Text: John 12:20-26
Hola. Buenos dias. Si. I didn’t venture past those three words this past week and at times I messed those up. But it was an amazing week in Nicaragua and I want to thank you for keeping my planes in the air!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously…to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in [humanity’s] life and goodness.”
I was reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words as I sat in the village of El Bejuco in Nicaragua wondering what I might say to you today about my trip. In those first days of being in Nicaragua the temptation in my thinking was to try and separate out the God moments from the “other” moments. I could feel myself trying too hard, focusing on the insoluble questions of life—those of suffering and pain and ultimate meaning. I wrote in my journal that first night:
I feel the tension already that I have felt in other places—Haiti, Cuba, Russia, and Tbilisi. It is the tension between gratitude and guilt—gratitude that I live in America, the land of plenty; and the guilt of having so much. I am reminded of the words in Luke’s gospel: “To those who have been given much, much is required.” Why can’t all people—everywhere in the world—start with a safe place to live, enough food to eat, and care for our bodies? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Who am I in this world and what is the meaning of my life? What does it all mean and how does God fit into this picture? [It didn’t help that I had taken along Tolstoy’s A Confession and Other Religious Writings to read in my down time.]
As you can tell from my journal entry that first night, my thinking was heavy and I was struggling to feel present in the moment. My desire to “reserve some space for God” was crowding out my ability to experience God. On the second night of our journey, during reflection time, I remembered Bonhoeffer’s words and I resolved to set aside my need to try to bring God into the moment and instead to simply experience where I was and the people around me. It is from that place that I want to share with you some reflections about my trip.
The purpose of the Pullen delegation to Nicaragua was to help our partner organization, AMOS Health and Hope, build water filters in the rural community of El Bejuco—a community where other Pullenites have gone. For those who may be new to Pullen, our church has had a partner relationship with AMOS since 2005 through ABC missionaries Drs. David and Laura Parajon. The mission of AMOS is to improve the health of impoverished communities by working alongside them in health, education, and development. AMOS’ vision is clear and focused: health for all people, a world where no child dies of a preventable disease, and effective and empowering health care in local communities. Currently, one of AMOS’ major projects is helping rural communities, where poverty is extreme, have access to clean water.
To our surprise, our group was not the only group that arrived in Nicaragua a week ago this past Friday to work with AMOS in helping the community of El Bejuco have access to clean water. Three college students from The Ohio State University—Dheeraj, Shuvro, and Adam—along with Kathleen, a graduate student from California and program director for a non-profit company called Global Water, were also in Nicaragua to help with the clean water project. While we were a bit surprised that others would be joining us on the project, our surprised paled in comparison to theirs when they learned they would be joining a group of Baptists from North Carolina in building and distributing water filters in El Bejuco. What are the chances that nine Baptists, two Hindus, one Jesuit, and a young woman who was raised by hippies and has a passion for surfing and humanitarian work, would join up in a rural community in Nicaragua with the same mission and purpose? That story alone is amazing. For now, I will simply say that we were deeply inspired by their passion and character. And as they gathered information about our church they were in total disbelief that a church like Pullen existed in the world. Throughout the week, as we shared our different faith traditions with one another, fought through the daily struggles of heat exhaustion and upset stomachs, talked about our various hopes and dreams and passions, worked with the amazing people of El Bejuco to build and install water filters in over forty homes our two groups became one; and I didn’t have to “reserve space for God” to be reminded that doing justice and loving compassion is about building relationship with those who are different from us, yet the same.
As we prepared for the trip to Nicaragua, several in our group were focused on the work we would be doing, the contribution we would be making in the communities, and the goals we would have for the work. Those of us new to this kind of mission asked questions like, “So, how many filters are we supposed to build while we’re there?” “What exactly are we responsible for?” and “What are the goals of the trip?” In response to these questions, Jonathan, Deb, Phil, and Don, who have all travelled to Nicaragua and worked with AMOS before, would explain that the work was important, but that our real value on the mission was our presence and the relationships we would form with AMOS and with the community members. Once we arrived in Managua, Dr. David, as David Parajon is called, reiterated this idea. AMOS’ work is fundamentally about relationships—the relationships that AMOS builds with the community, the relationships that the health promoters they train build with their fellow villagers, and the relationships that those of us from other parts of the world build with the community. I listened and watched as members of the group struggled to reconcile this shift—that their presence was more important than their work, and that relationships were more important than quantity goals.
