Deb Norton and Jonathan Sledge are longtime members of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz who live in Raleigh, NC. They are members of Pullen Baptist Church, a BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz Partner Congregation. Deb works as a medical doctor in Raleigh and both are involved with AMOS Health & Hope, an organization ran by missionaries Drs. David & Laura Parajón, that "exists to improve the health of impoverished communities in Nicaragua by working alongside them in health, education and development." As both were children of missionaries, Deb and Jonathan have traveled for much of their lives. Deb grew up in Kenya and the midwest United States while Jonathan spent his childhood in Peru and Louisiana. Both have lived in Raleigh for about 30 years.
BPFNA: Where did you two meet?
Deb Norton (DN): Well I went to Binkley and he went to Pullen, and they had a joint spiritual life retreat, so that’s where the meeting occurred.
Jonathan Sledge (JS): It was where the spirit moved. So Deb was living in Chapel Hill and I was in Raleigh, and we’ve been married for about 22 years now.
DN: I made sure he had my phone number before we left and I made sure I had his too. We both go to Pullen now.
JS: I hear about it every time from the Binkley folks, how I stole one of their members.
BPFNA: What brings you to Mexico this week? What are your hopes and expectations?
JS: An important piece of it for me is that I was on the BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz board and part of the Summer Conference planning group the year that we made the decision that in 2017 we would be in Mexico. I knew it would be a challenge to pull this off organizationally and important that, if I felt that strongly about it, then I needed to be here. We planned from the beginning that we would arrange our lives this year so that we could come. Both of our lives have been about border crossing in one form or another, and this is another way of putting that into practice.
DN: For me it's pretty much what he said, and also I really enjoy coming to Mexico. Many of my patients are from Mexico and I like learning about Mexico. The other thing I hope to get here is the time to listen to more people in more depth. It seems like in regular life it’s very busy and I don’t sit down very often or get myself in a space to listen to the longer version of people’s stories. People tend to only give the short version of their stories and apologize if they give a long version and here I’d love to hear the long version.
JS: Another reason is that I could tell early on that this would be a different kind of experience than Summer Conferences that have been pretty heavily US or US/Canada-centric in terms of content. Here, a few workshops might be led by people from the US and Canada, but the majority of the content would be from Latin America. That really attracted me to think of ways to bring those resources to our communities in Raleigh. I think our world and our context there, our church community, feels to small. It’s too homogenous in a way. I’m trying to think of ways to expand that.
BPFNA: Has there been a moment this week where you’ve thought, “This will be helpful back in my own community”?
JS: The workshop where they talked about the organization Red Crearte and how that organization is producing liturgical materials that are free with no licensing or copyright. I would love to tap into some of those resources. Sometimes when we travel with our church group to Nicaragua we’re often looking for Spanish songs we can use, and we have about three or four that we fall back on all the time. It can feel like a rut. I noticed a lot of the songs we're singing this week have a very Taizé type feel to them. Simple melodies and a simple message but not trite.
BPFNA: Will you talk some about your work and what drives your passion for peace and justice?
DN: Well, I’ve heard that the things we’re most passionate about, our voices break when we start talking about them, so I learned to start watching for when that happens to me because sometimes you have so much on your plate that you don’t hear your true heart interest. For me, I’ve found it’s usually something about everyone having healthcare. My job in the States is to provide basic women’s healthcare, and I also work with AMOS. I love working with AMOS because they really inspire all their workers with the stories of Jesus, they don’t use it as something to beat people up with. They really work at building their team of healthcare leaders and work to support them so then those healthcare workers can give the same love and respect to their communities. Often people in a lot of contexts in the world are served by healthcare workers who may not be very caring or as responsible because they’re not being supported. To be a part of something where the role of people are empowered to build and improve their own communities while getting the tools to do that is very exciting to me. They’re also working to educate healthcare workers, who have been mostly from the US, but now they’re starting to improve the education of healthcare workers in Nicaragua. This is something the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health has said it wanted to do, but it doesn’t have the resources to make sure everyone knows the protocols and puts them into place, so AMOS is making sure those protocols are done. Being part of something like this that’s done so well and with so much intention in taking care of and respecting people, it’s exciting.
BPFNA: Has there been a major challenge to providing this educating for people?
DN: A lot of it is finding resources. If you try to do it on the cheap it doesn’t last very long. And one of the things they’ve found is that if you put it in place and then leave, there will be a vestige of it years later and people may remember some of what you taught them, but for the health outcomes to really change, it needs to be continually supported. It’s not something to where you wind the clock and then it winds down, you have to constantly be winding the clock.
BPFNA: How often do you get to Nicaragua?
DN: I’m on the board so I go down once or twice a year. We also bring a group from Pullen down every 1-2 years.
BPFNA: Did you introduce Pullen to this group or was the relationship already there?
JS: David & Laura Parajón, American Baptist missionaries who run AMOS, came to Pullen for an initial visit. We met them and were excited about what we heard. Deb in particular because of her background felt a real kinship with them. The two of us with one other person who was also a physician made an exploratory trip to Nicaragua to see what it was like. It was prior to the founding of the AMOS organization. They were still working with a predecessor organization at the time. By the time AMOS was founded, we were ready to be on board with helping with some of the initial strategic thinking and planning.
BPFNA: How has BPFNA been important to you and/or your work? In what ways can BPFNA support you in your work?
JS: Well, I would say that when you start going down the road of justice work among Baptists its a pretty small pool of people. You start running into the same people everywhere you go. There are so many interesting overlaps. I was reminded while we were here, Adalia Gutierrez was born in Nicaragua and was mentored by Gustavo Parajón who is David Parajón's father. And then I meet Adalia on the BPFNA board. So that’s one middle link that connects people together. Doug Donley and David Parajón were college roommates. So the circle is tight. Another interesting connection at Pullen, and it connects this year with being here, is that Paco Riveras was the previous pastor of First Baptist Church of Matanzas prior to Orestes. In the 1970s he traveled to Nicaragua to study for Seminary, and he lived with the Parajóns for a while. There are so many intertwinings of various strands - points of ministry and places of passion for us - that connect all these people in different ways. In many ways Peace Camp brings a lot of these disparate people together in the gathering itself. It helps create the networks and sustain the networks over time. That’s one of the points of BPFNA is this gathering. I think that’s a strong way that it supports our work.
BPFNA: Any ideas for future Summer Conferences?
DN: If you ever do a conference that has a community development theme, having David and Laura Parajón come to present would be a good thing. Their model is based on community empowerment and helping communities to achieve their own goals. I think that’s a big part of peace and justice work.