Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day and Environmental Justice

Happy Earth Day! I wrote a thing for the Global Ministries website for their April focus on the environment. You can read it here or below. It touches on the tragic epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) affecting sugar cane workers in Central America, plus a little bit about environmental justice and how awesome our students are. Below the article are links for further reading, including photos and videos that are worth a click.

As it turns out, the CKDu epidemic also made the cover of Science magazine this week (article link here, sadly paywalled), thanks to some new studies that were recently announced. Here's hoping more scientific attention will pave the way for workable and just solutions.

Everything Will Live Where the River Goes

Written by Timothy Donaghy
April 15, 2014

The Book of Ezekiel offers up a beautiful vision of humans living in harmony with the natural world:
“He said to me “Mortal, have you seen this?” [...]
9Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. 10People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. [...] 12On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ez 47:7-12, NRSV)
In this passage we find ourselves immersed in Ezekiel’s promised land, with trees on all sides and our toes in the river. Our baptism into nature brings us both abundant food and good health. There are fruit and fish and even the leaves of the trees have the power to heal. We know instinctively that there is an intimate connection between our health and the health of the natural world. After all, without healthy food, clean water and clean air the human body cannot survive. Even when our modern world locks us away in office buildings and parking lots, our connection with the creation can only be muted but not severed.
Over the past year, Laura Jean and I developed and taught a university class making the connections between environmental science and theology. Her background is as a pastor and theologian, mine as a scientist and environmentalist. We also strove to base the class on the concepts of popular education, which takes as a starting point the experiences, expertise and values of the students. The first assignment was to reflect and write about an environmental problem that affects their local community. Our students came from a variety of backgrounds – women and men, rural and urban, young and old – and they told us vivid stories of neighborhood trash heaps, erosion and floods, contaminated lakes, the loss of fresh water springs due to deforestation, and more.
One group of five students traveled every week for our class, two hours or more each way, from the cities of León and Chinandega in the western region of Nicaragua. One had to leave his house at four in the morning to catch the first of three buses that would bring him to class in Managua. These students had grown increasingly concerned with the news from their region about a mysterious and tragic epidemic of kidney disease that was killing young sugar cane workers. For their final project for the class, the group got to work doing interviews and pastoral counseling with the sick workers, their families and community advocates. It was a moment that every teacher lives for, when the ideas up on the blackboard resonate with the lives of your students and then catch fire.
In developed countries, Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) is an ailment that affects mainly older people suffering from diabetes or high blood-pressure. Often it can be controlled with diet and medication. In Nicaragua CKD is an aggressive illness that affects young, otherwise healthy men. It is painful and progresses rapidly, leading to kidney failure and death in a matter of years. In some regions nearly 50% of all male deaths are from kidney failure. One village has watched so many of its young men die that it is now known as the ‘Island of the Widows.’ The epidemic has been growing throughout Central America, from the south of Mexico down to Panama.
The disease poses a scientific mystery. The epidemiological evidence points to extreme dehydration and hot working conditions as key factors damaging the kidneys. Such hot working conditions are indeed typical in the sugar cane fields of Central America. However, workers have been cutting sugar cane in these fields for centuries, but it is only in the past few decades that kidney disease has appeared. Other sugar cane producing regions such as those in Cuba and Brazil have not seen similar epidemics, although similar cases have been reported as far away as Sri Lanka and India. This has led some researchers (including the Ministry of Health in El Salvador) to speculate that another factor – possibly contamination of drinking water by heavy metals or pesticides – is playing a role in triggering or worsening the disease.
In Nicaragua, the sugar cane plantations are owned by the country’s richest family, the Pellas, and the cane is processed to make sugar and Flor de Caña rum. The sugar plant admits no responsibility, although they have taken some steps to insure that workers have access to hydrating fluids and they have put some money toward scientific studies of the disease. Nonetheless, there are a large number of current and former workers suffering from the disease many of whom lack access to dialysis and medical care. This has led to ongoing contentious protests against the sugar plant. Earlier this year, police fired on protesters camped outside the plant gates, killing one protesting worker, Juan de Dios Cortés, and injuring several others.
One of the concepts we highlighted in our class was the idea of environmental justice. In the United States, the environmental justice movement grew out of the civil rights movement, drawing attention to the fact that people of color have borne an unfairly heavy burden of environmental contamination. Toxic waste sites are located disproportionately in communities of color, whose residents then must pay the economic and health costs of their contaminated environment. The United Church of Christ (UCC) has a long history with the environmental justice movement. In 1987, the UCC Commission for Racial Justice published an influential report titled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States that brought the struggle to a wider audience and started a conversation that has led to some reforms.
The banner of environmental justice has spread far beyond the U.S. and has been taken up across the globe by indigenous groups fighting off transnational corporations, by landless campesinos and urban squatters, by people everywhere demanding an equitable solution to climate change. Our students made the case that the epidemic of CKD among sugar cane workers was also an example of environmental injustice. Whether the primary cause of kidney disease turns out to be harsh working conditions or environmental toxins or some combination of causes, it is clear that the overall environment of these workers is literally killing them. And when our brothers and sisters are too poor turn down a job they know might kill them, and who are too poor to afford health care once they get sick, we are witnessing an extreme lack of justice.
The beautiful vision found at the end of Ezekiel is in direct contrast to the earlier chapters of the book. Before we were exiles, alienated from nature, lost in the valley of the dry bones. We suffered, we became sick, we lacked for healthy food and clean water. Even the air we breathed was dusty and unhealthful. But now we have been restored, renewed, revitalized, reenergized. With the blessings of God, the land blossoms and so do we.
Further Reading
  • The website Global Voices has highlighted the work of photo-journalists Ed Kashi and Esteban Félix who have documented those suffering from CKD in Nicaragua. A video based on Félix’s photography is below. [VIDEO]
  • Over the past 3 years Sasha Chavkin of the Center for Public Integrity has published a series of articles on the disease. The epidemic has also been covered by the GuardianScientific American and the Associated Press.
  • The website Confidencial reported (spanish) on the recent tensions between workers, the sugar plant and the government. Following the recent violence a group of Nicaraguan and international organizations signed a declaration calling on the government to address the situation.
  • In 2007, the UCC Justice & Witness Ministries published an updated report Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, which is a good introduction to both the history and current situation of environmental justice in the U.S.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Day -5: Despedidas

