Archive for the ‘Adam’ category

True Confessions of an MCC Worker

June 20, 2013

MCC workers generally pride themselves on being the most enlightened, culturally sensitive international presence on the block. Whether its missionaries, other international NGOs, or embassy employees; we passive-aggressively  joke about how well we walk with the poor in comparison to these other groups (with the exception of Catholic nuns) and we tend to use the most respectful and humble language to talk about what we do in other countries around the world.

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Every MCCer begins his or her term with phrases like “accompaniment”, “mutual transformation”, “walking alongside”, “your liberation is bound up with mine”,  “relationships are what really matters” and other such self-effacing thoughts bouncing around his or her head. Talk about results and measurable change is only whispered behind closed doors. This humble way of looking at what we do is probably the main reason I chose to work with MCC over other organizations. I believe an honest look at history teaches us that international involvement in countries from the Philippines to the Congo to Chile to Nicaragua hasn’t really worked out so well for native peoples. Hence our need to be intentional about what we do and realize that if we’re not careful we can easily cause more harm than good.

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So, in light of those words of praise and recognition for the humility with which we strive to work alongside our brothers and sisters in foreign lands:

Why do I FEEL so FREAKING SUPERIOR all the time??

The truth is it’s pretty dang (excuse all the euphemisms) hard to be humble. I don’t know if its my college education, U.S. cultural influences, or my religious enlightenment; but I often find myself feeling smarter and just plain better than the people that I live and work with —

Taking a shower or eating a pineapple at night makes you sick?
Haha, how quaint.

The devil is making so and so do such and such? The Simpsons are full of diabolic symbols that are corrupting our kids?
I stopped believing in that stuff years ago.

I know I didn’t come here thinking I was going to fix things and you all certainly know your own context infinitely better than I ever will; but just do it my way and I promise you’ll get better results!

How easy it is to become the know-it-all North American that I so loathed during MCC orientation!

The truth is I am very proud to be working with MCC and of the way that Marisa and I have tried to walk humbly with our God and with our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters over the past three years. After three years I can say that I have experienced such ethereal things as “mutual transformation” and still maintain the belief that building good relationships is probably the most important part of our work.

Ugh, but the intense desire to see concrete results, the need to base my self-worth on my accomplishments, and the feeling that my advanced education and more “modern” science-based mind make me superior to others often gets in the way. Certainly I have much to share and give, but I have just as much if not more to receive. Its something that I’m struggling with and hoping that more often than not my way of being matches all those pretty words.

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People to Remember – Margarita

June 11, 2013

IMG_0336_2As Marisa and I begin to think about heading back to Virginia at the end of July, we want to take some time to remember and honor the people here in Nicaragua that have made our three years so wonderful.

It’s only right to start with our Nicaraguan host mom, Margarita, as Nicaraguans are fiercely loyal to their moms. From the first day in her home when I accidently walked past her room before she was fully dressed and totally embarrassed myself, I knew we would have a close relationship. It was just one of the funny, awkward (probably the most awkward) experiences that happen when you live in close quarters with a new family in a new culture, but the unknowns lead to vulnerability, which opens the door for true relationship.

Margarita, in many ways, is the archetypical Nicaraguan woman; she has lunch ready for her husband and his employees at noon everyday, she keeps a clean, tidy house, she a devoted member of her local church, and she loves her children dearly. She is happy to have her two adult children living in her house and continues to care for them even now that they’re in their 30’s and she is raising he 12 year old grandson as if he were her own.

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However, as we have come to learn, once you really get to know someone they begin to break the categories and stereotypes that you tend to label them with and become complex, unique individuals. Needless to say, Margarita is much more than a traditional Nicaraguan housewife.

Margarita smiles as she tells the story of her time working in a U.S. owned garment factory during the war soon after she was married. Even though the U.S. government was funding the counter-revolutionary war that had her husband in the northern mountains fighting his own countrymen, she fondly remembers her friendly American boss, proudly proclaims that she never missed a quota on the number of jeans she had to sew, and laughs as she remembers the volleyball games they played during their lunch breaks.

