A delegation of BPFNA members, staff and friends is on a Friendship Tour to Nicaragua through August 24. BPFNA Program Coordinator LeDayne McLeese Polaski shares the group's experiences and her own reflections in these dispatches....
August 21, 2008
The Final Dispatch
We have come to Nicaragua to study Conflict Transformation. If we had tried to design a exercise for our group to test and practice our theories, we could not have created a better experience than what we have gone through today.
Earlier this week we met with Sixto Ulloa who is the government's Human Rights Ombudsman, a member of the First Baptist Church of Managua, and an active supporter of the partnership of Evangelical (Protestant) Churches of Nicaragua. At the end of our time together he offhandly mentioned that he had thought of asking Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to meet with us but that it didn't look as if our schedule would allow it. He said he'd look into it, but that again, it did not look likely.
We didn't really expect anything to come of Sixto's comment, especially as the week wore on and we heard nothing. Then came the word this morning that it had been arranged for our delegation to have an audience this evening at 5:00 p.m. with President Ortega, his wife Rosario, leaders of all the Protestant denominations, and other pastors and religious leaders.
Unfortunately, we had already scheduled an event with Second Baptist Church of Leon at the exact same time, and Leon is over an hour from Managua. Second Baptist has a long-term sister church relationship with BPFNA Partner Congregation University Baptist Church (UBC) of Minneapolis. Three members of our delegation are involved with UBC and have been eagerly anticipating this time with the people of Second Baptist. Far more importantly, the church had been preparing for our visit for months, inviting all the children for whom UBC provides scholarships along with their parents, and planning a dinner, a worship service, and a program celebrating the partnership.
If we wanted a situation of conflict to test our growing understanding of conflict transformation, we had it!
There was no way, of course, to walk away from our commitment to Second Baptist. And yet how do you politely decline an invitation from the President? And what are the consequences for doing so?
Sixto*, aware of the scheduling conflict and our indecision, came by personally to plead with us to delay our trip to Leon and come to meet with the president. He explained with passion that this was the first time an Evangelical group had been invited to meet with the president since his reelection (Ortega is about a year and a half into his current term.) He felt it was vitally important that we not only go but that we represent well the Protestant church's long-term commitment to living out the gospel alongside the poor and marginalized people of Nicaragua. Our presence, which would be well-publicized on radio and television, could make a real difference in how people regarded the church of Nicaragua. He explained the context and the realities of this time. Some new churches have begun to tout a gospel of prosperity, a cruel joke in the face of the immense number of Nicaraguan people made poor by decades and even centuries of neglect and abuse. Other churches have moved away from a gospel of liberation, a gospel of good news that makes a difference for the poor in the midst of their lives right now. How crucial, Sixto reminded us, that we go and speak a different a word -- a word from a God who cares for the poor and the
circumstances of their lives, a God who calls for peace rooted in justice.
Sixto also quickly agreed to our request that, if we came, we'd be allowed to invite representatives of the groups with which we have met throughout our time here, poor and oppressed people who are working with hope and creativity for change. Sixto departed, asking that we contact him within an hour with our answer.
The conflict we faced was thick and tangled. Each one of us felt torn within, and different members of the group felt strongly even as they felt the tension within that we should act one way while others felt just as strongly that we should act the other way. Of course, we had to admit that we were drawn in by the glamour of it all -- we admitted this as sin and acknowledged that it played some part in our thoughts and feelings. Truly, though, we were far more drawn in by the idea of speaking directly to the Nicaraguan people about the God we believed in. We knew that the people of power might or might not hear or take seriously our message (though, of course, we had to speak it to them), but we thought that at least some people in the listening audience might be heartened by hearing a word of a caring, compassionate God who seeks justice. We were also thrilled at the possibility that our new friends in Nicaragua, the people from whom we had learned so much, might benefit from this unexpected access to the president. Perhaps the connections they would make would actually make some real difference in people's lives.
And yet -- what of our friends in Leon, preparing even as we deliberated for our much-anticipated arrival?
We spoke the agonies, hopes, and fears of our hearts. We shared our own conflicted thoughts. We listened to one another. We cried together. We wished that we had never been confronted with this choice. The hour came and went and still we had not come to any firm conclusion.
