by Robert Scheer Scheer Intelligence Feb 15, 2019
The biblical Parable of the Good Samaritan is one that Tom Catena not only knows well, but strives to live by. A devout Catholic and Ivy League-educated doctor, Catena realized early on that he would dedicate his time on earth to helping those in need, though he couldn’t have predicted the heroic path his life would take.
In the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Catena tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer how he ended up searching for and finding meaning as well as love in an African war zone. “I went [to the Nuba Mountains] as a [medical] missionary,” he tells Scheer. “The way I look at things is, I want to go somewhere where whatever abilities I have can be used to the most effect. … This is a very remote place with nearly no health care at all.”
Catena, the subject of Kenneth Carlson’s film, “The Heart of Nuba,” is the only doctor in a region in Sudan with a population of 750,000. There, despite facing bombings by the authoritarian government at war with rebels in the region, the American doctor works relentlessly to treat patients in a hospital he helped establish. But his ultimate goal has not been solely to practice medicine, but to train locals in the field so they will be able to care for their community when he’s gone.
Not that Catena plans to leave any time soon. Not only does the medical missionary say he “find[s] great fulfillment in [the] work” he does there, he’s become a part of the community in a number of ways, most recently through his marriage to a local nurse. Catena has also found spiritual meaning in his work and holds that religion should always be “countercultural,” blueprints for which can be found in the lives of Jesus Christ and St. Francis of Assisi. Acknowledging that there is objectively a lot of harm that religion has done throughout history, Catena tells Scheer he also thinks religions such as Catholicism “can be used for such a great force for good,” a goal he hopes to achieve with his own missionary work.
Listen to Catena and Scheer discuss faith and service in the face of great adversity, as well as heart-wrenching scenes the doctor has witnessed in the Nuba Mountains. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player.
Robert Scheer: Hi, welcome to another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests, I hasten to say. And in this case, it’s Dr. Tom, as he’s known in the Nuba Mountains in the southern part of Sudan. Tom Catena, to be formal about it, grew up in upstate New York in the small town of Amsterdam, near Albany; played football at Brown. And then decided he wanted to be a doctor. He went into the Navy, went to Duke and got his degree and studied, went on a mission to Africa, Kenya, for six years. And then in 2008, ended up in the Nuba Mountains, where he has been running the Mother of Mercy hospital ever since.
And a friend of mine, Ken Carlson, made a wonderful movie called “The Heart of Nuba.” And if you watch that movie–and Ken went there to see your work and touch base, and then actually interviewed the dictator–we’ll get to that a little bit–who’s responsible for bombing your hospital, which I thought showed great courage on Ken’s part. But you know, what’s—what are these guys, you’re at Brown, you’re supposed to be a success in life, and you end up devoting yourself to a community, and now you’re actually married to a nurse from the community. And you’ve chosen to make your life there, and it’s really rough. You don’t, you know, have running water; you don’t, I think, have an X-ray machine, at least that’s been described that way. So just tell us, what has this journey been about?
Tom Catena: Well you know, it’s interesting, Bob. I went there as a missionary, medical missionary. And you know, I think for us and the way I look at things is, I want to go somewhere where whatever abilities I have can be used to the most effect. And there’s a guy named Willie Sutton, I don’t know if you ever heard of him, he was a bank robber. And people said hey, Willie, why do you rob banks? And he said, well, that’s where the money is.
And that’s kind of my way to look at my job and at medicine. Say, well, why did you go to the Nuba Mountains? I say, well, that’s where the greatest need is. Not to be too superlative, but one of the greatest needs in the world. This is a very remote place with nearly no health care at all. So it’s a very, you know, for a guy who likes medicine and likes doing a huge variety of medicine, it’s a very target-rich environment. So I really enjoy the work, and find great fulfillment in that work.
