My wife and I first went overseas in the early 1980’s. We were new graduates in agriculture (me) and health care (my wife). We went to work with a rural development project in the Southern Philippines and were assigned to some great supervisors who became our mentors. Even though our supervisors were westerners themselves, they taught us quickly to listen to our Filipino partners and learn from them.
One of the earliest lessons we learned was about ourselves.
We came from a highly individualistic culture in the U.S. It was a culture that rewarded “champions” and entrepreneurship. It was a culture that preached that anyone worth their salt could improve their lives with hard work and clean living. It was a culture that held high the person who could “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” And unfortunately, it was a culture that really didn’t understand community and, sadly, understood less true, biblical community.
Thus, armed with our western education, hard work ethic, and the positive attitude that if someone worked hard enough, they would succeed, we entered into a community-oriented culture (which, by the way, are the majority of cultures around the world) and began to learn lessons the hard way.
We had never seen poverty in Tennessee like we did in the tribal villages of the Philippines. We didn’t really know what hunger was or what it meant to be a subsistence farmer. We didn’t recognize the unjust systems and laws that worked against people “getting ahead” in life. We had never sat with a family in a simple bamboo house and watch their child die from simple, treatable disease.
We also had never seen how communities came together to help one another. We saw some of this in our rural hometowns. But these communities in poverty had amazing ways and practices to survive the hard times. They rallied to the aid of fellow community members in need, making us feel a bit ashamed of our own culture. We learned that even in the midst of poverty and insurmountable problems, people could still be very happy and content.
I would like to use these next few blog entries to share with you some valuable lessons we learned by working with communities. In particular, I would like to share some of the things that “the way of community” over “the way of the individual” taught us. Communities, like people, aren’t perfect. But there is something special about people coming together to solve their problems and, in the process, make their own lives and those of their fellow community members better.