And then delegation member Deidre Druk spoke. We had been going around in a circle for a long while, giving each member of the group a chance to speak, hearing each other out. Deidre, a member of UBC, happened to be at the end of the circle. She said, "I think that the language we use as we make this decision is important. Language shapes reality. We've been speaking of the possibility of splitting our group and no one feels comfortable with the idea of splitting. Perhaps we ought to speak not of splitting but of having one part of the group go to Leon and one part of the group stay in Managua for the meeting, each group fully representing the other." We could feel the tension dramatically decrease as Deidre spoke. Though we had no sudden resolution, her reframing helped us all immensely. With a bit more interaction we were finally able to come to a group consensus -- five would go to Leon and five would stay for the meeting. We decided together who would go and who would stay. We also decided that we would reconvene in Leon no matter how late it would be before we all managed to make it to the hostel where we'd be spending the night.
We held a short, powerful commissioning in which each group commissioned the other to represent the body of Christ in each place. Doug Donley, pastor of UBC, led the delegation to Leon. I agreed, on behalf of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, to head the delegation going to the meeting.
Those of staying in Managua felt keenly a sacred responsibility to use our time faithfully and with integrity. We realized that we were being invited into a situation in which we had limited control. We realized that our motives and our presence could be interpreted and misinterpreted in many ways. We realized indeed that we could not even pretend that our own hearts and motives were completely pure. The opportunity did not lay easy on our hearts.
We spent the afternoon preparing. We met with David Parajon, an American Baptist missionary who, along with his wife Laura, runs AMOS, a ministry of health and hope which provides health care to poor rural communities. AMOS is our host organization here in Nicaragua, and in our interactions with David this week, we have recognized him as a person of wisdom and integrity. As a native of this country, he knows far better than we do the context within which we are acting. He led us through a process of discerning what we wanted most to say.
We invited a representative from of each of the groups with whom we have met here in Nicaragua to join us in the meeting. We were hopeful that the meeting will further their causes, but we knew that might not happen. In any case, they have been the face of God for us here and we wanted to honor that at the very least by having them present with us.
We prayed and requested prayer. In a message to the BPFNA board of directors, I wrote:
PRAY FOR US please that we may enter into this situation with positive and peaceful intent, that our presence may faithfully represent the God of peace whom we follow, that we might respectfully be alongside our Nicaraguan sisters and brothers, that our words and hearts and actions and spirits might be faithful to the God who suffers daily here in Nicaragua, the God who continues to move among and within God's people here, the God who allows people to continue the struggle with hope and even joy. Pray that we will have integrity.
We also sent a fervent plea to the people of Second Baptist in Leon that they pray for us as well.
Throughout the afternoon, all of our friends urged us to keep our expectations low. It was not impossible that the president would cancel at the last minute. We might not be given any opportunity to speak. If we were allowed to speak, we might be politely cut off after a minute or two. The representatives we had invited might not be allowed in.
Finally, the hour came to go. Some of our invited guests went along with us, others planned to meet us there. Everyone was allowed in. The security process was relaxed and informal (it has been a long while since I experienced that in the US!) Our guests expressed deep gratitude, even amazement, at being allowed this opportunity. We waited a long while for the president's arrival. When he and his wife entered, it was with little fanfare. They then walked around and personally greeted each and every person in the room. I delighted to see Sulema, the head of the women's sewing cooperative, conversing with the First Lady. Sulema had come prepared -- she presented Rosario with a t-shirt made by the collective, a letter, and a petition! Witnessing their encounter made me feel very sure (for the first time) that we had made the right decision in accepting the invitation.
The formal program began with hymn singing and then the president spoke. We have no way of knowing his heart, of course, but his words were passionate and powerful as he spoke of the call of Christians to make a difference in the world, to make decisions that benefit the poor. He's a politician, of course, and he spoke some of the work of his party to do the same. Yet for the most part he did not campaign or tout his own or his parties' horn -- he instead spoke movingly about the deep needs of the world and the deep calling to governments and people of faith to respond with compassion.
After that speech, Sixto said, "And now LeDayne Polaski from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America will deliver a message to the Nicaraguan people." Now there's an introduction that comes with a bit a pressure!
