My time in direct service to the peasants in Nicaragua, that is. On March 1 of this new year, I will step away from my role as Chief Executive for Winds of Peace after thirteen years.
In 2005, WPF Founder Harold Nielsen had been stricken with pneumonia (at age 90) and was hospitalized. I had just retired from leading the company he founded in 1948 and he asked whether I might help out by overseeing the Foundation for a few days, until he had sufficiently recovered. I did so. And within the first days of substituting for him, I knew that this was the work that I wanted to do. I drove to Rochester, Minnesota, where Harold was hospitalized, wondering to myself how I might gracefully interject my services into his small foundation. But when I entered his room, he was sitting up in bed and spoke almost before I could say hello.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said (true to form). “This illness has really hit me hard. It’s getting harder for Louise (his wife and Foundation co-founder) and me to travel to Nicaragua all the time. Maybe it’s time to pull back. Would you have any interest in taking over the work?” And that quickly, I received one of the great blessings of my life.
I entered the role knowing almost nothing about Nicaragua, beyond a visit I had made there at the close of the Contra War. in 1990. I knew of its poverty and something of its victimization by the U.S. over its history. But I did not know the people, I did not comprehend the rural sector where we would work, I did not appreciate the obstacles that an entire element of a nation’s populace must face for survival. I had moved from for-profit to non-profit over the course of a few days. The only thing I knew about development was how to spell it. I neither spoke nor understood Spanish and its nuances. Yet the work was compelling. And so was the learning.
I learned that a meal of rice and beans is fulfilling. Not just for my hunger, but for its plainness and, in a small way, how it makes me feel tied to the life of the peasant producers with whom we work. It is simple food that nourishes in ways that fancier food never will.
I learned that, given my many inadequacies, I am utterly lost without the skill to talk directly with those I so deeply admire. Translation is wonderful, gestures are limited but fun, but the sidebar conversations and off-the-cuff comments are elements in relationships that I crave. The limits of who I am both required it and prevented it.
I learned that regardless of how much one reads and studies, if one’s objective is to understand others, there is no substitute for personal immersion in the lives of those to be understood. Being in Nicaragua is not enough; an understanding of the realities of peasant farmers simply is not possible without being among them. I have been blessed to have had work which allowed me that opportunity. (I have wondered whether this might not be a valuable lesson for most of mankind.)
I have learned what it feels like to be utterly dependent on someone else. Having work histories which promoted ideas of self-control and leadership of others, I struggled to learn personal lessons of followership. I relied upon others for my language, transportation, processing of experiences, meals, accommodations, and virtually any other needs that occurred during my visits. It provided me some insights about the feelings of peasant producers who have had to rely so heavily upon outside funders, an unresponsive government and the vagaries of natural disasters. It is discomforting.
I learned that, notwithstanding my long-held view of my own personal privilege, that insight has been significantly understated. There is no rationale, no reason and certainly no deservedness to explain the contrast between what I have and what others so desperately need. To be in the presence of true poverty is to be humbled to one’s knees. I am likely to spend the balance of my life trying to understand this and to discern what I am called to do about it.
I learned the lesson that Harold Nielsen so fervently hoped that I would learn all those years ago when he provided me the opportunity to represent Winds of Peace. Harold would offer the wish that I “would become infected” with the outrage and despair of fellow human beings living in sub-human conditions. Harold got his wish, and I became sick over the truth of the poor.
So, thirteen years later I still cannot speak the language. But I learned a lot….