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.