Tag Archives: El Salvador

Andres the refugee: Lessons in powerlessness from Honduras

Way back in the 90’s I took my first MCC immersion trip to El Salvador and Honduras. It was before cell phones worked well, so I had one scratchy phone call to Gwen in two weeks – that was a first. I remember the trip as my baptism by fire into the reality of white supremacy and empire thinking. This week that memory has seemed important.

When our group took off for San Salvador, I thought I was a rather “with it,” comparatively-activist kind of guy. I wanted to go to El Salvador before the war was over. I was already upset that the U.S. was complicit in all sorts of evil deeds and had hidden a titanic military base at Soto Cano. I felt a lot of love for people in Central America, especially since I came from Southern California where Spanish speakers were childhood friends. I soon found out I was less with it and loving than I thought, but that’s how I started.

We talked to Army officials, U.S. Embassy reps, church leaders, activists, and MCC workers. We met Jon Sobrino, were forced off our bus by eighteen-year-old soldiers with automatic weapons, and took a ride out into the far reaches of Honduras, almost to Nicaragua, where a village had waited up into the night under the one, public lightbulb to greet us. It was a very educational trip. But the most lasting memory has to be of Andres.

Mesa Grande Refugee Camp — Wikipedia/Linda Hess Miller

My upending memory of Andres

I admit that this incident is one of those that may have a lot more meaning than the facts deserve. I was having an “aha” moment, so who knows what really happened? We were in a refugee camp in Honduras for Salvadorans who had been driven out of their homes by the war. They expected to be gone until the soldiers passed on, but that never happened. Many years later they were still stuck in a strange limbo. Some had come as children, literally naked. One person who had fled with nothing but the clothes on his back was Andres. In his imprisonment, he had become a Christian and the catechist for the camp. We were meeting him because he was one of the leading people who should be seeing a group of well-dressed “dignitaries” from the United States.

He was very kind and very hospitable. We sat in his house made of cast-off scraps of wood. I still remember being fascinated as I watched chickens walking in and out of the walls. This sweet, godly, respectable man kept enlightening me as they pecked about. We might as well had come from the moon, as far as Andres was concerned. He had never been to San Salvador, the capital, from which we had just driven. I think I asked him if he ever wanted to own a car. He said he had not considered that, since he had never been in one. (That is one of my memories that makes me wonder if this really happened. Did he actually say that? You’ve never been in a car?). The longer I got to be with Andres, the more I loved him. My preconceptions about him began to fade into the background the more he talked – preconceptions like, “Surely he would want a car” and, “Surely he would like to go to the capitol city”). He was happy with his house and honored to be the catechist. Unlike all his visitors from the U.S. that day, he was content. He did not have big ideas about how to make everything better, and made me a bit ashamed of myself for cluttering up his honest, simple life with my expensive sandals.

Eventually, we were finished with our overwhelming two weeks and sitting in room in Tegucigalpa for the final debrief. At that point in my life I was especially not a crier. But when it came time for me to share, I uncharacteristically burst into tears. “I feel so helpless,” is what I remember saying. Maybe I was just feeling, “I can’t do anything.” I had come to Central America equipped with health, energy and assurance that I could be a part of something great. I would end the war, figure out rural poverty and go back to the U.S. equipped to organize great things to resettle refugees and effect reconciliation. Instead, I was sitting beside the road in Teguci-whatever crying out to Jesus. When He called to me, I told him I wanted to see. The scales of my “imperial gaze” were not removed, as of yet, but I certainly felt blind.

A few, certainly not all, of the lessons I need to learn

As we were in the middle of the always-overdue crisis over racism and police brutality in the United States last week (white supremacy, imperialism, militarism, inequality, etc. etc.), my mind turned to Andres and the things he began to teach me about being powerless and changing things, way back when.

1) People get along fine without western culture

I had never seen just how huge my list of assumptions about reality actually were until that trip. I thought I was a Christian – and I had been in trouble for how radical I was! But the Bible looked a lot more like Andres than like me. Whenever invisible people become visible to the rulers, it is always disturbing. Andres still disturbs me. I never really knew I was a ruler until I sat on a three-legged stool he made out of firewood in his house and realized he was getting along fine without me and my late-capitalist culture, or whatever it is that’s happening.