RS: OK, but come on. For 350 bucks a month [Laughter]—you know, I just love—we did talk the other day, because you spoke in my class at USC. And I must say, this was an incredibly important talk for students to hear. Because they’re going to graduate, and they’re wondering, you know, who’s going to pay off their debt, and was this all worth it, and it’s this terrible job market. And you said two things that come across clearly in the movie. But you said it in the class, and you know, they just—wow. People took it in. And you said, one, if I don’t go back to my hospital, if I don’t work there, that means that these people have a life that is less important than my own. You know, you take seriously this idea that everyone has a soul, everyone’s life is important. And so you know, you don’t go to the suburbs and just—not that those people aren’t important. But you make that decision, which I thought was very powerful. And then you said, you know, you told them—you said you know, at the end of the day—you’re now, what, 54 or something?
TC: Fifty-four, right.
RS: Fifty-four. But you know, so you’re not anywhere near the end of the days. But you know, you said, you know, the toys, the possessions, all that stuff doesn’t really add up. And you said, you know, having made a difference, having made a difference. You know, that’s an idea we have forgotten. And you’re being a bit modest; you’re operating in a region, the Nuba Mountains are in the southern part of Sudan. Pretty vicious dictator who’s been branded by international court as a war criminal. The place gets bombed. And you’re the only doctor, surgeon, for a population of 750,000 people in an area the size of Austria. And you’re making $350 a month, and you’re on 24/7. You’ve had malaria, you’ve been bombed. What keeps you going? This is a long time. You didn’t go there for a month or something, or a mission. You know, you’ve been there since ‘08. You started the hospital.
TC: Right. Yeah, and I’ve been out now for two months, and I’m itching to get back now, Bob. [Laughs] That’s where I feel I belong. You know, I’ll tell you, all the things you said are true. But I think all of us as humans, there’s something built into our DNA which says we are all looking for meaning in life. And I think once you feel you have that, that trumps everything else. When you see things through that lens, you see possessions and the trappings of success in a very different light. And I think pretty much every day—even when I have terrible days in Nuba, when I’m terrified of what’s going to happen, when we have bad patient outcomes—at the end of the day, I can say there’s no other place on earth I’d rather be. And that’s a pretty good place to be when you can say that.
The amount of money you take, the amount of money you get, whether you have running water or not, whether you have electricity, whether it’s hot—all those things kind of take a back seat, at least in my worldview. I admit that is, you know, possibly a bit extreme. But I think once you’re in that environment, you see how the people live, and that this is their life also, and you kind of enter into that life. And you really, you truly try to do it so you value others’ lives the same as your own, try to get into that way of thinking. It really does have a way of transforming one’s attitude. You really own that, not to say it to make a bunch of fluff and a bunch of crap, but to say look—and I really, really believe that. And I was asked, you know, I was told by my sponsoring group, no, you got to get out; you know, come out of Nuba for a while, when things calm down you can go back in.
And the stark reality was—I’m trying to say this without sounding like I’m boasting—but if I left, along with the sisters, people would have died. You know, wounded would have come, there would have been no one to take care of them, do the operations, and they would have died there on the spot. To me, that was saying well, you come out, potentially spare your life, you’re giving up the lives of all these people. It was a very black-and-white way of looking at that. And I thank God I was able to just kind of hang out and stay there, because I know—I promise you, if I had left at that time, that would have been the biggest regret of my life. I would have really, that thing would have really bothered my conscience. So I’m very happy I stayed on with things. And I’m still alive.
RS: Well, let’s bring God into this. You do pray every morning. You do the rosary, you go to a darkened shed, get yourself together, you say focus your mind, at 5:00, 5:30. Then you have 350 to 400 patients in this hospital. You’re going to do rounds every day. And you’re stretching the limits of medicine. You know, as you say, there are some things you can’t do. You know, in the movie you say a physician—“do no harm”—can you do brain surgery? It’s not the same as taking out an appendix. Can you—you know, what is the procedure, what instruments do you have? You have to read up on things, you have to learn. And you know, it’s an incredible obligation. I must say, one of the powerful things about Ken Carlson’s film, “The Heart of Nubia,” you know, for me, is that for those of us who don’t have religion at the center of our life—and for a number of reasons that’s probably true of a good part of our population. And in part, that’s the responsibility and failure of religion. After all, you’re there for the Catholic Church. And I think your example—I don’t want to gild the lily here too much—is a reminder that religion has also played a positive role.
