Our Mahatma Walks the Walk
In the spring of 1970, I reported for my first administration position at the CUSO Thailand office in Bangkok. I had previously volunteered for international work camps in Costa Rica and the Philippines. I had also been an inner-city youth worker and later an English teacher in Thailand.
When I entered the office of Murray Thomson, my new boss, I was struck by a huge picture of Mahatma Gandhi. I quickly learned that this picture symbolized the values of Murray Thomson. He had spent his career working for social justice, non-violent social action, political and institutional development and nuclear disarmament. He also had extensive experience utilizing the Quaker method of consensus decision-making.
My values were a little different. I grew up in the United Church of Canada. My hero is still Dr. Bob McClure, the Medical missionary, who provided medical care for needy patients all over the developing world. As a college student, I sought opportunities to assist those in need in developing nations.
After helping build a school playground and basketball court in Costa Rica, I was part of a group that successfully raised funds to help finance the college education of one of our Latino work camp colleagues. After returning from six months of volunteering in the Philippines, I spoke from the pulpit of Central United Church in Calgary and raised money which helped to finance an operation for the crippled child of the Director of the Agricultural Rural Center where we had built a school dormitory and planted thousands of rubber trees.
As Murray and I began working together, I was impressed by his ability to get people to work together by listening to their concerns and building consensus. When presenting a joint paper at a UN conference on “The Role of Youth in National Development”, I was shaken by a fiery young Filipina who scolded us all for being fat cat bureaucrats and too old to understand the needs and concerns of youth.
As soon as she finished, I asked Murray to let me leave before our presentation to visit some poverty-stricken students and their families in N.E. Thailand. We were selecting scholarship recipients and taking pictures for fund raising. I wanted to do something useful so as not to be a fat cat bureaucrat. Murray sensed my passion and let me go.
Murray established The CUSO Thailand Committee (CTC) with volunteers, host national (Thais) and staff. We met regularly to set program directions and approve projects. I often complained about how long it took to reach consensus. Murray wisely helped me understand that if everyone had their say, and their concerns dealt with, they would be more apt to support the implementation of the venture.
I have utilized this valuable “Mahatma Concept” over the past 43 years. Emerging from the CTC were a series of scholarships for needy Thai students and gifted Thai educators, and a dormitory for a rural teachers’ college. The most high-profile organization put together by Murray the Mahatma was the Thai Hill Crafts Foundation, with Thai Royalty, CUSO and Thai staff. It was amazing to watch Murray the Mahatma create it and also point me to various funding sources. It was still operating successfully under Thai leadership when Glen Dunkley (a former CUSO Thai Hill Crafts Foundation employee) and I visited it in Chiengrai in 2006. Any non-profit organization that lasts over 42 years is remarkable.
Murray the Mahatma and I do not agree on the role of CUSO in political development in a host country, nor was I to involve myself in political activism in North America. I respect his nuclear disarmament values and activities but they are not for me. I have written letters for Amnesty International but would rather work on people development as a coach, teacher and career counsellor.
I also hung a huge picture of Mahatma Gandhi in my class room as a tribute to our Mahatma who accepted us as we were and sought out ways to work together for common goals.
When students ask me about the Gandhi poster, I tell them about our Mahatma Murray who showed us the way.
By: Jim McFetridge (CUSO - Thailand 1967-1973; Ottawa 1973-1975).