I sensed their pain and aspirations in our sharing stories about growing up in our respective ethnic communities. We were at the Jesuit Companions in Indigenous Ministry (JCIM) gathering in September at the Seven Fountains Jesuit Retreat house in Chiangmai, Thailand, along with 15 lay collaborators, the youth leaders of the indigenous peoples (IPs) from Asia Pacific.
The IP youth are pained by the government's betrayal and by the lack of moral integrity in their IP leaders. Their lusting after neo-liberal capitalism degrades the environment of their ancestral homeland with state-condoned development projects -- mega-dams, national parks, mining, large scale market-oriented mono-cropping. The IP youth want to learn their own cultures and languages, to imbibe the wisdom and knowledge of the elders for a more sustainable livelihood with greater dignity for indigenous peoples all over the world, even while they adapt to modernity in ways that serve the struggle of the IPs for self-determination.
During our visit to the Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu) community at Pang Dong Village, outside Chiangmai city, on the afternoon of September 15, 2010, we heard stories of their resilience, of suppression in Burma, 'the golden triangle' where they worked as porters for the opium industry, their current marginalization in Northern Thailand. Nothing has dampened their resilience as a Catholic Lahu community.
Fr. Niphot's talk about how the Absolute Being has communicated to the shamans (Tobo in Lahu and Hiko in Karen) the need for a pact, like a biblical covenant, to provide an alternative to the rationalistic-consumeristic logic of market-capitalism, filled me with hope. The shamans of the five tribes who gathered and prayed at the chapel of the RTRC (Research Training Religious Cultural Center) early this year gave Fr. Niphot an indelible mystical experience of hope for preserving the ancient civilizational wisdom of the indigenous shamans. Unless the cosmos (universe) and anthropos (humankind) and all forms of human and natural resources are deemed as sacred because of the indwelling spirits, and not desacralized as resources to be commodified for profit, there is no way life on earth can be sustained. This is the seed of an Asian liberation theology of sacred sustainability. It gives me hope for the future.
On the 'cultural' night, the Lahu, both young and old, performed their dance on stage. Marginalized socially, economically, and politically though the are, their spirit can never be crushed; it rises up again in dance, in music, in being together as a community, the young dancing in the footsteps of the elders, and the elders understanding the ways of the young. Such a dance in the circle of life gives the Jesuits and IP youth leaders a spirit of collaboration as we translate our theme and vision "Around the fire we shape the future" into life.
As a Jesuit initiated by the renowned IP shaman in Sabah, East Malaysia, I was enchanted by the ritual prayer to bless the white strings, offered by a Karen elder (Dr. Sunthorn Wongjomporn) at the end of the cultural mass celebrated in Thai, Karen, Lahu and English, in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Seven Fountains. The prayer called for the return of the spirits. I was moved to tears when Dr. Suthorn tied the white string on the wrist of my right hand. As at Pentecost, the spirits of God's Spirit came home and dwell amongst us.
The IP youth delivered a 10-point message, calling for an end to all forms of violence against the IPs and seeking empowerment and accompaniment by JCIM. We at JCIM have to discern how we can rise and respond to their youthful aspirations. I came away from the meeting hopeful, the flame in my heart aglow, brighter than when I arrived. May God be praised!