TC: Of course. Yeah.
RS: But you know, it sounds odds to almost say it. And I do want to address a question that’s come up in my class when we’ve shown the movie, this whole notion of the white man’s burden. You are a white guy. You’re there, and now you’re married to someone from the tribe, a nurse, and you’re committed to that community. But you didn’t go there, you know, in the old measure of the Catholic Church to save pagan babies, and capture the souls, and be gone and in and out, and meanwhile be a cover for foreign powers to grab the oil, which there is in these mountains, and other things. You’ve taken seriously the idea that you’re going to be judged, and you’re going to be judged by how you treat the least among us.
RS: Right? In terms of their economic—you take that seriously.
TC: Very seriously.
RS: And I find that refreshing. I just have to ask you, why do you have this deep belief? How do you sustain it?
TC: Well you know, I think I was, I’m what’s called a cradle Catholic, so kind of born into the faith. And my family was quite devout growing up. So I had that, all the kind of groundwork was there. I’d say even with that, during my college years it was kind of a spiritual reawakening that was aided by a Protestant campus minister, a guy named Kent Dahlberg, who really helped my faith grow a lot at that time. And I think during this time, I just—I don’t know, I think it’s just a calling. I don’t know if you can say it a different way. It wasn’t, you know, bells and whistles and thunderclaps; it was just kind of a very gradual nudge in that direction. That this, the gospel of Christ speaks to us today.
And my great mentor, and this is St. Francis of Assisi, who I see had a very—I don’t want to equate myself with St. Francis; he’s way ahead of me. I mean, but he had a very similar life. He was born to a very wealthy merchant in Assisi in Italy. The father wanted him to enter the business—they were cloth merchants—and Francis turned his back on all that. The church at the time was similar to the church of today; it was corrupted. They were, in similar ways, they were tithing with a lot of wealth; they had, you know, they had armies; the lifestyles of the priests and religious were somewhat immoral. So really, a lot of parallels to the church today. And the way Francis approached it, he didn’t attack the church—he was very much a son of the church—but looked at it saying, let’s reform from within.
And he actually had a vision, and Christ said, Francis, rebuild my church. And Francis, being a concrete guy like I am, started building, putting, you know, mortar and stone together, and put the church up. It wasn’t until after he realized that what Christ meant was a spiritual rebuilding of the church. And Francis very quietly, by his example, was able to bring people back to the faith. And I’ve said this to many people, a quote attributed to Francis is he apparently said, “Preach always, and sometimes use words.” And I try to always remember that, that the job of a missionary is not to go and beat people over the head. It’s to go and show the love of Christ by what you’re doing.
And with time and patience, people will kind of gradually come over and say, what is it about this guy? He’s kind of weird, but there’s something he’s doing that we don’t quite understand–then we can start talking. Very slowly. I mean, the faith is not something—you know, I cannot go and convert somebody. You know, that’s not my role. It’s to show Christ’s love by what I’m doing. God is the one that changes hearts. Everybody has a spark of God in them. I think—you know, maybe it’s presumptuous for me to say that, but I think we’re born with that. Everybody is looking for meaning, and for something higher than this current, you know, the life we live.
RS: Right. And the reason you’re so refreshing—and by the way, the current pope, after all, has evoked St. Francis as the ideal—but he’s functioning in a church that has been marked by deep corruption, exploitation, contradictions. Yes, concern for the poor, but go along with the wealthy. And he’s tried to readjust that, so as opposed to some other pope that might be in there now, you actually probably have the backing of the church. And you seem to have had a bishop locally who was supportive. But I do want to, you know, address this model thing.
