When I think back on my high school years, I remember a community filled with  spirituality. I received an education that encouraged me to think critically about the realities of the world while cultivating an idealism grounded in faith. At the beginning of every school year, our campus minister would ask an artistically inclined student to create a banner conveying a theme for that year. When I began my senior year in the fall of 2000, my classmate Jill made a beautiful banner with an image of two hands holding up the world. The phrase that accompanied it was “Embrace The World With Hope.”

For me, the turn of the millennium was a moment of excitement and joy. So much in the world seemed to be changing for the better. The Berlin Wall had come down; the Cold War had ended; technology was bridging cultural and linguistic divides. Alas, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the two ensuing US-led wars threatened my rosy view of the world, as did my growing awareness of social injustice, violence , mass consumption of precious natural resources, and humanity’s destruction of biodiversity. Suddenly, Jill’s banner took on new meaning for me, and to this day I haven’t forgotten it. What the world needs now, more than anything else perhaps, is hope.

While studying Latin American literature in college I was forced to look at my country from a perspective I’d rarely encountered in my high school history classes. I learned about the many wrongs that my country’s foreign policies had wrought on people across the world, particularly those of the Western Hemisphere.  I learned of the US-funded Contra War in Nicaragua in the ’80’s and the US-backed coup in Chile in 1973; I learned of cash crop producers who’d suffered at the hands of US-dominated multinationals. I learned of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Salvadoran advocate for the poor, assassinated while saying Mass in 1980. Later, I learned that his killers had been trained at a US military institution: the School of the Americas.

Founded in 1946, the School of the Americas has trained Latin American military personnel in a variety of areas, including torture techniques. When the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador was exposed as having been completed by SOA graduates, Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois decided to take action. Since 1990, his organization SOA Watch has fought for the closure of the SOA, holding a vigil each November outside the gates of its facility at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Although the name of the institution was changed in 2001 – it is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), its faculty and central purposes remain unchanged.

Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch

About five years ago, Bourgeois was joined by former Maryknoll Lay Missionary and human rights activist Lisa Sullivan. Together, they decided on a new strategy toward closing the school: removing its students. Travelling throughout Latin America and meeting with multiple political leaders, Bourgeois and Sullivan have found this strategy to be somewhat successful. Beginning with Venezuela, they eventually got Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay to withdraw their troops. Two months ago, a meeting with President Rafael Correa ensured Ecuador’s withdrawal. Just this past week, on September 4, 2012, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega announced that his military would also be withdrawing its own remaining troops. (At the beginning of Ortega’s presidency in 2007 there were 78 Nicaraguan soldiers studying at the SOA annually; by 2011 there were five, and now there are none). How fortunate I was to be sitting just a few feet away from him when he made this announcement, to share in this moment filled with hope.

The Nicaraguan countryside near Esteli

On August 28, 2012, a delegation of concerned US and UK citizens travelled to Nicaragua under the auspices of SOA Watch as well as the Nicaragua Network. Our objective was twofold: to learn about the country’s current political, social and economic realities and to convince President Ortega to withdraw Nicaraguan troops from the SOA/WHINSEC. My fellow delegates and I saw a lot during our ten days in Nicaragua. We met a cooperative of women who have started businesses due to the current Sandinista government’s Zero Usury Programme. We met a woman who had been given a new start (along with a pregnant cow) as part of the same government’s Zero Hunger Programme. We met a passionate Irish-born activist, editor of news source Tortilla Con Sal, who has lived in Nicaragua for years and led inspiring social projects, including a the formation of a women’s cooperative in the city of Esteli. We visited Managua’s city dump – in recent times nothing short of hell on earth for the poorest of Nicaragua’s poor. Now, a new recycling centre is being built there, and the impoverished people who live there will be given new jobs.

Recycling centre being built in Managua

This is not to say that all is rosy in Nicaragua. We also met with former banana plantation workers who, subjected to the chemical Nemagon by the multinational companies that employed them, are now left with physical illness and moral disillusionment. We met with the Movimiento Renavador Sandinista, which fervently critiques Daniel Ortega’s government as continuing with the neoliberal policies of the 90’s. Meetings with government officials, who spoke of ecologically questionable development projects like the building of a canal along and lauded foreign investment in the country by ethically dubious giants like Cargill, led me to see the shades of truth in the opposition movement’s critiques. “We have to balance things out,” I kept hearing in talk after talk. “It’s complicated.” Indeed, the Sandinistas of 2012 are not the revolutionaries of the 1980’s. Nevertheless, as we drove through Managua’s nameless streets, I saw a different vision of the country than that which I’d experienced ten or even five years ago. It’s hard to put my finger on just what it was, but there was a spark in the air. A newfound optimism. New hope.

One of many murals in Esteli

For me, one of the greatest highlights of the delegation was our visit to two Christian Base Communities. As an eighth grader in my Catholic primary school I’d learned about these small, grassroots Catholic communities that during the 70’s and 80’s were hotbeds of liberation theology – the application of gospel principles to the condition of the oppressed. These communities were once known as the backbone of the Latin American church. But, as the hierarchical, institutional church grew more conservative and liberation theology lost its influence, these communities also declined in some countries.

