Storm of philosophy (part 1): On evangelism
I’ve known a few people to spend significant amounts of time in Thailand, and approximately half of them have done so to spread the word of their God. I’ll talk about two of these friends specifically for a moment. My longest-dated-boyfriend (Grant) is Mormon and he spent his two-year mission in a rural area of Thailand near Laos. A friend of mine from college (Charis) is there right now teaching English, though that’s a side project for her Christian mission work. Thailand’s population, after nearly 200 years of mission work, has about the same Christian population as India has, which is to say that it’s very, very small.
That’s some background.
Two weekends ago, Ms MD took me out to Jowai, one of the other large cities in Meghalaya. Our original purpose was to meet with her friend who makes wedding apparel – I’m currently on a quest to find a nice, less-expensive-than-in-America veil for my friend Leigh – but then I found out that Darihun (the UUNEI treasurer) not only knows how to make veils, but made her own, and would help me in making Leigh’s. Thus, I didn’t buy a veil from Ms MD’s friend. But, we did have lunch at her house, took a brief tour of Jowai, and spent time with two Khasi-American Seventh Day Adventists who are currently on an extended visit to Meghalaya.
The son of this pair lives with his family in Maryland, and the father is a SDA minister who is currently living in Grenada. Primarily, the son is here to check on education sponsorships he helps to organize, and the father is here to lead an SDA crusade. They were super nice. The son even gave me a ton of candy to pass on to the orphans. They invited me to come to the portion of the crusade that was in Shillong, and by some providence I was actually here on a Tuesday and could go.
I’m not going to go much into the content of the preacher’s sermon, because I can’t think of a way to write about it without coming off as (being?) a jerk. But, for the purpose of this essay, I must write a little.
In a fire-and-brimstone way, this preacher spoke about how God has intended a particular destiny for us. We’re all supposed to go to heaven… Except when we choose not to by not choosing Jesus. (I don’t believe in “choosing your destiny.” While I can understand choosing your own adventure, I have been confident for many years that destiny and choice are mutually exclusive concepts.) I appreciated the verse the preacher used to show that hell is not supposed to be a person’s destination:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41, emphasis added)
“That’s the good news about hell,” the preacher said. “It’s not meant for you and me. It was prepared for the devil.”
I’m familiar with the preceding parable to this verse because it’s the basis for the CAKE song “Sheep Go To Heaven.” It’s a great song. And I think that hell not being meant for people can be used as part of the universalist philosophy. But, this preacher uses it as an example of dualism. It’s heaven or hell, Jesus or Satan, good or evil. Either/or.
Here’s a story.
Amma is Hemant and Gaurav’s mother, and she takes care of me whenever I’m in Delhi. I am extremely lucky to have met her and her sons when I was working at the Alen-de-Lastic Children’s Village in Haryana. When I came back to India in January, the sons told me that Amma had been sick while I had been on vacation in the States. She told me how she was cured: while she was in the hospital, Jesus visited her and healed her.
Now let’s get back to Thailand.
I can understand why a fire-and-brimstone believer would want to be a missionary. What must it be like to believe that people you know, some of whom are very nice, are going to hell? I imagine it’s similar to the way I feel about people who refuse to take medicine when they are sick: What are you doing?! You’re just going to get sicker and make other people sick too! You’ll have a longer, healthier, happier life if you just accept this treatment to your illness! I imagine this branch of Christians must worry a lot about the people they know outside the devout in their church community.
Both Grant and Charis have told me that they struggle(d) to convert Thai people. I can think of a number of good reasons why people they would be disinterested in Christianity, and these reasons can apply to others around the world.
Does Amma appreciate and love Jesus for curing her? Of course she does. Is Amma going to abandon Hinduism because Jesus cured her? Of course not. As a Hindu, she doesn’t believe it necessary to throw away her lifelong faith to love Jesus. She has no problem simply adding him to her group of divine protectors.
