At the beginning of the 19th century, President Jefferson ordered two Army officers to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, dubbed the Corps of Discovery, began in 1803 and traveled up the Missouri River, across the mountains and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. They returned to St. Louis successfully in 1806 without losing a single man. (One man died shortly after leaving Missouri of a burst appendix.)
How do you get a crew of 30 men traveling by boat through hostile territory without losing a single man? The answer is in establishing relationships, notwithstanding the providence of God that saved them from grizzly bear attacks and runs down the white, foamy rapids of the Columbia River. This vast territory was inhabited by dozens of tribes of Native Americans, each having carved out its own tribal boundaries that were defended fiercely. Each had its own language and customs. The only common thread was their religion, centered on monotheism, but each had a slightly different approach. Is this starting to sound familiar?
Knowing they had to retrace their route back to St. Louis, at each stop or encounter, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis established a relationship with and the respect of these peoples. So what is a relationship? In short, it is establishing a lasting trust between two parties and maintaining that trust through understanding.
I am reminded of a talk by an Air Force Officer on his deployment to Afghanistan. He was a graduate of the University of Nebraska and specialized in hydrology or irrigation. He was sent to Afghanistan to tell the farmers a better way to farm. But many times new is not better. Sent to an area he described as a beautiful rolling fertile land surrounded by mountains, they grew squash, beans, corn and the most delicious fruit he had ever tasted. (Poppies are only grown on the barren non-productive soils.) He took note of the open trenches terraced into the mountainsides carrying water from the distant melting snows.
Halfway through his first lecture with the tribal elders, he was interrupted by one and invited to come view their methods of irrigation. With a stick, the man punched a hole in the side of the trench carrying water and let it flow down to the thirsty crops below. When enough water had flowed to the plot below, he sealed up the hole with mud and moved onto the next plot. Planting the crops was timed to coincide with the melting spring snows.
That night, the man rethought his mission. These people had been doing this for thousands of years without wells, pumps, pipe or skilled labor. Thus began a relationship through understanding.
It would be naive to ignore the opposing elements that make such acts impossible: intimidation, fear, greed, forced behavior, jealously, corruption and unwillingness to understand. Unfortunately, all these elements will always be in the world in which we live. But like a fire with no fuel, sooner or later they will die out. The trick, of course, is to know when to defend ourselves and when any relationship is possible. Aggression, revenge and war never offer palpable solutions. In the mid-19th century, the cotton South was in dire economic straits. If the North, with all its industrial capacity, had put its might into the mechanical cotton picker — invented in 1850 — thereby making cheap labor unnecessary, could a war have been averted?
Maintaining relationships is always important. My entire working career was spent in a business atmosphere. The times I remember most and the times that were most successful were when a relationship existed between people. One of my first jobs was managing a Massey-Ferguson Implement dealership. After the initial contact, I went out to their farm, just to visit or demonstrate a piece of machinery. Then with a follow-up periodically, we developed a friendship. It was fun. Several years ago I participated in a church program called “Reunion.” In that program, I remember three reasons people joined a particular church. They were friendship, family and fraternity, in that order. I’m sure today this is still true, not only with the church but with many aspects of life. It’s all about relationships.