Tag Archives: Accompaniment

Making Sense of the Senseless

Nicaragua.  I’m astonished at the turn of events that has wracked the country I have come to know over the past 13 years.  I read about places where I have traveled, remember fondly the warmth of the people I have met, recall the beauty and awe of the land, and then must imagine those same images against a backdrop of grief and gangs, barricades and bullets, hatred and horrors.   I am saddened, but only feel a fraction of the despair that my Nica friends must be experiencing.  Indeed, I cannot begin to comprehend what Nicas are going through in this time of upheaval.

The context raises the inevitable questions that accompany every instance of political unrest: how could this have happened?  Can there be, in fact, any reasonable understanding of what has led to the unraveling of an entire society and system?

They are questions that I have found myself asking about circumstances in the U.S., though understandably in a different context.  There are significant differences, but many similarities: a society that is fractured; an overriding unwillingness on both sides of the divide to talk of compromise; massive protests against the government; claims of government abuse of power; calls for the removal of a sitting president; alienation of other nations by virtue of nationalistic postures.  The list goes on, and so does my wondering.

In the shadow of the current impasse being experienced in Nicaragua, the Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) at Augsburg University is offering a “virtual course” on the crisis there, designed to delve into the competing historical narratives each side uses.  The analysis will allow participants to assess the validity of their application today, and  deepen an understanding of the perspective of each side.  For anyone who loves Nicaragua, who has been enriched by the place and its people, it can be a course of immense clarification and understanding.

But in addition to gaining a better understanding of the crisis in Nicaragua, my own hope is that it might provide me with some insights into the dysfunction which currently grips the U.S.  I do not require reminders about how enormously different our respective histories and developments have been; I know them well (as well as some of the intersections between us which figure into the Nica problems significantly).  But I have moved within the two cultures significantly enough over recent years to have acquired a perspective which asks whether many of the same factors might have been at work in each.

I’m interested in  the CGEE course about current Nicaragua in and of itself, to help me understand what has happened in that beautiful place, and why.    But I also have a secondary motive, which is to find some further insights about what has happened in this beautiful place, and why.

I guess I feel like I owe it to someone….

My Time Is Running Short

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….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing the Language

I haven’t been back to Nicaragua since last February.  Circumstances there just haven’t warranted a trip.  Ten months seems like a long time when I look at the calendar, but it’s more like a lifetime when I consider how much Spanish language ability I’ve lost during that time.  (It’s loss that I could ill afford; I have referenced my Spanish language frustrations here in past entries.)  It’s true what they say: if you don’t use it, you lose it.   Over the years, I struggled  to understand everything that was being said in conversations taking place around me; now I seem to be pretty well lost.  The loss of ability to converse, to understand, to explain, to empathize, is a disappointing loss of hope on my part to ever be able to speak with Nicaraguans in their own language.

It strikes me that I may not be the only one.

The U.S. government finds itself in shutdown mode once more.  This particular episode seems destined to be of longer duration than the 3- day closing earlier this year or the 16 days experienced in 2013, with the President alternatively claiming “the mantle of responsibility” for himself and blaming Democrats for obstructionism.  The Democrats in return have folded their arms and claimed “no money for a wall.”  On this, the ninth day of the current closure, the sides are not speaking.  They seem to have lost their ability to speak with one another in a common language of compromise.  (Something that members of government are charged with doing, by the way.)

Meanwhile, as I bemoan the shrinking opportunity for me to hear and understand  Nicaraguans, it’s clear that Nicaraguans are suffering from a similar sort of loss.   Theirs is not the loss of words- there have been plenty from both sides of the current impasse- but rather the loss of peace, security, and, in some cases, livelihoods.  In a country which already faces immense difficulties of poverty, natural disasters, economic limitations and a history of international intrusions, the loss of meaningful national dialogue is nothing short of tragedy.  It’s as though the two sides are speaking different languages.

To complicate matters, we live in an age of technology-centered communication, one which seductively encourages the impersonal use of digits in lieu of voices.  Tweets attempt to tell us what to believe as true.  E-mails provide shelter to type things we might never consider saying in person.   Social media permits the replication and amplification of sometimes false or misleading information.  We are told that the digital age should be an assist to language and communications everywhere, yet the modern-day record tells a different story of alienation, mistrust and a growing distance between ourselves and “others,” in locales all over the world.

