I have a habit of always meeting interesting people in airports. I don’t consider myself a particularly outgoing person, but for some reason I always end up sitting by the most fascinating people and having long, intense conversations with them. I told you about Ena, whom I met in June on my flight to Nicaragua. Well, this week it was Rodrigo and Javier. Rodrigo is Nicaraguan but he has lived in several other Latin American countries and therefore offers a uniquely comparative view of these countries and their political systems and forms of poverty. Javier used to be an ambassador for Nicaragua and has lived in many places including New York City and London, so he too affords a diverse and well-rounded perspective. Both men were very educated and spoke English and Spanish extremely well. They also weren’t shy to speak about their country and the problems they saw politically, economically and socially. I decided at one point in each conversation to inquire about what they thought their home country, Nicaragua, needed most right now. Without being prompted first or told about the literacy program, both answered that they believed Nicaragua needed education. They mentioned other things like infrastructure, investment, and microfinance—but the core foundation was the same: education. I was shocked that two men in two different conversations came to the same conclusion about their country. I was also extremely pleased; it felt good to know that I was doing something that was both important and essential.
Yet there is more to it. As I have mentioned before from my readings, education is not solely learning to read and write but an act of empowerment, a shift in worldviews. Rodrigo, Javier, and later a woman named Mary, all echoed these sentiments in my conversations with them. They thought that Nicaragua needed education not only for external reasons (such as for people to acquire better jobs and develop the economy) but for internal reasons too! They recognized that the people of Nicaragua needed a shift in their worldview. A mentality of dependence and helplessness needed to be replaced with a mentality of ingenuity and ambition, infused with values of hard work, love and responsibility. I got so excited! What I had been reading and doing aligned with the perspectives of many Nicaraguans themselves.
A lot of aid work seeks to change the system or the environment, but neglects the individual. Mary, a teacher in Puerto Cabezas, has taught all throughout Nicaragua and Guatemala. She has witnessed firsthand the change that education has brought about in people, both in those whom she has taught and in herself. It is her strong belief that education is most effective at producing lasting transformation when it is paired with the gospel and the values that it teaches. In her experience, simply including secular discussions in the curriculum about “moral” or “right” actions did not usually change a person in the long run, it was generally short lived. Mary recounts that she herself became a different person after a friend shared the gospel with her, noticing that she starting thinking in a less selfish, more trans-generational manner. In light of these encounters, Mary fully believes that it is only when someone starts a relationship with Jesus Christ that the change becomes a fully penetrating, enduring phenomenon. My own conviction is that this is true because of this simple biblical fact: God is the ultimate transformer. His Word is convicting and His grace compelling. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “we are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord…” The phrase “are being” implies that this change is also an ongoing process, it is not a one time deal. Just as the developmental aid work that I am doing in Nicaragua is a slow progression that takes time and effort, personal growth requires patience, sacrifice, and trust in God. But like Javier and Rodrigo pointed out, if we want to see our world environment change, we must first start with ourselves as individuals.