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May 4, 1999

Shattered Preconceptions

by Neil S. Milligan

It's funny that judgment and prejudgment have such different meanings and implications. This was driven home particularly well last month to yours truly. While many of us like to think of ourselves as being open minded, few of us reach that standard all of the time and a healthy reality-check reminds that it is unfair to tar individuals in a group with the same broad brush.

The occasion in question came when I visited a missionary training establishment in Lineville, Alabama. Coincidentally, I arrived there having just read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, an excellent novel about a Baptist missionary from Georgia who brought his wife and four daughters to the Congo during that nation's 1960s struggle for independence. The would-be savior completely ignored cultural proscriptions to those people converting to his God. His attempted ministrations caused great discord in the community; his refusal to live among the people and accept their lifestyle as valid (and viable, since it had been going on virtually unchanged for centuries) brought misfortune on his family. Still he wouldn't see.

The "typical" Christian missionary has often been portrayed as such, probably because there are living models for that stereotype. I was totally unprepared for Sarah Corson, co-founder with her husband, Ken, of SIFAT. The acronym has dual meanings: Service In Faith And Technology, and Southern Institute For Appropriate Technology. It would be a gross understatement to say that I never expected to meet a Christian with the understanding and values that Miss Sarah exhibited. To cross paths with such a person a few miles from Wedowee (remember the high school prom there canceled over the threat of interracial dating?) was even more astonishing.

The circumstance was that the Sierra Club state chapter arranged to hold our board meeting there. With officers from all across the state, we try to spread the travel-burden around and meet in different, interesting places. One of the members knew of SIFAT and settled the details of room and board and a meeting place.

It is a large complex on 130 acres and contains a communal kitchen and dining hall, a large garden, outbuildings, and several trailers and small homes for staff and students. A special area set aside as an overseas experience without ever leaving the US is Aldea, a group of primitive huts modeled after Third World village dwellings with hammocks and no running water or electricity.

Various examples of appropriate "low-tech" inventions are scattered around the central area. Some are solar electric devices but most are manual appliances built with available materials that operate on simple principles. The devices demonstrate how to supply and purify water, improve soil, cook efficiently, provide shelter, preserve food and supply protein. There is even a methane recovery and collection system that supplies fuel from composted waste. The philosophy is to help lift people out of dire poverty and bare existence before trying to bring them to spiritual salvation. Americans destined for overseas mission projects are taught the basics of community development here, as are guests from Third World countries. Graduates live in 74 countries and SIFAT has branches in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Thailand and the Philippines.

SIFAT began twenty years ago and is supported by various churches and individuals. The Corsons were missionaries in Central America for several years and realized that giving the poor the bible was not enough and neither was providing technology and Western (rich) values. They realized that technology is a tool - one that had to be used safely and right -- that could easily upset communities. They turned their focus to holistically developing the community and advocating local committees to decide which projects will benefit the most people sustainably.

Miss Sarah met with us late in the day. An open, plainspoken woman, warm and sensitive, she talked to us for nearly 3 hours about her experiences and her commitment to Christ's principles - not to any unity of doctrine, but to a unity of spirit that transcended culture and alternate faiths. The Corsons started SIFAT after their first experience homesteading in Bolivia among malnutrition and early and needless death. The disparity between her own healthy children and the starving, doomed offspring of the women she met showed them that "pastoring" wasn't enough.

She told sad and exciting stories of living and working in poor and remote settlements, facing death from disease and armed forces and acts of Nature. The open way that her family lived, same as the locals, helped build rapport with a devout Communist leader who distrusted the churches that turned away the poor or told them that suffering now leads to salvation in the after-life. The family's faith was tested at gunpoint several times and enemies were at least astonished if not converted outright.

What was most amazing to me was to find such a broader awareness in this motherly, country, Southern woman of the overarching forces that engender the poverty rife in the communities she lived in. "What we eat determines if they eat at all," she said. She discussed the connection between banana farms in Honduras and the poverty, pesticide poisoning and malnutrition of locals there. (She even made the connection between United Fruit Company land-grab and the CIA-supported terrorism.) She explained how Argentina used to grow wheat and beans - carbohydrates and protein for the hungry - but the land has since been turned to cattle production for the fast-food markets in America. She told us that Brazil used to grow black beans and rice for people but now focuses on soybeans for cattle-feed. "We die from overeating protein while others starve from lack of it."

SIFAT provides a Summer Youth Program unlike any Vacation Bible School. High school and college students attending the sessions work side by side with visitors from the poor nations overseas. Half of each day is spent working on community projects and the other half learning about cross-cultural and global issues. SIFAT members also speak at churches and other organized gatherings. Miss Sarah explained that her target is "Mid-pew America." By telling of her experiences she "convinces people of the big picture, a little at a time."

Another expanding program seeks to bring goods here for sale from cooperatives in the Third World to provide economic parity and sustainability, kind of an "anti-sweatshop" project. SIFAT is expanding and relies on computer network here to keep everything rolling along. Donated equipment is refurbished and what can be salvaged is used to increase the work that they do. They publish a newspaper, The Provoker, and maintain an internet presence (see http://www.sifat.org/).

As an "enlightened" individual with a higher calling it is easy to be smug, maybe even judgmental - thinking that one has grown and forgetting that life is a continuing journey. From the lofty vantage point of the moral high ground, others' motives are easily questioned. It is good to have someone tap one on the shoulder once in awhile and turn one's gaze from the ascended slope behind and point out the climb ahead that remains.


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