A couple of Septembers ago on the third Thursday of the month, a circle of chairs had formed in the well-used CYO Hall below Sacred Heart Cathedral for the regular meeting of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. It always begins around 5 p.m. and is open to first-time visitors.
At that particular meeting we had just finished our preliminaries: accepting the agenda for the meeting and reviewing the previous month’s minutes, when an older, bald man with a scruffy beard appeared. As the circle’s participants turned towards the stranger, we found out that he wasn’t coming to join us but only wanted to how to find the pastor of the church. I told him that in all likelihood the office in the rectory next door would be closed by then but that he might be able to catch Father Jim Bleackley if something had kept him late.
He left and our meeting continued. The visitor, dressed in jeans and a bulky sweater against the early fall chill, was, we thought, one of the not-infrequent transients making their way south along the highway at that time of the year and in need of a handout to continue his journey.
The following Sunday I met this fellow again at the door of Sacred Heart Cathedral after mass. There I found out he was an internationally known anthropologist and expert on indigenous governance who had been invited up from Bolivia, South America to speak at a 2010 Assembly of First Nations’ conference in Whitehorse on self government.
Dr. Xavier Albo, a Jesuit priest, later confided that he had thought that he had stumbled in on a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous when he first saw us. Sometimes we have masks on, disguising ourselves from one another and don’t even know it. Sometimes, however, we purposefully put on masks as much to hide from reality as to disguise our real unease about the direction our lives have taken.
Father Xavier, writing in the 2013 edition of the World Latin American Agenda, speaks of the concept of Sumak Kawsay or “Living Well,” drawn from the Quechua people of the Andes with whom he has lived and worked for over a half century.
“This is spelled out by instead of ‘better’ to insist upon living ‘well’ which implies solidarity among all, practices of reciprocity and the desire to achieve or restore ‘balances’… living with that which is necessary but with sobriety, and without striving to accumulate or hoard.”
This paradigm shares much with a “long line of various religious traditions, including Christianity,” Dr. Albo argues. “The overall objective of development” as seen from these perspectives “is not to have more, but be more, not hoard more wealth, but enjoy deeper humanity.”
Together with indigenous traditions such as those of the Quechua peoples all this can be seen as “wrapped up in an aura of cosmic sacredness.”
“Living well” stands in direct opposition to the reigning model of “modernizing” development predicated “upon permanent economic growth for those few who dominate others, whomever they might be, by using expensive technologies plus exclusion and predatory practices that worship the idols of lucrative markets and private property” as they “nonchalantly strip naked our Mother Earth and leave her ill, if not dying.”
Maybe as we unmask the powers that are around us here in the Yukon in the struggles such as the ones to preserve the Peel River watershed or question the practice of fracking we will slowly come to understand what the Quechua mean by “living well” and choose this path.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.