What do you see when you see me?
Is it part of yourself?
My skin is deep and rich, full of life.
My clothes shimmer
With flare of the unexpected.
I am different than you.
You can tell.
What does that scare in you?
What offense have I made?
In what you are
Or who you are
Or how you define yourself,
My presence threatens not
The deep hidden core
Of your being
The same as mine.
Your language, your thoughts, your beliefs
I don’t understand.
And you are
Allah Bapa Kami means God Our Father. Time and again, I would hear those words spoken in Catholic prayer while here in Malaysia. “Allah is God.” The triumphant phrase I have heard over and over again from Muslims in America, but in Malaysia, the Catholics pray to Allah, God. It was most striking to hear the Hail Mary in what I could plainly understand was “Hail Mary, Mother of Allah.” I feel like I have been dropped in a country where all the differences that I was taught to fear growing up, aren’t even an issue. The typical dress and appearance of what I always perceived was a Hindu, was the common dress of the Catholic woman coming up for communion.
I had so many great conversations with great people in Malaysia, especially the youth of the country. I was so struck by one young woman who plainly told me, “I don’t know why anyone would want to go to America with the impression I have about their struggles with racism. Why would anyone consider someone different, just because of the color of their skin?” I wanted bring her to America so that she could be the next Civil Rights leader. Somehow I convinced her that America wasn’t so bad, but it took a while.
The bottom line, for me, is that Malaysia has so much to teach a country like the United States. Malaysia has triumphed ethnic and religious tolerance. The Orang Asli (the original inhabitants, which are now the minority), Malays, Indians, Chinese, but also Indonesians, Vietnamese, Filipinos as migrant workers, all call Malaysia “home.” For those who don’t know, their skin color and appearance are all very different. Alongside the ethnic diversity, there are Muslims (the majority), Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, Shieks, and Hindus, all very tolerant of each other.
As I said, in this regard, America, heck, the world has a lot to learn from Malaysia. Malyasia at least tolerates differences. But I spoke with more than one person who admitted, tolerance is not enough. After a while, tolerance tastes of an insipid blandness that leaves a person listless and wanting. True growth comes when there is mutual appreciation and encouragement of people beyond differences. That is the difference between peace and tolerance. Tolerance is a first good step. Peace is the step beyond.
I am noticing that I am having a lot of difficulty synthesizing my blogs into cohesive, themed writing while here in Malaysia. This is either because I have been so busy, or because it is part of the nature of Malaysia. I’m going to go with the latter because some of the last things I am going to put in this summary illustrate the very problem I have in articulating what I have learned here.
Before I do that however, I have put all of the Malaysian churches I visited into one Google Earth pictorial for you to download easily. If you have Google Earth installed onto your computer, you can view my pictorials by clicking here. It will zoom to Holy Family parish in Kajang, and then you can use your Places tab to browse other churches.
I remember earlier this week at St. Jude’s parish when the pastor and I spoke about an individual’s choice to find God. I usually shy away from that language in the United States because the gift Protestantism has reinforced in America is our preoccupation with individualism. To find the proper balance, I as a teacher, am always pushing the value of community. Here, talking about an individuals choice to accept God is quite natural, and it feels quite balanced to talk about the dialectic at stake. The choice to follow God is both communal and individual.
The pastor of St. Jude’s reminded me of a very important fact. As much as this pilgrimage will impact me, it is my path, not anyone else’s. For me to go back and say, “Go to Malaysia and you’ll renew your faith.” or, “The only way you’ll find God is through a pilgrimage.” is arrogant. This is the way for me. Other paths await other sojourners. Our greatest challenge is to encourage one another on our different paths.
Another mystery of Malaysia has been the involvement of young people in the life of the Catholic faith community. Malaysia is an industrialized nation with a lot of prosperity. The two countries I can use in comparison to Malaysia are Hong Kong and the United States. Both struggle to “attract” young people to the faith. Malaysia does struggle, but is doing much better than Hong Kong and the United States. The United States is still in a paradigm shift in regards to the work we call “youth ministry.” I describe this shift as the movement toward a model of multiple paradigms, but even I admit that the principle model in the United States has been the Catholic Schools system. Malaysia does not have Catholic schools, at all, is industrialized like the United States, and is still doing very well in bringing young people into the life of the Catholic faith community. I asked some young people why they thought that was. They responded, “Because being Catholic is an important part of our family life.” I think they couldn’t be more right.
Strong families are the most integral part of young people growing up Christian/Catholic. In the United States, the divorce rate reaches as high as 50%, I don’t think the answer is to give up on 50% of our population because somehow their family is dysfunctional. I think the answer is to lend support where there is the greatest need. The old joke is still true. The definition of a dysfunctional family is any family that a psychologist has analyzed. No family is perfect, but it seems to me that what Malaysia is doing right in welcoming young people into the life of the Catholic Faith Community is not having Catholic Schools, but Catholic families.
Sitting with a group of young people on my last night in Malaysia, I had the ability to discuss a lot of things. The youth were fascinated by the nuance differences between the Catholic Church in Malaysia and the United States, as well as the experiences of Church throughout Asia. I asked them if they could identify what the Church in Asia is, and what is important here. The conversation was multifaceted, but I’ll never forget what the pastor of Holy Family parish said to me. He said, “They say that the longest journey a man makes is from his head to his heart.”
Sometimes the epiphany of a few words can alter the course of your life. I think those words did that for me. Here I am, on the longest journey anyone could imagine. 365 days around the world. More than one person along the way has reminded me of the prayer, “Forgive me Lord for visiting many shrines and not finding you here, where you have been all along, close to my heart.” I’ve already gone 35,000 kilometers (around 22,000 miles) since January 1, and the journey is not about the miles on my feet, but the movement of my own self-understanding, from my intellect to my compassion.
I often talk about solidarity as being something which we need to be made conscious of. Big deal! What good does consciousness do? Being conscious of air pollution has not caused anyone to stop burning fossil fuels. Well that is to say, not everyone. When you really get down to it, more people are led to right action through deliberated consciousness, than passive non-participation.
Up till now, consciousness, for me, has mostly been an activity about gaining knowledge, but what I am learning in Asia, is that there is also a consciousness of the heart, different from the consciousness of the mind. I’m still working on the language for it, but it seems to be that solidarity is not only a concept for the mind to grasp, but it is also a heart knowledge, that pours forth our being into a love response. I’m still making this journey, but Malaysia has started to sum up for me what has been a mystery here in Asia. The journey of a pilgrim is only embodied in the steps he/she takes. Those steps, if done in harmony with the spirit, are really steps to the center of one’s being, beyond knowledge, and toward understanding rooted in the heart.