Friday, August 10, 2007

Pittstown Point, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: SE 15-20 knots

We went to the Seaside Restaurant last night for dinner, and it was really weird. I had brought along my Joy of Cooking to make photocopies for Marcia, Andy’s wife, and I had my little notebook where I had made notes of the kind of toppings they might want to buy, ideas, that sort of thing. I was a little worried about the timeframe, because it takes at least three hours to make dough and it was already six o’clock when Andy came by and picked us up. When we got there and met Marcia, she already had the dough finished! She made pizzas and put them in the oven, and I sat outside at a table and twiddled my thumbs uselessly.

It’s just another one of those frustrating cross-cultural interactions. I was really looking forward to helping someone with something useful, to being in a real kitchen, to hanging out with another girl, and it turns out that they don’t need us at all. The pizza was good, too, and Andy treated us, but I do wish I had known how it would all turn out. For one thing, we just had the best pizza we’ve ever had on the boat two days ago! I wasn’t at all hungry for pizza again. I would’ve much rather splurged on one of the Bahamian specialties on the menu, stuffed grouper or stewed fish or even one of the lobsters Andy’s sons zoom by with every afternoon. We did think of going out as a kind of celebration.

And the internet was down, of course, so I’m still completely divorced from the outside world, aside from the message I left on my family’s answering machine a week ago. I’m still unbelievably frustrated with my article. I just can’t figure out what it is that I’m trying to say. Maybe I’ll just post it for your collective criticism and swim to shore. I’m fed up with the boat and I want to drink some ice water. It’s too tempting having it just a short hundred yards swim away.

So here goes. Blast away.

Modern Pilgrims

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” --Luke 9:58

When I was a child, growing up as a missionary kid in Thailand, I was always accused of taking the Bible’s commands too literally. “Yes,” my parents agreed, “the Bible is inerrant, but that doesn’t mean we actually need to sell all we have and give the money to the poor.” I didn’t understand. What did Jesus mean, then?

Then, at Wheaton College, majoring in English literature, I had the same problem. In Walden, I read Thoreau’s remonstration:

“[Students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? ...Which would have advanced the most at the end of the month,--the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this--or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rogers penknife from his father?”

I looked around at my upper-middle class classmates in their puffy primary-colored North Face fleeces and WWJD? bracelets, only half-joking when they spoke about their “Mrs.” degrees and senior panic. I experienced far more culture shock than I had expected--after all, I had attended the world’s largest high school for missionary children. I thought I was savvy to American culture. Is this what American Christianity looks like? I asked myself. If it is, I want none of it.

What would Jesus do? Certainly not live in the suburbs and work as a consultant. Maybe I took those bracelets too much to heart, too. Now, when people ask whether or not I’m using my degree: ”Yep,” I say. “I took Thoreau at his word.” Truer, though, is that I took Christ at His word. The pastor at the Vineyard church where my sister attends recently asked me, when I came for a visit, “Where do you live now?”

“I’m a fox without a hole,” I joked, figuring he, of all people, would get it. His brow furrowed in confusion.

Since 2004, when I quit my job as business manager for the Christian Century, I’ve been a bird without a nest. In 2004, I hiked the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine; in 2005, I hiked 900 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in California, then began an abortive attempt to bicycle the rest of the Pacific coast; in 2006 I bought and rebuilt, with my boyfriend, a 33-foot sailboat, and sailed it down the Atlantic Coast to the Bahama Islands, to arrive in 2007.

My sister is currently enrolled in a graduate program for Public Health, and in a recent phone call, we were discussing a paper she was writing on homelessness in Chicago. She told me that only ten percent of homeless people are the “visible” homeless, the street corner bums asking for money. The majority of the homeless are families, generally single mothers with children, who have no place to live, and end up staying with families and friends, or in their cars, and these are the homeless that most programs do nothing to help. While we were talking, I paused for a moment. “What about me?” I asked my sister. “Wouldn’t that make me homeless?”

