A Change in Perspective

One of the highlights of this week was a conference I was fortunate enough to attend as a representative for ONE. The RESULTS conference was focused on educating and discussing various ways to engage Congress in the fight to end extreme poverty worldwide. I was able to hear from Helen Evans, the interim CEO of The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), the organization that fought hard to ensure that the government would provide $450 million over three years for vaccinations to save 4 million children’s lives. I also heard from Mark Dybul who, during the Bush Administration, played a large part in the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Among all of this talk about the success of PEPFAR and GAVI, what stood out most to me was one woman’s comment during the question and answer part of the lecture. She spoke of her grandchildren, whose foreign nanny had tuberculosis. Her grandchildren, who were not living in a developing country nor facing extreme poverty, were infected with tuberculosis and had to undergo the nine-month medication process to ensure that the virus did not become active. She did not tell this part of the story, but I know about this part. I know because I also tested positive for tuberculosis when I was working in a hospital during my senior year of high school. Interestingly enough, Rich Stearns also tells a story about his own son who tested positive for tuberculosis. I will never know where I contracted it from, but I do know that it was a hassle to take the medication for nine months. Yet it was a hassle that I easily took for granted. So many children in developing countries are faced with tuberculosis. Many times, this is a death sentence for them because of the simple lack of vaccines and medication that people in the U.S., like me, take for granted.

I’m still having a hard time seeing how I can make a difference in the lives of these children, who are living in extreme poverty without access to the most basic needs in life. I feel so far removed from them and helpless. I want to help but I don’t know how. I realized this week that the first step to figuring this out is to acknowledge that I have a responsibility to advocate for these children. I have to because I can. The difference between them and me is that I was able to take the medication for tuberculosis and because of this, I can still go to school without being ostracized for my disease. I can get and keep a job without having to miss days of work because of constant illness. I want them to have this too. Changing my mindset is my first step. This includes realizing the full meaning of “whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” and how it must apply to every part of my life (Matthew 25:40).

Real Community Service

Everyone in this world has dreams no matter where they live, how old they are, or what language they speak. When I think of common dreams the following come to mind: having a certain career, living in a nice house, going to college, having a big family, staying in good health or achieving something special before one dies. In Nicaragua this week, I heard a new one. I learned about a father whose dream is to read the Bible before he dies. I was left speechless. I felt privileged, moved, guilty, humbled and inspired all at once. Something that often seems so simple to us was so profound for him.

In my prior blog posts I emphasized the impact of education and literacy on both individuals and communities. However, those thoughts and opinions were based upon books that I had read, not firsthand knowledge about what the people themselves wanted. Those words were written from the perspective of an outsider, one who had not personally experienced the hearts and desires of the people. I underestimated how deep the desire to read actually was and how strongly it weighed on the people of Nicaragua. Thus, I was completely blown away this week by the enthusiasm and receptiveness shown by the people towards this literacy program—youth and adults alike.

On Tuesday, I interviewed the local leaders and pastors of a small, rural, Miskito village on the East Coast. They were ecstatic about the program and the opportunity that it afforded to the adults of their village, of whom they estimated only about twenty percent were literate. When asked which language they preferred to be educated in, Spanish or Miskito, they said “Spanish, Miskito and English. All three! Whatever we can get!” From there, they proceeded to volunteer for the positions of teachers and program coordinators. It was amazing to see their faces light up and their heads nodding with enthusiasm as I elaborated on the program. When I inquired about their energetic reactions, one elder explained that “when one has the ability to read, you can understand more things in the world.” A teacher in Puerto Cabezas named Javier echoed these statements saying that the “people don’t want to be ignorant and just believe everything that they hear.” He explained that Nicaraguans are often taken advantage of and misled by political leaders because of their ignorance. The people yearn for knowledge—knowledge about the Bible, agriculture, government, medicine, you name it.  The leaders, most of whom are literate, strongly desire to see their village transformed and are willing to sacrifice their own time and energy to help others. Even though the five pastors from the local Miskito villages represented five competing congregations of different denominations, they didn’t care who attended their particular church. They simply wanted the people to be able to decide on their own and to read the Bible—the one force that unites the different churches.

A group of youth in a community called Nueva Vida on the west coast exhibited this same enthusiasm and determination for education. Every student knew someone personally who was illiterate and who they thought would want to participate in the program. After talking to them for a while, I asked the young adults to raise their hands if they would be willing to help teach their fellow community members to read through this program. All hands went up. Even after I proceeded to explain the huge time commitment required, they remained steadfast.  I was so impressed at their willingness to sacrifice their own time to serve others, without any reward in return. They attributed this to their love for their community and for God.

