Friday, December 30, 2011

Texas delegation (July/August 2011)

When English speakers are learning Spanish, there are a lot of aspects of the language that can be confusing. One of these is the fact that Spanish uses two different words where English only uses "to know." We use the same word to say "I know how to do long division" or "I know that guy." Saber (know-how) refers more to knowledge of facts, whereas conocer has to do with familiarity.

We received a very special delegation at the end of July/ beginning of August. Of course, all the groups that visit are special to us, but we really enjoyed helping to host a group that was moving from *knowing about* (saber) La Misión Cristiana and our work with them to really *getting to know* first-hand (conocer) the reality of Nicaragua and the church itself.

University Christian Church in Fort Worth, TX began to learn about the work that Global Ministries supports in Nicaragua because they met us when we spent a weekend with them in May 2010 as part of our preparation for going overseas. When we applied to serve with Global Ministries, they were in the middle of an interesting and challenging process, where they wanted to send new missionaries but needed extra funds to be able to support them. So they were seeking candidates and funds at the same time for ten positions the board had identified as the top priorities around the world. We were the first applicants who found a good fit with one of these positions -- and UCC in Fort Worth was the first church that identified some income from their endowed funds that could support Global Ministries sending a missionary somewhere in the world.

So, shortly after UCC called Global Ministries to share that they were ready to give the funds, we got a call to come in for the interview. And not too long after that, La Misión got the call saying that, if they were willing, they would be receiving us as missionaries. La Misión voted to receive us at their annual General Assembly in March.

When we spent the training weekend in May with UCC, we found out about yet another connection. In 2006, a Disciples minister from Texas had visited Nicaragua, and seen the infamous dump, La Chureca, where families lived in the mounds of trash, eking an existence out of looking for food and things that could be sold. It was a dangerous, unsanitary place for kids and adults alike. She was really depressed about the situation. When she got back to the US, she found out about a project called "Out of the Dump/ Project Chacocente" that was helping move families to a place where they could start new lives, farming small plots of land and living in a community. The project has also opened a school and a lending library in that community, further enriching the lives of the community members.

Rev. Laurie told this story at a youth conference in Texas as an example of how God is working even in situations that seem hopeless. Katie, a young woman who is a member of UCC (and now a college student) was inspired to organize a trip to Nicaragua to work with Chacocente. So she, with the support of Cyndy Twedell (the pastor at UCC who works most with mission, and spent a lot of time with us during our visit there last year) and Pastor Laurie, planned a mission trip that took place just a a few weeks ago. They spent the first part of the week building a classroom at Project Chacocente. They wrapped up their time there by taking some of the families to the beach.

They spent about 3 days with us and La Misión, staying at Centro Emmanuel, the church's training/ hospitality/ conference center in Ticuantepe, a small town just south of Managua.
They met with Rev. Rolando Boniche, the president of the church, and learned from him about some of the history of the church and its current work.
They helped with building a new house for the caretaker at Centro Emmanuel, a somewhat overdue project. (The church administrator said it was only by the grace of God that the old house had stayed standing long enough to be torn down.)

The group also got to experience a bit of Nicaraguan countryside and culture, visiting the Volcan Masaya:

the Catarina mirador:

as well as the traditional craft market in Masaya.

The Sunday night of their visit, they worshipped at the First Christian Mission Church in the Acahualinca neighborhood (not far from La Chureca, one of the many poor neighborhoods in Managua where La Misión churches are found). That was a powerful experience of welcome and unity across cultures for both the congregation and the visiting group. The electricity went on and off throughout the service, but the energy stayed high throughout. (It was also my first time translating a sermon from Spanish into English!)

We enjoyed the opportunity to get to know some of the UCC congregation better -- they were a great group, very flexible, hard-working, and open to new experiences and perspectives -- and they had a lot of fun together. Most of all, it was exciting for us to facilitate their introduction to Nicaragua and La Misión Cristiana.

Quinn loved "our friends from Texas," probably helped by the fact that they brought her presents -- a sweet little stuffed horse and book about a cowgirl that became instant favorites, as well as lots of stickers. :)

It was nice for her to spend time with a large group of English speakers who were interested in talking to and playing with her.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

So Who Won?

Following up on my earlier post, Nicaragua's national elections were held on November 6th. So who won?