Because one of the things you are a model for is, you know, you mentioned Jesus Christ—you’re the Christ, not of the prosperity gospel; you’re the Christ of the good Samaritan. You’re saying the guy at the side of the road has been beaten and is naked, and you’re going to put him on your donkey, you’re going to take him to the hotel, you’re going to make sure—and you’re going to check whether there was a delivery. This is not just a statement. You tell him you’re going to come back on your trip and make sure he was taken care of. Well, most of us fail that test right now when we see homeless people, you know, two blocks from where we are in prosperous San Francisco.
And I want to mention this white man’s burden, because when we first showed the movie “The Heart of Nuba” in our class, there were people who raised that. But I noticed some other people, and it included some people from Africa, young black students in our school, they mentioned another context. Africa was messed up by white people. The white man’s burden is real because, after all, it was white people who did slavery; it was white people who drew the lines of what are nation states. And a lot of this rivalry that people get caught in now is over resources and over power, and foreign interference. After all, the people bombing your hospital are flying very high-tech planes that they’ve obtained from Russia, and the U.S. has sort of looked the other way at times. I mean, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who went to see you, actually made that point; the Obama administration kind of didn’t want to trouble it. And in the movie, you’re very strong in condemning human rights organizations and international organizations. You say, why don’t they care about these people? Are these not high-profile victims? Right? Tell us a little bit about that.
TC: This idea of the white man’s burden, ah, I find it somewhat interesting. It’s not, it’s like the place where I work is not closed to other people. [Laughs] I mean, if some non-white person wants to come and help, he’s more than, he or she is more than welcome. I don’t see it as so much of a race issue as being more of an economic and, you know. For now, though, the white people in general have more power, more money, whatever. So when you have that, you have more influence. I think there is a responsibility for people with power to speak out. When there are human rights abuses, they have an obligation to speak out. What we’ve found is that, we were in rebel-held territory, yet inside—you talk about rebels, but these are people living there.
And a lot of these international organizations were unwilling to come and help because they didn’t want to violate the sovereignty of Sudan. Which is, I understand the concept, but by not violating the sovereignty of a government which have been called “serial genocidaires,” you are making the people suffer even more. So why not just do the right thing? Say look, we understand you’re a sovereign nation, but these are innocent people suffering, and we’re going to come and we’re going to help these people. Be transparent about it, you’ll know about it, but we—you know, we don’t care, we’re going to come and help people, regardless of what you think. What’s, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think that should be the model that countries use. I understand there are political ramifications, but sometimes you just have to do the right thing and forget about everything else.
RS: Well, and you’re doing the right thing actually drew attention to the plight of these people when the rest of the world–and we can be really clear about it—every aid organization had pulled out. That’s why you’re the only doctor. It wasn’t like you wanted to be the only doctor. And as a result of your being there, and people like Ken Carlson and Nick Kristof; you know, Ken making his movie, Nick Kristof went to visit you, he wrote very powerfully in the New York Times about it. He actually, one of the great things about your effort there is you are open to Muslims and Christians and people who practice indigenous religion, or no religion. You’re quite open in this regard.
And he quotes a leading Muslim figure in saying, Dr. Tom is Jesus Christ! [Laughter] And Nicholas Kristof said, wait, wait, that’s a little far. [Laughter] And then this Muslim leader says, well, in healing the sick, caring for the poor, you know, righting wrongs, and so forth. And Nick Kristof ends—I mean, he was obviously moved by his visit, and he actually engaged in a public appeal on his blog for funds to support this operation. And he said, this is the antidote to the corruption, basically, he said, of our conservative so-called political use of religion. This is really doing it, being there. When Ken Carlson, who had been a neighbor of mine, went to make this movie, I said, are you out of—are you crazy? You’re going to get killed. And then, as a result of making this movie and showing it to people and so forth, he got an interview with the dictator that is bombing your hospital.
