The current issue (2015) of the small journal of The Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University is entitled “Work”. In the introduction, Robert B. Kruschwitz, the journal editor, summarizes the contributions, all which extoll the positive benefits of work. Some of the themes that stood out as important seemed to be: pleasure in a job, rather than focusing on the salary or prestige it provides; over reliance on technologies and their use, rather than on environmental issues; underemployment and no employment, representing the poor in our society, with references to the poverty gospel, which is contrasted with the rich and famous (the prosperity gospel); the dignity of work and workers; and offering whatever kind of work that we do as a gift to God. There were many other useful aspects of “work” to reflect upon, but I choose these because they are relevant to my own experience.
I also want to point out that “work” is conceptually different in a society like the Kewa, in Papua New Guinea, where we “worked” for over 32 years.
Some Personal Background
My wife and I “worked” as missionary-linguists for some 58 years before I “retired” in 2014 (my wife had retired a few years earlier). The years we spent in Papua New Guinea included living for 15 years in a fairly remote area of the Southern Highlands with a language group called “Kewa”. We also lived for over 5 years in a number of different locations in Australia and for a total of a year in New Zealand. Our work has involved studying, teaching, consulting, and administration in Oklahoma, New York, Texas and England. Our home areas were Michigan (Joice, my wife) and rural Pennsylvania for me. Prior to our overseas careers we studied in Delaware, California and Mexico. This collection of locations should give some idea of how diverse our “work” areas were.
Some conservatives might refer to our efforts as “ministry”, which of course implies a more virtuous purpose, but I have had no difficulty referring to what we have done as work, even “hard” work. We also spent time reporting on the work and (indirectly) soliciting partners to join us in the work. Some have been involved with us for over 50 years. Our two children (both born in PNG) were also a part of this labor.
Salary and Prestige
We have never had a “fixed” salary for what we have done because we have relied entirely upon the money that came to us each month through our mission headquarters. The money came from people and churches that knew us. The mission had established a “quota” that we were expected to attain each month, which included money for transportation and furlough, children’s education, health, some insurance, and so on. In exchange for this service the mission provided us with publicity materials, extracted 10% of the gross income and provided donors with a tax exempt receipt.
It is not surprising that in such situations some missionaries had more income than others. For example, Americans often had the most, at least initially, but other nationalities (there were 15 when we were in PNG) had adequate incomes. Their quotas were set by their home agencies. No one received a guaranteed salary, although each of us had established donors and churches we could count on, so in that sense it was a regular “income”. Of course the more gifts a missionary received the better vehicle he or she could buy, or the better house to live in at our center and, in that sense, were potential elements for prestige.
Other prestige factors related to the kind of job assignment that a person had: pilots were (informally of course) rated above teachers; translators and linguists above support workers; and all of the above had more status than their national counterparts.
What is Work?
On the “mission field” (“white unto harvest”, and so on) there are many jobs. Pilots fly their planes and mechanics maintain them; teachers teach; consultants consult; administrators administer; secretaries file and type, tradesmen ply their trade; and so on—there are also “job descriptions” with outcomes, policies and guidelines about time spent working, vacations, sick time, personal relationships, ethical standards, with manuals spelling out details.
It would seem then that our work, from a manual point of view, was well described. And, from a spiritual point of view, there were devotional talks, sermons, books, on-line courses, and an endless amount of information to suggest how we should “be” about our work.
Looking back, I can note that I hauled logs, built roads, taught students, consulted with people, offered advice, provided training and did many other kinds of work. We can even reflect on how we “felt” about our work by examining the letters we wrote about it.
Thinking upon it from a Scriptural and theological point of view, we know that we have only done what servants should do and that a lot of what we have done will burn like sticks and straw. There is no reason to be proud, although we sometimes have been. We can point to our books, our articles and our translations and hold them in our hands—something to feel good about—and prove that we have “worked”.
Enter the Kewa Society
Now take a short, imaginary journey with me to the Kewa people, with whom we have had many years of contact. We learned to speak two of their dialects and the trade language of the country; our children grew up with the Kewa people and their language was the first language of our son (before English). But to accomplish “anything” we needed to hire people to work for us. At the time of our initial contact in 1958 the Kewa currency was pearl shells (before that it was cowrie shells) and we had none. Money, at the time, was Australian currency which was of little or no use to the people. How would be pay them for their “work”?
Two young men came regularly to help me learn the language and do other work and one young woman came to help Joice with the language learning, as well as with some domestic duties. What did they want for pay, when trade and bartering were the way the Kewa did business?
There was no ready made word, initially, for “work”. They could help us in various tasks: weaving cane for walls of our house, carrying goods to and from the airstrip—some four hours distant–washing clothes or dishes, and so on. In return, they asked us for clothes, bandages, razor blades, knives, axes and other things as “exchange“, for their “work”. That was how it functioned for the first few years.
After we had been there for about 4 years, things began to change: a few trade stores were established at the government and mission stations and people went there to buy rice, tinned fish, soap, towels, shovels, axes and other items. But they had to have money—not pearl shells—to purchase them. The station people began to pay their workers in hard cash, probably the equivalent of a dollar for a day’s work. The recipients quickly and automatically exchanged the money for the trade items they wanted. Soon the people were requesting cash from us in “exchange” for their services.