We are now in that final stretch where every time we see someone we part with hugs and promises to return to Nicaragua some day. In between packing and liquidating our belongings, we've been visiting the local churches for one last culto, a round of hugs and prayers for our journey. It's very much the reverse of our first week in Nicaragua when we were driven around from church to church for a round of introductions.

We've had our share of goodbye parties, or despedidas, too over the past few weeks with friends and co-workers. The picture above was taken with Revda. Pilar at a goodbye service at the 2nd Church in Managua. Doña Pilar was the church president when we first arrived and it was her who welcomed us at the airport and made sure we were comfortable and well-taken care of during those first few weeks while we were finding our feet. The hard part is saying goodbye, but it's great to know we've got friends here thinking about us head back north.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Day -19: Español

Without a doubt one of the things I will miss the most about Nicaragua is the opportunity to speak Spanish every day. I've found learning a new language as an adult to be a perpetual motion process. You have to keep learning and practicing and moving forward or you start to slide backwards. I'm pretty proud about how far I've come learning Spanish. No one would ever mistake me for anything other than a gringo, but I do OK.

But even after short trips to the states I start to feel rusty, so I'm worried that I'll go back to the U.S. and it will all melt away. Now of course we're moving to California and there are tons of Spanish-speakers who live there, so I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunity to practice. But the great advantage of being immersed is that you have to use your Spanish every day all the time. I'm not sure that'll be the same in California, but we'll see.