Further, if the Christianity preached is all or nothing, if a person has to stop being Buddhist to become Christian, what is the social and familial upside of conversion? This was a big problem that my family (and later I) had with Grant and the Church of Latter-Day Saints. If, perchance, Grant and I had kept dating after high school and decided to get married, I’d first have had to become a Mormon to be married proper in the temple, and my entire family would have had to convert if they wanted to witness said proper marriage. I’ll tell you what, that would not have gone over well with the grandmothers.
I’ve been given a couple of meaningful signs that Mother Mary is a guide for me. Both involve the Alen-de-Lastic Children’s Village.
When I went to India in 2006, I was plagued with malaria-pill-induced dreams. Some of them were bad nightmares. One morning, I told Auntie about my affliction. She went to her room and came back to me with a Mother-Mary-shaped bottle of holy water. “Sprinkle this on your pillow every night,” she told me. “You won’t have nightmares anymore.” And I didn’t. (Thanks, Mary.)
Just before I graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2007, I went with some of my good friends to the Phipps Botanical Garden next door to school. They had a beautiful glass art exhibit placed amongst the flora, and we had a lovely afternoon there. However, my trip was nearly ruined when I lost the rosary ring aforementioned Auntie gave to me when I left from my summer at the orphanage in Delhi. This ring is really important to me. I used it to lead the children in prayers every evening, and it is a gift from a good friend. When my friends and I left the garden, I realized it was no longer on my finger. It wasn’t on the ground. It wasn’t in my purse. It was nowhere to be found.
Practically in tears, I went to the information desk and reported my ring was missing. “What does it look like?” the ladies asked. “It’s a silver toned metal, with ten bumps and a cross…”
“Oh!” one of the exclaimed, “A rosary ring! I have about ten of those! You should ask Mary to help you find it.”
“Mary?” I thought. “Who’s Mary?” I checked the ladies’ nametags before the duh moment hit me.
So I did. “Mary,” I prayed. “Please find my ring. I know I shouldn’t be asking you for something so small when there are so many big problems to pray over. But, I really want this ring back. Please.”
And the next day, Phipps called to tell me that they’d found my ring. (Thanks again, Mary.)
I would think that after such experiences, I would dive into Christianity. I have personal experience that the Christian faith carries blessings. I believe this strongly enough that I carry a portrait of Mary at Lourdes and a copy of the New Testament around with me everywhere. I believe that they will help protect me from harm.
What I’m taking a while to say is, I don’t believe in missionary work. And, it’s missionaries who have pushed me away from Christianity for the past 10 years. When a MATCH student I was friendly with was expelled, I told him as he left to be good. I believe that people should be good. Not “right,” exactly, just good. Beyond that, I decline to commit. I’m not God, and He’s never sat down with me to talk, and I know I can’t know what He knows. So, why convert? Why convert others? Why judge? What do I know, anyway? And if I were to leave Unitarianism, I would want it to be for a religion I could really get behind. I don’t want any doubts in my relationship with God. Because of what I see missionaries do, I have too many doubts about the practice of evangelical Christianity to open myself to Christian theology more generally. (Perhaps this can be corrected by attending a progressive divinity school potentially chock full of liberal Christians? I can only hope.) I don’t mean that I think people should not be conservative Christian (or any of the other faiths that are exclusive in their nature, for that matter). I’m just saying it’s not for me. I’ll keep Mary and my New Testament close by, but I won’t abandon the Buddha and Hanuman icons that I carry with me as well.
What I’m also taking a while to say is, I want to be an evangelical Unitarian minister. This Seventh Day Adventist preacher roused me, a “non-believer” (to borrow the label), so much so that I wrote a three-page essay about his sermon. I want to be an evangelical minister without the typical evangelical content. I want to inspire people to do something about the failing American education system, the discrimination inherent in Proposition 8, the fact that there are children who die every day of starvation. I want to inspire people to be good to themselves, to others, and to God, however they see Him. I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business to tell people how to see God. I do believe it’s everyone’s business to increase the world’s goodness.