Sunday, 10 September 2017

The First Two Weeks at Dandelion: A Report and Reflection on My Work

I have now been at Dandelion for two weeks.  So, it is about time I report what I have been up to.  As I confessed in my first post, however, I am a philosopher.  So, I couldn't help adding a little reflection as well.

For those who dislike reflection, I cannot guarantee that you will like any of this post.  However, I have added numbered sections so that you do not have to read too much of it.  Simply read sections I and II.  You could skip ahead and read IV, although I wouldn't recommend it.  Do not, under any circumstances, read section III.  This is even more important to remember if you also dislike poetry.


While I was staying with Donna and Chris Rice, the MCC reps in Chuncheon, I picked up the habit of having devotions every morning.  I don't know whether or not the challenges I faced with all the newness that was a part of my first week in Korea helped me to thoughtlessly absorb this habit from Donna, who practiced it every morning.  In any case, although I have never done before, I now find myself starting my fourth week here with this habit.

It is a new thing for me to give myself time everyday to renew my mind, and then to be able to actively test my reflection through the day, as Paul writes about to the Romans, in order to discern and pursue what is "good and acceptable and perfect."  I think it is a great virtue of this Christian community that the way they live gives me the opportunity both to hard work and to have times of prayerful reflection of this kind.


In my last post, I mentioned working in the chicken barns.  Every morning, Dante and I have helped with feeding the chickens, as well as collecting and getting the eggs ready to be shipped to Dandelion's customers.  I find this regular routine very enjoyable.

One of the first mornings that we did this, I noticed something about it that was unfamiliar to me.  The people in charge of the farm did not shut off certain -- what might be called -- ordinary, emotional responses to their work, that I was used to shutting off.  Let me explain.

One of our first days here, Dante and I found five or so dead chickens outside the barn.  They had been killed by an unidentified wild animal.  Perhaps a cat.  I thought it was unfortunate, but didn't dwell on it.  I found it unusual how Jinha, who is in charge of the chicken barns, looked shocked and saddened when we showed him the chickens that had been killed.  I wouldn't expect this response working for a chicken farm back home.

I had a similar experience when I was cutting weeds, which is another one of my tasks here.  I absentmindedly had cut some purple wild flowers while working on eliminating the weeds and grass beside the road.  I had assumed that they were just another weed, but when Dr. Kim, the headmaster here, saw what I was doing, he told me not to cut those ones.  The reason, I think, was that he liked the way they looked.


In both cases, I would not simply say that a cultural difference was at play.  Yes, this is true enough.  However, even though I think in the culture where I grew up we would not respond the same way in these situations, I would still say that, in both cases, good, ordinary emotions, even as my own culture understands them, were displayed.

The traditions that are a part of my culture express the goodness of compassion for nonhuman creatures and sadness at the loss of beauty.  In my high school lit class, I read Robert Burns express compassion for a "wee, sleeket, cowran" mouse, whose house he had accidentally turned over as he plowed.  He calls to the fleeing mouse:

Thou need na start awa sae hasty,              You do not need to run away so hastily
          Wi’ bickerin brattle!                         little scurrying noise
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee            I would not chase you
          Wi’ murd’ring pattle!                       plow

And, lamenting his destruction of a beautiful flower, Burns writes:

Wee, modest, crimson-tipp├Ęd flow'r,
Thou's met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure       I crushed among the flying dust
            Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow'r,
            Thou bonie gem.

These are, I think, good, ordinary emotions to feel for animal and plant life that we work with.  And these poems show how they are not simply part of Dandelion culture, but a treasured part of the best of Western culture as well.

While tree planting, my colleagues and I would sometimes quietly express how we wished the forest were better taken care of (by whom?), or lament the fact that we could not spend more time simply appreciating the beauty around us (who could allow us to do that?).  When it came down to it, of course, we would forget such thoughts and all plant as fast as we could with no particular higher goal in mind.

I know some people will simply scoff at the idea of feeling love and appreciation for nature as a part of work life.  But that is neither here nor there.  The question is whether there is a good reason for overturning these ordinary human emotions in our work life.

