Many years ago when I was in High School I was required to read a book for English class. It was called “The Ugly American”.
You never know when you pick up a book how it will impact your life. I was not prepared for the effect that one book would have on my walk with God.
The book is a satire written by some former State Department men who evidently disagreed with the government’s policy of dealing with the growing communism threat globally.
Back then, we were in what was called a “Cold War.” It was not open conflict with Russia, but rather Democracy and Communism both trying to sway countries to follow their example.
The feeling at the time on the news and in the press was that the whole world would go one-way or the other.
The book is about an engineer that was independently wealthy and decided to go to Asia and attempt to educate the people there and better their lives.
It called “The Ugly American” because the engineer is a large ugly gangly man. All his life he has been conscious of his appearance.
When he helps the people there with simple projects he is no longer ugly, but is in fact very beautiful to them. He shows them how to use bicycle parts to irrigate their crops and saves them backbreaking labor they have practiced for years.
The authors illustrate how the communists live among the natives but the Americans live in ivory towers. Their criticism of American policy and technique are very glaring.
The part of the book that grabbed me over forty years ago was about the engineer’s wife. While her husband was working with the native people she decided to try an experiment on her own.
It involved a broom. She observed the old people of the village had bent backs. She thought it might be from using short handled brooms. She was sure they would not take any advice from an outsider so she put her plan in action.
She went out into the jungle and found some long reeds and cut some down. She then made a handle for her broom from one of the long reeds.
As she swept her porch, some of the elderly people came and watched her. Then the old man asked her about the reed. She said he could have one of hers but they could go into the jungle and get as many as they needed on one water buffalo.
What followed in the book is what influenced my life for the last forty years. This is what happened.
And it was not until four years later, when Emma was back in Pittsburg, that she learned the final results of her broom handle project. One day she got a letter in a large handsome yellow-bamboo paper envelope. Inside, written in an exquisite script, was a letter from the headman of Chang Dong.
Wife of the engineer:
I am writing you to thank you for a thing that you did for the old people of Chang Dong. For many centuries, longer than any man can remember, we have always had old people with bent backs in this village. And in every village that we know of the old people have always had bent backs.
We had always thought this was part of growing old, and it was one of the reasons we dreaded old age. But, wife of the engineer, you have changed all that. By the lucky accident of your long handled broom you showed us a new way to sweep. It is a small thing, but it has changed the lives of our old people. For four years, ever since you have left, we have been using the long reeds for broom handles. You will be happy to know that today there are few bent backs in the village of Chang Dong. Today the backs of our old people are straight and firm. No longer are their bodies painful during the months of the monsoon.
This is a small thing, I know, but for our people it is an important thing.
I know you are not of our religion, wife of the engineer, but perhaps you will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of the village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory. It is a simple affair; at the foot of the altar are these words. ”In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.” In front of the shrine there is a stack of the old short reeds which we used to use.
Again, wife of the engineer, we thank you and we think of you.
For me as a seventeen-year-old boy, my life purpose suddenly became clear. No matter what else life demanded, my first purpose was to live in a manner that people could see a better way.
I have not always succeeded, but I have always striven.
May God help us all to unbend the backs of the people we live around. When you make their life better you will never be ugly. They will not care if a woman has long hair and no cosmetics. When their back no longer hurts, you will be beautiful!
There should never be an ugly Christian!
Thanks for reading today!
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