Book Review: Buy This Land, by Chi-Dooh Li

Picture the following scene: Jerusalem is under siege, and she will be destroyed. The prophet Jeremiah is “shut up in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah” (Jeremiah 32:2) because he has told Zedekiah that Jerusalem will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and Zedekiah will be taken into Babylon. Jeremiah is essentially imprisoned, and is in the middle of a siege. The people around him would be starving, desperate. In the midst of this, Jeremiah hears the word of the Lord: “Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours'” (32:7). Essentially, God tells Jeremiah that his cousin is going to ask him to buy his field, a field in a land that is about to be handed over to the Babylonians! Jeremiah knew full well the impossibility of this situation – he knew he would never walk on this land, cultivate it, make a living from it. But in the midst of this situation, he knew that this crazy-sounding instruction from the Lord was a promise: a promise that though God’s people were about to be exiled, they would one day return to their land. God would restore them.

While Jeremiah’s story might sound like a strange introduction to a book review, it is the foundation for the title of Buy This Land, by Chi-Dooh Li. Chi-Dooh Li is a Spanish-speaking Chinese lawyer based in Seattle, and he is the founder of Agros International, an organization that seeks to empower communities to rise out of poverty through private land reform. Practically, this means that Agros International purchases large parcels of land (in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Chiapas region of Mexico), places local families on that land, and gives these families the opportunity to work the land, using the earnings from cash crops to effectively purchase the land from Agros. Through hard work and commitment, families who have never owned their own land are able to become land-owners, an incredible and liberating feat in the countries in which Agros works. In addition to land-loans, Agros helps families with basic housing, clean water, and opportunities to learn about good nutrition, hygiene and health care.

Buy This Land is just as much a biography of Li’s life as it is the story of the founding of Agros International, as the two stories are inseparable. Li’s life is fascinating, and it is clear that God brought Li through years of international experience, education, and unique (and hard-won) opportunities for the purpose of serving the poor through the Agros organization. His Agros dream began in 1982 at a missions conference, when the keynote speaker made an offhanded comment about purchasing land for the poor. Though the speaker referred to this comment as a “parenthesis,” this parenthesis awakened a passion in Li, a passion that led to multiple trips to Guatemala starting that same year.

The story of how Agros came to be, and came to grow to to affect thousands of lives is a story of ups and downs. One of the most significant “downs” came when Li was in Guatemala shortly after a coup which made work in this country much more dangerous and difficult. As Li sat discouraged and on edge in his hotel room, he opened his Bible to Jeremiah 32. A verse about Jeremiah buying a field caught his eye, leading him to read Jeremiah 32 and 33, where he learned about the Old Testament prophet who bought a field during the siege of Jerusalem. The implications of this passage for Li were obvious. By instructing Jeremiah to buy this land, God was challenging the prophet to trust him. To purchase land in such a tumultuous time would seem crazy, but God was calling Jeremiah to trust that one day, his people would return to their land. As Li read Jeremiah 32 and 33 in his hotel room in Guatemala, he came to realize that

“All our dreams to help the poor buy their own farmland may indeed be preposterous, and we may never accomplish what we hope, and we may fail miserably, and we may lose all the money invested in the effort. It may make absolutely no sense to think of buying land in the Ixil Triangle of Guatemala. It may seem like utter foolishness. Jeremiah’s purchase of Hanamel’s land made even less sense. But good sense was of no relevance. This simple real estate transaction had everything to do with God’s redemptive plan for the people of Judah. And just as God had used Jeremiah’s purchase as a sign of future restoration and blessing, so I came to see that night that God could use our imperfect efforts as a sign of His present and future justice and righteousness in a country bound tightly by 400 years of injustice and oppression. We might not change the course of history. But He could” (p. 156).

Buy This Land is the incredible story of the foundation of an organization that seeks to love the poor through private land reform, and through relationships. Beautifully written and tremendously inspiring, I highly recommend this book. Li’s life-story, and the life-story of Agros International, are stories of trusting in the God of the impossible, as He enables His people to help the poor build better lives and experience restoration of their nations’ land, one community at a time.

* Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of Buy This Land for the purpose of reviewing it, but I was not compensated for this review.

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