RS: Can you tell us about that? And actually, there’s been positive news; there’s been a cease fire. So bring us up to date.
TC: Ken’s an incredible human being, as you know very well. He’s got more energy than a thousand people put together. You know, it takes a heck of a lot of courage to fly into the, to fly into Khartoum and go and meet this guy, to meet Bashir.
RS: Well, first of all, bring us up to date. First thing that took a lot of courage was he flew in to meet you.
TC: Right. We’re in rebel-held territory, so we’re there against the will of the government. We’re not there—in a sense, we’re not there legally, with the good grace of the government. So if you got to fly into—when Ken flew in, he had to fly into two different airstrips in South Sudan. South Sudan, at the time, was in civil war. As we were, but they were in a separate civil war in South Sudan. So when the plane opened, Ken starts taking pictures. And someone took offense at that and points a gun at him. And Ken got him talked down, and they kind of made peace. And the pilot said, you’re lucky, because like literally a week before then, they took 24 people off a plane and killed all of them. This part of the world is very violent. They don’t follow the rules.
Kind of when you’re there, you realize all the rules you learned about growing up—like, that stuff doesn’t apply there. Your life is kind of the same as everybody else’s, you know. I remember one time we were being bombed, and I thought, what are they doing? Don’t they realize there are people down here? And it’s this realization that you’re kind of with everybody else, you know? So I think Ken got that realization. And he was able to talk these guys down, and came up, and then we had to go and pick him up, and it was an eight-hour drive up to the hospital. We’re very remote. So when Ken went to interview Bashir, he flew straight into Khartoum, didn’t pass the Nuba Mountains. But I think the risk he took was that he had been in Nuba on two separate occasions; the Khartoum government knew he was there; and he was there basically illegally.
RS: And they’d seen his movie.
TC: They’d seen his movie. Which is inflammatory against the Khartoum regime. This is not a government–
RS: Well, it calls him “genocidal dictator.”
TC: Exactly. And I think Ken’s movie made no bones about the fact that this is a genocidal regime. So you’re in a country which routinely imprisons, tortures, and kills people that speak out against it. There’s no freedom of any type. And Ken is there interviewing this guy. So I think it took incredible courage for him to show up in the mouth of the beast and do the interview. And it was shocking for me, because Ken was–he said he was going, and he said at first, he said they wanted me to come. I’m like, you know, there’s no way I’m going up there. He said, no, they’ll even send a helicopter down to the Nuba Mountains to pick you up. I thought, these people are absolutely crazy. I said, you know, they’ll make sure this thing is going to get shot down when we get up there. But he ended up interviewing Bashir. And it was, it was very chilling for me, for Ken to do the interview. He was sending pictures—
RS: Explain who Bashir is.
TC: So Omar Hassan al-Bashir is the president of Sudan. He’s been in power since 1989, so he’s been in power for 30 years. He’s been indicted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This was for the war, civil war in Darfur. But that was just one incident. Whatever he’s accused of in Darfur, the same pattern has happened in the Nuba Mountains on separate occasions. He’s still in power, there are protests now in Khartoum against his regime. They’ve been going on for the past six weeks, and still there’s been no conclusion to all that. Both Bashir and his National Congress Party are not people that you want to associate with, or be in their clutches. So really, Ken took a big risk by going up there.
RS: You live in a situation where you’re jumping into foxholes, and the whole population is running out of the hospital and jumping into foxholes when planes go over, because they quite often are there to bomb civilians. And your own home was bombed.
