The Compleat Angler

Last week I had the great fortune to meet an American couple who found me through my book and were fans of my writing (you can read about some of our adventures here). As gratifying as their enthusiastic praise was, by far the most interesting thing about them was that they were Christian missionaries.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a long time, you probably know I tend to take a rather cynical view of most Christian missionaries here in Romania, especially ones from America who really don’t speak the local language(s). But meeting these two really changed my perspective. I obviously have very strong opinions on many subjects but I’m big enough to change my mind when I have reason to.

There’s a well-known proverb in English that’s attributed to Confucius:

Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.

Much of my scorn for the missionaries I’ve encountered over the years here in Romania is that they’re largely involved in “giving out fish” and doing very little “teaching how to fish”.

Yes, it’s very gratifying and nice to come to Romania for a brief visit and hand out hygienic supplies or used clothing. But it does little to alleviate the underlying causes for which these gifts are meant to address.

To use a concrete example, in January I excoriated the megacharity WorldVision for bringing in a load of idiotic T-shirts for their clients here in Romania. Even if these were high-quality garments and the people in Romania could make good use of them, it still wouldn’t address the underlying problem.

If people lack adequate clothing, what they need is to learn how to manufacture or weave or sew material in order to make their own clothes, not depend on hand outs. It would’ve been far more useful to donate sewing machines or teach sewing classes (for instance) rather than donate clothing.

Sometimes of course the donated items are urgently needed and too expensive or difficult to make domestically, such as sophisticated medical equipment. And I’ve already praised people engaged in these kinds of activities.

But generally I also find a really dilettante attitude in most missionary activity here.

Romania is a beautiful, safe, modern country where nearly everyone is very hospitable and welcoming. Almost everyone in Romania is also at least nominally Christian already (of some type). So most of the missionaries who come here are accomplishing little more than having a nice vacation under the cover of “doing some good” in a “far away savage wilderness”.

They return home after a short visit, get praise and admiration from their congregation and everyone gets to feel good after looking at photos of some old toothless gypsy woman smiling while wearing her cast-off Superbowl shirt. And it’s that self-righteous smug attitude that they’ve braved the “wilderness” of Romania in order to donate a few shirts or pass out a few leaflets that I detest.

Flying here from America is tremendously expensive. Add to that the cost of lodging, transportation and the rest and the sum that most of these missionaries spend on themselves is often more than half a year’s salary for a Romanian teacher. It seems to me that the money would usually be better spent if it were simply donated rather than carrying the said missionary’s (often obese) person around at tremendous expense and expenditure of fossil fuels (for the planes, cars, etc).

And certainly the lack of language skills from most American missionaries is something I find personally offensive. Yes, there are many millions of Romanians who speak English quite well but they’re (almost) never the people who need any help from charities and missionaries. Gypsies living in trash dumps and senior citizens and all the rest of the truly downtrodden in Romania are the segment of the population that didn’t learn English in school or spend countless hours watching American television.

Regardless of my personal feelings about the Mormon religion, I always do respect the fact that their missionaries spend the time and effort necessary to learn the local language. Because what exactly is so special and amazing about an American missionary’s message if it has to be (often poorly) translated by someone local? If you can’t even carry on a basic conversation with the person you’re coming to help, then why not just donate your time and money to a Romanian who’s already here and can speak to the people?

And last but not least, continuing in the vein of “teach a man to fish”, I often find that many missionaries encourage a mindset of helplessness on the part of Romania’s poor and downtrodden, something I’ve often called “Poor Widdle Romania” syndrome. The rich westerner gets to feel good about helping out the poor Romanians and the people receiving that aid learn that the only solution to their ills is to wait for handouts from someone flying in from somewhere far away.

In fact, without naming names or providing links, I know several missionaries who seem to get some kind of sick, perverted pleasure from their role as a kind of “Santa Claus”, bringing gifts and money to the blighted buggers here in Romania. They cast themselves in a Daddy Warbucks role, handing out Bible tracts and gifts while exhorting the poor to work hard and believe in Jesus so that one day they can live the same lifestyle they do.

This certainly was my attitude before last week. But the two Americans whom I met really had a strong impact on my heart. For one, they’re actually going to move here and live in this country, not just fly in for a couple of weeks on a charitable “bombing run”. Secondly, they’re actually learning the damn language, which is nowhere near as easy as singing songs or handing out donated clothing. They’re making a genuine commitment to making this world a better place, and my hat is off to them for that. I support and respect absolutely everyone who is “walking the walk” rather than “talking the talk”, irrespective of spiritual beliefs.

Last night I attended a small birthday party for a friend of mine and I spent several hours talking to some local people here (i.e. Romanians) in my community (Cluj-Napoca). As far as I know, not one of them is particularly religious. But the common thread is that they are all people working to make this world a better place for everyone, not just themselves.

Whether you’re a corrupt politician or an “oligarch” or a dilettante missionary here for a summer vacation, I have absolutely no use for you. Nor do I much cotton to Romanians who sit on their hands and wail and moan about how terrible everything is. The people whom I’m interested in are the people who get off their butt and actually do something, no matter how big or small, and have the self-realization that the reality of everyday life and all of its problems is one’s personal responsibility.

These are the kind of people whom I admire and respect and whom I seek out and encourage and support. And I’m very happy to see that there are so many of them out there, even amongst the missionaries. That truly was a surprise to me and I fear I had become extremely jaded after so many years of hearing tone-deaf singing and seeing people get a thrill up their leg from “helping” the Poor Widdle Romanians.

Personally I don’t really understand why believing in an ancient book is necessary to do good things in this world, but for some people it clearly is, so I accept it even if I don’t understand it. It takes an unbelievable amount of courage to rise past apathy and inculcated helplessness to actually do something to make this world a better place. And if a specific doctrine on spiritual beliefs is what helps you, well then I support it.

So after all this time teasing and mocking Americans and other westerners here for missionary purposes, I want to say here today that not all of them are bad. The two I met were genuinely caring and earnest people and certainly had a strong, positive influence on me, who has no interest whatsoever in their religious beliefs, so I know that their presence here once they relocate to Romania will be a boon to this country and something I support wholeheartedly.


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