The Nicarao Christian Base Community’s Liturgy of the Word celebration

But, this is not at all the case in Nicaragua, where they are vibrant and filled with fervour. As we walked into the Liturgy of the Word celebration, which was led by a woman and accompanied by joyful  guitar music, I immediately felt at home. Later, when we sat down in a circle and told them of our mission, we encountered their profound political awareness and insight. All of the members knew about the School of the Americas, and all urged us on in our determination to close it.

The Casa Hogar Christian Base Community

This excitement was compounded by our meeting with Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a Maryknoll priest and old friend of Father Roy Bougeois. Refusing to choose between religious commitment and activity in the predominantly secular world of politics, d’Escoto served as Nicaragua’s foreign minister in the 1980’s and President of the UN General Assembly in 2008. “There is no revolution without spirituality, and no spirituality without revolution,” he told us, seated in the back garden of his lovely house which is is gradually converting into a museum of Nicaraguan art. “The world is in bad shape; we are in need of people inflamed with love. I pray that you all may receive a shot of divine insanity, the insanity of the Cross. It is this insanity that makes us yearn to risk our lives for those people on the other side of the tracks.”

Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, former president of UN General Assembly

As for our objective of meeting with President Ortega? Thanks to the efforts of Paul Baker Hernandez, a British-born singer and activist who has been living in Nicaragua for over twenty years and who organized our entire itinerary, we were promised a meeting with him at some point during our stay. But, as the days went by, the expected call still did not come. On our last and perhaps busiest day, which included meetings with the Movimiento Renavador Sandinista, human rights commissioner Omar Cabezas, a Sandinista youth environment brigade, and with a women’s commission, we anxiously waited for the phone to ring. It didn’t. As the hours went by, our hope began to wane.

“After all, it’s certainly arrogant of us to go to a country and expect to meet with its president,” one delegate remarked. As night fell, we headed off to our farewell dinner at a lovely restaurant called Mirador de Tiscapa. I was halfway through my second margarita when the call came: we were to be back at Father Miguel d’Escoto’s house by 8 p.m.; there, the president would see us.

The next moments occurred as if within a dream. We quickly finished our dinners, paid our bill, and scrambled back into the vans. Our drivers hurried raced us back to Father Miguel’s house, where we were once again seated in his garden. We talked excitedly among ourselves until it was announced: the President was in the house. We all stood, and then he emerged. “I saw you in today’s paper,” he told us. When we thanked him for agreeing to meet with us, he smiled. “You were very persistent,” he said.

Father Roy minced no words in conveying our mission to President Ortega. “Please join with your friends in Venezuela and Ecuador in saying that the School of the Americas should not exist,” he admonished the president.

As I sat listening, I was not sure of what to expect. My Nicaraguan friends expressed doubt that Ortega would withdraw Nicaragua’s troops from the SOA, and when the president began to speak, those doubts were confirmed. “The economy of Nicaragua is fragile and dependent,” he told us. “Our original economic condition was one of dependence. We had this until 1979 and then again during the 90’s under neliberalism. From the US perspective, we were a ‘banana republic.’ No South American country, nor Mexico, was ever called this.”

Father Roy urges President Daniel Ortega to withdraw Nicaragua’s remaining troops from the School of the Americas

He went on to discuss his government’s plans for ending this dependence – particularly, Nicaragua’s decision to join the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and development plans that aim to allow freedom from the IMF. However, he then began to discuss the challenges of US-Nicaraguan relations. “It would not be possible for us to nationalize our resources,” Ortega said. “We would not be able to handle the US sactions.” He then mentioned the increased US military presence in Latin America, which the American government has justified by citing concerns over narcotics trafficking.

All of these, I expected Ortega to say, are reasons why we cannot withdraw our troops from the School of the Americas.

Instead, the discussion took a completely unexpected turn. Ortega stated that Nicaragua, along with Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, was in the process of withdrawing from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. He then stated, “As for the School of the Americas, it has an ethical weight, especially for countries like ours that were its victims. It is a symbol of death and terror. And this year, we are not sending any more troops there, nor will we be doing so in the years to come.”

In that moment, Nicaragua became the sixth country – and the first Central American country – to withdraw its troops from the SOA/WHINSEC.

“Embrace the world with hope.” Even amid war, dictatorship, economic and environmental collapse, rampant consumerism and our cruel destruction of our Mother Earth, there is still hope. I can hardly express how fortunate I was to be there to see it. And now, as SOA Watch takes its campaign to other countries, I feel certain that this little flicker is only the beginning.