TC: Right. We’ve got, I mean, the hospital—we have, I don’t know, 30 or 40 foxholes on the property. Every homestead has a foxhole. Where I live with my wife, we have two foxholes that are ready. So the planes come over, you dive in those things. So everybody’s tuned into this. You know, I think when the hospital was bombed, there was a bit of a debate whether to speak out and say much. And looking back at that, we waited too long—we spoke out immediately, but in a sense we waited too long, because we should have been speaking out more vociferously before then. Because dictators like Bashir and regimes like his like to operate in a vacuum. So the more people speak out, the more these atrocities are known, the more difficult it is for them to continue on with things. So I, in the end, I mean, in summation of all this, I think it’s the right thing to do to always make–even if the international community doesn’t do much at the time, at least you’ve spoken out, and there are, people are aware it’s more difficult for these people to do it again.
RS: So we’re going to take a quick break so stations can identify themselves. And we’ll be right back with Dr. Tom, Dr. Tom Catena, who has been in the Nuba Mountains working as the only doctor for 750,000 people. It’s an incredible story. And is going back—what, in a matter of days, or—?
TC: I’ll be back in a few weeks.
RS: Few weeks.
TC: Yeah, in about two or three weeks I’ll be back in action.
RS: OK, and hopefully people will see the movie. [omission for station break] We’re back with Dr. Tom Catena. The movie that I’m telling people they should see, if they get hold of it, is “The Heart of Nuba.” And it describes—what I love about your story is this was not a photo op, OK? This is not some movie person or star saying I’m going to pay attention to poor people. This is a guy who, you know, successful doctor, graduate of Brown and Duke University and so forth. You’re now a member of the community. You’re married to a woman who became a nurse, who’s from the local tribe. And this is your life. And so you, it’s not just that you make the statement, “If I leave here, I’m saying my life is more important than these people because I’m their only doctor”—you’re now saying, I am these people.
TC: Well, Ken always tells me that I married up, and I think he’s right. [Laughs] You can say what you want about me; my wife’s an incredible person. What I love about the whole process we went through with our courtship and all this kind of stuff, it was all strange and interesting, but the family treated me as they would treat any of the Nuba. Which I think is the greatest compliment they could have given me.
In other words, they didn’t look at me and reject me as an outsider—that was one option—or they didn’t see me as, you know, the rich guy from America so they can take advantage of me. They treated me like anybody else. I had to pass through all their rites of passage in order to marry their sister and their daughter. I had to pay the dowry, like anybody else, but they didn’t—you know, I paid the dowry that kind of any other person would have paid. And had to do all the requirements that they need. You know, marriage is a long process there. I really respect them very much for doing that, that they treated me as an equal. And I think in the end, I think that’s what everybody wants. I think everybody, whether you’re denigrated or put on a pedestal, you just want to be treated as an equal, as the same as anybody else, so we can just kind of interact on a normal level. I’m very happy with the way the family’s treated me.
RS: Well, and what Ken Carlson’s movie, “The Heart of Nuba,” gets across, and you’re the center of it, is the complexity of the local culture. I mean, this word “primitive,” you know, when we talk about economy, does not—this is a very complex, longstanding culture. And also one that is quite open to different traditional religions, and it’s a caring culture. Not to glorify poverty; these people live under a lot of hardship and drought and so forth. And people should be clear, this—your mission is to have the new Dr. Toms be from the tribe, be from the area, right?
TC: Right. Yeah, absolutely, yeah.
RS: And so you should describe that a little bit. Because this is not the old missionary thing—I’m going to go in and save souls, and goodbye and good luck, and grab your oil and start wars and everything. Because there has been a dark side to missionary activity also.
TC: Right. You know, I think some of that, Bob, I think missionaries have learned over the centuries how to do it better. So you bring up the local church, and in this case the local church includes the hospital; [we’re] a church hospital. But as an extension of that, from the day we started there—both myself and Sister Angelina, who was the head nurse who had been with us for 10 years, who just left to do another job—our goal has been to develop the local people. And over the course of 11 years, we’ve gotten to the point where we have four local people in medical school, three men and one woman, and we have one more that’s going this summer. So we’ll have five people in medical school in a few months; the first one will finish his course in about a year.
