationally. I also don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t integrity in taking care of our own people; there is a bit of hypocrisy in railing against poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination in other places when we aren’t working hard enough on those issues here at home. Self-interest is a good thing (as Jesus himself suggested when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”), although not when it ends up always putting personal interests ahead of the needs of others, or hogging the lion’s share of resources when others are suffering.

As Christians, we are connected to a global fellowship, a worldwide church; we care about the welfare of everyone, regardless of where they live. But beyond that, as human beings,  we are all connected to people all over the world. The contemporary world is inextricably interconnected and interdependent, more so than at any time in history, given the relative ease of travel, increased technology, and the ubiquity of the Internet. What we do here affects people in other places, and what other people do affects us; this is especially true when it comes to the use of limited natural resources. Globalism seems to have become a dirty word, but that doesn’t make sense to me. The “America first” mentality seems to operate out of a zero-sum philosophy: we have to be first, which means that no one else can be first; we can’t contribute to the well-being of others in other places because that means we can’t take care of ourselves. Why does it have to be either-or; why can’t it be both-and?

The time-honored ending to every presidential speech is “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” I understand and respect that, knowing and appreciating that presidents speak as the chief representative and promoter of and advocate for one specific country. But sometimes I also can’t help wishing they would add, “And God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”

 

Cuba Revisited

Count me among those who are applauding President Obama’s recent action to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and further relax restrictions on travel, etc. More than 16 years ago, I visited Cuba as part of a delegation from the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Our purpose was to learn about the reality of life in Cuba with a further goal of advocating for an end to the U.S. embargo. While the President’s recent action does not end the embargo, I believe it is a step in the right direction, based in part on what I observed all those years ago. I wrote a journal while I was in Cuba and when I returned, I did a presentation for the board in which I reflected on our experiences. As I read back over those reflections 16 years later, I am impressed with how what I heard and observed then is relevant in the current environment. Here are some slightly edited excerpts from my reflections on September 18, 1998.

On needing enemies

During our discussion with the head of the Cuban council of churches, he noted that “United States ideology needs an enemy” – and he went on from there to say that Cuba was a necessary enemy right now [1998]. Of course, needing an enemy isn’t peculiar to the U. S. We also heard that the Cuban government uses the embargo to oppress the people. In other words, the government can withhold food or other goods deliberately, but then blame it on the U.S. embargo. Having enemies seems to go both ways. Both the U.S. and Cuba seem to benefit from the perpetuation of enemy status.

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Political slogans were all over the place – on billboards, painted on walls, and even on a bus!

When we visited the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, an official said he has to “psychologically divorce himself from the Cuban people’s lives.” We assumed he meant that it would be difficult for him to do his job (maintain enemy relations, perhaps?) if he learned to know the Cubans as individual people or as friends. And yet, a Cuban government official claimed that Cuba is open to dialogue and negotiation with the U.S. The only condition, he said, is that there be no conditions, but that Cubans be able to speak as equals. Maybe this was propaganda, but maybe we ought to call their bluff. Maybe, like Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having once said, we could defeat the enemy by making them a friend. Maybe that’s what it would mean to overcome evil with good or heap coals of fire on their heads (see Romans 12:14-21).

The meaning of truth

On our last morning in Havana, we visited with two officials of the National Assembly of Popular Power. While we were there, we were served beverages placed on coasters with the words “Siempre Libres” on them – “always free.” As I thought about those words and what they mean in the Cuban context – a communist country the average American thinks is quite the opposite of free – I couldn’t help thinking of Jesus’ words, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Obviously, Jesus’ words can’t be literally applied to Cuba, but they did create an interesting set of questions for me:

1. What does Cuba mean when they say they are “always free”?

2. What is the truth about Cuba?

3. What truth(s) did we learn while we were there?

4. Whose truth did we learn?

5. Is there ever only one truth about a given thing, or idea, or circumstance?

I’ve always known that each of us sees things through our own lenses, and those lenses are affected by our genes, race, geography, economic status, religious beliefs, political opinions, life experiences, etc. The “truth” of this phenomenon seemed to be dramatically illustrated through our experiences during one week in Cuba. We heard different versions of the same situation or event or circumstance. When we went to Washington after returning, we heard the official U.S. version of the truth given us by the National Security Council. I feel like I have not yet discovered the full truth about Cuba.

