Paul E. Ellis Jackson
University Congregational Church
February 5, 2017
“Making Space – Progressive Christian Convictions: Post-Colonial Mission Work”
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor,
and take taxes from him of wheat:
You have built houses of cut stone,
but you will not dwell in them.
You have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many your offenses,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the just,
who take a bribe,
and who turn aside the needy in the court.
4 Hear this, you who desire to swallow up the needy,
and cause the poor of the land to fail,
5 Saying, ‘When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath, that we may market wheat,
making the ephah[a] small, and the shekel[b] large,
and dealing falsely with balances of deceit;
6 that we may buy the poor for silver,
and the needy for a pair of shoes,
and sell the sweepings with the wheat?’”
“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Walk with me to Chacraseca, Nicaragua….down the dusty streets beside cinderblock homes and plastic lean-tos. Walk with me to Chacraseca, past the Madrono trees in whose branches sit the colorful Guardaburranco birds singing their incredibly complex song. Walk with me and listen to our footsteps crunch on the dry ground and remember how in 1992 Hurricane Mitch swept through and there was 3 feet of water rushing everywhere you can see–rushing for days….Hurricane Mitch, whose legacy still haunts these roads.
Walk with me to Chacraseca and wonder at the beauty of this land. Marvel at the volcanoes in the distance, some that belch forth thick black smoke and sit there, fuming, waiting their chance to pour forth hot lava…the molten earth that always seems ready to roar forth in this land of hot-tempered revolutions. Remember with me the history of this land and its people. How the people rose up against the tyranny of colonization embodied by the Somoza family and how they followed Augusto Caesar Sandino into revolution. Remember with me how our own country, the United States, insisted on meddling in the affairs of the Nicaraguans and how we funneled money to the Somoza family and decades later we continued to supply the Contras, who fought viciously against the Sandino revolutionaries—the Sandinistas. And all because we didn’t want another Cuba in this hemisphere. Another country the U.S. couldn’t control.
Post-colonial discussions are difficult for us Gringos, I think, because some of us know of our complicity in the degradations inflicted upon indigenous populations. It’s tough to admit that we both love our country on the one hand and dislike the policies and actions of our government on the other. But these are two very distinct and separate thoughts. We can love our country—which I do, very much—and also dislike what our leaders do. And we should not be afraid to speak out against those leaders—especially when those leaders profess to hold Christian ideals that we cherish but then act in ways that do not reflect any form of Christianity that is familiar to us. But thus is the long history of the United States of America—manipulating religious beliefs for political ends. It’s been this way from the beginning and it continues to the present—and I doubt very much that it will cease anytime in our future.
Walk with me to Chacraseca and walk with me through the gates surrounding the community building, the Casa de Paz and smile as we walk by the small community store. We know the story of that store already, how it was built by well-meaning North Americanos, but nevertheless, sits mostly empty. Built as a library…but built on sacred ground…because the church group that visited and built the library didn’t bother to engage with the people of Chacraseca as equals and discern their true needs…but instead visited and said; we know what’s best for you. It’s what we do—we’re from the U.S.A.—we’re problem solvers. And we’ll do what we damn well please, because we know better than you what you need. One of our trip guides, Leslie Penrose, who has spoken from this pulpit, shared with us her favorite quote on solidarity: “Solidarity is dreaming someone else’s dream WITH them, rather than dreaming our dream FOR them.” And we often heard Leslie ask of the Nicaraguans: “What is your dream for Chacraseca?” So the ingenuity of the people of Chacraseca has turned a small section of the un-asked-for building into a community store. And it’s quite successful. I bought a Fanta there and it was ice-cold and thirst-quenching.
Walk with me to Chacraseca and sit beside me on the porch of the Casa de Paz–The Peace House. Sit and watch with me as the children of Chacraseca gather to show us the dances of their ancestors. Watch with me as they fuss over their CD player and get the track they want to use queued up just right. Watch them in their traditional garb as they, tentatively at first, and then slowly more boldly, begin their dance. Marvel with me as the dance builds in complexity and as we begin to understand the story that is being shown to us. The story of people, subjugated for centuries by Europeans, but taking that oppression and making it their own. Adding their indigenous mezisito (mixed heritage) themes into the colonial Spanish pieces. A tapestry of dance that is at once unfamiliar and yet still reminds us of all of these things…people struggling against their oppressors—then and now. People crying out for justice. People dancing with joy and with lamentation. People who are “made poor” by our international system of finance where some nations of humans are declared producer states, like Nicaragua, and others are declared consumer states, like the US. And each nation requires a minimum standard of living to do just that—produce or consume. And wonder what chance of fate landed US on this side of wall and OTHERS on the opposite side of that wall. And still the children dance. They dance because their bodies embody that which cries out for these things in all of us. Humanity joins in the dance of the children of Chacraseca on the porch of the Casa de Paz. We dance for peace! We dance for justice! We dance for life!