I want to be clear, AMOS is about setting and meeting goals. You see, AMOS has already planned for how all of the families who want filters will receive them. But AMOS understands two critical things about this work: first and foremost the community must own the project and therefore must be hands-on, and second that if the visiting delegations focus too heavily on the numbers, they miss the moments. So AMOS tries to constantly reinforce that we, the visiting delegations, are to do the work alongside building relationships. And they put us in work teams with AMOS staff and with local villagers so that we have the opportunity to do that work of building relationship.
Which brings me to Miguel, Lester, and Electario. Miguel is a 27-year-old Nicaraguan who has worked for AMOS since he was 20. He got connected to the work through his church and Gustavo Parajon, the then-pastor of First Baptist of Managua and David Parajon’s father. Miguel is a city boy who loves to surf and who has very little in common with his countrymen who live in rural, remote villages. And yet, I watched this young man walk in and out of a dozen homes and put people at ease. He entered the poorest homes and still managed to offer dignity to the hosts through his own gratitude and humility. He never communicated through his manner or his words anything but respect for the people he was there to serve.
Along with Miguel, there were two villagers on my filter team – Lester and Electario. Both are locals who have agreed to learn how to build and maintain the filters, and to continue the work of installing once the delegation is gone. In reality, the goal of the delegation is to ensure that the locals are ready to build and inspect the filters, not to build them directly. Neither Lester nor Electario speak English, and as you well know, I do not speak Spanish. That first morning, there were lots of awkward silences and smiles as we bumped along in the back of a pickup truck to get as far down the dirt road as we could before we piled out to begin to hike to the houses, often miles off the main road. In the first few houses, Miguel took the lead while Lester, Electario, and the Pullen folks mostly watched. But by the third house, Electario was the one doing the building, and by the end of the day, these two men were almost independently building the filters. It was a great piece of work by AMOS to set up this transfer of knowledge and authority. But honestly the most amazing part of that morning was seeing how our language barrier melted away, and how through this work together, I began to actually tease and laugh with these hard-working young men. Once again, I didn’t have to “reserve space for God” to be reminded that doing justice and loving compassion is about building relationship with those who are different from us, yet the same.
One of the most profound moments of the trip came to me during our Thursday morning devotion, which everyone working on the project attended, including some of the community people and the AMOS staff. I had introduced the practice of lectio divina as a way to read scripture and then I read the Beatitudes. After a time of contemplation, I asked if anyone would like to share what word or phrase stood out to them from the reading. Tonio, one of the AMOS doctors, repeated the phrase, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Then he said, “Those who mourn are those who cry out at injustice. Blessed are those who cry out at injustice, for they shall be comforted.” What a thought. The mourners are those who cry out against the injustice in the world. He was speaking of God, not at the boundaries, but at the centre; not in weaknesses, but in strength.
My last journal entry before leaving Nicaragua reads:
A few thoughts on the human condition…we are all looking for a place to belong and be loved. Everyone, no matter where you go, is looking for hope and for the resources to make dreams come true. We are all looking for connection—connection with others who share our hopes and dreams. All of us bruise and bleed, feel joy and disappointment. Is there a center to the human condition? I think so and I believe it is finding something that you can give your whole being to. It is that something that you are willing to lose your way of life for in order to go beyond yourself.
What do we have to lose in order to be willing to go beyond what we already know or what we think we know? Bonhoeffer writes, “God’s ‘beyond’ is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of [knowledge] has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.” I wonder if what most of us need to lose is our reluctance to building the kind of relationships that require us to mourn—to cry out at the injustice in our world?
This past week, I learned from eight other Pullenites, two Hindus, one Jesuit, one surfer/humanitarian, and a whole host of Nicaraguans that when you are willing to go to the middle of the village—that place where relationships are built—you don’t have to reserve space for God. God is already there. All you have to do is open your heart to the people around you. In Nicaragua, I learned that when you live in the middle of the village you don’t have to find God, God finds you.