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Archive for the ‘Cultural awareness programs’ Category

Nepal Day 9: The Goat Gene

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Note to readers: If you’re enjoying these tales from Nepal, you might also want to check out my Facebook page, where I’m putting most of my photos and different “takes” on our trip.  (In other words, I don’t duplicate.) In any case, please keep the prayers and the comments coming.

Trekking through the rice fields on our way to the Hindu temple to Ganesh last week, I slipped in the mud and fell – not once, not twice, but three times. I blamed it on the fact that I was wearing Keen sandals and didn’t have walking sticks, assuming that if I were wearing the proper hiking boots and using sticks, I would be as sure-footed as … well … the umpteen children around me wearing flip flops and flimsy sandals, galloping up and gamboling down the hills like, well … mountain goats.

Goats. Jesus said something about sheep being better than goats, but it has never made much sense to me. Sheep are dull, stupid and self-centered. With sheep, it’s all about me. Bleat, bleat, bleat.

Goats are different – a big improvement over sheep. First of all, we owe a debt of gratitude to the goatish Pan, Greek god of music, nature, sex, and general merriment. Second, most of us would rather be a “kid” than a “lamb.” (In fact, as I approach senior status, I want to stay a kid for the rest of my life.) Lambs are for eating; kids are for playing. Yes, I’d much rather be a kid.

But that’s just the beginning. Several years ago, I was on a study trip led by a friend who is a brilliant and passionate woman whom we’ll call Aurora. Also joining us were twenty students and another close friend of Aurora’s whom we’ll call Linda. At one point, when Aurora was getting rather stressed about the various activities that weren’t quite falling into place, I asked Linda how she – being Aurora’s helpmate – remained unflappable. She answered, “Well, I’m just her goat.”

Linda was Aurora’s “goat”? — I must have frowned, so she explained that there is a long history of putting a goat in a stable as a calming influence for a racehorse. In fact, the term “get your goat” refers to the practice of trying to sabotage a rival’s horse by stealing his goat the night before a race, leaving the opponent’s horse nervous and less likely to win. Getting his goat would upset the rival horse’s owner, so the phrase has evolved into modern day language meaning to upset someone. The point is that goats are calming influences, good for Type A folks of all species. I was impressed by Linda’s insight, and realized that it was an apt analogy for much of the pastoral care required of therapists and pastors.

And, in Nepal this week, trekking here and there with the various children from the two orphanages we have been visiting, I realize that all of them have served as my “goats,” calmly leading me here, waiting for me there, happy, unflappable, sensible, wise, warning me when the path was slippery and reassuring me that I didn’t need to rush. Ranging in age from 10-20, each one of them has functioned as sherpa and encourager – in short, as goat. (Having said that, please don’t presume that I think of myself as a racehorse! An old gray mare – perhaps; a racehorse – not hardly…)

Today Carla, Kymri, and I joined Kent Rogers, his 2½ year-old son Evan, and his four Nepali-born teenagers on a long trek that climbed steeply up 1700 feet along slippery paths. I watched as the four young men took turns helping the three women and also carrying Evan on their backs. Several times, as they glided effortlessly down thin slippery paths with young Evan on their backs, my heart skipped a beat knowing how prone I was to slipping and winding up on my arse. But none of them had a false step or even a close call. Mountain goats for sure!

And so, it seems to me that being a goat is what the Nepali people are all about – calm, caring, and sure-footed companions on the journey we call life. If I had my druthers, I would take a dozen or so of the children we have met and weave them into a safety net that would surround me wherever I go.

For the truth is that all of the Nepali people we have met – old and young, male and female – are genuinely solicitous and protective of us and each other – even the children who decide not to scamper up the long stairs to the temple, choosing instead to trudge slowly up each long-hard-sweaty-stop-to-catch-your-breath step until we reach the top. The Nepali people are among the most loving and most caring people on earth. And watching their calm sure-footedness, I’m sure that all of the nicest people in the world have at least one gene evolved from mountain goats. (It appears that the people of Nepal have “got my goat.”)

Thus I am surprised that one of the highlights of Dashain (the chief festival of Nepal, equivalent to Christmas in the excitement it brings) is the ritual slaughter and happy eating of, yes, goats. All along the roads are large groups of goats (they’re not herds, because they’re too smart to be herded) collected for selling, slaughter, and sacrifice. In our various walks during the last week, we’ve seen too much of the dark side of the goat’s life. It had all the symbolism of the long road to Calvary and the surrender of Jesus.

Which makes me wonder: considering the origins of the many children at the orphanages we have visited, perhaps the goat/Nepali child analogy is more apt than I would wish. Too much slaughter; too much sacrifice. When will we ever learn?

At Loving Arms Children’s Home, we had a delicious goat curry for dinner today, but there was no sacrifice or blood. Instead of a ritual slaughter, Kent’s sister Nadine created a goat piñata filled with candy. As the children (of all ages) enjoyed the happy beating and scrambling for candy, it brought out the kid in us all.

For which we thank God!

The following pictures show the leading of castrated male goats to sacrifice. (Females are not used for the obvious reason, and non-castrated males are nasty tasting — no surprise…) After being ritually beheaded, they are placed in a vat of water, cleaned, and shaven.

We were fortunate that our pinata goat was beaten, but not ritually sacrificed. Also, I’m guessing it was a female, because lots of goodies came out of her.


At the top of the world

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost community of the United States, lying inside the Arctic Circle and north of North Pole, Alaska. It is flat, treeless, white, and wonderful!