As a result, perhaps truth and understanding have become qualities that we can only know for personally.  Maybe I can come to know Nicaraguan partners only on the basis of shared conversation, face-to-face, Spanish-to-Spanish (if I ever get good enough).  Perhaps in this country, the tweets of a compulsive prevaricator have to be disregarded and we must  access ideas of substance  from more reliable sources.  And the claims of either an autocrat or a protestor  require affirmation by sources we know and trust and with whom we have spoken.  In short, what we know to be true has to come from  discourse and discernment through common language  If our words have no meaning, then they are no more than empty sounds.

The quality of my Spanish non-fluency diminishes even further with lack of use.  Likewise, the quality of our language- our ability to communicate effectively with fellow human beings- diminishes when not exercised regularly.  Contrary to some modernists, language does matter, whether it’s the diction, the context or the grammar that make up our best efforts to let another human being know our truth.

It’s a new year.  In what is surely a great irony, I pray for the opportunity to return to Nicaragua and to display my utter lack of Spanish language skills. It may be painful but it places me face-to-face with others who also deeply wish to share what they have to teach, what they know as their reality.  Here in the U.S., I hope that the men and women entrusted with bipartisan and compromise governance of our country belatedly recognize the damage that their lack of common language is doing to this nation.  In Nicaragua, I long for a peaceful resolution to the tensions which have ripped apart that country in ways too terrible to imagine even a year ago.

In every case, hope for healing begins in the expression and meaning of our words, and whether they are shared with  any measure of both honesty and compassion….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paying the Price

Now in the fourth month of discord in Nicaragua, there is no end in sight.  Statements and actions of the president indicate no capitulation to the demands of the protesters.  The demonstrators show no weakening of will or purpose in their stand against the government.  Other voices from outside the country weigh in on both sides.  But there are other voices, unheard, who are paying a steep price indeed for the impasse that is Nicaragua today.

There’s an entire population, urban and rural alike, which survives hand-to-mouth in the Nica economy, and the upheavals that have occurred over the past several months have all but quieted those hands.  Tourism, an important component of the economy everywhere in the country, has ceased.  Rural producers, who have labored hard and diligently sought to learn improvements for their yields and their markets, have watched their momentum slip away once again, not due to rainfall or drought or crop infestation, but from politics.  The improved road infrastructure throughout Nicaragua was rendered inaccessible for long periods of time during the protests, as barricades achieved what they sought to achieve: the halt of commerce.  Markets demand goods, and goods must make their way from the farms.  As a result, credit obligations have sometimes not been met.  Materials for a new harvest cycle cannot be bought.  Collateral has been called.  Sources of credit have evaporated.

In the words of Sergio Ramírez, former Vice President for Daniel Ortega:

“The universities have been closed for three months and the high schools as well. 10% of the public schools are functioning, no parent thinks about sending their child to school. Life ends at 5pm, everyone looks to get home. There is no night life in Managua, being out on the street after 6pm is putting your life at risk. Social life has changed a lot, so it is a situation of seclusion.”

This is not a life of vibrant progress, but of loss.

To be sure, some of these voices have joined the chorus either in support or defiance of the government.  But the “silent majority” of Nicaragua, as usual, has little opportunity to speak its reality.  As always, those in the countryside are paying an enormous price for that reality.  The disappointment must be immense; hard work perhaps does not always pay off.   Still, they persevere.  What else is there?

The litany of matters which have oppressed and stalled Nicaraguans for portions of two centuries are long and diverse.  Some were natural disasters. Others were the result of outside forces seeking to own the beauty and the richness of the country.  And often the sources of the inequities and the impoverishment were the legacies of leaders who could not envision leadership without autocracy.  As the saying goes, “There’s always something.”

There is likely a limit to human resilience for most of us.  These is a saturation point beyond which even our tenacity and determination will not permit us to go.  I worry about Nicaragua a lot these days.  I anxious for the lives of those who are on the front lines for a cause in which they believe, for whatever reason.  My heart aches for the places I have come to love in Nicaragua, some now relegated to battlegrounds once again.  But my greatest fear is for the steadfast endurance of those in the countryside, for whom every day is both a blessing to be celebrated and a threat to be confronted.