One key observation from my interviews with Christians in Nicaragua was that volunteering and serving is an integral component of their faith. Just like the people from Christian Fellowship Church are actively living out their beliefs through their service to the poor, the youth and the elders of these villages also view volunteering as a duty of ones faith.

Richard Stearns, the CEO of World Vision, one of the largest Christian international aid organizations, wrote a book called Hole in the Gospel. In this, he claims that if a person took a pair of scissors and cut out every verse in the Bible that pertained to poverty, wealth, justice and oppression, the Bible would literally fall apart. The point is to illustrate the immense centrality of these themes in the Scripture. When one ignores these issues and fails to heed God’s commands to help those who are suffering, one is living by a fractured and partial gospel. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read, “A day should never pass without an act of charity.” I was like “Wow, what an awesome bumper sticker, I want one!” But then I asked myself, “What was my act of charity today?” Since I got back from Nicaragua, whose dreams have I helped to make a reality in my community?  We don’t really like to ask ourselves these questions because it often means that we have to sacrifice something, whether it be tangible possessions or simply one’s time. The people I met this week inspired and challenged me to examine the ways in which I do or do not serve my own community and the role that my faith plays in motivating me to do so.

Bridging the Gap

Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision U.S. begins The Hole in Our Gospel: The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World with the story of a young boy named Richard, who was orphaned by AIDS. Meeting Richard in Uganda and experiencing the way he lived “was to be the moment that would ever after define” Richard Stearns. While also reading this story, I was simultaneously researching the situation of children who had been orphaned by AIDS. I couldn’t help but compare my encounter with AIDS orphans with that of Richard Stearns.  I wish I could say that I had a life changing experience reading about how many children have been left orphaned because of HIV/AIDS (more than 14 million in Sub-Saharan Africa). To be clear, I was sad as I read these statistics, but I regarded this research as part of my job. It was just something that needed to be done. I decided I wanted to do some personal “soul-researching” to discover how I could bridge the gap between Stearns’ experience and my own.

First, I asked myself what the differences were between Rich Stearns, a white, upper middle class American and me, also a white, upper middle class American. He lives comfortably in Seattle with his wife and kids, and I live comfortably in my apartment at college in Virginia. But here is where the differences enter:  Rich made a decision “to be open to God’s will for his life” (34). Sure, the decision wasn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t a decision he made in one night. But, Rich decided to devote his life and his life’s work to God’s will: helping “somebody else’s kids” (107). Stearns made the choice to help kids like Richard, kids who were thousands of miles away.

I’d like to say that the only difference, then, between Rich Stearns and me is that I haven’t had the chance to visit Africa. I could say that I can’t help the way he can because I have other responsibilities:  I have to go to college and I have to graduate and get a job. Because of these other obligations, I’ve never seen the way that AIDS can impact an entire community. I don’t know what it feels like to see a young boy take on the responsibility of his siblings and grow up before he should have to. However, I think this is a cop-out on my part. I don’t have to sacrifice a college education to help suffering children in Africa. Instead, I have to sacrifice everything. It seems contradictory, I know. This whole week I have been trying to understand what Rich Stearns means when he says “God asks us for everything” (1).

To sacrifice everything sounds crazy. To sacrifice everything for God sounds a little less crazy, for it sounds like what being a good Christian might look like. The hardest part is finding out how to give everything for God, like Rich Stearns did. To begin with, I have started to ask myself this week how I can act in a way according to God’s will. Reading and analyzing Rich Stearns’ book was the best avenue to figure this out. There is not one simple answer to follow God’s will for me. I need to be open for what comes my way, but I also need to seek out ways to challenge myself and make myself uncomfortable. In giving my whole mind and spirit to God each and every day, I will gradually come to know what God has intended for me.

It brings me back to that day in late January when Professor Marsh announced this internship possibility. Working at a non-profit, like ONE, sounded exciting. Working for ONE in an explicitly theological way caught me up. I have always considered myself a deeply religious person, but in a very personal way. I had always considered religion as something to be nurtured within, not something to be proclaimed externally. It has taken a small phrase in Rich Stearns’ book to show me that this internship is a lesson in opening me up for God’s will in my life. Everything I do here at ONE is part of the “everything” that God expects of me. I think I am ready now to bridge the gap between Rich Stearns’ experience and my own.

One Success

I have to be honest and say that I did not have any specific expectations coming into ONE. I certainly expected to be doing daily “internship duties”, such as data entry and mailing materials. Yet I am still trying to figure out where I fall in the wide world of ONE. I have a sense that this internship will be what I make of it. I have already learned more about the federal budget and the government than I ever have in any Econ or Politics class, thanks to a wonderful woman named Maryamu, who works on the Government Relations team and focuses on House Democrats. The environment here is action packed and filled with eager minds. I must admit, it is perhaps my first experience in a real life work environment.

