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The Inevitable Question

March 3, 2010

Disclaimer: This entry represents only my own views, not the views of my employer or any Catholic church leaders, religious or lay, official or unofficial, in Cambodia.

A few friends have emailed me Kristof’s latest article, which makes the case for government support of religious organizations providing secular social services:

One of the most inspiring figures I’ve met while covering Congo’s brutal civil war is a determined Polish nun in the terrifying hinterland, feeding orphans, standing up to drunken soldiers and comforting survivors — all in a war zone. I came back and decided: I want to grow up and become a Polish nun.

Some Americans assume that religious groups offer aid to entice converts. That’s incorrect. Today, groups like World Vision ban the use of aid to lure anyone into a religious conversation.

Some liberals are pushing to end the longtime practice (it’s a myth that this started with President George W. Bush) of channeling American aid through faith-based organizations. That change would be a catastrophe. In Haiti, more than half of food distributions go through religious groups like World Vision that have indispensable networks on the ground. We mustn’t make Haitians the casualties in our cultural wars.

I read Kristof skeptically; wary of his history of poor framing of development work issues and ideas about how to get it right. In this case, I especially cringed at the promotion of World Vision, since I’m most familiar with their work in Northern Uganda, where they have incorporated proselytism into their provision of social services. Stepping back from this particular issue though (which is discussed in greater length, from a variety of perspectives, at Chris Blattman’s always excellent blog), Kristof’s article brought me back to The Inevitable Question about what I do for a job, and where I do it, here in Cambodia.

*                 *                 *

I’m in Phnom Penh with friends or colleagues, meeting new people and exchanging the normal pleasantries: Why did you come to Cambodia? What do you do? Where do you work?

Most of the time, at the beginning, I tell people that I work for a community center in Battambang, helping coordinate a program for women’s health education. This isn’t a lie, but it’s certainly not the whole truth, because I usually don’t mention that I work for the Catholic Church. If conversation continues and we start about where I live in Phnom Penh, why I travel around Cambodia so much, I can choose to dance around my work situation, or just come clean: Well, I work for the Catholic Church. Pause. Yeah, some of my best friends are Jesuits. Pause. Actually, I live at the church. Yeah.

And then I pause, watch a quintessential case of cognitive dissonance, as they wonder: Women’s health? Catholic Church? Is this the same Catholic church I know? Are there even any Catholics in Cambodia? Maybe she teaches “women’s health” in the same way that some pregnancy crisis centers teach women about their “options”?

And then it comes, The Inevitable Question: You work with the Catholic Church on women’s health? Isn’t that a little… tricky?


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The apparent contradiction in my place of employment and job description did not seem problematic to me until I started describing it to other people. Even now, though there are restrictions placed on our programs,* I am thrilled to work with the church, and even if I had the opportunity to run these programs through another NGO, I would choose to stay at the Romero Center.

I do not work to promote women’s health and autonomy in spite of my Catholic beliefs; I work towards this vision precisely because of my Catholic beliefs. It would be easy for people from either side of the political or religious spectrum to water down aspects of that statement to match their ideology, to assume that I believe in women’s access to prenatal care and medicine (but of course not abortion!) because of my faith, or to assume that I support women’s access to the full range of health care options (including contraception and abortion) because of my Catholic values (such as the importance of social justice), but not necessarily a relationship with God.

Both of those interpretations fall short of capturing the nature of my personal motivations though. I believe women should have unrestricted and judgment-free access to the full range of health care services, including contraception and abortion, precisely because of my personal faith and relationship with God.**

Since none of my work is explicitly Christian or Catholic though, the programs I coordinate could easily be replicated by many secular NGOs. I’ve chosen to work here, on this specific program though, for two particular reasons:

1) The Catholic Church is doing amazing work in Cambodia. This work is a beautiful example of provision of resources through meaningful, longterm relationships. To work within this community, guided by local leaders, is a great way to bring women’s health education to many people through pre-existing networks that are trusted and well established. The women leaders also guide our programs: they decide what health issues are the most important to them, they help decide how we will present the information, and they promote our programs throughout the community.

2) The Catholic Church needs to do much better work in Cambodia, and around the world, especially for women. Internationally, the church tends to pay attention to women’s bodies only so far as they are baby incubators. Further, classical theology has promoted a dualistic world view, that equates men with reason and spirit, compared to women with emotion and the earth/body, suggesting that women’s bodies must be simply tolerated as a necessary evil. We can, and we must, do better. To have the chance to design and coordinate church programs that promote women’s bodies as worthy of respect, love, and celebration is, sadly, unusual. And so I jumped at the opportunity. Catholic theology is so very young in Cambodia. The ingrained message that so many of us Western women received from the church about the inherent sinfulness of our bodies does not need to be spread here. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the church in Cambodia was known by Cambodians as a community that truly loves and supports women – their spirits, their minds, and their bodies?

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So, is Kristof right? Cautiously, I say yes. Every day, I see our religious institution doing great work (although of course there is room for improvement). There is no proselytizing, but the religious beliefs of the foreign staff and some of the local staff (many of the people who work with us are not Catholic) are a source of strength, commitment, and vision, that make our work even better.

* The usual suspects: we cannot promote contraception use or abortion. Women’s health is much broader than these issues though, and through informal partnerships with other NGOs, I am working to make sure women get all the information that they need to make informed and shame-free choices about their bodies and their health.

**I want to use this entry to write about the potential for faith-based organizations or churches to do development work well, not my personal theology. If you’re interested though, the writers who have most influenced my theological understanding and spirituality are Elizabeth Johnson, Jon Sobrino, Paul Farmer, Dorothy Day, and Cornel West.

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