A few years ago I wrote a column for the local newspaper with the headline If You’re Comfortable, It’s Not Multicultural. The piece grew out of my 25 years of experience as the pastor of a congregation near Chicago which was 25% African American, 10% Hispanic and 65% Caucasian. On top of that we shared our building with a partner congregation, The Thai Community Church.
I would explain the challenge of my job by saying, “In a homogeneous congregation or community, members identify a problem and then debate the solution. In a multicultural situation, stake holders begin by debating the nature of the problem.” That’s because different cultures view what they see through different interpretive lenses. Sometimes the multicultural encounters result in unexpected gifts of grace and sometimes in discouraging frustration.
In 2009, I realized that I had forty days of unscheduled time in Thailand between the seventh mission trip I had helped lead in the “Land of Smiles” and an international conference in Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand. I was at a point in my life where I felt the need to test my two primary relationships: with God and with my self.
Thai culture in general and Buddhism in particular, to me, would provide what Richard Rohr refers to as “a wall to butt up against. . .a worthy opponent against which we test our mettle.” “Wholeness and holiness,” he declared, “will always stretch us beyond our small comfort zone.” The Gospel of Matthew states that it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. Thai culture and Buddhism certainly aren’t the devil incarnate. It was the testing part of the story which was pushing me.
I grabbed the opportunity to test these two relationships by traveling around Thailand alone—with my limited Thai vocabulary and my neurological disorder–to plunge into the deep end of the cultural pool, if you will, and see if I would sink or swim. Before leaving I joked with my friends and family that my only traveling companions would be my self and God, and I didn’t know if I would get along with either one.
I wrote Forty Days Alone in Thailand partly as a spiritual travel memoir, but partly as a way of encouraging readers to risk moving out of their cultural comfort zones as a way of meeting themselves again as if for the first time.
Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort, Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, writes, “As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics.”
“And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life,” he argues, “pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”
I hope and pray that the vicarious trip through Thailand this memoir provides will expose readers to the values, customs and ways of life of one segment of “those people” which will help them see themselves, their faith and their culture in new ways.