And so I did speak and, remembering the prayers that were being lifted up for us, managed to do so with little nervousness. (See full text below.) I presented to both Daniel and Rosario the same BPFNA Christmas ornaments that we had given to each person with whom we'd met during the week. I offered with them a prayer that their work might truly create God's way of peace. Afterwards, Daniel and Rosario spoke personally with each member of the delegation (cameras flashing and multiple microphones thrust into the middle), so each person was able to speak some word for peace and justice.
I was interviewed by Radio Nicaragua which had carried the entire event live. They asked me to speak a message of peace to the Nicaraguan people. We also had some great conversations with other invited guests -- the highlight for me being a conversation with the female pastor who heads the Moravian church of Nicaragua. (She had been at the head table along with the female Lutheran bishop of Nicaragua so that of the fifteen people at the head table, three were ordained women!)
After the flurry, we departed in the AMOS minibus to rejoin our friends in Leon. They called by cell phone from the hostel to tell us that the event was being broadcast on television and that they were gathered in the bar watching us.
Our group reunion when we arrived in Leon was powerful. The Leon group told wonderful stories of the event at the church -- games with the children, the presence of the beaming parents of the scholarship recipients, a moving worship service, a simple meal lovingly prepared, the passionate prayer they had lifted for us in Managua in English and in Spanish, Doug's impromptu sermon (no one had let him know that he was the event's featured speaker). We told the stories of the Managua meeting not conveyed by the television. As we told and retold the events of the day, it became clear to us all that our conflict had indeed been transformed and that being forced to make the decision had actually been a great gift.
What an amazing evening. What an amazing day. Thanks be to God.
LeDayne McLeese Polaski
BPFNA Program Coordinator
Greetings to Daniel Ortega and the People of Nicaragua
I bring you greetings from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. As the Peace Fellowship, we are citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; yet far more importantly, we are citizens of the realm of God. As such, all of us gathered here tonight are members of one
We believe in a God who aches at the suffering and injustice of this world, a God who calls us to stand in solidarity with all those who have been made poor, a God who calls us to seek the liberation of all people.
We in particular are Baptists who seek to join God in God's on-going work for peace rooted in justice. And we gladly join with all who share that mission -- for what is the Gospel if not good news for the poor?
Mr. President, I did not know you were a preacher! But you have spoken as a preacher tonight -- speaking movingly about the deep needs of the world and the mission of Christians to address those needs.
I would like to tell you a little about our delegation. We have come to Nicaragua as students. We have come particularly studying Conflict Transformation and in that context, we have encountered many wise teachers who, thanks to the graciousness of your invitation, have been able to join
us tonight. I'd like to introduce you to our teachers:
Altagracia, Guillermo, and Leonardo represent the victims of the pesticide Nemagon and lead their fight for justice.
Yamileth represents Hope in Action which creates just working conditions and living wages for artisans through fair trade.
Sulema is the leader of the Macili Textile Cooperative which has allowed many women to pursue their dream of creating new lives for themselves. Sulema especially spoke to our hearts when we asked her what has sustained her over many years of hard work and she replied, "We have our children."
Also with us tonight are Sarah from Jubilee House, which works to support sustainable development in Nicaragua, and Laura and David Parajon, who through their work with AMOS provide health care for poor rural communities.
Again, I thank you for the gracious invitation that has allowed us and these our teachers to be present tonight.
Some of our teachers are not able to be here tonight but we want to honor them.
We lift up the nonviolent witness of Vicente Padilla who works for the rights of peasant farmers and all those seeking to defend their rightful claims to their land and the youth of Cantera who in Cuidad Sandino work to create love, respect, self esteem, and community among their peers.
We thank you for honoring the power and importance of their stories by receiving them tonight. We are grateful, deeply grateful, to them and to all those who have in their hearts a true concern for and a true commitment to the struggle for justice.
We have come to Nicaragua seeking peace, justice, and transformation and we have received this great gift -- in our sisters and brothers, we have seen the very face of God. Thanks be to God!
Presentation of BPFNA Ornaments:
On behalf of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, I offer these small tokens -- the same tokens we have shared with all our Nicaraguan teachers. They come with our prayers and our blessings upon your hands, that your hands might truly create the ways of peace.