The number of physical victims in the Nicaraguan turmoil of the past three months continues to grow.  Some estimates have the number of dead at more than 300, the number of “disappeared” at more than 750  and many thousands of others injured from the attacks from paramilitary forces.  No matter what the actual count, the costs have been extensive thus far, with no end in sight.  These are the dramatic affronts that deserve our tears and our prayers.  But the price being extracted is strangling all Nicaraguans….

Boys Will Be Boys

We didn’t know their names.  We hadn’t seen their faces.  We really didn’t know much of anything about them, except that there were twelve soccer players altogether, accompanied by their coach.  They had crawled up into the inner reaches of a cave, exploring with the excitement and energy that 12-year old boys seem to have, when outside rains created rising waters inside the cave, submerging the very passages that the boys had used hours before.  They became trapped.

We all know the story by now, as it became a topic of international attention.  News sources from around the world featured daily updates about the fate of the boys; indeed, nine days elapsed before rescuers even discovered the boys still alive, but each and every day we received updates about rescuers’ progress.  It was no less than a miracle that the team survived so long underground.  And then we waited and watched as rescue teams- made up of Thai, U.S. and other international support- completed the meticulous planning and execution of the rescue itself.  In the end, there was a universal sigh of relief from all corners of the globe that these young lives had been saved.  Maybe the world needed a unified success in something, anything, at this time of extreme nationalism and name-calling.

The international interest and support puzzles me.  I readily understand the empathy and emotional attachment that we feel: imagining one’s own children in such dire circumstances is a nightmare that most parents have, and to which even non-parents can relate.  The anguish and outrage expressed in the U.S. on behalf of children separated from their parents at the border with Mexico demonstrated our ability to activate on behalf of kids.  But the capture of the entire international conscience over the fate of 12 boys astounds me.  There have been and continue to be almost daily events which threaten the lives of children, in many cases far more than a dozen young lives, and for which we show almost casual interest at best.  Sometimes the young lives are lost, and the world takes little note.  Middle East violence has destroyed young lives as a matter of policy.  Syrian war has made no distinctions between use of nerve gas on adults or children.  In Nicaragua, young people are being killed or “disappeared” each day during the current political turmoil, and the world barely knows of it.  What made the Thai soccer team so different for us?

Was it the uniforms?  Was there something about the context of a boys’ athletic team?  Perhaps the difference was due to the nature of the threat: not imposed by politics or other man-made conventions, but rather from Nature herself.  Maybe it’s easier to root for people confronting the forces of natural calamity than to be forced to choose sides in a conflict.  Someone suggested to me that we have a limited capacity for empathy in crises, and that we are more capable of emotion for smaller numbers of victims: we can handle our fears and grief for 12, but it’s much more difficult for, say, 1,000.  For whatever the reason, we seem to pick and choose the victims who we will care about.  It baffles me.  And I feel badly for those other victims who wait for the caress of human accompaniment, prayers and support, even when it never comes.

My reflections over this brought to mind a scene from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” where Schindler is in despair over Jews he could not ultimately help away from Nazi danger, despite his urgent desire to save them:

“I could have got more out.  I could have got more.  I don’t know.  If I’d just…  I could have got more….  If I’d made more money.  I threw away so much money.  You have no idea.  If I’d just….

I didn’t do enough!  This car.  Someone would have bought this car.  Why did I keep the car?  Ten people right there.  Ten people.  Ten more people.  This pin.  Two people.  This is gold.  Two more people.  He would have given me two for it, at least one.  One more person.  I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t.  And I… didn’t.” 

Sometimes conscience is too slow, or too selective, and becomes numbed by the happy drama of boys being boys….

 

 

 

Shadow Steps

We live in an age of walks and runs, and I’m not talking about baseball.  It seems as though nearly every organization will sponsor some kind of event that is intended to get people moving for some bigger purpose, like disease research, feeding the hungry or saving animals.  I generally like the approach of these initiatives, because they involve the potential donor in active ways that money donation alone cannot, and the exercise by itself is a good thing!  But every once in a while, an individual will embark on an undertaking that does not necessarily invite throngs of participants or the clicks of many cameras, but rather demonstrates a kind of quiet commitment, a solitary sojourn to symbolize something important.