2) Not everyone wants to trade community for commodities

How in the world can one be so wise and content with a chicken walking through one’s walls? I could not keep my eyes off that chicken! Later that day another refugee family invited several of us to dinner. We shared a soup featuring their one potato as they happily watched us eat it. We investigated to see just how coerced they were to do this, but we were assured they really thought it would be a hoot to entertain us. Is it more amazing that we were flabbergasted or that they shared their potato? Even as a Christian, I am still tempted to have an economic answer for everything.

3) “Poor” people often have ways to get along in the shadow of the monsters that rule them just fine and don’t need instruction from the monsters when they finally deign to see them.

The world has always been full of monsters. Jesus announced their doom when he rose from the dead after they killed him. I was so full of power, I really wanted to fight those monsters. But after that debrief, I began to think that witnessing to their doom by embracing resurrection in their shadow was my best hope at having a life in a world where Bill Barr is Attorney General. Ever since, I keep trying to find a way to live an alternative in Christ in the shadow of the doomed monsters. They are passing away, after all, and what they thought was the Lord’s powerlessness will upend them forever. Plus, even they need a place to which to escape after they have killed and raped and despoiled the earth. I sat with Andres and felt like I deserved to die from my complicity with the monster from the north, but his gentle ignorance of my political plight and deep wisdom of our common spiritual future comforted and directed me.

4) Fighting it out for justice as if it amounted to percentages of a limited pie doesn’t make sense unless you want the pie.

We’ve been having the endless argument again this week after the looters smashed up corporate windows and messed up too many small businesspeople, too. “Thou shalt not steal” vs. “It’s not stealing; it’s just a bit of reparations for what was stolen.” Everyone is stealing, as usual, because in our society we live in a capitalist box. It seems to me that God is knocking on the box like (decidedly white, admittedly) Jesus in the famous painting, standing at the door. Behold, if there is not a better life than succeeding in the capitalist free-for-all, the vortex of injustice, that’s sad. Andres couldn’t have cared less about my car. How did he get so happy without a car? How did he seem so wise without knowing about my 401K? How could he know anything if he was not prepared to fight off the monster lurking in Soto Cano?

I take heart that the protests seemed to get free of the violence this weekend and turn into the morality that is uniting people around the world. But economic inequality is not going away any time soon, if ever. I’m glad I’ve met people all over the world, who don’t follow that inequality around, but follow Jesus instead.

5) There is an alternative that Anabaptists like to talk about but rarely find in North America.

I am happy we talk about the Third Way, and we (I mainly know about Circle of Hope) represent an alternative in a lot of ways. But we spend an awful lot of time sorting out the first and second ways, or whatever binary the media loves to amplify. I admit, I love to fire up my computer and read all the news every day. I might spend more time on that than time in meditation most days! I know an awful lot about the awful Trump, tromping across the street to run humanity-loving Episcopalians off their own porch. I suspect Andres never had a computer.  He missed the endless arguing; he missed the moralizing about moralizing, fury about fury and, exclusion over excluding. Maybe I am over-idealizing him, but I remember him as being strangely at peace. I not only want that peace, I want to make it.

I know I am making “points” as I go along telling these little stories. I’m not trying to tidy up my experience or yours – not really. It’s more of a confession. If you are a so-called white person, you probably have some of your own confession to make. So I am not trying to whitesplain anything, just trying to learn old lessons better. My lessons are not final and it would not be surprising if they aren’t the ones you want or need to hear. So let’s be friends. I just thought I’d tell you about a good man in the middle of nowhere who was driven out of his home and ended up in a refugee camp. He learned faith and it made him remarkable to me. Maybe he had an easier situation in which to learn faith at that point than we have in the belly of this beast – good for him. But maybe we can do it, too, instead of biting and devouring one another in reflection of the monster.

I think MCC made a decent investment by baptizing me. I certainly became better friends with the refugees of the world and with a lot of other people I probably would have continued to otherize. We are so preoccupied with stealing in the U.S., the country has ended up with a lot of stuff. When we ship it off to people with one potato periodically, I feel like some justice is done. Even better, when we get to know them and figure out our whole way of looking at things may not have much of a Jesus lens, love gets a chance to bloom. Then I feel we might be able to see a little bit.

The three things that changed my mind about those “other” people

In August, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said immigrants legally in the U.S. may no longer be eligible for green cards if they use food stamps, Medicaid and other public benefits. To justify this direction, he cited an 1882 rule intended to undo the words on the Statue of Liberty about welcoming the poor through the golden door by restricting immigration to wealthier people.