August 20, 2008
Cuidad Sandino is a section of the city of Managua designated for the resettlement of people made homeless by emergencies. Wave after wave of families have arrived following floods, earthquakes, wars, and hurricanes. Not surprisingly, it is the most densely populated and poorest urban area of the country. Buses used to transport families to this area are labled "Permanent Emergency Zone", and we're told that Ciudad Sandino is indeed a permanent emergency.
It is also an area pulsing with life, a riot of colors, sights, and sounds. Hundreds of people weave among buses, ox carts, human powered taxis and rehabbed US school buses. Dogs, cats, chickens, cows and goats can be seen wandering throughg the streets or along the side of the road. Shocking pink political ads urge people to vote for victory. Entrepreneurial folks run businesses of every possible type, small vegetable stands next to clothing stands that advertise "100% US clothes", internet cafés nestled next to bars that tout one of the two national beers, Victoria and Tona. Among the colors on buildings and billboards is almost everywhere bright red of Coca Cola. Spanish and English words mark brands and products familiar and unfamiliar.
It is easy to see how one small child, one small life, could be lost here. But then we reach Cantera, a youth program in the heart of Cuidad Sandino, a program run in great part by the youth themselves, and we witness the possibilities for hope, love, laughter and peace in the midst of Permanent Emergency. The young people here tell us that they have discovered family here and each one, after a passionate recitation of how Cantera has changed his or her life, goes on to explain what he or she is now doing to pass it forward. They offer karate and music classes, lead cooperative games, host street fairs, do street plays featuring the Giant Woman, a figure from Nicaraguan folk lore, run a preschool and a public library, and much more. Through all they do they seek to offer an alternative vision to the violence so prominant in Nicaraguan society. They speak of and embody a vision of tolerance, acceptance, love, self esteem, gender equality, respect, hope.Clearly they have experienced these values made real here and clearly they are now making them real for others. They call forth gifts from each other, putting older students in roles of leadership and teaching them the skills they need to lead well.
One of the highlights of the morning for me is a spirited game of Conejos y Casas which has us all running around laughing and shouting in our varied languages and voices. Not all of us understand the rules but we do understand that we have connected with one another at some basic human level, laughter being a universal language that we all understand.
After we have heard about their lives and their work, and after we have run around as rabbits and houses, we reconvene for a time of questions and answers. They are eager to hear of our work and so we go around the circle. Some speak of work to prevent or stop the war in Iraq, of BPFNAs education programs for adults and youth and children, of solidarity with immigrants in the US, of training to be peacekeepers for the upcoming Republican National Convention, of hosting strikers in their church, of working with ecumeniacl groups to provide basic human services. The youth listen intently. At the end one young woman observes, Though we are far from you and you are far from us, our energy connects because we are all part of one system. We are all working for peace. We are together.
Indeed it is true. We ARE together, in places as varied as large US cities like Minneapolis and Los Angeles, small US towns, and Ciudad Sandino. Even a game of Conejos y Casas is one small part of the worldwide work of peace. What a privilege to be a part of it.
LeDayne McLeese Polaski
BPFNA Program Coordinator
August 18, 2008
Struggle. I cannot count the number of times I have heard the word in Nicaragua.
Joan Parajon, who has worked here as a missionary since 1967, spoke of the immense losses of the back-to-back wars of the 1980s. "Those years," she says, "were such a struggle."
A government official speaks to us of a desire to have all children attend school. "But," he says, "it is a struggle."
A young man teaching Conflict Transformation at UPOLI, a university begun by Baptists, says that he speaks to his students of the need to begin by imagining another possible world. "But," he says, "because they have seen so much war and violence, it is a struggle."
The workers affected by the pesticide Nemagon tell us of their 15 year struggle for justice. They tell us that the effort has turned their lives upside down. "To continue," they say, "is a struggle."
Men, women, and children wander the streets with heavy bundles balanced on their heads, selling water or mangoes or corn on the streets. Clearly their lives are a struggle.
Speaker after speaker mentions the hugely destructive earthquake of 1972, the wars of the 1980s, Hurricanes Joan and Mitch, and the swift, contradictory, and often hurtful changes of ever-changing administrations. Clearly, adjusting to disaster after disaster and change after change is a struggle.
I could go on and on, and I have only been here for five days.
Yet, here is the gift I have found. The struggle itself, the human spirit which continues the struggle despite all odds, is a thing of fierce beauty.