A young Korean woman by the name of Kyong Juhn will simply begin to walk.  But it won’t be just another Sunday stroll in the Spring.  Kyong Juhn will commence a journey of 323 miles on foot, starting in Rochester, Minnesota and ending in Bemidji, Minnesota some three weeks later.  The purposes of the trek are several: Ms. Juhn will re-create the long pedestrian migration of her mother from North Korea to South Korea a generation ago, a much more demanding effort; Ms. Juhn will walk, as the event is called, “For Hope and Peace,” an initiative which some may view as naive, but which is something she can do; and finally, Ms. Juhn likely hopes that her pilgrimage will awaken in all who might chance to see or read about her what commitment looks like.

The first rationale of her hike is beautiful in its honor and remembrance of Ms. Juhn’s mother.  I do not know the particulars behind the woman’s journey from North Korea to the south, but I can imagine its dangers and demands and the perseverance required to complete such steps.  I can further infer that the odyssey was undertaken before Ms. Juhn had been born, imbuing her trek with a determination for her future, and whatever child or children  might inhabit that world in the fullness of time.  Ms. Juhn will pay a remarkable homage to a woman who is known to very few of us, but who has earned our deep and enduring respect, and her daughter’s abiding love.

Her second rationale for walking might well be a reflection of the artist who is Kyong Juhn.   She is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) Distinguished Scholar Scholarship awardee, who recently finished her Fine Arts degree at SAIC, where she studied photography and art history.  Self-described as having transformed herself from a first generation immigrant-homemaker to a tenacious artist who expresses the complexities of rediscovered identities after returning to school, Ms. Juhn is a creator.  Through whatever media or motion suits her need for expression, she undertakes this walk because it conveys an image, a story-  several stories, in fact-  in manifestation of a deeply-held worldview.  This walk is her art on display.  Pursuit of peace and hope may be daunting ideas, but the walk is tangible and the act of doing it is an imaginative statement in time which sorely needs personal acts of harmony.

Ms. Juhn will be supported, in part, by the organization Vets for Peace, which will accompany her.  They will follow her progress with a “SAG” (support and gear) vehicle for her safety and immediate needs during the trip.  (In fact, the sag vehicle is a Vets for Peace bus funded, in part, by a gift from WPF Founders Harold and Louise Nielsen.)  With help from VFP, Ms. Juhn will seek all the attention that she can get for the purpose of her walk, so that people like you and me will understand that this is what is required of us: that we have the capacity to make an impact in whatever ways are within us, that we each have a role to play, a responsibility for the good or ill that becomes our collective life together.  But we are called to actually do what we imagine, to actually take the first steps for hope and peace.

She will take her first steps on May 6, according to the route below.  I hope the date does not find me standing still….

Kyong Juhn Walk

 

 

The Unlikely Pizza

I’ve consumed a lot of pizza in my days.  Maybe it’s because pizza came into its own as an entre′ while I was a teen, or the fact that it’s probably my favorite food indulgence.  I’ve eaten more than my share of those pies.  I’ve had them homemade in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was nine years old, I’ve eaten them across Italy and the rest of western Europe, I’ve consumed them in the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Canada, Hungary and even on board a sailing vessel on the ocean.  I’m reasonably certain that I must hold some sort of unofficial pizza consumption record for my days in college.  In short, I am an expert.

But one of the most unlikely and satisfying slices occurred just last month, during my most recent visit to Nicaragua.  Yes, it was the first pizza I have consumed in that country.  But more important than that was the group of young women with whom I shared the pizza.  What might be the odds that on any given day in my life I would find myself having a Chefella’s pizza with 15 female cooperative members in Matagalpa, Nicaragua?  On March 12th, the answer was 100%

I love pizza anywhere, and under nearly any circumstances.  But when we arrived to join this mid-day meeting of entrepreneurs to the announcement that we would share pizza for lunch, I admit to being triply-excited: first, to talk again with these adventuresome women, most of whom were new to the idea of cooperative life; second, at the prospect of my first-ever Nicaraguan pizza; and third, to consider once more the collaborative symbolism of my favorite food.