The short answer is that Daniel Ortega and the FSLN won a resounding victory with 62% of the vote and 63 seats in the National Assembly.  Opposition candidate Fabio Gadea and the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) won 31% of the vote and 27 seats.  Former president Arnoldo Alemán wasn't really a factor, pulling only 6%.

The long answer very much depends on who you read or talk to.  Gadea has refused to recognize the results, explicitly saying that he won the vote and that Ortega committed a massive fraud.  Gadea's coalition mates, the breakaway Sandinista group MRS, have called Ortega a dictator and the opposition newspapers, such as La Prensa, have loudly denounced him.  However, a planned protest march fizzled.

The opposition points to a number of irregularities to make their case.  In some cases observers from the opposition parties and third-party groups were refused access to the polling places.  The election authorities have also not published precinct-by-precinct election results which would allow for a more comprehensive audit.  There were also accusations that the government was selectively delaying requests for new ID cards, which are required to vote.  (Update: More Ortega criticism here from Envio.)

Such irregularities, along with the experience of past elections, open the door to the idea that the incumbents were cooking the books.  The PLI is claiming that 450,000 to 500,000 votes were stolen although they haven't offered much in the way of proof to back their claims.  The good government group Ética y Transparencia published a statistical analysis claiming Ortega stole 150,000 votes -- a serious charge, but not one that would have reversed Ortega's 800,000 vote margin of victory.

In their defense, the Sandinistas point to a number of independent polls showing Ortega surging in the weeks before the election.  A series of CID-Gallup polls showed steadily increasing support for Ortega and a final poll by Nicaragua's most respected pollster gave Ortega 58%.  Sandinista supporters have also responded to the charges of irregularities in the election process.

I haven't dug deep enough to know how consequential these irregularities are, although my sense from the (unrepresentative sample of) people I've talked to is that, while there may have been some problems they didn't affect the outcome.  Ortega won the election, and he won by implementing popular programs and riding the crest of a growing economy.

Which is not to say that the problems with the electoral process aren't real and troubling.  Of the three official international observing teams (from the EU, the Organization of American States and the Latin American Council of Election Experts) both the EU and OAS reports detailed numerous structural and process problems with the elections.  But the words of the head of the EU observation mission seem to sum up the uncertainty fairly well: "as to whether or not Daniel Ortega won, he won. Beyond that I won’t say."

[PS -- If you're looking for English language reporting on Nicaragua you should check out the new Nicaragua Dispatch (which leans anti-Ortega) or the Nicaragua Network (which leans left).]

Monday, December 19, 2011

Catchy Christmas Carol

We may have mentioned before that life in Nicaragua can be rather, well, loud.  For example, the Catholic Church down the street practices a daily advent celebration that involves blasting Christmas carols over their loudspeakers.  At 3 or 4 in the morning.  For 30 to 40 minutes.  Accompanied by fireworks.  Every day until Christmas.

Now I am not at my best at 3 a.m. and, in the moment, I am not generally very appreciative of these full-volume, pre-dawn serenades.  Un-charitable thoughts have been known to flit through my sleep-fogged brain.  However, one of this morning's songs was so INSANELY catchy that I've been humming it constantly ever since.  Maybe the fact of hearing it while half-asleep helps to burn it deeper into your synapses?  Laura Jean helped me track it down this morning -- apparently it's a very popular children's carol about traveling to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus:
The lyrics can be found here.  Now the catchy song is in your head too -- you're welcome!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mission Moment

This Sunday the Global Ministries weekly prayer comes to Nicaragua and la Misión Cristiana.  You can read the mission moment on the website and below:

Pray for Nicaragua on Sunday, December 18, 2011

Prayers for Nicaragua: Luke 1:26–38

Our God of unexpected blessings and perplexing good news, we thank you for your servant Mary.  We thank you for her “yes” to your invitation to give birth to Jesus our Savior.  We pray that you would give us the courage to respond with a “yes” when you send us unexpected messengers and perplexing tasks.

We praise you for your wondrous ways, for calling a young woman from Nazareth to be the mother of Your Son.  We praise you for calling forth leaders for your church from all parts of the world and all walks of life.  We pray for the leaders you have called and are calling to lead the Christian Mission Church of Nicaragua.