This afternoon we gathered at Jubilee House Community. They work in the Ciudad Sandino area of Managua, an area used as permanent emergency housing for wave after wave of people made homeless by floods, earthquakes, wars, and hurricanes. Among other work, they support worker cooperatives.
We meet first with a group of 36 people who are creating a cooperative which will spin cotton into thread. They have worked already for a year and a half, creating their own blocks and slabs which they are now using to build the structure that will house their factory. They will continue to work for some time before they begin to draw actual salaries. When we ask them what difference this work will make, they reply how good it will be to have something to take home to their families. Then they add that the skills they have gained, both construction and organizing, they will pass along to their children and grandchildren. "This," they say, "is their inheritance." The pride glows on their faces.
Afterwards, we meet with Sulema Mena who tells us of the creation of the sewing cooperative for which she works. Starting after losing everything in Hurricane Mitch, these women began meeting under the mango tree at Jubilee House. They had a blackboard, plastic chairs, dreams, and determination. They spent eight months simply listing out all they needed and all they would have to do. The work went on for years before they saw any fruits for their labors. Many women dropped out, unable to trust the hope in what Sulema herself describes as a beautiful project, but not for immediate results. "We were," she says, "building our future." And now she says with a shy but obvious pride, "Everything we talked about under the mango trees has become a reality." "Why," we ask, "did you hold onto hope for so long?" She replies without hesitation, "We have our children."
To be allowed to witness the strength, the grace, the determination to continue the struggle. This is the gift the people of Nicaragua give us daily. Thanks be to God.
LeDayne McLeese Polaski
BPFNA Program Coordinator
The Jubilee House Community & Center for Development in Central America
August 17, 2008
I came to Nicaragua in great part because while I believe passionately in the power of nonviolence, I also know that I have seldom had that passion tested -- no one has ever directly threatened me or my family or the things I hold dear with a gun or a tank. I came here to meet people who have walked through fire and still believe in the power of nonviolent response. I wanted to see if the ideals of conflict transformation stand up to the realities of life within systems of violence.
At church my pastor Amy, after a particularly moving moment in worship, will stand up and say, "We could go home now." After two days in Nicaragua, I feel the same. After meeting peasant farmer and human rights activist Vicente Padilla and hearing the story of his courageous work to defend his rights and those of other indengenous people in the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua, I could go home.
Vicente began with a reading from Micah who, as he said, was also a peasant farmer and someone who, like him, defended the rights of small land owners against land grabs by the wealthy. And then he shared his story....
Vicente has a second grade education. He is a veteran of the revolutionary army. After the war, he and his family worked hard and at great sacrifice bought a small plot of land. Like many fellow farmers, he wanted only to be able to support his family. Wealthy land owners, however, wanted to create enormous coffee plantations and resented peasants such as Vicente and their small farms. One such man in Vicente's area was buying up small farms, often paying a pittance to the farmers whom he lured with promises of wealth that he would share with them. He came to buy Vicente's farm, but Vicente would only sell for a fair price, a price that would enable him to start again elsewhere. The land owner wanted no part in paying what the land was worth. He came with armed guards and threats. Vicente refused to sell for less than fair price.
And so began a struggle that has lasted for the better part of a decade. The land owner has tried every trick and threat possible. He has brought lawsuit after lawsuit. He has persuaded both army and police that Vicente was an armed threat and had him beaten and twice imprisoned -- once along with his 16-year-old son. He has sent men with guns to threaten Vicente's wife and children while Vicente was away. He took part of the land by force and destroyed the crops, threatening the family livelihood. He has paid men to dress as thieves and invade the home. He has threatened neighbors who stood in solidarity. He has brought lawsuits against people who have stood with Vicente. Time and again, men with guns have surrounded the family home.
To all of this, Vicente has resolutely stood firm, always, always nonviolently. "Violence breeds violence," he says. "We have these tools," he explains, "truth, reason, and rights -- also I have a tape recorder and a camera." To face the men with guns, he trained his children to turn on a hidden tape recorder and he says, "I would turn my camera toward the guns." He is a practical man, "If I bring out a gun and they have guns, then one of the guns will be used." He is also a man of deep faith who believes that he and his family are following the way of God.
