During a rare and quiet moment in Nicaragua last week, I had occasion to meet casually with a longstanding partner of ours who stopped by Mark’s office to drop off a report. Alfredo is part of our partner PRODESSA, a group which has done an exceptional job in bringing social science to the issues of community development and empowerment. Alfredo is always interesting to hear from, and on this occasion he even favored us with some Nicaraguan humor. Here’s what he shared:
“There is a joke that Nicaraguans sometimes tell on themselves. It seems that when St. Peter reached the gates of Heaven, he found himself in conversation with God about Creation. St. Peter marveled about all of the beauty and blessings bestowed on the various lands of the earth. When St. Peter commented on the subject of Nicaragua, he paused for a moment and asked God whether perhaps He had made a mistake. ‘Lord, You created a land of mountains and lakes, volcanoes and forests, a growing land bounded by two oceans. Surely these were too many blessings for one land.’ God simply nodded at St. Peter’s observation but replied, ‘Yes, perhaps, but wait until you see the people that I put there.’”
The story was funny because it was told by a Nicaraguan who is passionate about his people and their circumstances; I suppose (and hope) that people like Alfredo, who are able to see humor in themselves, authorize those of us outside the reality to laugh at it. But I am always uncomfortable laughing at the plight of others, in whatever light it may be cast, and this story made me reflect on its punch line in a different way.
“Wait until you see the people I put there,” indeed. The people of Nicaragua are special. While they have enjoyed the natural beauty and resources of their lands, they have also withstood its natural upheavals. Eruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes serve as historic markers for most Nicaraguans, points in time and place from which they measure personal and current events. Perhaps more importantly, they have survived unnatural upheavals, as well, adapting to the incursions, invasions, and interferences of outsiders throughout their history and to the present. Contrary to what the punch line implies, Nicaraguans did not somehow single-handedly mess up Eden-on-Earth. For that they have received ample assistance from outsiders (notably, regretably, all too often, from residents of that other Eden to their north.) Contrary to what the punch line intimates, God did not place people in this land who were hapless, but rather people remarkably connected with their surroundings, of almost unbelievable resiliency, and possessed of forgiveness that is humbling to anyone who might take the time to receive it.
For instance, on Monday of this week I met with the members of the new spinning cooperative, Genesis, at the Nueva Vida site outside of Managua. It’s the fourth visit I’ve made this year, and I’ve been intrigued by the incredible progress these folks have made in actually making the building they are erecting. With a restriction of resources and materials like few of us have ever experienced, the women and men of the Genesis Cooperative have mixed and made concrete blocks, hand-tied structural rebar, hand-tilled and packed the plot of earth for the base, carved a septic cave some 25 feet in depth, and manually mixed and poured concrete for the building beams, which they then set by hand. I have rarely been witness to such courage in the face of daunting odds. And they have been routinely among the most jovial, laughing people I’ve encountered. I love visiting them, and I deeply want to see them succeed. They are remarkable, memorable individuals.
Mid-week I had the opportunity, once again, to be with an Indigenous people who have experienced separation from their land and neighbors, suffered indignation and slander from bullies who see corruption as a management style, and who have tried to make sense of an economic reality that seems only to serve the elite of this world. And yet, in the face of such oppressions, here they were, gathered together in a unity and hopefulness of improvement, creating entrepreneurial initiatives, outlining inputs and outcomes, youth and elders, generating hope and enthusiasm that resides only in people of deep commitment, optimism and faith. I listened to the presentation of four grassroots proposals. As I listened, I had no idea whether any of them would ever receive financial backing from Winds of Peace or any other source. But I will not ever forget the spirit, energy, pride and dignity of the work that was shared. Any company, anywhere, would be proud to claim these people and their determined outlooks.
Later in the week, I took a really uncomfortable ride. Now, the roads or paths that we travel in the rural sectors of Nicaragua are often rugged and cavernous affairs. But that’s not the discomfort that I’m talking about here. In the space of 90 minutes, we passed by no fewer than four sites where North Americans were illegally buying and occupying land, illegally burning and clear-cutting land for personal profit. We passed historical sites from the war years where U.S.-backed Contras perpetrated their share of war atrocities against their enemies, real or imagined. Coming face-to-face with such incidents is awkward under any circumstance; when we chanced upon them seemingly after every turn in the road I couldn’t help but feel somehow complicit. But the Nicaraguans with whom I have met over these many months have not practiced any guilt-by-association. They have repeatedly modeled respect, admiration and regard. They have demonstrated an ability to separate the actions of individuals from indictments of entire ethnicities or nationalities. It’s a characteristic from which we can all learn.
So, I have seen and interacted with the people He put there. And He was absolutely right in his implication to St. Peter, these people are as special as the other natural wonders found in Nicaragua. In lots of ways, they remind me of my friends and neighbors….