Compared to the world capitals that I have come to love, Barrow is a bit, well, barren.  But while the town doesn’t have that much to commend it (except for some distinct and delightful “characters,” the Inupiat (Eskimo) people sure do! They combine playfulness and joie-de-vivre with a serious intentionality to do the right thing. It was a joy to spend two days with them last week, and I hope to return in February.

In earlier posts, I  promised a bit more background on the consulting project I am working on, but here’s the gist: it’s with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Federal Holding Company (see, a subsidiary of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (see  ASRC was established as part of the Alaskan Native Settlement Claims Act (ANSCA) that appropriated native land in exchange for money to develop 12 regional corporations throughout Alaska.  ASRC, on the North Slope, is the largest. Its mission is to serve its shareholders — the Inupiat people of the North Slope — with dividends through business proceeds as well as supporting new educational and employment efforts.

The Federal Holdings company is the only ASRC subsidiary outside Alaska; a minority-owned business, it supports federal agencies with technical and support services.  As you might imagine, many of the employees of ASRC Federal have never been to Alaska and have limited knowledge of the Inupiat culture and values.  My effort is to develop a Cultural Awareness Program to educate them on the rich traditions, customs, and moral underpinnings of the people of the North Slope.

In short, I get to travel to amazing places, meet wonderful people, and learn about their history, art, language, and values.  And so, here are a few pictures:

The sun doesn’t rise or set in Barrow for 2 months in the winter. These photos were taken in mid-day in mid-winter with a background flash.  There is a deep twilight from about noon-2:00 pm.

Note, there is no “hitching post” for horses, but the Ford Broncos and other motorized vehicles hook up to electric plugs for engine block heaters.  When it’s really cold, people leave the cars running all night.

The Inupiat artwork is amazing. This basket is constructed from threads of whale baleen, with a handle of walrus ivory.


North to Alaska, Part 3: Spirit Strikes Thrice

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

If you haven’t read the two previous posts on “North to Alaska,” I recommend that you do so before reading this.  Thanks.

They say that good news – like bad news – comes in threes. It reportedly is folk wisdom, but I surmise Trinitarian underpinnings. Could it be that the Holy One is like a stool needing three legs to provide support, and that the Creator, Christ, and Spirit are merely differing varieties of the same life-giving substance much like ice, water, and steam…?

… Or perhaps the magic-three rule exists for no other reason than to keep us hopeful of more blessings or to find comfort in the assurance that misfortune is finite? Who knows?

What I do know is that I was the happy recipient of three distinct blessings during Thanksgiving week.

It all began in mid-October, when I received an email from Lisa Young, who had heard from Amy Greene that I was looking for freelance work while going through the tedious process of finding another pastorate. Amy is a dear friend and former colleague from RWD Technologies, where I worked before ordained ministry.  Lisa also worked at RWD but in a different department; she left to become a Vice-President with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) and eventually enjoined Amy to join her team.  The email was brief: “Amy told me you were available for freelancing; call me if you are willing to work with the native population in northern Alaska.”

My heart raced as I called her back, ecstatic with memories of Mt. Edgecumbe.  The ASRC project was still in its planning stages, Lisa said, but she was happy to hear of my availability and enthusiasm.  Over the next few weeks, the three of us brainstormed possibilities, and Lisa discussed options with her supervisors.  She then asked her associate Sheila Boyd to design a contract for me to spend six months helping to develop a cultural awareness program. The contract was finalized the day before Thanksgiving.

But this wasn’t just any ol’ job – this was going back to the place and people that had formed me.  I would be doing ministry (albeit not parish ministry) in ways and for people that I treasured.  So many times since April 1966 had I dreamed of returning to the 49th state, but kept putting it off because the costs were outside my budget and a routine tourist trip would not reconnect me with the places and people of Alaska that I had come to love.  But now here it was – dropped like manna from heaven!  Considering the state of my and the country’s economy, it appeared that the Holy Spirit had been working overtime on my behalf. Thanksgiving was personal and intense

But that was just the first part. It happens that Debbie Brown, one of the other three Bennington College interns, had recently moved from the East Coast to the East Bay.  Even more to the point, she had returned to Alaska in 1967 and 1968 to work in a native high school just outside of Nome.  Best of all, she would loan her senior thesis on teaching Alaskan natives as well as source materials for her research.  We spent the Tuesday after Thanksgiving poring over the Mt. Edgecumbe High School yearbook, Volcanic Vibrations (a literary journal we helped with) and Tundra Times, the irregular newspaper for Alaskan Natives. Contract + reconnecting with a dear friend = Spirit strikes twice.

The final blessing of the week came in the mail when I returned home, specifically the winter sale catalog from REI. Knowing that I would be going to Barrow, Alaska (the northernmost point of the United States) in a few weeks, I spent Wednesday scarping up huge discounts on boots, parkas, long underwear, balaclavas and other requisites for surviving temperatures of minus 40.  I gleefully produced a 20% off coupon while purchasing $189 mittens designed to prevent frostbite in the Himalayas, Antarctica, and Alaska, and gave three-fold thanks for toasty fingers and a Trinity of blessings.

Next time – more on ASRC, the Inupiat (Eskimo) people, and Barrow, Alaska.  In the meanwhile, you might want to check out a recent television show on life in Barrow.  (Note that this was filmed several months ago, while there was still light. When I head there next week, it will be pitch black.  The sun won’t rise again until mid-February.)