You have called women and men, from the country and the cities, young and old.  All hunger to know more about you and your Word.  We pray for the church’s program of ministerial formation.  Guide the Department of Theology and the facilitators as they plan, travel, and teach.  Give the students patience, perseverance, and resources to continue.  Equip and empower these servants of yours to be a light to Nicaragua, and to the world.  Ever remind us that with you, nothing is impossible.  Amen.

Mission Stewardship Moment from Nicaragua:
Nicaragua is a country where formal educational opportunities rarely keep pace with people’s thirst for knowledge. Knowing this, La Misión Cristiana has long worked to provide first-rate theological training to their pastors and lay leadership.  So it was an exciting moment when in August of this year the church kicked off a two-year project in theological education.

The project began with nine churches in the capital of Managua.  Very quickly, the offering of a weekly two-hour theology class attracted more interested people than could be accommodated!  Relying on the expertise of several members who are current or former theology students at the Evangelical University of Nicaragua, the project organized five weekly classes, each one serving a pair of churches.  Before our daughter Maya was born, Laura Jean was teaching two of the five groups (with Tim’s assistance).  The first few topics included a history of Pentecostalism, the World of the Old Testament, and a seminar on the Church Confronting the Problem of Violence.

The project is now expanding into the other regions of Nicaragua.  In the rural regions, where churches are far-flung and transportation is difficult, the project has planned a series of meetings where the students and teachers gather together for 4-5 days of intensive study.  Last weekend, Laura Jean co-taught a four-day course for students from the seven churches in the Western region and the project will soon extend to the South, East and North as well.  Support from Global Ministries is critical in buying materials and paying for the transportation that bring people together to do this good work.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Doing It Right

We're back in Nicaragua after a great trip to the U.S. (more on which soon). As we get deeper into the projects that we work on with la Misión Cristiana, we've been thinking a little about what it is that we do and how we do it.  To give an example of what I mean, here's an interesting article by Charles Kenny titled "Haiti Doesn't Need Your Old T-Shirt" about the unintended consequences of (some) charity and development work.
Here's the trouble with dumping stuff we don't want on people in need: What they need is rarely the stuff we don't want. And even when they do need that kind of stuff, there are much better ways for them to get it than for a Western NGO to gather donations at a suburban warehouse, ship everything off to Africa or South America, and then try to distribute it to remote areas. World Vision, for example, spends 58 cents per shirt on shipping, warehousing, and distributing them, according to data reported by the blog Aid Watch -- well within the range of what a secondhand shirt costs in a developing country. Bringing in shirts from outside also hurts the local economy: Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto estimates that increased used-clothing imports accounted for about half of the decline in apparel industry employment in Africa between 1981 and 2000. Want to really help a Zambian? Give him a shirt made in Zambia.
Now, our work with Global Ministries doesn't involve t-shirts and is only partially about development work per se, but it's worth asking if we aren't making similar mistakes by emphasizing our priorities and interests instead of listening closer to our Nicaraguan friends.  I hope not, but it is always good to self-examine.

Of course, we all know about the bad old way of doing missions.  Missionary (and development) work used to be a offshoot of colonialism, the system of economic and military domination of poor countries by the rich ones that still echoes around the world today.  In support of empire, churches from the global north were encouraged to pick up the white man's burden, and in turn adopted an attitude of superiority towards their brothers and sisters across the globe.  But just knowing about the wrong way doesn't automatically make it easier do it right.

Global Ministries has adopted an explicitly anti-colonial way of doing overseas ministry and I think they have a really good model for how people and churches from the global north can build links with folks in the global south.  The Spanish word we use to describe the heart of our work is acompañamiento (accompaniment), which implies not leading and not following, but walking together and sharing the road and the struggles.

In a sense, the idea is to move beyond that old adage about teaching a woman to fish.  To mangle the metaphor, a step beyond "teaching" would be working with the fisherfolk to build a self-sustaining, local fishing school, all the while trying not to destroy the local fishing economy or the fishery ecosystem.

The way it works is that la Misión Cristiana sets the priorities, designs the projects (often with our input) and makes the decisions.  American churches can provide resources by giving to Global Ministries (who then passes that money through to various local partners around the world) and by going on people-to-people pilgrimages where groups can visit the local partners to learn and work together.  So far we have been lucky to have several groups visit Nicaragua and in 2012 la Misión will be hosting six (!) groups from the U.S. and one from Puerto Rico.  With so many great projects starting up and so many groups visiting, it should be a very exciting year!