Weekly Local Biography

  Fr. David Townsend


David 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 meaning.

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 limited.

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.