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Many of you probably know someone who has gone on a short-term mission trip to a foreign country – perhaps through a church group or university, perhaps through some sort of international charitable organization. They go with the hope of “doing good in the world,” “serving others,” “making a difference.” But do these trips do any real good? Couldn’t the money which these visitors spend on aifare, accomodation and food in the host country do more good if invested directly into the communities which these visitors purport to “serve?” In the article that follows, Jo Ann van Engen astutely observes that these short-term mission trips often do much more harm than good:

 http://www.ajs-us.org/joannsarticle.pdf

A Holy Place

August 4, 2011

To become as fragile as the tiny frogs hiding in the rain

as weak as the night butterflies encircling the lamp

and fear nothing –

To walk in the night from village to village

to hear the dark opera of the grasses

and fear nothing –

To lose yourself among the conifers

and then emerge in an open field

the size of the world,

to feel your own smallness

and fear nothing –

is it  still possible?

There is a place that I would like to show you. It may be far away from where you live, it may cost a lot of money to travel there. But if I can, I’d like to take you there, even if only for a brief moment, even if only through the medium of  a few pictures and words.  It is a place that you most likely have been needing to visit without even being aware of that need, without even knowing of its existence. Everyone who goes there is a seeker, a pilgrim hoping to receive something;   however, everyone who goes there also has the potential to give something. And that might just be what most of us are seeking – to find out what it is that we can give.

So, I invite you to come with me. The  journey is not long, but slow and lilting, lulling you to sleep as the train brushes against the tracks, as a slight breeze comes in through the cabin’s  partially open window. We rumble  past farms and open fields, through a few big cities and many small towns, until the landscape starts to become wooded. Now, we begin to see lakes – mostly small ones, really more like large ponds than actual lakes. Then, larger ones. Eventually we see the mix of old and new buildings that make up the city of Olsztyn, where the train stops. We gather up our things and make our way into the station; after checking the map, we see that we need to take one more train to Gotki. After grabbing some lunch – white borscht and pork chops that aren’t too bad as far as train station food goes – we board this second train. It’s only three stops to our destination, and then we disembark at a stop which appears to be in the middle of a field. For a moment, fear sets in – how will we know how to get where we’re going? But then, we turn and see that Zbyszek is waiting for us in his car, just as he’d promised he would. We get in the car and he takes us to Agroturystyka Bajka, his wife Teresa’s bed and breakfast, where we have arranged to stay for the week. She greets us with a smile, show us to our room and offers us a hand-sketched map to our actual destination:  Teatr Węgajty, tucked away at the edge of a forest, unknown to anyone who does not seek it out, yet nevertheless one of this culturally rich country’s most radical theatre companies.

Teatr Węgajty is a theatre company like no other. It is a place where all are welcome, where there is no hierarchy or division, no boasting or showing off. It is a place where everyone is invited to contribute something, whether by preparing a tasty German potato salad, leading a dance which all are inspired to join, or translating a conversation so that as many people in the multilingual audience as possible might understand. It is a place where an internationally acclaimed musician and composer will not only play his innovative, John Cage-inspired pieces for you, but teach you to create and perform your own; where a group of young girls from a correctional facility will perform a hip-hop piece about famous women and then teach you to write a hip-hop piece about your own experience;  where men, women and children of all ages come together to celebrate a remote village’s 645th anniversary by dancing to an old Hebrew melody while Wacek pumps his accordion and Mute trills on her clarinet. It is a place where you’ll stand in a huge field at dusk while waiting to watch Rui Ishara’s performance of Japanese butoh dancing and discover that the cloud of buzzing mosquitoes above us is one of the most beautiful forms of music we could hope to hear.

Again and again throughout this blog I have mentioned my struggles with religion.  In each pilgrimage I make to Węgajty – and to me, each visit I make there is indeed a pilgrimage, for it is a holy place – I learn the meaning of this complicated, inflammatory word. Religion is not a set of beliefs or dogmas. Religion is not a social institution. Religion is the way you feel when you’ve walked in the rain for nearly an hour, your shoes soaked completely through, and then realize that you’ve gotten lost and have no choice but to go up to a random house and ask strangers for help. Religion is when it turns out that those strangers are actually going to the same place as you, when they introduce themselves and offer you a cup of tea, when they invite you to get in their car and come with them. Religion is when you see that the world around you is teeming with life – frogs and insects,  flowers and mushrooms, each one another manifestation of the divine. Religion is when everything you do – the way you twist and move in a dance, the soup you serve to the person sitting next to you, the determination with which you stand up after tripping over a stone in the road – becomes a prayer, a way of speaking to God and listening for the response that seems to be coming faster than you can take it in. Religion is when you learn that our true nature is not to compete or seek domination, but to collaborate and form a community. In Węgajty I have found that community. Now, my challenge is to carry it with me, back to my home in Toronto, back to my students and colleauges and friends. Back to you. This is the challenge of every religious experience – to make sure that it does not die, to keep it alive even in the hectic daily routine of bills to be paid and papers to be graded, even amid the tumult of global wars and economic crises. Węgajty is a place without fear, without self-consciousness; it is a place where everything is possible, and where art really does change  world. Now, I am trying to share it with others. I hope that these simple lines will offer you at least one tiny glimpse of its beauty.