Margarita is also a savvy business woman and when she and the other members of their transportation cooperative found out that the president was embezzling huge amounts of money, she helped lead the way to forming a new cooperative where the profits would be shared equally among members.

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In many ways Margarita adopted us as her own kids during the 8 months that we lived with her family. I will always be extremely grateful for those times when she noticed how tired we were from trying to adapt to new work routines, the heat, and a new culture and went ahead and mopped our side of the house as well as hers or invited us over for dinner so we didn’t have to cook. Perhaps the thing I’ll remember most about Margarita are the mornings we spent talking over the breakfast table during our first weeks in Nicaragua. Even though she probably had a million things to do that day (cook, clean, iron, run errands, pay bills, etc. ) she would sit at the table and talk with us as if there was all the time in the world and never gave any indication of being in a hurry or needing to do anything else. She never made a move to leave until Marisa and I said we had other things to do. This incredible lesson in hospitality and prioritizing people and relationships is one that I will carry for the rest of my life.

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A Simple Easter Reflection

March 24, 2013

The following poem written by Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, resonates deeply with our experience over the last two and half years in Nicaragua and seems especially significant during this Easter week.

El siguiente poema escrito por la poeta Guatemalteca, Julia Esquivel, hace eco con nuestra experiencia durante los últimos dos años y medio en Nicaragua y me parece especialmente significativo durante esta Semana Santa.

Compartir                                                                       To Share

Compartir de vez en cuando                          To share from time to time
con los amigos                                                  with friends
un poco de pan y vino                                      a bit of wine and bread
es compartir trabajo y vida                             is to share work and life

Compartir ese mismo pan                              To share that same bread
con el costado herido                                      with a wounded side
es compartir                                                       is to share
lucha, muerte, y resurrección.                      struggle, death, and resurrection.

Thank you, Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, for sharing your bread, your lives, your struggles, and your wounds with us and in that way sharing as well resilience, hope, resurrection, new life. We are deeply honored. We will never be the same.

Gracias, hermanos y hermanas Nicaragüenses, por compartir tu pan, tus vidas, tus luchas, y tus heridos con nosotros y de esa manera compartir también resiliencia, esperanza, resurrección, nueva vida. Nos honran profundamente. Jamas seremos igual.

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How to Heal?

January 21, 2013

Nicaraguan psychologist, Martha Cabrera, writes that Nicaragua is a “multiply wounded country.” Indeed, anyone over the age of 40 has experienced both man-made and natural disasters; harsh dictatorship, revolutionary and civil war, devastating earthquakes and hurricanes. The majority of the population suffers from economic poverty and recent rates of violence against women led congress to pass a law against Femicide last year. On a local level people are seeing an increase in illegal drugs, an increase in gang activity and organized crime, and a loss of the social cohesion and family values that have for so long held their communities together.

So, in the midst of all this suffering, what is the role of the church? How can the church be salt and light in a context of trauma and violence? These questions and challenges are ones that the Anabaptist Peace and Justice Commission, my (Adam’s) MCC partner organization, has been posing to local Mennonite and Brethren in Christ congregations during “Reflections for Peace” seminars over the past year. These reflection times are designed to encourage churches to respond to the Biblical call to be peace makers and work for social justice following the example and teachings of Jesus.

Two new churches have responded to this call and spent over 2o hours in training workshops in 2012 acquiring new knowledge and skills to be able to transform conflict non-violently and educate others on violence prevention. In addition to this, the Peace and Justice Commission has continued to support and offer our expertise to two churches that received training in past years and have putting their skills to use through projects directed toward marginalized members of their community.

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The Brethren in Christ Church in Reparto Shick, Managua has been working over the past 3 years with at-risk youth in their neighborhood, some of which have been involved in gang activity. The church holds monthly meetings with the youth where they talk about a variety of issues such as improving family relationships, self-esteem, a healthy view of masculinity, healthy sexual behaviors, etc. They also visit the youth’s families on a regular basis and this year began organizing soccer games to provide a healthy past time for the kids and a way to talk about important values such as teamwork and cooperation.