You see, pizza in my experience has always been a cooperative meal.  When our kids were young, pizza night was a time for all of us to be in the kitchen and contributing our own labors to the creation of something worthwhile, in this case, for dinner.  Katie made the crust, I formed it in the pan, Megan and Molly spread the sauce, Ian added the meat and Nikki sprinkled the cheese.  We collectively watched the baking and timing.  And of course, we shared happily in the end result.

The entire process was one of great participation, involving every member of our family.  The fear might have been that if you didn’t help out, you wouldn’t get any pizza.  But the reality was more that this was something that we loved doing together, and that made the entire outcome- the pizza- even better.  Of course, the process mandated complete transparency.  Some of us couldn’t eat onions; indeed, a hidden agenda here would have resulted in stomach upset! Others didn’t care for green peppers.  One in our family didn’t wish to eat meat.  So we had to be very clear in drawing the lines of content in our pizzas.  Those ingredient boundaries were our respective stakes in the outcome.   And, of course, eventually we experienced the satisfaction and reward of shared effort: taking a piece of the pie.  Collaboration made homemade pizzas tastier than frozen ones, and more cost-effective than pizzeria models.

A pizza with the 15 women did not involve our collective making and baking, but it did connect us in a shared result.  Sitting around the tables which had been laid end-to-end created a loop of continuity, of solidarity,  of oneness for at least that special lunch period.  It will be up to the women members of the cooperatives to determine whether they can sustain that linkage to their ongoing mutual benefit.

Meanwhile, it made that unlikely pizza one of the best slices I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot….

Chicken Feed

This Easter has been a sweet deal for candy manufacturers: more than $2 billion was spent on candy alone this season, and the overall spending on all Easter-related purchases figures to be the second-highest in U.S. history.  (I know that I didn’t receive any chocolate bunnies on Easter Sunday, so somebody else has been taking more than their share. ) But it started me thinking about wants and needs and central Easter messages.

That candy cost isn’t exactly chicken feed.  By comparison, the total amount of all U.S. aid to Nicaragua in 2017 was $31.3 million, 15% of all that candy.  I only offer the comparison here for contrast; neither I nor most Nicaraguans would argue for greater aid dependency on the U.S.  But it’s quite a difference in sums when one considers the two categories: resources for basic human living standards in Nica versus Easter candy consumption in the U.S.   Setting aside such notions as national boundaries, something seems inequitable in all of that, no matter to what political or economic perspective one may subscribe.  Let me elaborate.

I spent a week with my colleague Mark in Nicaragua last month, visiting with rural partners, hearing about their struggles with various harvests, understanding the need for late repayments in several cases, and attending a two-day workshop designed to teach information analysis, so that these producers might go about their work on a more data-driven basis.

Our week did not represent some kind of hight-level financial development.  We lunched with them on rice and beans.  We spoke with some, in impromptu huddles, about small loans and the most basic tenets of our partnerships: accompaniment, transparency, functioning bodies of governance, broad-based participation, and collaboration within the coops.  We described the nature of goals and goal-setting.  They asked us about work processes.  We laughed some.  The interactions may have been at their most basic level, but they were important and appreciated.  Basic stuff usually is.

What does any of that have to do with Easter candy sales?  Simply this: the sweet taste in the mouth from a dissolving Peep or jelly bean is both artificial and temporary.  And it can never take away the bad taste in the mouth from the recognition that we spend more on candy than on the very lives of others who are in significant need for their basic survival.  That bad taste comes from recognition that our own lives are made up of moments, moments of priority and precedence, wherein we have the free will to decide how we will spend our time and our money and our spirit.  Those decisions impact the impoverished in profound ways, and as importantly, paint the portrait of who we truly are.   And they do leave a taste in the mouth, one kind or another.

Last month in Nicaragua I heard the observation of a producer who was considering the raising of a few chickens as a supplement to his coffee-growing efforts.  His words of hesitation were like a fist to the gut.  “The corn that my hens eat,” he observed, “could be food for my family.”  He was not speaking about candy corn.

Easter is a season of resurrection and salvation, of new beginnings and new chances.  It is a time of reflection for many about the life and example of Jesus and the basis of those who claim followership of his teaching.  It also gives me pause to think about the price of candy and the value of corn….