Posted by: Titus Presler | May 13, 2012

NYTimes essay dramatizes dilemmas of inequality and highlights missionary contribution

“No matter how hard he tried, he could never do enough for his half brother, or the others he left behind; he could never transmute his luck into theirs.”  So writes Rosie Dastgir, a Briton of Pakistani descent, of her father’s sense of unfulfilled obligation toward his relatives back in Pakistan after he emigrated to the UK – in today’s “Lives” column in The New York Times Magazine.

Any of us living close to vast numbers of poor people in the Two-Thirds World can both empathize with the anguish of Rose and her late father and also hear our own quandaries articulated.  For us the sense of obligation is not one of family but the call of a common humanity, a call expressed well in the opening line of one prayer for mission: “O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth.”

From that one-bloodedness arises the intuition of justice, which demands equality of resources and equality of opportunity in a world where both are distributed in radically unequal ways.  Here in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the poverty rate is more that 46%, according to a piece in today’s edition of the national daily Dawn.  Poverty as defined here is a considerably lower level than in UK or the USA, which further intensifies the prevailing atmosphere of need.  As the need is deep, so also is the sense of inadequacy that Dastgir expresses.

It was the missionary element in her father’s story that made Dastgir’s essay jump out at me:

He’d been one of the lucky ones. A clever schoolboy from a poor family, he worked hard, with the encouragement of an American missionary, to get to college. He eventually made it to England, where he became an engineer in the Royal Air Force, but never lost the feeling that those he left behind in his troubled country needed him more than England did.

Who knows but that it might have been Edwardes College which the unnamed missionary encouraged the elder Dastgir to attend?  Several things come together for me here:

The anecdote highlights the critically important role of many missionaries in discerning gifts in young people from poor backgrounds and then morale-wise – and sometime money-wise – supporting them in seeking out the opportunities that  enable them to move forward.  Obviously that is what Church Missionary Society members were up to on an institutional scale when they established Edwardes High School in Peshawar in 1855 as the first secondary school in what was then the Northwest Frontier Province, and then Edwardes College as the first institution of higher education in the province in 1900.

The story also highlights the dilemma of educational advancement: Is it to “get out” or is it to be equipped to make a difference in one’s own country?  There are many Edwardes graduates in the UK and the USA, but I’m glad to say that they are a tiny minority compared to those working in Pakistan.  I often say to our students, “The mission of Edwardes is not to enable you to emigrate.  Instead our mission is to ‘educate and develop professionals who will be servant leaders in meeting the challenges and opportunities of Pakistan today.’”  Of course, the challenges of Pakistan today are such that people of all ages are giving up and leaving if they possibly can – though those who can are a relatively small number.

Yet there are encouraging signs.  The Executive Director of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission has a doctorate in electrical engineering from Purdue, but is back here offering visionary leadership to the university sector.  The vice chancellor of the University of Gujrat has master’s and doctoral degrees in demography from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, and the vice chancellor of the University of Kohat has an English literature doctorate from UMass Amherst.  The dean of social sciences at Qurtuba University in Peshawar earned a philosophy doctorate at the University of Hawaii, then had a fellowship at Harvard.  The list could go on.  Here at Edwardes a chemistry instructor is returning from doctoral work at Cambridge University to teach here rather than stay in Cambridge.  These are all people who could have tarried in greener pastures, but their commitment to their country brought them back.  That is good news.

Finally, I return to the anguish of poverty.  Practically every day I receive a personal appeal for a job from someone without a job or from someone in a job that pays far too little.  Practically every day I receive appeals for relief from the College fees that enable this institution to carry on – appeals from students whose parents have lost their job or their homes, appeals from students, especially Christians, whose families historically have been poor and are becoming more so.  Out in the city, beggars are common on the streets of Peshawar.

We do what we can.  I do what I can.  One comfort is that in offering education guided by the Edwardes mission statement we are doing something that can and will make a structural difference, not simply a palliative difference.  Yet what we do is never enough.


  1. Thanks for your comment, Rosie! I’m so glad this piece came to your attention. Warm regards, Titus

  2. Dear Titus,
    Many thanks for writing this interesting blog piece; as the author of the piece, I was excited to see how far its reach might be.
    Best wishes,
    Rosie Dastgir

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