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The Brethren in Christ church in Villa Libertad works to keep kids in their community healthy both physically and socially by providing children lunch and a peace education lesson twice a week.

How does a “multiply wounded society” begin to heal? Obviously there are no easy answers and the process is a long a difficult one, but churches getting out of their comfort zones to show love and care to the most vulnerable members of their communities seems to be a good first step.

Advent Reflections from Central America

December 7, 2012

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The Advent/Christmas season has become an important time of year for me in recent years. Growing up Chistmastime was always a highlight of the year, not only for the presents but also for the family time that drew us closer to one another.

More recently I feel like I’ve been rediscovering the “Christian” side of Christmas. Giving presents and being with family is good and important, but Jesus came for much more than that.

Here I want to share a few reflections inspired by people from Central America that have be significant to me at the start of this advent season.

I have recently had the Kyrie from the Nicaraguan Peasant Mass running through my head and it struck my how similiar the themes are to the Song of Mary (Magnificat). They both yearn for a world in which oppression ceases and peace reigns on earth, where the mighty who rule without mercy are brought low and the poor lifted up. I’d like to imagine that we could all meet somewhere in the middle.

Nicaraguan Peasant Mass Kyrie:

Christ, Christ Jesus
Identify with us
Lord, Lord my God
Identify with us.
Christ, Christ Jesus
be in solidarity with us.
Not with the opressive class
that exploits and devours
the community
but with my people
thristy for peace.

The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise:

46 Mary responded,

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
47     How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
48 For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
49 For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
50 He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
52 He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
54 He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
55 For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.”

Luke 1:46-55 NLT

May the celebration of the birth of the Messiah give us hope, and awaken in us a desire to see the words of Mary and many Nicaraguans come true.

What my life would be like if I were (part two)…

October 26, 2012

… a Nicaraguan recycling worker.

I would wake up before dawn each day to get to the trash bags left out on the sidewalks before the trash trucks do. Nicaragua has no formal recycling system, instead hundreds of people make their living picking through other people’s trash to find pieces of recyclable material. On trash collection days it is common for us to hear people going through our trash and look out to see a man or child with a hug bag full of smashed plastic bottles or aluminum cans. According to an article from 2004 in one of Managua’s main newspapers, La Prensa, recyclers can get about 4 cents for a pound of plastic.

Whatever gets missed by ambulant trash sifters gets sorted out at Managua’s municipal dump, La Chureca. An estimated 10,000 people live in or around the dump and subsist by picking through trash for recyclable items to sell, material that they can re-use, and occasionally food to eat. This article gives the example of Ana Flores one of the thousands of workers in the municipal dump who on a good day can earn about $7 from selling the recyclable material that they collect, but the average Nicaraguan “Churequero” makes only about $2 a day. Check out our fellow MCCers (Kevin and Cassie Zonnefeld) blog post about the La Chureca dump.

A third recycling job involves collecting scrap metal. Trucks that seem like scrap metal themselves comb the city streets anouncing over portable loud speakers, “Scrap metal, scrap metal, we’re buying scrap metal. Old rims, old fans, old matresses.” Any unwanted piece of metal seems to be fair game. The scrap metal is then sold to recycling plants. In 2011, Nicaragua had an income of 60 million dollars from scrap metal exported as raw material.

This reality, people who struggle to survive day after day by going through my trash, has made me stop and think before I throw something away. Marisa and I have learned to bag up our plastic and aluminum seperately from our other trash to make it easier for people to collect. I now find myself pausing at the trashcan in our kitchen wondering if someone else will be able to use something that I have determined to be useless.

Who Owns the Lake?

May 31, 2012

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Traditional Nicaraguan fishermen

This well-known axiom gives us some insight into different ways of thinking about development work.