I am part of a culture that has tended to put our work lives into a box which can be put in a corner away from emotions, like compassion or sadness at the loss of beauty, which fill other parts of our lives.  But what justifies this way of thinking?

I will state my view.  I think that we keep our work life in this box because it is convenient.  We do not have a good reason.  We simply do not want to worry about things like these at work.   After all, we have other things to think about; it is already hard enough to make a living.

When it comes right down to it, however, this is a form of moral heedlessness.  Back home, I did not have a good reason to shut off my capacity for compassion and beauty at work.  I simply did it because I wanted to make money and did not want the inconvenience of attending to life I was hurting or beauty I was destroying.


As I was fundraising, I had the idea that I really needed to make sure I worked hard and got stuff done when I was at the Dandelion Community.  Only in this way could I justify accepting all the money that friends, family and church members had given me. I still think this, and am happy for all the opportunities I have here to sweat and carry heavy things around.  

However, I now know better that this is not enough.

It is not enough only to do things for the community.  I am here to live well as a Christian disciple among other disciples.  So, I am learning not only to work hard, but to share meals; to spend full day after full day with friends, until our quirks, our struggles and our weaknesses cannot help but rise to the surface, and then to continue to be with each other as friends; and, yes, to reflect, to renew my mind, in order to test and find what, in boxes that I thought I had safely closed off to such things, is good, acceptable and perfect.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Arrival at the Dandelion Community / Dante

On Monday, August 28th, I arrived at the Dandelion Community.  I made the trip with Dante, my fellow Dandelion Community volunteer, Solger and Jiwon, who are in charge of us at MCC, and Hyeonjeong, who volunteered with MCC in California last year.  We drove from Chuncheon in the Northern part of South Korea to the Dandelion Community in the South.  This took about 5 hours.

With the exception of Hyeonjeong, who I met briefly last Fall in Abbotsford, these are people, who, in actual fact, I had met not more than a week and half before.  Yet I love them all very much indeed, and was happy to spend time together, including a night playing “truth or dare,” before they left in the middle of the next morning.

On the way to the Dandelion Community from our house in the morning

As I read over the first part of Rebekah Puddington’s blog again, I noticed many points of contact between our experiences.  Now I too know what the chicken barns here look like: modest structures covered by chicken wires with metal siding for a roof and face, and surrounded by an abundance of greenery.  I also now know what it is like to collect and pack eggs, something I too was well-prepared for with my previous work (in my case at Brian Ens’ chicken farm).  Now I also have concentrated to pick out words from the Korean language being spoken all around me.

A view of the Dandelion Community in the evening

But in one respect, my time has been quite different than previous SALTers.  In years past, SALTers have joined life in the Dandelion Community as the lone newcomer.   By contrast, my first few days at Dandelion have included the regular presence of Dante, another MCC volunteer (the title is YAMENer) from Indonesia.

In some important ways, Dante and I are similar.  We are both Christians interested in theology and committed to working for peace, and are both trying to give our best here at Dandelion.

In other ways, we are different.  I am an academic and a forestry worker, and he is a comedian (he has actually done a tour around Indonesia) and a youth pastor (his comedy tour was part of a movement for peace among Indonesian youth).  Hailing from a small town and the forests of British Columbia, I enjoy the remoteness and occasional silences at Dandelion.  Coming from Jacarta, one of the most populous and busy cities in the world, Dante misses the ability to find a shop nearby and seems to me to enjoy the more stimulating times.

In a down moment, Dante is more likely to start doing magic tricks for kids playing nearby, while I am more likely to open my copy of English Grammar for Today to prepare for teaching English.  We are different, but, I think, in ways that complement each other and hopefully benefit the community.

Dante won some "herb socks" -- yes, that's right, socks that smell like, and are presumably made of, herbs -- at a game we played with the students in the park.

I am very thankful to have had Dante with me as we have faced challenges together this first week.  At the same time, we are beginning to realize that coming here together means we have to be intentional about talking to other members of the community and to students.

There is, of course, more I could write.  In a future post, I’ll say more about what we have actually been doing, and also about meeting Dr. Kim, the founder of the community, who arrived last night.