And the goal is to get all the different levels of people trained so they can take over any of the hospital in a few years. And not only that, but they can be the ones to now develop a health system within the Nuba Mountains. They’re from the place, they’re in the best place to know what the needs are, they have all the local knowledge, all the local languages. I think it’s just the best way to do it. Let me just kind of do my thing, do what I can do to bring them up to a certain level, and then kind of turn them loose and let them fly on their own. And I think that’s kind of the model we’re trying to perpetuate, not only in the Nuba Mountains, but hopefully through Aurora, in other parts.
RS: So let me ask you about this, because for my sensibility, the single most moving scene in Ken Carlson’s movie was your involvement with the leper colony. And traditionally, the leper, this illness has been made to make people nonhuman, or untouchable, in the most extreme, throughout the world. You know, and you’re there with people embracing them, you’re establishing your common humanity. So tell us about that.
TC: Well you know, leprosy is, it’s a fascinating disease. And it’s an Old World disease, it’s been around forever. It’s so fascinating, because you look back in Leviticus in the Old Testament, and you read about leprosy. They talk about how to treat it, you know, how to treat leprosy; what do you do with lepers, you have to take them and separate them, and lepers had to walk around with either a bell or a clapper, and announce themselves, and say “unclean, unclean” so that people would stay away from them.
They had to live in their own separate colonies. It’s very much a part of our history. And you know, when you realize that this is a disease that’s transmitted by respiratory droplets, the same way the common cold is transmitted. But to get it, you need prolonged, close contact with people. So you can’t get it from touching them or embracing them, or just kind of, you know, joking around with them. That won’t do it.
So you know, I think the fear factor’s not there; in the old days, there was this huge fear that it could be spread easily. And that was what caused such revulsion in people. I think, if I may again draw on my favorite saint, St. Francis was in a time and a culture where lepers were reviled. You know, some of the thinking was they were being punished by God, therefore it was their fault that they had leprosy. So imagine not only being sick and disfigured and losing your hands, but you also feel that you’ve internalized this, feel like you’re being punished for having this infectious disease.
But Francis was able to cross that, and he was able to overcome his own revulsion against leprosy. And he embraced, he encountered a leper on the road, and the leper was ringing his bell, saying “unclean.” And Francis kind of came up to the guy and embraced him. And to do that at that time was really something revolutionary. You know, I try to take those lessons from—this was 800 years ago—and bring it to modern day, and how can we do that today, and interact that way.
RS: So let’s take that lesson from 800 years ago, and maybe wrap this up with that. Because maybe that’s the really critical lesson. It’s making people the other, and then when you put religion on it, then God is siding with you against the other. This is the basis of all of our religious wars. And so religion has not most often been a unifying force; it’s been a divisive force. And then invoking an almighty with the idea, yes, he wants them to suffer. But this notion of Francis, saint, the original, and the leper, that, you know, embracing him, really applies to the intolerance we do see in the modern period coming out of religion. As a profoundly religious person, you have to admit, religion has caused a great deal of trouble in our modern world.
TC: Yeah. I mean, I think you can’t look at it objectively and say otherwise. But I think it can be used for such a great force for good. You know, the thing is, a lot of things are not publicized. Where I’m working, what I see is sisters from Uganda and from Mexico doing such incredible work that nobody will ever know about. So what I see, usually, 99.99 percent of the time, is the opposite effect. I see the force that religion has, that drives people to do works of great compassion and mercy. I look at it, and I see it from a different angle from where we are. And that’s been my experience throughout my time in Africa, for 19 years.
RS: The reason I wanted to do this podcast, I’m obviously very impressed with you and I was very much influenced by the movie about what you’ve done. But I saw the impact you had on our students. They are living in a world now where there’s a general feeling of cynicism about religion, and we haven’t come up with the alternative way of having a center of human concern, human rights. And I get back to this regard to the homeless population, which we have an incredible—I mean, we’re in San Francisco right now doing this recording, and you have encampments—and we have rain right now out there. And you know, encampments of people that are suffering, right tonight, you know, getting no care, and so forth.