Many times our initial response to the problem “this person lacks food” is a simple one “let’s give him a fish”. However, eventually we realize that if we give him a fish he will only “eat for a day”. So, instead of identifying the problem as a lack of physical resources (food, housing, infrastructure, etc.) we move a little deeper in our thinking, “I will teach this man to fish”, and hopefully, with his new skills, he will “eat for a lifetime”.

However during a classroom discussion, my sociology of international development professor added a new line to the saying that challenges the axiom and the theories of development that undergird it:

“BUT… eventually we may need to ask ourselves, ‘Who owns the lake?’”

This last phrase challenges us to rethink and re-identify the roots of the problem.  Is it possible that the problem doesn’t lie in a person’s lack of physical resources or in their skills to make a living and feed their families? Is it possible that the problem lies elsewhere, perhaps in the way society is structured; maybe the man has his net and his boat ready to go but the lake is “private property”?

Never did I imagine that one day this theoretical discussion in a university classroom would become a literal one that I would experience in real life.

That’s a picture of me near the beginning of my three-year MCC term, posing as I jump off a 10-meter high dock  into the pristine waters of the volcanic crater lake Laguna de Apoyo at the hotel and restaurant “La Abuela”. Our MCC team had a “fun day” at the restaurant and spent the morning and afternoon lounging in the sun, doing crazy stunts off the dock, and landing in the deep, cool water. “La Abuela” is a place I’ve returned to many times since and is a popular tourist spot. When you can have a delicious lunch and spend day relaxing on the banks of a beautiful lake for under $10, how could anyone resist?

Fast-forward a few months. In my work with my MCC partner, the Anabaptist Peace and Justice Commission, we were invited by a rural Mennonite church to do a workshop on Conflict Tranformation and reflect with church members on why violence has become something seen as “normal” by many Nicaraguans.

We started out the workshop brainstorming all the ways we saw violence manifest in the local community. As church members shouted out their ideas I was surprised when several people mentioned “privatization of natural resources” and “limiting access to public land” as violence. In most workshops overt violence, like spousal abuse or gang violence, are the first things mentioned, while structural violence, like denying someone access to resources they need to live, is often not identified as violence.

I was curious about their responses and inquired as to what people meant by “privatization of natural resources.” The church members began to tell the story of the lake. The community where the church is located, along with many other small pueblos, surrounds the Laguna de Apoyo. For generations these communities have survived off of the lake, depending on its fish as an important source of food for their families. However, with a rise in tourism to Nicaragua and the ideal position of the lake between two popular tourist cities, the land along the edges of the lake is quickly being sold to private investors who are building beautiful lakeside hotels and restaurants.

View of the La Abuela lake-front cabanas and dock.

Much to my shock they continued to describe the latest concern over lake access, which involved an establishment called “La Abuela”. Many years  ago this eco-hotel had obtained permission from the local residents to use a public access road as an entrance to the hotel, but now La Abuela was claming the road as her own and not allowing locals to pass through, severely limiting their access to the lake.

Needless to say I did not mention our recent MCC outing to “La Abuela” and was glad that no members of this rural church were my friends on Facebook.

Local citizens protest outside of Hotel La Abuela. This picture and other information come from this El Nuevo Diario article

As the workshop ended we did a new brainstorm, this time to think of ways of responding to the violence we see all around us. Several church members were excited about organizing with other local churches to speak to their elected officials about the lake access problem while others were reluctant for the church to take such an active role in “political” activities.

While in the end the church decided not to officially take up the cause, this event was representative to me of the many challenges that NGOs and governments face in their development work.

It is common for NGOs to focus on income generation projects, equipping people with new skills and techniques to help them make a better living for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, NGOs may never ask the question, “But, who owns the lake?” and therefore ignore one of the root causes of poverty, which historically in Latin America has been grossly unequal land distribution and more recently limitations to access to natural resources because of privitization.

In the same way,governments have turned to tourism as a source of revenue for the county but have neglected the fact that this new income often stays in the hands of the few and has other unitended consequences such as denying local fishermen access to the lake they depend on to survive.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. BUT… eventually we may need to ask ourselves, ‘Who owns the lake?’”