Cuccinelli’s intentions are just one of many ways the government is inventing to keep people, especially poor people and people of color, out of the United States. The  administration of Donald Trump (the Nativist in Chief) is so full of enmity and strife they can’t implement most of their threats, but that certainly doesn’t ease the fears of families who are left in limbo and too often separated from each other.

I grew up in a lower middle class family in the 1950s and 60s. My parents bravely clawed their way out of their parents’ poverty. Along the way, they cultured every “white” fear of the “other” possible. As a child, I swam in the nation’s original sin of racism. The family carried a careful disdain for every outsider who somehow managed to get into the white man’s country. This was my father’s creed, even though his grandmother was so poor she tried to get onto the Choctaw rolls in order to receive Native American benefits. As a result of all this training, even now I have a small, inbred instinct that resonates with people who think Ken Cuccinelli makes sense as he protects the nation from “freeloaders” flooding in to steal the fruits of “our” hard labor. I thought “otherizing “ people was just the way things worked until I was in Jr. High.

Friendship

Long about Jr. High I began to wake up to what all this hatred really meant. My mind began to change due to my friendships. I played sports with people who spoke Spanish at home and many were dear friends my whole childhood. I also learned my town’s name was Spanish and the first colonizers of California were from Spain. I had Japanese girlfriends, which really did not go over well, since my dad had fought them in World War 2. California was a major melting pot and I melted in.

The Bible

More important, I began to read the Bible for myself when I was a young man. My parents were not Christians, so they did not have any authority to recast the Bible for me; therefore, I got it straight.  When it came to “other” people, the Bible is clear. Jesus was an “other” and allied himself with poor people and outcasts, all the fancy buildings dedicated to him, notwithstanding. Israel was a nation of freed slaves who were commanded to treat outsiders like guests. Jesus made it clear that if his followers did not go to the ultimate degree with this element of Jewish morality, they were not his followers. “Love as I have loved you” and “love your enemies” are not hard truths to understand. I understood them.

Travel

What sealed my change of mind and helped create new instincts was experiencing other cultures and people first hand. The TV and our many screens makes the world seem small until you are travelling all over it. I’ve been all over. I have five abiding images that continue to stoke my love and reinforce the truth I gained in rebellion from my parents’ manifestly bad example as I followed Jesus.

  • While in Indonesia as a seventeen-year-old exchange student, a legless blind woman appeared in our train car after a stop, a car dominated by our merry band of rich kids en route to Bali. She scared us as she begged. She refused our food, since she was sent for money. Our conductor entered the car and was appalled. He actually had the train stop and they threw her out in a rice field in the middle of nowhere. We cried. I have never forgotten her.
Related image
Homes for the “other”
  • Gwen and I lived in San Diego for a little while before we had children. Whenever we crossed back over the border from Mexico, it amazed us how the air felt different — San Diego was irrigated with water that flowed through California’s expensive water projects and it sweetened the air. When we delivered help to people on the steep, dirt streets of Tijuana, it was our first experience of people all over the world who live on the hillsides without any utility services.
  • My first immersion trip with MCC was to El Salvador and Honduras. It was at the end of the civil war the U.S. financed. More than once our van was stopped by eighteen-year olds with automatic weapons making sure we were doing nothing subversive. We later learned many of them were probably kidnapped and forced to do their duty. In El Salvador we visited some of the “marginalized” people MCC was housing in one-room corrugated homes, for which they were very grateful. We learned the “marginalized,” although they lived in a category, did not officially exist. The territory on which they squatted had no government jurisdiction and they had no citizen rights. They were “others” who lived someone else’s lie.
  • While in South Africa learning mediation from the experts, our group of visibly-Western, wealthy people spent a brief time in downtown Johannesburg enjoying coffee in a sidewalk café. Our handlers began to note the young men who were beginning to circle us. They had warned us that desperate people were on the prowl for unsuspecting marks. It was a bit terrifying to be otherized by the otherized.
spraying the other people
“Fumigation” in Colombia
  • In Colombia, again with MCC, we survived a ride through one section of the mountains — where vans had been stopped by kidnappers rappelling down cliffs, to arrive in beautiful Cali. There we met displaced “others” who had been driven off their land by the war on drugs. The helicopters spayed Round-up indiscriminately, so people growing corn to feed their families were punished along with the coca farmers. One of them made sure to tell us to speak to our government about such cruelty. I did.

