Friday, January 31, 2014

Speaking to the Listening Heaven

The First Church of La Misión Cristiana is located in Acahualinca, a densely populated and very urban neighborhood of Managua. But the majority of La Misión Cristiana's churches are in the countryside -- small churches serving small and widely flung communities, sometimes a day's journey or more from the capital. Just like in the U.S., there can be a real cultural divide between rural and urban congregations, especially when travel and phone communication are not so easy.

Bridging that divide has been one of the goals of the First Church. For two years now, they have organized youth group trips to plant trees at a farm beyond Waslala owned by the church, and to visit the rural churches in the northern region. This past October, Magyolene and I got to tag along on the trip. There were 11 of us in total: Pastor Enrique, Sonia, Johanna, Mayito, me along with the jovenes (youngsters) Joelia, Melissa, Cinthya, Darichela, Karina and Carlos.

Cinthya and Mayito on the bus.
Just getting to the farm is itself an adventure. We left Managua before dawn on the express bus to Waslala. After arriving around noon, we ate a quick lunch and caught an incredibly packed local bus that dropped us off at the farm in a heap of suitcases, hammocks, rubber boots and provisions. The next morning we awoke with the rooster and tramped up the hill to plant trees.

The farm is known as Las Jaguas. For several years now, la Misión has been working to create a viable dairy operation on the property. With the help of Disciples church from Idaho they have build milking structures, planted fodder and build fence posts. This coming year they plan to purchase their first heads of cattle. The farm itself is fairly large and is quite hilly, with sections cleared for pasture and crops, but big swathes left wild. The paths to the upper fields head straight up the side of the hill, which Juan, the local caretaker, and his family seem to run up without any visible effort. But for the rest of us city slickers, getting to the top without slipping and falling in the mud was an accomplishment to be proud of.
Starting small.
I had a line of poetry from Tagore stuck in my head during our trip: "Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven." Given how important forests are in moderating the local climate and water cycle, you could almost read that line of poetry as an instructive ecology text. In many parts of Nicaragua, farming and cattle ranching has driven some extreme deforestation, even deep in the heart of the Bosawas reserve. The good news is that the government does seem to try to enforce the law where they can: last year the church had to get a permit just to cut a few of their own trees to make fence posts. But beyond just caring for the environment, re-planting trees is important for the long-term viability of the farm. It rains a lot here (and I mean A LOT) and floods and erosion are very real threats to Nica agriculture.
Carlos and Joelia, resting for a moment in the shade.
The view.
Cinthya, Karina and Melissa.
Hydration is important.
We spent two mornings planting acacia trees. This involved lugging the saplings up from the nursery to the place where they would be planted. Carlos and I were in charge of digging the holes in the sticky, muddy earth, which we did with shovels and a narrow-bladed tool with a replaceable wooden handle. The rest of the group would then plant the saplings along the fence-lines. We got some awesome blisters.

Our goal was to build "living fences" that lined the edges of the fields that were planted with corn. The trees planted by the group last year had survived and were already a decent size. All of us worked pretty hard. We think we planted more than 300 trees during two days, and each night we slept hard in our hammocks.
The group, hiking to visit the ojo de agua.

After lunch on the second day we decided to hike to the ojo de agua (fresh water spring, literally, the "eye of water") that gives potable drinking water for the farm, and the cattle. A few years ago the church paid to run a PVC pipe from the spring down to the farm house, a distance of nearly 2 kilometers. It was a beautiful walk, running through the forest and along the stream bed, following the white thread of pipe through the greenery. We visited the part of the farm where they had planted cacao trees that would soon be giving their first harvest. Of course, halfway to our goal, the daily afternoon downpour caught us, soaking us completely to the bone.

Kenia and Mayra, showing us a cacao tree.
Sonia, seconds before getting drenched by the rain.
Being caught in the rain is a much more pleasant experience in Nicaragua than in the U.S., where you are always a least a little worried about getting cold. Not a problem here. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that I wear glasses, I would just relax and enjoy the soaking. At any rate, we pushed on. Juan cut giant leaves to serve as makeshift umbrellas for us. We returned completely bedraggled.
¡Lo hicimos!
Hiking to Las Nubes.

On Sunday, our plan was to visit a local church named Las Nubes (The Clouds). This involved catching another before-dawn bus to nearby Puerto Viejo where we set out on foot (and horse) away from the road and headed up, up, up, up, up into the hills. It turns out that the name is literal; the church is perched almost at the top of a mountain, about a 4 hour hike from the road. Since it was the rainy season, the path was completely choked with mud. And unlike hiking trails in the U.S., Nicaraguan trails are mostly free of switchbacks. We just charged straight uphill and kept going until we got to the top.

Joelia and Cinthya, and horses.
Melissa, on the upward climb.
We got so high up we were looking down on tiny villages.
The gorgeous sanctuary at Las Nubes
The church on the hill was amazing. I have to say it was one of the largest and most beautiful La Misión churches I've seen, including those in Managua. Pastor Eligio told me it had been a six year project to build the sanctuary. The community had risen to the occasion of transporting concrete blocks, bags of cement and metal roofing up the trail we had just climbed.