Cash quickly became a means of acquiring pigs and prestige; it was used as part of the bride payments; teachers and pastors were glad to receive it, as well as firewood and food. The government told the people to plant coffee trees so that they could (eventually) “make money”. But money was still a clan property than individually owned.
We were there to teach the people to read and write their unwritten language (it was unwritten) and to translate the Scriptures. The Scriptures talk about “work”, actual physical work (as in vineyards) or metaphorically (as in “work for the night is coming”), so the Kewa people quickly coined and borrowed words that related to work.
The government insisted that all men “work” on the new roads that were being built. Roads needed large ditches on both sides to carry away the frequent downpours that occurred. The ditches are called “baret” in Tok Pisin, the trade language used by the government officers. (It is supposedly a loan word from Malay or Indonesian). The pronunciation of “baret” in Kewa was barara and it then meant “government road”. “To make the barara” was to work on the government road—each Monday was so designated. The Kewa word for path (pora) was also soon used for road as well.
We also noticed that a word for “work” (kogono), borrowed from an adjacent language, was used, as in kogono Mande (work Monday) to mean road work on Monday morning.
The idea of “work”—as opposed to barter or trade—soon became a part of the culture, but it never meant what I understood it to mean in English. It had none of the concepts of prestige, salary or job satisfaction associated with it. Instead, there was work for money, hard work, meaningless work, and work that “belonged” to the government, missions, or ourselves.
Of course the Kewa people have always worked: they planted and harvested, hunted and cooked, built houses, traded, cut and carried firewood, wove baskets, knitted aprons and nets, and so on, but in each case these activities were “made” or “done” in response to family and clan needs and were not for money. There were entrepreneurs, but they were engaged in getting more pearl shells, pigs and wives by means of trade and bartering.
Why does anyone need work? The answer usually is for money—for children’s education, to buy clothes and food, for rent or mortgages, to pay for transportation, and so on. The people who lived in the Kewa area soon had expenses that were the direct result of their new and improved “civilization”, such as for school fees, taxes, transportation and communication. There only recourse is to get money which, most often, for the young men, meant leaving their traditional village life and moving in with relatives at urban centers.
They then had to find work—anything that would pay money, or they might have to get it illegally, just as criminals do in our country.
There was no going back to a simpler day: mobile phones, radios, TVs, trucks and traffic were there to stay and associated with them was the need for money and work. The loftier philosophical and spiritual thoughts of doing God’s work were not part of the work scenario.
We, as Westerners, have been taught (or brain-washed) that as we advance economically our society will somehow be healthier and we will also become improved persons. But the benefits of work have not turned out that way for many: instead greed, affluence, consumerism and entertainment have become the norms for a good part of our population. It is not only the West of course—people everywhere are sometimes subject to these and more gross temptations, often with the promise to “get ahead” at whatever the cost.
Western missionaries have been successful in their work—preaching, converting and baptizing, and this includes promises from “cults” as well. For example, the Mormons offer social benefits here and hereafter, some Catholics offer prayers for the dead, and the Jehovah Witnesses have declared the number of the faithful in heaven as 144,000, which excludes all that are not in their faith. Protestants, on the other hand, offer depict work (but not works) as an evidence that God is blessing by prospering them.
My conclusion is that we have often perverted the purpose of work. God gave manual labor to Cain as a punishment, not as a reward. In other instances he gave Abraham descendants and the man Job luxuries that he took away for a time. They were stewards of what God gave them and what they had was a gift from God. The rewards for their work were on loan.
In the New Testament, Jesus and his followers were manual laborers, men who worked with their hands. Paul and many of his friends did too, with Paul claiming that he worked harder than any of the others. He even said that someone who didn’t work shouldn’t eat. Job satisfaction came with the food.
When we talk about work with others, we often ask questions like “What do you do? Where do you work?” We also assume—unless told otherwise—that the work is of some value to the worker. In addition, in most cases, we believe the work is of value to the owner of the work.
The Kewa worker can look with favor on the work of his or her hands and now offer to “sell” his work. But exchange is still their way of thinking about it. For example, I have heard Kewa people say that the government or mission schools should pay them for allowing their children to attend. “After all”, one man explained to me, “the schools could not operate without our children.” The children were in exchange for the school, so why the high fees?
Sometimes when I would pay men in cash they would immediately give the money back to me so that I could order items for them from the trade stores. It was an exchange, in their view. When I loaned cash to men they would repay it and in the next breath ask for another loan. The exchange was to keep our relationship intact.
I found that payment to the Kewa (and other PNG people) for services rendered did not mean to end my relationship with them, and in that sense I learned a valuable lesson: Work and workers involve personal interactions that can be long-lasting and beneficial to both parties. In the same way, our mission work has resulted in long term associations and friendships with our donors.
Proverbs 14:23, 24 (GNB): “You will earn the trust and respect of others if you work for the good; if you work for evil, you are making a mistake. Work and you will earn a living; if you sit around talking you will be poor.”