All of this reinforced the importance of listening and not drawing conclusions too quickly, because there may be another side, another reality, another truth. I became convinced that there isn’t just one truth about Cuba. It is important to be careful not to generalize about Cuba based on limited experience and observation, but at the same time to be willing to speak the truth as I felt it while I was there.

Finally, a few lingering images and impressions of Cuba

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    One of the vintage cars that provided some of our transportation. Left to right: Kay Bontrager-Singer, another MCC U.S. board member; the owner and driver of the car; yours truly

    Wonderful people so willing and eager to talk about their lives and share whatever was in their hearts – people whose Christian faith had sustained them through many years and difficult circumstances. [We visited the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, as well as a Mennonite house group that wasn’t officially registered with the government but at the time operated under the registration of the Brethren in Christ.]

  • Ongoing wonderment regarding the truth about Cuba; e.g., would it be good for the embargo to end [my personal view in 1998 and still in 2014], or would it upset the balance of things and make life worse?
  • Old 40s and 50s vintage American cars still running, albeit often beat-up and spewing toxic fumes.
  • A variety of modes of transportation – old cars of course, plus bicycles (some with two or three people riding them), motorcycles, side cars, multiple versions of buses. I saw no accidents or traffic jams – there seemed to be general courtesy in the streets; even car horns, though common, were polite little beeps.
  • Revolutionary slogans all over the place, but no advertising billboards.
  • Mangos, guava juice, papaya – bringing back memories of an African childhood.

 

 

Stories from Around the World, Part 2

Today I’m continuing with some more stories from my past international travels as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) board member. See yesterday’s post for stories from Bolivia, Zambia and Cuba.

Southeast Asia, 2000: My trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in 2000 was my first official travel as a member of the executive committee of the MCC binational board that used to have oversight of MCC’s international programs. I traveled with an MCC staff member and his wife from British Columbia, meeting up with them in the Vancouver airport on the way to our first stop in Bangkok, Thailand. Our time in Thailand was spent with all the Southeast Asia MCC volunteers at a retreat center on the coast, where we served as resource persons. From Thailand we went on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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Display case full of skulls

While in Phnom Penh, we visited the Tuol Seng prison museum which documents the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as one of the “killing fields” where you could still see the holes from digging up the mass graves. We learned that some bodies were brought there already dead, while other people were lined up at the edge of hole and shot or hit so they fell in. A few didn’t die, but played dead until after the soldiers left and then escaped. At the location of this “killing field,” there was also a memorial containing 100s of unidentified skulls. Very chilling sight. I had seen the movie, “The Killing Fields,” and of course had lived through the Vietnam War that spilled over into Cambodia with horrific results, but it was something else entirely to see the way the Cambodians themselves documented this sad chapter in their country’s history.

As someone who came of age during the Vietnam War and internalized a strong commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence, I looked forward to visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, and I found the people warm and friendly. We visited a small business where women worked on a very complicated process of making bowls and other containers that would be sold in Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. There was a small shop where they displayed their finished products, and I wanted to buy one of the beautiful items to help support their work. Instead, the manager told me I could choose any item I wanted, and he refused to accept my offer to pay. And then he gave me a second piece. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of people who have much less in material wealth than I do.