Now, the tale of the good Samaritan from Luke, OK. If you really believe in that religion, you’re supposed to poke your head into that tent. You’re supposed to come to the assistance, find out if they’re alive or dead, who are these people, right. That’s the challenge, not just—now, you’ve taken that challenge in the Nuba Mountains. It’s a challenge on Geary, you know? It’s a challenge on Mission Street, OK. It takes the best of the religion, the concern for the other, and it makes it front and center. Where do you stand on this. And when I watch you—after all, we’re not talking, I got to remind people as we close, this guy’s going back to a life—and it’s a great life. There’s music, there are festivals, the people love each other, they care about each other. You know, in the leper colony, even, which is the most difficult, there is affection, there is humor, there is love. So we’re not talking about, oh, go help the wretched, and that the wretched will always be wretched—no.
We’re talking about a common humanity. That’s, I think, the strength of your message, that you are not different than these people, you are involved in training them to have your skill set. I want people to understand, this is not a guilt trip. You know, at least not for me. It is a role model of the good life. That’s what you told my students. Maybe you could repeat that.
TC: I can’t remember what I said, to be honest with you, Bob. But I think if you want any kind of happiness or joy in this life, the path to that is to live a life of service. If you want the good life, for me, the good life is not having a car collection; the good life is living a life of service. By doing that, you’ll have such incredible meaning that everything else will pale in comparison. And I think each person has to determine for himself or herself what that is. You know, for me it plays out working in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan; for somebody else, it’s doing something totally different. And I think each of us has to find more or less our own path, you know, what that leads to.
RS: You’re basically saying, quite apart from whether you’re going to get an eternal life from this, or whether you’re going to be rewarded, you’re actually saying in this secular world—in the secular world, this is the most satisfying way to live.
TC: Yes, absolutely.
RS: That’s a powerful message, you know.
TC: Yeah. [Laughs]
RS: No, because it’s not—oh, yeah, I’ll wear the hair shirt and I’ll suffer [Laughter], but you know, the Almighty will rise me up and I’ll you know, blah blah, have the good life. No. You’re saying the quality of life, and that’s what I love about that movie “The Heart of Nuba,” it’s a celebration of this life. This life. Not do this and you’ll get the reward. And I think that’s a message that we’ve lost. The common humanity, the—and you know, again, the tale of the Good Samaritan. You are judged by how you treat the other. And that is the Syrian refugee who’s trying to take his children or her children into Germany. It is the refugee from Central America or from Mexico who are trying to escape conditions or find a job or reunite a family. That’s really the powerful message here.
TC: Religion should be countercultural; it should not be cultural. So you find yourself floating with the culture and being too comfortable—and I’m not saying miserable, I’m saying too comfortable–there’s something wrong. Religion is supposed to be countercultural. Christ was countercultural. St. Francis was countercultural. So if we look at the great spiritual leaders, they were not guys that went along with the flow. They were always a bit “off.” Not “off” like crazy, but really had the—were doing what they were supposed to do, doing the right things. But it was against the grain of society. You know, I always have to remember that. If you’re getting, I don’t want to say too popular, but we’re supposed to be a little bit kind of “off,” if I can use that word.
RS: That’s a good point on which to end it, because what you mean by being “off” is not being so self-centered, not being cynical about other people, trusting. And caring. I mean, you are delivering life. And therefore, that baby, we see you in the film—you want that baby not to be bombed, and you want that baby to grow up as healthy as is possible. And throughout it all, the main thing is you’re going to get up tomorrow and do it again. Dr. Tom, you know, you are, I think, a great role model. I want to thank you for doing this.
TC: Yeah. Thank you, Bob.