With the girls it is a different story. Maya is two and a half years old now, and she's just now starting to talk more confidently in both English and Spanish. Like almost all kids raised in a bilingual environment, her language development has been slower. (Bilingual kids universally start slower but catch up to their age-mates over time.) Some of her first words were an adorable mix of both languages like gat (halfway between gato and cat) or lun (luna and moon). Even now there are certain things that she'll only say in one language or the other, and she's definitely starting to separate the two more consistently. It has been fascinating to see how different her process has been from her sister. Since she's Nicaraguan by birth we feel a responsibility to help her maintain both languages, but she's so young that it might be pretty difficult.

After four years of Nicaraguan school, Quinn is perfectly bilingual, and she's old enough that it seems more likely she'll be able to keep up her Spanish even in the states. We are hoping to enroll her in a bilingual public school in California when we get there. I never cease to be amazed by her ability to switch effortlessly between the two languages. She still has some "spanish-isms" that creep into her English, by which I mean she says something in English that has the structure or vocab of a common Spanish phrase. One time when the power went out she informed us that "The lights went" (spanish: Se fue la luz). Or she will refer to "touching the guitar" instead of playing it, since Spanish uses that verb instead.

At times when I overhear her talking with her friends her Spanish accelerates to such a velocity that I can barely understand her. I used to worry that I should be able to always understand what my kid is saying, but now I think it might be a metaphor for parenting. Maybe at some level kids always speak a slightly different tongue than their parents.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brief Musings on Bread (and Fasting)

photo by Steven Depolo, Creative Commons Attribution license

Three sayings about bread wove themselves together in my mind recently, and they seem appropriate for a time when many are beginning a season of fasting.

I recently came across this quote for the first time by Nikolai Berdyaev, who was a Russian religious and political philosopher:

"Bread for myself is a material question.  Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one."

As many people enter into Lenten fasts, I wonder about the connection between denying "bread" (or chocolate, or donuts, or...) to ourselves, and being mindful of our neighbors, near and far, who are without bread.  Is there a connection?  Should there be?  World Vision Youth is organizing a solidarity fast, and although the word "Lent" doesn't seem to appear anywhere, the timing is just right.

I don't remember when I first heard the most famous words of the Brazilian archbishop and liberation theologian Dom Helder Camara, but they have stayed with me:

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

We might think that political and spiritual questions can (and should) be kept separate, but as simple a topic as food (and hunger) reveals that, if we believe that "bread for my neighbor" is a spiritual question, one that we are willing to seek answers to, any effort providing that bread soon leads us to more questions, which are often unpopular, even dangerous, politically.

The sung blessing for a meal that ties together these two quotes for me is one I learned here in Nicaragua, that has been shared through the Latin American Council of Churches' (CLAI) Liturgy Network:

Bendice Señor nuestro pan

y da pan a los que tienen hambre

y hambre de justicia

a los que tienen pan.

Bendice Señor nuestro pan.

English translation:
Lord, bless our bread.
and give bread to those who are hungry
and give hunger for justice
to those who have bread.
Lord, bless our bread.

May our bellies, whether filled, fasting, or hungry, hunger for justice.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Day -33: The Full Circle of Partnership

The book of Ephesians 4:1-17 describes the church's call to unity this way:
"Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love."
This passage was part of a bible study that we led recently with some of our colleagues here at the Inter-Church Center for Theological and Social Studies (CIEETS). The passage led us into a rich dialogue of reflection on what the "ligaments" are that join and knit together the various programs of CIEETS, and has led us to reflect on what those "ligaments" might be that bind U.S. churches to those here in Nicaragua.

Thanks to the work of CIEETS, dozens of rural Nicaragua's most impoverished communities now have access to clean water, improved sanitation, a more reliable food supply, better nutrition, and organic farming methods that help conserve the soil and protect the environment. Thanks to CIEETS, thousands of women and men are reading the Bible together, learning about the importance of social issues for the church, and awakening to the power of women doing theology (who have for so long had theology "done to" them). Thanks to CIEETS, many Nicaraguan Protestant churches have trained pastors and leaders committed to improving life for their communities and their country.