Walk with me on the next day as we visit the schools of Chacraseca. We know how after the great wins of the Sandinistas in the late 1980s there began a time of prosperity and hope for the Nicaraguans. We know how they invested greatly in programs of education and built schools all over their country. We know how they established requirements for all of their citizens to become literate and active participants in their newly founded socialist democracy. So we find ourselves on this hot morning walking together past school buildings that are usually filled with the children of Chacraseca, but they are on break in January. We’re told that all of the teachers are gathered in nearby Leon attending workshops and meetings as they prepare for the soon-to-begin semester. We’re told that Nicaragua manages; somehow, to pay its teachers, but that there is no money to pay for supplies. We’re told that JustHope, the NGO we work with on humanitarian projects in Nicaragua, has a list of over 250 children that are unable to attend school this upcoming semester because they lack the funds to purchase the required materials—paper, pencils, a back pack, school unifroms—all of the things we take for granted. Sure, the children could attend, but they don’t—who wants to show up to learn and not have the necessary tools to do that learning. Who here would want to go to any class unable to take along a pencil, some paper, even a calculator for math? It’s cost only $50 dollars to outfit a Nicaraguan child for school each year. $50 dollars.
How is it that the country finds the money to pay its teachers but can’t buy books—can’t buy a film projector—can’t pay for lunches (the local families take turns proving simple meals for the students)? And then we remember that something has happened to the revolutionary dream of Sandino. The dream that was embodied in Daniel Ortega, who had become the first democratically elected president of Nicaragua. We remember that Ortega himself has fallen prey to what happens to so many revolutions throughout history. Ortega and his administration have come to mirror the previous regime in some ways. But before we can call out a judgment we are reminded by a kind Nicaraguan that no one blames Daniel Ortega –that they understand the pressures that he is under. That it is still preferable to the life they had under the Somozas…the disappearances, the torture, the cloud of death and oppression. We had toured the jail cells under the Somoza compound earlier in the week and we shiver as we recall the stories of hideous human depravity that played out in those cold stone rooms. The brutal dictatorship of the Somoza clan is not that far from their memory. And so we forgive Daniel Ortega and any similarity he may have to the past.
We are also reminded that because the United States (which basically runs the International Monetary Fund) requires that Nicaragua service the interest on its IMF loan before it pays for any of its own needs. And we are also reminded that even though the International Court of Justice found the United States guilty of War Crimes when we mined Nicaraguan harbors during the Contra wars, we refuse to honor that debt and pay Nicaragua the fine they are due. A judgment that if we paid would more than wipe out the debt that Nicaragua owes to the International Monetary Fund. But, no, our government prefers the slavery that this system keeps perpetuating. Nicaragua pays its “payday” loan to the IMF, and then with whatever is left over struggles to pay its energy bill, or its medical bills, or its teachers.
In Marcus Borg’s book, Convictions: How I learned What Matters Most, he reminds us frequently that God is passionate about the poor and oppressed. He wishes all Christians actually paid attention to the Hebrew Bible prophet Amos who calls for economic justice for all humans. Amos’ words are a stinging “indictment of the domination system that emerged under the monarchy in ancient Israel.” (169.) Our own country, the U.S., has the greatest income inequality in the developing world and this gap has been growing for the past 30 years. The rich keep getting richer. I heard it prayed in Nicaragua that the U.S.A. NOT bring its economic woes to Nicaragua—and yet the woes are there. It’s tough to balance as desire for the material promises of U.S. culture with economic justice. It seems that everything about U.S. culture screams the idea: “I got mine—who cares about you?” So of course there are prayers that that system not migrate to Nicaragua. When an entire nation, ours, yells fervently “We’re the greatest country on the planet” don’t you think our neighbors hear that? And don’t you think after repeated yelling and promoting of this disputable “fact” people actually begin to believe it? The allure of the “American Dream” –and let’s not forget that Nicaraguans are Americans too…Central Americans—let’s stop hogging that word and start using United States as our descriptor—The allure of the “American Dream” is so great and promises so much and yet we routinely see that promise fail to deliver. It delivers for some, but not for the ALL that we pledge in our routine recitation to our flag—we say “liberty and justice for all—we don’t recite “liberty and justice” for those who look and think like us. All means all. And if you don’t believe that then perhaps you ought to stop reciting it? Maybe? Just a thought. Your words matter. They matter very much. Let’s start really thinking about the words we use and say.