Karina, Carlos and Darichela teach songs to the kiddies.
Joelia and Mayito lead Sunday School for the young adults.
The trumpet player was AMAZING.
Our time at the top was limited because we still had to return back down. But the jovenes of the first church had brought with them materials to run two quick Sunday School classes with the children and young adults. Sonia was asked to preach at the church service and then we had a hasty lunch before heading back downhill.

We returned to the road by another route, and naturally, we were caught again in a torrential downpour just while we were picking our way down a steep path. As the rains came we heard the roar of a troupe of howler monkeys (although we didn't see them). We were all exhausted and muddy when we reached the road. Thankfully the bus came and took us back to our hammocks. The next morning we caught the first of our three buses that would take us back home to Managua.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Graduation Day

December is graduation month in Nicaragua. School ends and all the kids are let out for summer. The university also held its graduation for those students finishing up the 5 year licenciatura (think bachelor's degree) in theology, as well as another group receiving their masters in feminist theology. This was one of the cohorts of students we had taught over the years and followed through their course of study, and it was very cool to see them cross the finish line.

Felicito, Sonia and Miguel celebrating the big day.

It was a big group -- some of our classes had almost 40 students. As is traditional they agreed on a group color. Purple, natch.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dramatic Light

We passed over the mountain range, heading west as the sun was lowering in the sky. The wind was blowing hard up near the top of the pass and the clouds were swarming over the ridge. We could see the western region of Nicaragua spread out clear before us, almost all the way to the sea, bathed in a dramatic light. A series of twelve large stone women mark the path from the highway to the town of San Juan de Limay, renowned for its soapstone carvers, and one woman waited for us at the highest point.
(We traveled to Limay several years ago, when we first came to Nicaragua. I went to give a day-long workshop on climate change, which I wrote about here. This time we were coming back for the regional assembly, which will mostly likely be our last journey to Limay. For now, anyway.)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Gracias a la Vida

This past November we celebrated Thanksgiving at the Casa Ben Linder, a community of social justice-oriented English speaking folks (and Spanish-speaking amig@s) who live and work in Nicaragua, many of whom are missionaries sent by U.S. and Canadian churches. Since Thanksgiving isn't celebrated in Nicaragua, it was great to have a chance to eat stuffing and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Plus there was a turkey piñata!

The community was founded by internacionalistas in the 1980s who held weekly protests in front of the embassy against U.S. intervention in Central Ameria. It is named in honor of Ben Linder, an American engineer who was killed by the contra while building a micro-hydropower plant in the war zone. These days it is a pretty lively community of folks who organize weekly talks and social gatherings (and the occasional protest). It has been a great support network for us during our time here.

Anyway, the prayersong at the Thanksgiving gathering was "Gracias a la Vida" (Thanks to Life) by Violeta Parra, a Chilean singer-songerwriter who is known as the founder of the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement. The song was later made internationally famous by Joan Baez and Mercedes Sosa. If you've never heard it before, it's legitimately haunting. The poetic lyrics speak of the beauties of life and love, but the minor key gives it a bittersweet tone, especially so once you learn the story behind it. Apparently there is a new film out about her life, which I haven't seen yet, but which looks really interesting. (Lyrics in spanish and english.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014


I have to confess a flaw. I am terrible at taking pictures of people. I'm very reliable if you need a picture taken of a mountain, a statue, a building, a tree. But when it comes to actual humans I either forget to snap photos or I worry that it's too rude or disruptive to haul out the camera. I once went to Europe and spent several weeks hanging out with friends and family and came back with a camera full of old churches and no people.

But I'm trying to do better. When I think about our time in Nicaragua, what I see most of all are the faces of the friends we have made here. So to celebrate the wonderful people in our life here, I'm hoping to post some actual human faces. First up is Romel Gauna.
Romel is the young pastor of the 3rd Church of La Misión Cristiana, located in Managua. This picture is from the annual Día de la Biblia gathering (a celebration of the first Spanish translation of the Bible, which we blogged about here.) He was the host pastor for the celebration and so he spent most of the day running around moving chairs and speakers, passing out water and generally keeping the event on track, but I got him to hold still for a second and brandish his Bible for the camera. Romel has been very active in the ministerial formation project, helping to organize logistics and even stepping in to teach a few modules when we've run short of available teachers. He's also just a cool guy, with a very relaxed personal style that goes will with the great enthusiasm he brings to his work.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Last Lap

2014 is now officially upon us which means that our time here in Nicaragua is drawing to a close. Our families came down to visit us for Christmas and we had a fantastic time showing them the sights and relaxing, but pretty soon we'll be back at work, heading into the final lap. Our current plan is to finish up our work here and return to the U.S. on or around April 1 (no foolin'). So, three months to go... a thought that is both exciting and terrifying.

During our time here we have gotten busier and busier with each passing year. In fact you may have noticed that we neglected the blog a little bit a lot in 2013. And now we are approaching the end and I feel like I still have so much I want to write about Nicaragua and La Misión Cristiana and our experiences. In theory we are both a little freer than we were last year since we won't be teaching this quarter at the university and Laura Jean's theology education project finished in November. In practice it seems like these months might even be crazier than last year wrapping up projects and loose ends and packing.

Despite all that, we're going to make an effort to blog more in the homestretch. I had some friends a few years ago who did a 100 days blogging project, pledging to blog every day (even just a tiny bit) as they went through a significant life transition. Seems like this might be a good moment for us to try that. ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!