Back in the (former) U.S.S.R. [Update 1]

(Updated October 3, 2008)

So I’m back in Dushanbe, Tajikistan right now and I’ll be here until late October. In the past I haven’t really written a whole lot about what I do out here. Maybe it’s because I didn’t think other people would be all that interested. Or maybe, this being my fourth trip out there, I suppose I have gotten accustomed to the sights, sounds, culture, all the stuff that goes on in the course of these trips, and actually, yeah maybe it would be interesting for other people to hear.

So I guess I’ll start by just giving you some background information, and maybe in further entries I will give more specifics about different topics.

Tajikistan is a highly mountainous country in Central Asia, located just north of Afghanistan and just to the west of China. With very few natural resources and very little workable land, it is the poorest of all of the former Soviet republics. The Tajik people share some common history with the Persians of Iran and speak a mutually-intelligible dialect of the same language (Farsi, as spoken in Iran has a lot more loanwords from Arabic, while Tajik understandably has a lot more loanwords from Russian).

If you believe the 1980’s action movie portrayals of the USSR you’d think it was only Russians around but actually there are also many different ethnic groups speaking many other languages here in Dushanbe, with Russian serving as a lingua franca, particularly in the arenas of business and politics.

Well over 90% of the population of Tajikistan identifies themselves as Muslim, though decades of being ruled by the Soviet Union (and before that, the Russian Empire) has resulted in a highly secularized population with correspondingly variable levels of religious dedication. One example of this secularization is the fairly common use of alcohol – forbidden in Islamic law, it is widely sold and consumed here, a remnant of the Russian drinking culture. In many ways, this country (or at least the capital city of Dushanbe) is more a remnant of the old Soviet empire than what most people might imagine given its intimidating-to-Americans “-stan” name would make you think.

The economic situation he is quite dire. Except for the abundance of water resources, there are very few natural resources here to speak of. As 93% of the land is extremely rugged, mountainous terrain, only 7% of the land is available for development. The average monthly salary here is anywhere from $25 to $200, depending on where you live and which organization you ask. There has been a mass exodus of men leaving the country, mostly to Russia, looking for work, which seems to be creating a lack of talent and labor for development back at home.

Still, the culture here is vibrant and the people are incredibly friendly and hospitable. The culture seems to promote sharing, community, helping and learning from one other – a far cry from the increasingly selfish and individualistic culture of the United States. This seems to permeate all the way down to eating habits, where especially at large holiday feasts, you commonly have situations where the whole group eats communally out of one large bowl – with their hands – rather than what we have in the States where everyone has their own individual bowls and plates, forks and spoons, making absolutely sure nobody touches any of anybody else’s food.

Even in Russian it's "ketchup" and not "catsup"

Even in Russian it's spelled "ketchup" (not "catsup")!

Indeed, one person recently asked me if it was true that in America they have tiny ketchup packets for made for only one person, as if this sort of individualization was a truly foreign concept to them. Perhaps American individualism is part of what helped build it up into the great nation that it is today, but today we seem to be a nation in which the iPod is king and millions of people demand their own personal soundtrack, only for them, all the time while cutting themselves off from the rest of society.

These little cultural differences such as varying methods of ketchup distribution are making me wonder if maybe we’ve taken it too far, having replaced the building of communities with HOAs, driving into our garages through our automatic garage doors, shutting the door behind us before even getting out of the car, never taking any chance to talk to say, “Howdy, neighbor,” except maybe when we want to complain about how the neighbor’s unkempt yard is destroying our own property value.

But I don’t want to sit here and waste time complaining about what’s wrong with America, which for the record, I still believe is the greatest nation on the planet, even if it’s not as great as it could be. And so I will end this entry for now and maybe pick up on some other topics in the future as I have time.

(The following was added on October 3, 2008)

I am serving out here doing mission work with a Christian church out here, and due to certain pointed attacks I’ve received over the years, I do feel a bit of a need to defend what we do out here. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings held by Americans who without really knowing about what’s going on, immediately brand us as people forcing our religion on others, perhaps taking advantage of their poverty or other factors. Maybe they’ve been jaded by the hypocrisy they’ve seen purveyed by judgmental “Christians” who often spread intolerance or even hate in the United States. So I guess I’m going to try to convince you that this is not what we’re doing out here.

Evangelism here is quite different from what we might think of back home in the States. Despite the secularization of the population, Islam is still an integral part of the culture here. Even if it was legal to do so, you cannot just go door to door and ask people if they want to know Jesus and expect any results. Asking someone if they want to convert to Christianity here is tantamount to asking them if they would like to throw their entire life away, leaving everyone they’ve ever known or cared about behind. Their families and friends would most likely completely disown them (or worse). They would see conversion as an act of turning their back on their family, their social support structure, and their very identity. The social (and often times physical) consequences for making such a decision are quite severe and it is not a decision anyone would make lightly!

On top of that, the government here is highly secularized and authoritarian. Although the constitution of Tajikistan guarantees religious freedom and the vast majority of the population is Muslim, in the interest of security (ie. trying to avoid being overthrown by religious extremists), even Muslim activity is highly regulated, perhaps even more so than other religions. Proselytizing in public is Illegal here. You will not find any mosques with minarets here – minarets are illegal and thus, you will not hear the call to prayer ringing out over the city, as that too, is illegal. Religious organizations that are not registered with the government are quickly shut down, regardless of what religion they belong to, and indeed, gathering in groups of larger than 10 people requires special permits. We’re a long way from Kansas, Toto.

So things have to be done a bit differently around here. In short, we do our best to demonstrate the love and compassion that Jesus demonstrated and commanded us to demonstrate through our actions and how we live. So yes, we help those in need. As I mentioned before, the economic situation here is quite dismal. In addition to feeding and clothing the very needy and homeless, we offer free classes in subjects such as business, computers, and English language in an attempt to offer people a chance at gaining access better jobs and a better life.

Depending on whose statistics you trust, 90% or more of the food in this country is imported from outside. We’re out here attempting to develop new crops and other local food sources and educate people on how to cultivate them. We are also actively working to empower women in this heavily male-dominated society, both here and in other places, encouraging them to take leadership positions within the church, supporting continuing education, we’ve even built schools for girls in Afghanistan.

And no, you definitely do not need to be a member of this church or convert to Christianity to receive help or to benefit from any of the programs we offer. Everyone is welcome, and perhaps half or more of the people who do come to these classes are from the community at large and are not Christians.

We have not come here with the idea or attitude that we are better or superior to the people here. In God’s eyes, we are all equal, but it is our duty to love unconditionally as Jesus loved and commanded… and also to spread the gospel. But it is often only after years of contact with Christians who are dedicated to living by and demonstrating the love of Jesus and seeing lives changed, that people around here would even begin to consider converting. So I’m pretty confident in saying that we are not forcing anything upon anyone.

Hopefully none of this has come across as too heavy-handed or defensive-sounding, but I really did feel the need to fully explain what’s going on out here. I’m a pretty liberal-minded guy (heck, I even work in the oft-maligned-by-the-religious-right Hollywood film industry) and if I felt like any force was being used or anything shady was going on, I definitely would not be out here supporting this ministry with my time and effort. So if you had any reservations before about what I was doing out here, I hope I have cleared them up for you!


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