So, walk with me to Chacraseca and delight as we are joined by a young man from the community, so sweetly dressed in his finest black pants and green shirt, anxious to show us gringos his corner of Chacraseca. We had learned earlier that this young man, Rodolfo, aged 17, is gay and hopes to attend nursing school in the fall in Leon. He has great dreams. His English is very good and he tells us about his corner of the world with great pride—the families and the work they do, the beautiful little church that we tour, humans going about the daily activities of their lives. We learn about the differences in the 13 sectors that make up Chacraseca…not unlike learning about all of the different neighborhoods in North East Wichita. This neighborhood over here mostly survives by selling tortillas that the women make each morning—and we gringos have an opportunity to try our hand at this surprisingly difficult task. In another sector, most of the people there work in the various “Free Trade Zones” that have sprung up between Leon and Chacraseca. Jobs they are grateful to have, they pay a decent wage, but jobs that are cruel by our standards. No sick leave, no restrooms breaks, one 20 minute lunch break during your 12 hour shift. You work 6 days a week and you can’t complain, because if you do, there are hundreds waiting to take your job—so the folks of Chacraseca who work there are just grateful to have work that pays. Or the next sector where the men get by with subsistence farming and taking odd jobs here and there—chopping down the ever-present Yucca trees or working on pouring cement for a floor for a family—an act that can extend the lives of the people of that family many years—a cement floor can be the difference between dying in your 30s and living to your 60s in Chacraseca.
Then, too, sit with me as we join in one of the community meetings which take place every Tuesday morning on the porch of the Casa de Paz. And watch as this community of humans works together to build a better life for each member of Chacraseca. Where they struggle to decide, democratically, what to do with their limited funds: do we build a new house for a family of 7 living in a plastic lean-to? Or should we provide a cement floor as I said earlier? Or open a new medical clinic for the far side of the community? Or send one of the dozens of deserving young people to university in Leon? Tough decisions decided each week by the representatives of each of Chacraseca’s 13 sectors—5 from each sector—who need your prayers every Tuesday morning at 11 A.M. I do it—I have a reminder set on my computer and my phone and every Tuesday morning at 11 A..M. (we’re in the same time zone as Chacraseca) I send up a prayer, good wishes, positive thoughts, for these people who still have so much to teach me about living in community. Who’d have ever thought that this privileged Gringo, me, who of course knows what is best for the Nicaraguans, because I’m from the U.S.—and it’s what we do! I have so much to learn from this beloved community and I anticipate returning there again next January and then as often as I am able for the rest of my life—to learn, to work side by side, to be in relationship with my new friends and to dream the dream of Chacraseca. Chacraseca means “dry plantain plant” and the dream of Chacraseca is to make it rich, verdant, green. To make it into Chacraverde—from dry plantain plant to green, vital plantain plant. This is the dream of each child who lives in Chacraseca. Chacraverde—green, lush, alive.
Then walk with me as we leave Chacraseca and Nicaragua. Walk with me as we return to the United States—to our incredible abundance and opportunity. Walk with me and recall the last words said to us as we departed this beloved community. Remember when one of the leaders of the community took us aside and in response to the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus tells us that when we care for the “least of these” we are caring as if for Jesus. This community member said words to me that I pray I never forget: “Don’t you dare make me one of the ‘least of these’. I am no one’s ‘least’”.
Walk with me to Chacraseca, hear the children laugh, hear the music ring out, see the good work being done by a faithful community of humans, and be haunted by those words: “I am no one’s ‘least”.
Borg, Marcus. Convictions: How I learned What Matters Most. New York: HarperOne, 2014.