To that end, I spent the first week of my internship finding my way around. First, I had some difficulty in maneuvering the office. ONE’s office is like a maze, full of hallways adorned with photography of Bono in Africa or Brad Pitt sitting in conferences with various ONE staff. However, what lies behind all of these glossy photos and high profile celebrities are the roughly 75 staff members that work right here in an open office environment. From Annette, who sits across from me, who grew up in Columbia, Maryland and has an adorable four year old son, to Maryamu, who works in Government Relations and showed me her favorite act on “America’s Got Talent”, I am never at a loss to the human interactions that keep this place going. This is perhaps what I have appreciated the most my first week at ONE. There is a transparency and equality that I was not expecting. In the morning meetings with the whole U.S. Campaigns team, there is an air of happiness, of lightheartedness, and most of all, of friendship. These staff members, whether young or old, have something in common:  they enjoy what they do, but most important of all, they enjoy who they are with. It is a simple lesson in human relations. But it is also a success story. Just this week, the US Campaigns team was thrilled to announce that USAID had promised $450 million over three years to GAVI, an organization that provides vaccines to the world’s poorest people (I will blog on GAVI later this month). There were hugs, there were shrieks, and there were smiles all around. The hard work had paid off. The long hours spent sending emails, placing phone calls, and much more had finally proved to be worth it. And in the end, there were others to celebrate with.

It is perhaps a stretch to say that this sense of community that provides the energy behind ONE’s successes is like the community that Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought to create at Finkenwalde. Or maybe it is not. What united Bonhoeffer and the various other theologians at Finkenwalde was a similar purpose. Their efforts in establishing the Confessing Church and banding against the German Christian movement were rooted in a type of social justice. What they saw happening in Nazi Germany was unacceptable and inhumane. Likewise, it is safe to say that every person here at ONE is united against the inhumanity of “stupid poverty”, as Bono calls it. It is an unacceptable form of poverty because we can do something about it. We can erase this type of poverty. How do I know this? I saw it in the faces of the staff members here at ONE when they heard about the success of the GAVI campaign. It was hope fulfilled. It was dreams fulfilled. It was lives saved. It was the result of a community working as one.

Barriers and Blessings

“Officer… are you saying you want a license?… wait… you want to give us a ticket for what exactly?… it’s how much?” Today in Nicaragua I felt the full effects of the language barrier as I tried to communicate with a police officer in Spanish regarding a minor traffic violation on the part of our driver. Frustration is the ideal word to describe this situation. I like to think that I can speak Spanish fairly well, but I was still struggling to communicate in such a completely different culture. Though we were eventually able to smooth things over and get out of a ticket, it was certainly not without a struggle.

Thus, after my first day in Nicaragua… all I can say is that language is a powerful tool. It has the ability to be both a barrier and a blessing. When limited and restricted, it causes confusion and chaos. But when allowed to flow more freely, it facilitates beautiful conversations and can even act as a bridge between cultures. My conversation on the airplane with a Nicaraguan woman named Ena is a prime example. I was reading the book “Surprised by Hope,” as we were ascending when she noticed the cross on the cover and asked me about it. We started talking and by the end of the flight we had covered the topics of heaven, hell, Jesus, resurrection, separation of church and state, and faith on college campuses. In these moments I saw the amazing power of language to unite two people into conversation from different backgrounds, races and faiths. Language transformed us from two strangers sitting in seats 24B and 24C into two friends sharing their thoughts and beliefs with each other.

Obviously, I am talking about oral language in this case, but written language is just as important. The fact is that both Ena and I had formed much of our beliefs from reading books—especially the Bible. The sad reality is that people who are illiterate cannot read the Bible or any other theological books or philosophical works to help develop their own beliefs. N.T. Wright, the author of the book that originally sparked my conversation with Ena, constantly references the Bible as support. In Surprised by Hope,he uses Scripture to explore Christian theology regarding heaven and resurrection in order to draw conclusions about how we should live our lives presently here on earth. It is an enlightening and thought-provoking book. Yet every time that I open it, I am reminded that people who are illiterate can neither read this book nor the book which Wright uses as his guide—the Bible. I think, “How many Christians must there be in Nicaragua who have never picked up a Bible?” (Then again–how many Christians do we know in the United States who have a Bible and the ability to read it, yet still don’t pick it up). In the U.S., we take language so much for granted. Spoken and written communication comes naturally to us because we have been exposed to it since youth, unlike a lot of Nicaraguans for whom reading and writing means a lot of effort.  Likewise, in the U.S. we can also take our faith for granted for the same reasons.