She paused too, and I could hear her thinking on the other end of the line. “I guess it would,” she finally said.

I’ve been living with other people, my parents, my boyfriend’s parents, in a floorless three-person ultralight teepee tarp, even for a while in an RV (without running water) in my boyfriend’s brother’s backyard. Sure, you might say, live like Christ. But isn’t that taking the WWJD thing a little too far?

I know many of my generation feel the same way, disillusioned with all of the institutions they grew up with. We look around in disgust at the hypocrisy we perceive in our churches, which claim to believe in social justice but do nothing in the face of global poverty and suffering. We look at our government, with its lip service to democracy and freedom, and its active pursuit of imperialism, systematic inequality, and economic superiority.

What can we do, though? How do we obey Christ’s injunctions in such a world? How can we? Even if we spend our lives working for the good, we’ll still buy clothes made by children in sweatshops, eat fruit picked by illegal immigrants, drive cars that use too much gasoline, own stock in a mutual fund that holds shares of Exxon-Mobil. I know. I did all those things, all the while questioning my faith, asking what it meant to be a Christian, having been face-to-face with global inequality in the vast, dirty necropolises of Bangkok and Manila.

In a November 2006 essay for the New Yorker, writer George Packer describes conditions in present-day Lagos, Nigeria--the desperate poverty, the slums built on heaps of garbage, the polluted water, the poor who survive by scavenging plastic. He ends the article with the interview of a local government chairman in eastern Lagos Island who calls the city a powder keg and says that if the problems of the city aren’t addressed, the urban poor would erupt into desperate violence. He says, “If all this fails, the world will feel the weight of Lagos not working out.” Packer concludes, though, “There is an even darker possibility: that the world won’t feel the weight of it much at all. The really disturbing thing about Lagos’s pickers and venders is that their lives have essentially nothing to do with ours.”

For a while, when I considered myself agnostic, I decided that if I ever regained my faith, I would literally sell everything I had, except the clothes on my back, buy a plane ticket to Haiti (this is when Haiti was the poorest country in the world), take the cash and literally hand it out to the poor. Dave Eggers follows this idea to its logical conclusion when, in his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, his protagonist and a friend fly to Senegal to distribute a $15,000 windfall he had received undeservedly. They end up taping wadded-up dollar bills to goats and throwing sheaves of cash out of car windows, the sheer magnitude of the poverty they encounter proving to them the utter meaninglessness of their attempted gesture.

Growing up, my favorite books were biographies of famous missionaries--Mary _____, David Livingstone, William Carey. The lived by faith in the way Jesus did: when Carey runs out of bread for his orphanage, a bread van breaks down in front of his front door. When he doesn’t have enough money for rent, the exact amount, down to the dollar, is found in an unmarked envelope at his front door. The most affecting story for me was the one where someone opens his office door during his daily prayer time, and finds him draped over his oversized globe, weeping for the world.

That’s the faith I want. I want to weep for the world, the way Christ wept for Jerusalem. I want to give God the chance to provide grace for me in the way he provided for that orphanage.

My choice is just one of many, and not necessarily the right one. My brother’s working towards his Ph.D. at Harvard, my sister’s goal is work internationally for a relief organization, and my parents continue to work as missionaries. I live on a boat, unmarried, childless, with my boyfriend in the Bahamas. How can I justify a life like that in the face of the world’s suffering? I’m following my path, living like Christ, and all I can hope is that my life will bear the fruit that he promised.


Anonymous said...

Been trying to keep up with you guys trip, very cool stuff. I don't think I ever met you, but me and my buddy, Big Tom, met County briefly in Independence. Just read your article. It was well written and thought provoking. I would love to follow your lead on this one someday. Fair winds and following seas! Little Tom

Melissa said...

Hi Little Tom! I'm pretty sure I didn't meet you, and County has been trying to place you... In Independence? Were you hiking? I vaguely remember your names. Glad to hear you're enjoying the trip!