Jesus makes us safe enough to love the “other”

The government is as cruel now as it has ever been. And a good 40% of the voting population is convinced, as my father was, that there is not a problem a wall could not solve. Purported, Bible-loving Christians are some of the staunchest defenders of people like Ken Cuccinelli.

It is a blessing that I read the Bible, since it has little hope for any kingdom God does not rule and has little hope for any situation that is not seen through the lens of Jesus. Ultimately, being rooted in Jesus allowed me to cherish my cross-cultural encounters with the “others” I have met over the years. Jesus gives me the courage to put my opinions, identity and way of life at risk. Because of Jesus I am ready to be changed by my encounters with others just like God risks to relate to me and you. The process of love is unsettling unless one is settled in love.

David Brooks rightly noted last Friday that millions of Americans are being asked

“to accept high immigration while they are already living with maximum insecurity. Their wages are declining, their families and communities are fragmenting, their churches are shrinking, government services are being cut, their values and national identity feel unstable. Of course they are going to react with suspicion if suddenly on top of all this they begin to feel like strangers in their own place.”

I see what he is saying; I grew up in a house full of those fears. But when have regular people ever felt anything but that? My Dad was just trying to survive, too. He thought it was dangerous to be connected to others and illogical to care about their needs if his own family suffered.

Without that Jesus lens, the points Cuccinelli, Brooks, and Trump make along with their supporters and detractors will be endlessly made, just as the same points have been made my whole life. A friendship may show you another way. The Bible will surely teach us something different. Travel may open one’s eyes. At least I feel I have learned some life-changing things as I have listened to all those things. The big one is: no one is really safe and others are not safe from us unless we are safe in Jesus.

For the Cadets on Jean Donovan Day

Last night the president had some uphill sledding to do with his speech to the cadets at West Point. I admit I did not listen very well to every word, since I was also reading a magazine and writing our Christmas letter (sorry Barack). But I did notice that the poor man could not get any applause for the longest time! And, if nothing else, he is a good applause-getter! He finally loosened them up with the sheer power of a great speech. But the cadets didn’t get their hands moving until he complimented them! It was glaring. They were either feeling reticent about showing too much emotion (they were apparently instructed not to smile until the end – attenshun!) or they were reticent about him. But they finally got clapping when they were essentially clapping for themselves!

Am I making too much of this? I doubt it. I think we have been raising people to be aggressively self-centered and amazingly entitled for twenty years, now. Of course the cadets applauded for themselves! I wouldn’t be surprised if the line was purposely inserted in the speech to make sure they would get what they wanted. Why wouldn’t the president be a deliveryman for one’s self-interest?

It may have been more interesting than that. There was a lot of politicking going on in that speech. Obama talks to the cadets, then he turns to the camera and talks to the nation. He turns back and talks to the military in general, then he turns to the camera and talks to the world. He’s good. Plus, he was doing some slight variations on the stock, “We’ve got to pull out the stops and keep the war going” speech that people will be talking about today. The pundits were already being amazed that he was saying “We’ve got to build up so we can pull out.” And John McCain was already doubting that ever having an end point to a war is a good thing. I think his point is, “Even if it bankrupts us and we can’t really hope to dominate them, we need to try.”

It is quite jarring to think about all that when I go to bed and then wake up and realize it is Jean Donovan Day. She was martyred by a Salvadoran death squad on Dec. 2, 1980, when she was twenty-seven years old on a two-year mission with the Maryknoll sisters. She was supposed to be advancing literacy among the campesinos and ended up a disciple of Oscar Romero burying people caught in the crossfire of the government’s attacks on “subversives.” Her famous note to a friend, a few weeks before she was raped and murdered, said: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave… Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

Yes, I do want the cadets to care about the children and do unreasonable things to serve peasants. They will certainly find enough of them in Afghanistan! Honestly, I think a lot of the cadets would like to do that, too. So I want the president to help them change the world in the Jean Donovan way. Honestly, I think he might like to do that. So I want Jesus to keep defeating evil for us so we are not so foolish and controlled by self-destruction and the president gets to do what he must really want to do. In the meantime, I hope each of us will honor Jean Donovan today because she knew how to be in league with Jesus in a very practical way.