Townsend, S.J., grew up in a perfectly respectable family in a
perfectly respectable town near London in the United Kingdom.
After that, nothing was the same. He resisted a feeling that he
should become a priest for a very long time, even after he
entered the seminary. He resisted it so much that he finally
decided he would not leave the seminary unless he was tossed
out, and just waited for that to happen. It didnít. Very
interestingly, he discovered an interest and a talent for
counseling, a talent that the Jesuits soon put to use with young
people who were searching for their way in life.
Despite what he will tell you, his empathy
for the human condition and his skills in helping other people
find their way has simply never gone away.
He nearly left the seminary several times,
but a novice master saw more in him than he saw in himself.
After 11 years of formation, he discovered that he is simply a
ďbloody awful teacherĒ and that his real interest is in
helping people develop the resources that may be available to
them while they sort themselves out. Part and parcel of that
development is the human search for a spiritual dimension. He
spent the next eleven years in spirituality retreat work, and
says that there are common themes and needs between people from
east and west when they begin to question their lives. ďIs
That All There Is?Ē the song asks, and Father David agrees
that the answer to that question fuels the human search for
He is the Pastor of the English speaking
community that attends Sunday morning services at the Seven
Fountains Spirituality Center on Huay Kaew Road, one of four
priests on the permanent staff there. This is a Jesuit retreat
center, but being a Catholic is not a requirement for
participating in a retreat. Itís not even a requirement for
attending services. And while there are forty rooms for
residential retreats, non-residential retreats are also
possible. I am impressed with the number of people who are
quietly walking around the beautiful gardens the afternoon I
visit. The center is on a busy road, but itís quiet and lovely
here, lush with the green of tropical plants. The traffic of
Chiang Mai seems far removed.
In 1991 Father David took a sabbatical and
went to Arizona for a few months. There was an artist as well as
a priest residing in him, and he wanted to encourage that part
of his spirit. He painted, dabbled in stained glass and made
jewelry. He knew that this would be a different kind of
sabbatical, and he found great pleasure in taking classes that
were sponsored by the local college. Restored and refocused, he
returned to his lifeís work.
He went to Malaysia and worked with the
Vietnamese Boat People. This was where he began to gain
expertise on the sometimes-insurmountable problems of refugees.
In Nepal he worked with refugees from Bhutan. In Bangkok he
worked with urban refugees, and managed a refugee education
program. He has often spoken of refugees that he knew in the
past; their successes bring him great joy. He says that they are
generally straightforward people, lacking in duplicity. He
appreciates that quality. I am brought up short when he says
that he is writing a letter for a Bhutanese refugee that he knew
years ago. The man has no birth records, no school records, no
way of documenting who he is and where he his home is. Itís
difficult to fathom that loss of identify. So Father David is
documenting when and where he knew him, and this will give him a
chance to qualify for refugee status in a western country.
I, too, have worked with refugees but the
settings and the resources were very different. The refugee
social services program at my agency in the United States had
vast resources compared to those operating in the camps in any
developing country. The refugees were not, of course, wealthy,
but they had access to a small income and health services,
counseling and education. And always, they had the almost
certain knowledge that their children would have a better life.
For many refugees, and the Jesuits work with refugees all over
the world, their past is gone and their future is inhumanely
Father David left Bangkok and came to Seven
Fountains. He returned to spirituality work. He considers the
human spirit to be part and parcel of every dimension of life,
an elusive mystery, one that cannot be touched but is certainly
felt. He says that a divine presence underlines all of life and
can be a strong force for good. We talk about organized
religion, and I tell him that I know a lot of religious people
who arenít very happy. Father David observes that happiness is
as elusive a quality as spirituality. Finding joy in life
depends on the focus of the person. A focus on self may reveal
the negatives in the self. A focus on something larger may allow
people to experience great joy. They are words to remember.
I learn about the externally focused
activities at Seven Fountains. There was certainly an active
response to the tsunami, an outpouring of concern and donations
as there is to any disaster. But there are ongoing activities
also Ė scholarships for tribal children, an annual clothing
drive to help provide warm clothes in cool weather, old
fashioned suppers to raise charity dollars. Groups announce
charity events, concerts and lectures. The congregation hears of
births and deaths, illnesses and recoveries, often about people
who were once a part of the community but have moved on.
But donít think that Father David is all work and no play.
His sense of humor is evident as he laughs with members of the
congregation after services. This is an international group
representing many countries, and he is at ease with them. And
they are at ease with him. Heís walking the walk.