At the moment, the Padilla family is in possession of the land and all lawsuits have been settled in their favor. They know, however, that the one who opposes them will likely try again in some new way. Yet they carry on, having created a farm that is organic and sustainable, even their farming is intentionally nonviolent!
Vicente has not left it at defending his own rights. He is a community leader. "From conflict," he says, "we can grow in community or we can allow the conflict to destroy the community." He works to train his community in the practical techniques of nonviolence. He serves as a mediator in local disputes. His oldest son, a veteran of the long fight for the farm, is in law school and has been appointed as a local counseler to help people settle disputes by coming to agreement without the courts. Vicente works with him as well. He advocates for the rights of peasant farmers on local, regional, and national, even internatonal levels. He encourages others struggling to defend their land that is possible for the small to defend themselves against the powerful and to do so nonviolently. "Our experience becomes strength for many." He envisions and works for a world in which all people work as he has, using faith and truth to create a new reality.
"Personally I believe that we can transform the world if each and every one of us is working for peace. Evil breeds more evil but goodness brings goodness. It is obligatory that after a night of darkness the sun must come out."
Having stood with the guns pointing at his children and his wife, knowing as he says how to use a gun and how to wage violence, Vicente has chosen nonviolence again and again and again. If I came wanting to meet someone who has been through the fire and emerged with a strong belief in the power of nonviolence and the possibility of transforming conflict, I could go home now.
LeDayne McLeese Polaski
BPFNA Program Coordinator
Vicente Padilla's blog at blogspot.com
August 16, 2008
Sitting in the makeshift office I peer out through the walls made of rope and watch a succession of women and children come to the water spigot. Using old Coke bottles, plastic jugs, buckets, and even what appears to be a former antifreeze container which I can only hope is well-rinsed, they collect water, some with small containers returning several times. The dinner hour is nearing and, no doubt, many are gathering the water they'll need for preparing the evening meal.
From my vantage point I also see shack after shack, just collections of boards covered with plastic roofs really. People mill about...young children play in the dirt...skinny dogs wander by.
The office is clearly the nicest building in the camp and even it, with its rope walls, dirt floor, and single bare bulb, has a ramshackle feel.
Yet despite it all, there is dignity in the faces, especially in the faces of the three men we have gathered to hear.
They tell their devastating story simply. They are victims of the pesticide Nemagon which was used extensively in the banana plantations on which they worked and around which their families lived throughout the 1970s. The chemical was used despite having been outlawed in the US for its clear role as a poison for human beings. They were never warned of the danger and never given the basic protections which might have lessened the impact. Now, however, no one has to tell them of the dangers. They have watched 2000 companions die. Many more are sick: Some with the visible affects of cancers on their skin, some with severe internal injuries. Many became sterile, and those that did not have passed on health problems to their children and grandchildren. The land too is injured, poisoned for the long term.
The suffering is immense. The companies involved, all transnationals headquartered in the US, refuse to act to rectify the situation. Lawsuits have been stymied. For 15 years these people have cried out for justice. So now they are playing what they call their last card, they have marched over 100 kilometers to ask their government to stand with them, to help them. They have camped themselves in a park across from the Nicaraguan national assembly. This last protest - this mass movement with their families to this camp - has lasted two years so far.
Their demands are simple: They want specialized health care aimed at their particular needs and the pensions they are due. So far they have received nothing.
And yet they can give. Of the great gifts of this rich day, the greatest for me has been hearing one of these men say to us sisters and brothers, "We want you to know that we bear you no ill will." It is, as team member Deidre Druk says, a "frozen moment."
Far from ill will, they indeed offer us warm hospitality, a gracious welcome, and sincere thanks for coming to hear their story. As we enter the camp and as we leave, people reach out to us and clasp our hands, offer us blessings, thank us for being with them.
Sitting in my chair looking out through the ropes, I have felt an immense chasm between the reality in which I live and this reality, a gulf between me and these people that I cannot cross. And in three words, they cross over to me, to us. "Sisters and brothers," they say, and I hear in the words a complete sincerity.
To be counted as sisters and brothers. What gift! What grace!
LeDayne McLeese Polaski
BPFNA Program Coordinator
a background article on pesticide use from envio.org
a page of photos and suggested actions by Linda Panetta at Optical Realities