I heard a neat story today about the impact of a particular literacy program in India (this is actually the Mission India literacy program which was used as a model for our program here in Nicaragua). It recounts how a group of people in a village became literate through this program and started reading the Bible for the first time.  Up until now, they had only heard verses read orally in church and sermons on topics given by their local pastor. But for the first time in their lives, they were able to read and think critically about the Bible for themselves. It enlivened the church and people began to approach the Pastor with loads of questions about things they had read in the Bible. I suspect that the same thing will happen here as well. I was interviewing a young man named Jose today and he told me about the immense impact that learning to read had on his mother, especially in terms of her faith. He said that he is excited to see the effect that this program will have on the rest of his family and his whole community.

As I alluded to in my last post, literacy is not just about learning to read and write. Literacy is gaining a new tool by which to see the world. Here, most people have been told what to believe by other people—either through family tradition and local legends or through teachings given by pastors and religious leaders. In teaching them to read, we enable them to explore concepts like faith and religion for themselves. Maybe one day, they too will have a theological conversation with a traveling stranger who asks about the book that they are reading.

Hope through Literacy

Transformation is a big buzz word around here… “transforming lives,” “transforming communities,” “transforming our world” etc. Churches, international aid organizations and political figures all throw the word around. Why? Because it denotes both a driving sense of purpose and a hope for the future. It stirs the yearning in our hearts for something greater. Transformation is not a passive, static word but one that implies growth and movement.

Religion, on the other hand, is often static. As Christians we can be passive, content and complacent in our faith. The word Christian simply becomes an impersonal label for our internal beliefs. Sometimes the only real actions associated with this term include attending Sunday morning church and praying before meals. Our spiritual lives become stagnant when we forget the transforming power of the gospel. Lately, our faith has been reduced to a mere adjective.

Yet here in this project, this church and this literacy program, I am seeing faith used as a verb like I never have before. Here, being a Christian does not mean, “what do you think about topics x, y and z?” but rather “what are you doing today to serve others and to serve God?” Here, actions are a direct manifestation of your beliefs. Even meetings include a biblical rational for the tasks at hand and jobs to be done. Religion and transformation are not opposites, they are complements. They are both dynamic, interdependent agents of change.

Christian Fellowship Church’s model for transformation around the world is called the P.E.A.C.E plan. Rick Warren, a bestselling Christian author and far right political activist, originally coined this term to get the people of his own congregation, Saddleback church, involved in global affairs. The letters stand for: Promote Reconciliation, Equip Servant Leaders, Assist the Poor,Care for the Sick and Educate the Next Generation. Churches all over the world are utilizing this model for missions and committing to tackle the “5 Global Giants” that this plan seeks to address: extreme poverty, illiteracy, egocentric leadership, spiritual emptiness, and pandemic disease. The ultimate goal is radical, beautiful change in the world around us. This plan of course aligns with many secular models for tackling poverty, such as the UN Millennium Development Goals. However, the P.E.A.C.E plan was not developed in imitation of another program, but rather in accordance with Jesus Christ’s example. He taught churches to be missional instead ofattractional. During his time on earth, Jesus did not remain seated on a throne inside the temple letting the righteous people come to him. No, he ventured into the world—seeking out the sick, the lost and the hungry. He met humans where they were, healed their infirmities and changed their hearts. Many churches solely focus on drawing people into their congregation and fail to go out into the world as Jesus did to seek those that truly need transformation.

My primary focus during this internship will be on the E in the P.E.A.C.Eplan—education. An adult literacy program called Nuestras Esperanzas,appropriately meaning “Our Hope” will undertake the problem of high illiteracy in the Northern Autonomous Region of Nicaragua. Literacy can be transformational, no doubt. But what I have come to learn is that the concept encompasses much more than merely teaching people to read in order to help free them from the binds of poverty. It is really about empowerment.

In the view of Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, literacy itself transforms people from passive objects, bound by a “culture of silence” to active subjects. He states, “those who, in learning to read and write, come to a new awareness of selfhood and begin to look critically at the social situation in which they find themselves, often take the initiative in acting to transform the society that denied them this opportunity of participation” (29). For Freire, becoming literate is more than learning to distinguish letter shapes and phonetic patterns, but it is truly about gaining the ability to think critically and theologically about the world around you. Literacy itself transforms something inactive into something active.

Next week as I embark on a journey to Nicaragua and engage in dialogue with the students and the teachers of the literacy program, I hope to observe this kind of empowerment through literacy. I am excited at the opportunity to enter their world and become a student myself as I learn from their stories and listen to their needs and desires. May my eyes be open to the potential of true, lasting transformation.