“Some thoughts on Saint Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Centre”
(Kurseong, Darjeeling, India)

By Kenelm Burridge, June 2007
(Retired Professor Emeritus of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of British Columbia. Note that his comments here are based on his impressions of SASAC before the dramatic changes that began in April 2006.)

During my life as an anthropologist I have come across, read about, and even studied Christian missions and missionaries mainly in Canada, South Asia, Melanesia and Northwest Australia.  Some – very few – despite well meaning and hardworking staffs, have seemed to me to be rather sad places – little more than feeding and preaching stations; others are much more robust, staffed by healthy, active and keen men and women, whether priests, ministers, nuns, brothers, sisters or otherwise ordinary lay persons who wish to make a contribution.  And these, with a little aid from supporters around the world, have made themselves into self-sustaining mainly Christian communities.
Over the years, however, Christian missions and missionaries have been given, quite undeservedly in my opinion, a bad name.  For the most part, this has to do with conversions to Christianity and ‘changing the culture’ a modern ‘no, no’ which is also a hideous hypocrisy: experiencing other cultures, in the form of an individual or its artifacts – especially money, a common and factorial means of exchange – changes what had been a non-moneyed culture once and for all.  What missionaries try to do is alleviate the difficulties experienced by so-called ‘simple’ or non-moneyed cultures when they are faced by the complexities of European, and/or Asian civilizations.  And they do this by teaching literacy, elementary maths, more advanced techniques of husbandry where appropriate, and the elements of a Christian religious life.
Such a mission is Saint Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Centre or SASAC.  It is a Christian, Jesuit, Roman Catholic Mission situated in the Himalayan foothills a few miles from Darjeeling in Northeastern India.  Almost every word of that description (Christian, Jesuit, Catholic) of the mission will immediately raise the hackles of many – whether secular or in some sense religious.  But take a closer look.  So many happy faces! Hundreds of locals who might be destitute are living happy and productive lives.  Deforestation in this monsoon region has been responsible for seasonal floods which sweep away the small subsistence gardens of many of the local peasantry:  but under the guidance of the missionary staff of SASAC trees are being replanted; peasants are being taught techniques of planting, fertilization, and rotation which make use of what otherwise might be regarded as ‘waste’. The mission piggery up the road a bit provides gas fuel, for lighting and for the stoves on which are cooked meals for dozens of mission personnel and dependants.  Cottage crafts are encouraged.  There are laundry, cleaning and clothing repair facilities.  And that by no means exhausts the number of activities.
There are probably many more Buddhists and Hindus than Christians employed by or dependant on the mission – but all are working for the good of all.  Of the many “Utopias” I have read, SASAC has realized their best hopes – without any resort to force.  And who is responsible for this extraordinary feat?  A Nova Scotian Jesuit, Fr. J. Murray Abraham and the many gifted lay persons he has inspired, enthused and empowered.