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We watched the women applying
many layers of paint and shellac to
papier-mache-type bowls

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One of the bowls I was given –
a favorite in our house

Zimbabwe, 2003: As soon as I heard that the 2003 Mennonite World Conference Assembly would be held in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (where I was born), I knew I really really wanted to go, but I didn’t know how I would work out the details. So I was delighted when I was invited to lead a tour group that would visit Brethren in Christ mission points in Zambia and Zimbabwe before and after the assembly itself. I also represented the MCC U.S. board at the assembly. In the months leading up to the assembly, many doubts and questions were raised as to whether it should be held in Bulawayo, given the political situation, economy, safety issues, food shortages, etc. Most of the doubts came from North Americans, I think, while the Zimbabwe Brethren in Christ Church stood firm in their invitation: “Woza! (Come!) God has something for you!’ And indeed, it was a wonderful gathering, never to be forgotten.

In addition to the opportunity to be back in Zimbabwe again, there were several other personal highlights. The theme of the Assembly was “Sharing Gifts in Suffering and in Joy,” and on the day designated as “North America Day,” I was invited to speak to the thousands of attendees. I reflected on my experience as a North American receiving gifts from people I have visited in various parts of the world (including those bowls in Vietnam). After I spoke, I received yet another gift: meeting a woman my father had helped many years before. He met Makanalia when she was a young girl and living in her village. He noticed that she had a serious vision problem, felt compassion for her, and couldn’t get her out of his mind. Probably realizing that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her to get the help she needed, her parents allowed my father to bring her back to the mission station, and there the missionary doctor helped her get glasses to correct her vision. Makanalia went on to become a teacher and leader in the Zimbabwe church – and never forgot what my father did for her. It was very moving for me to meet her after so many years, especially since my father had just passed away about two months before.

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Speaking to the assembly

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Our Zimbabwe hosts cooked and
served 12 meals to 7000 guests each.
This was the kitchen!

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The checkpoint where I produced
my U.S. passport with a
Zimbabwe birthplace listed

Palestine and Egypt, 2004: For my first (and only) trip to the Middle East, my traveling companion was the chair of the MCC board. We flew into Amman, Jordan, and from there drove through checkpoints to Bethlehem in Palestine. At one checkpoint where we had to produce passports, a young Israeli customs official seemed particularly interested that I was born in  Zimbabwe. She wondered why I didn’t have a Zimbabwean passport. “Don’t you deserve one?” she asked. I was never sure what she meant by that question. In Palestine, we observed sections of the Separation Wall that Israel has been building for years to try to protect itself from Palestinian violence. I found myself repeatedly thinking about Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,”: “something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down,” especially as we met with Palestinians who want peace and are trying to make a living in very difficult circumstances. The Separation Wall splits up their territory into Swiss cheese and sometimes separates Palestinian farmers from their olive trees and other crops, forcing them to go through many checkpoints just to accomplish what should be the simple chores of daily living.

In Cairo, Egypt one evening, we went to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral for their Wednesday evening Bible study. The Coptic Orthodox pope was celebrating the 50th anniversary of his monasticism at age 81. The church was completely full with about 3000 attendees. Throughout the evening (during an oppressively hot spell in Cairo in a church without air conditioning and 3000 people), the pope had audiences with various individuals and groups, signed little mementos, and gave his Bible study – a long overview of the life of Solomon.

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Yasmine and Rana who
followed us around near
Garbage City

Another day, we went to “Garbage City” – an area of Cairo where they collect, sort and recycle garbage. While the setting is rather depressing, many of the people who live there are able to sustain themselves from the sale of the products. (I bought a tote bag from one of the merchants that I still use for some of my knitting supplies!) Outside Garbage City, there is a huge outdoor church carved out of a cliff in honor of Simon the Tanner. Two little girls followed us around and then we were also joined by a bunch of other kids wanting to have their pictures taken. So I took their pictures with my digital camera and showed them to the kids – much to their delight.

And of course, no trip to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Great Pyramids. As we walked the area, taking pictures (I really wanted my own camel-in-front-of-the-pyramids photo!), a self-appointed entrepreneur told us about a little extra tour he could take us on to see some newly excavated grave sites with sarcophaguses and mummies. He began his pitch by offering to take a photo of me “touching” a pyramid. We followed him for a while but eventually decided the whole pitch was something of a scam to make money, but I still had my photo!

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One more trip to tell about in a future post – to Indonesia in 2007