CIEETS organizes its work in two areas: the theological faculty (FEET) and the area for sustainable development and the environment (AMAD). At first glance, these might seem like wildly different areas of focus, but on closer inspection the overlap offers much fertile ground.  In last week's meeting, agronomists and theologians alike described their shared vision of and commitment to social justice that is integrated with Christian faith.

We were invited to facilitate this dialogue to help discover ways the two branches can work together to strengthen the entire institution.  We were asked to facilitate primarily because my work is in theological education and Tim's is in sustainable development and environmental education.  Last year we co-taught a class on Ecology and Theology (in the FEET), and in that course we took the undergraduate theology students to visit one of the AMAD projects, a concrete example of development projects that care for the environment and for people.

Before we closed, they had created a list of 8 concrete things they can do to help each other and learn from each other, starting next month and into the future.  This kind of work is more gritty than glamorous, but it is important for the optimal functioning of the whole.

The Ephesians passage, and the focus on organizational unity took me back to the first Bible study I was ever asked to lead in Nicaragua, in the fall of 2010, in El Sauce, in the Western region.  In preparation for the Christian Mission Church elections in March 2011, our friend Carlos was giving trainings in the rural regions to pastors and delegates on the church by-laws, focusing on the requirements laid out for elected leaders.  I prepared a brief reflection and questions for discussion on the same passage from Ephesians, focusing on the by-laws as the "ligaments" that hold the congregations and the national church together.

What I remember most about that visit was the feeling of fumbling.  I was still learning Spanish, and put hours into writing 4 or 5 questions that I hoped would be intelligible.  Speaking was hard, and trying to understand rural dialects for the first time even harder.  I fumbled as I took Quinn (age 3) to the latrine at night with a flashlight.  Neither the child nor the flashlight fell in, but it was not pretty. And Carlos laughed (not unkindly) as he read one of the questions I had written, which betrayed my total ignorance of a lively internal debate about the nature of spiritual gifts.

Despite that fumbling, we were welcomed with love from the beginning, and have learned so much from La Misión Cristiana and CIEETS.  As we come to the end of our time in Nicaragua, and prepare to travel to U.S. churches sharing stories of our time here, I realize that the work of Global Ministries is also a powerful "ligament" in the body of the global church. Our presence here is a powerful reminder to our Nicaraguan partners that the UCC and Disciples value and support their work. Our presence in North American congregations will share the good news of what other parts of "the body" are doing in other parts of the world.  In my mind, it "completes the circle," of being in relationship across borders.

PS - Over a decade ago, a teaching pastor and mentor of mine gave me a volume of The Gospel in Solentiname, and those dialogues by campesinos on a remote archipelago about the gospel readings were my first introduction to Nicaragua. They were compiled by Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and leader in the liberation theology movement and the Nicaraguan revolution.  We made the pilgrimage to Solentiname last weekend, and it is lovely to see how it has been developed as a tourist destination enough to generate income for the community, while still preserving the lush natural environment.  Another circle completed!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Day -36: More faces

Laura Jean and Pastora Celia Manzanares, during our recent trip to the Northern Regional Assembly. Celia is currently pastor of the Eighth Church in La Colonia, although she and her husband may soon be moved to another church in the 3-year rotation that comes after every national assembly. La Colonia was the church that hosted the theological classes for that region so we got to know Celia and her family really well during our visits. In particular Quinn and her grandson, Cristian, are thick as thieves. Her she is showing off her diploma for completing the 2-year course on ministerial formation.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Day -39: Quincho

Tonight we're crossing another thing off our fun list! We're going to see Carlos Mejía Godoy perform! You can think of Godoy as the Bob Dylan of Nicaragua, author of a distinctive style of music, the bard of the 1979 revolution and still a hard-working performer at age 70. He usually plays a few times a week but we've never gotten around to seeing him live. The song below is "Quincho Barrilete" an ode to the indomitable youth of Nicaragua, and a song that I will for the rest of my life associate with our boss, Felix Ortiz. He knows why.