Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's Our Attitude

by Pauline Jasudason for iBridge

A kerosene lamp flickers brightly above while Brian and I pick out prickly bones from our fried fish. Mariamah (not her real name) keeps adding on to our plate as we dine outside her two-bedroom house in an oil palm estate on the outskirts of Ipoh. The hot night air weighs heavily upon us, but her large family gathered around the dinner table chats and laughs obliviously, while Mariamah tells her story.

They cut off electricity and water supply almost immediately, she said. We've lived here four generations now. My ancestors cleared this land, working like slaves. Where will we go?

"They" are a Malaysian plantation giant with government interests. They employed Mariamah since her teens in the late sixties. "They" sold off the estate, without telling the workers, because the land was earmarked for development.

The laborers were offered only paltry compensation. (A rubber tapper for 30 years, earning 200 ringgit a month, receives a compensation of 6,000 ringgit. What can he do with 6000 ringgit? Buy bricks to build a retirement home?)

The community fought to be heard for four years with petitions, letters to chief ministers, members of parliament, and court proceedings. Finally they won , but not without, they said, being harassed by thugs and even police officers.

What can I do?

In church I would sing about 'freeing' the 'downtrodden' but suddenly they were flesh and blood before me. As students, we were sent into communities in and around Ipoh. In every slum or squatter area, a tussle for dignity was taking place. What we saw humbled us and made us open during this particular leadership camp. We learnt not to judge or take pity, but to listen with compassion.

This was my first direct encounter with injustice. I witnessed the workings of a 'sinful structure'. But, what shocked me most was that their stories never made it to the media. All my life I've been shielded from the humanity going on in squatter communities. Their occasional claim to infamy is usually when they resist eviction they deserved anyway (so we are told!)

These are invisible people with unheard struggles.

Face-to-face with this reality I am forced to ask: How do I respond? What can I do?

The ministry of compassion

Those estate workers we met hinged high hopes on us. As university students we should rally to their cause, raise awareness, show the whole world their plight. If more people knew, more people would fight for what's right. But we could not promise them anything. We were, after all, 'model students' who abided by the AUKU (Akta Universiti dan Kolej Universiti) – the law that bars political activism, or anything similar, among undergraduates. But in reality, the whole situation was just too overwhelming for us.

Today, five years later, I read in my Bible: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and declare that the time of the Lord's favor has come.' (Luke 4:18-19)

The 'anointed' Christ is divine but also human and humane. He identifies with the weak, the marginalised and the oppressed. And I am called to follow in His footsteps. To continue His ministry of compassion. Yet, I am acutely aware of my limitations. I am just one person after all, and I'm certainly no Messiah. Where do I find the courage and the resources to right so many wrongs and fight for justice?

It's in the attitude

My life as a Christian must be seen and not just heard. I must walk the talk. And I am called to do what I can, not what I cannot. I have not gone back to that estate outside Ipoh since, but the experience has changed my mindset forever.

The biggest struggle is to translate the 'mindset change' into concrete, everyday actions. Along the way, I've figured it's helpful to borrow the motto of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: doing "small things with great love".

One glimpse at unfairness, one moment of illumination – and it's almost impossible to go back to comfortable ignorance. Over the next few months, this column will, hopefully, explore avenues of living out faith in the midst of the human condition. Let's walk this one together. READ ON

No comments: