Lessons in Humility at AYA/ATF 2016
by Joe Kruse
The room was 12’x12’. Its walls were of stained plywood and the ceiling’s drywall was brown and crumbling. The room was in the exact center of building. There were no windows and no air circulation, which in Phuket, Thailand, meant the room was sweltering all night.
Here I spent two nights with four other men during our “exposure” experience as a part of the 2016 ATF/AYA conference. The “exposure” is meant to deepen participants emotional and intellectual connection to the poverty and social injustices embedded in Thai society. Our hosts were an incredible gracious migrant family from Myanmar. They lived in the room next to us. There were about four families in our building, each living in a room the size of the one we shared. The families cooked, ate, slept, talked, and watched TV in these rooms. When it was time for bed everything was moved to the side and mats were rolled out on the floor.
A vast majority of people living in Southern Thailand are migrant laborers. Thailand offers more job opportunities and political stability than several countries near its borders. However in Thailand the vulnerable and desperate laborers are often taken advantage of, signing contacts that are often broken by employers, forced to work jobs that are incredibly dangerous, and are at the chaotic whims of the Thai market. The families in the area we stayed were migrants working in the fishing industry. Fishing is one of the most dangerous and notoriously exploitative industries in Thailand. We were told by some of the fishermen that last week one of the boats capsized and the neither their Thai bosses or the police sent out rescue ship. Almost the whole crew drowned.
As we heard story after story of worker exploitation it was easy for me to feel anger at the Thai bosses. But the reality is that my country, and other “Western” countries, create the markets for these businesses. We demand cheap seafood and often look the other way when the violence from which our commodity come is exposed to us.
The exposure experience during the conference taught me an incredible lesson in humility. Not only did I see the exploitative conditions from which products often make their way to the USA, but also witnessed and lived among the poverty that is the result of the exploitation. I often think and learn about global poverty, but it remains intellectual and not experiential. To stay with these families in Phuket, to see where they eat, to feel the suffocating heat at night, and to wake up sore from just one night of sleeping on the floor, has sunk my understanding and empathy to a deeper level. I don’t mean to say that I completely understand the lives of these migrants. But those few nights of experiencing their incredible hospitality was a heart-breaking lesson in the violent realities of global inequality.
Back home I share a large bed with my partner. Its soft and we have many pillows. We have a closet and a dresser and even a couch in our room. These differences are connected and facilitated by an unjust global economic system from which I, and many white, non-poor Americans, benefit daily. I am incredibly thankful for this experience and to be able sink into a deeper humility about my position in the world.
Despite these difficult lessons learned during our exposure experience, this conference has given me many reasons to feel hope. A vast majority of my fellow conference attendees are from all over Asia. They are almost all around my age (25-33) and they are Catholic. The Catholicism they embody is seemingly more passionate and justice-focused that the religious institution in which I grew up. There is a stronger critique of capitalism and a more sincere push for authentic, non-judgmental interfaith dialogue. Living amidst a shrinking American Church from which almost of my Catholic peers have fled, I believe that in the near future we “Western” Catholics will have an important lesson of humility to learn. The face and emphasis of the Church is changing. It is becoming less European/American and more Asian, African, and Latino/a. While dialoging and learning from my incredible colleagues at this conference, I have grown more hopeful and excited about the future of my Church. I am now confident that this cultural transition will not only change the Church for the better, it will save it.