From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lessons from the Dump

On Saturday we went to the city dump. Why would we do that? In the States, dumps are festering and far away places that allow materialistic citizens to forget about the consequences of their actions. In Managua, La Chureca is part of the city, between Lake Xolotlán, which has been polluted to the point of ecological death, and Barrio Acahualinca. There´s a bus route that goes right to the barrio, and as soon as you get off, though you´re still surrounded by homes and stores and faded parks, you also surrounded by the fumes of the dump.

Another detail. La Chureca is the home and workplace of Managua´s poorest. Two hundred families live on the side of the dump and search through garbage heaps for food scraps and things to sell to recycling posts. And five hundred workers arrive at five in the morning to spend all day there, heading home with a little money to buy a meal for their family. So the dump in Managua is also a neighbourhood, a work camp, a business. It´s also an infierno (hell), according to a newspaper article I found about it before going, and according to me.

Here is part of a reflection I wrote in my journal when we got home.

Some of us (not me) stuck on rain boots, and we headed toward the lake and dump on our guide Yamila´s paved road, eventually turning left onto a trash-lined alley. Through the rainy mist and trash fumes I could see heaping gray-brown piles rising out of the mud, as high as hills, but made of everything—tires, diapers, cookie wrappers, discarded needles, banana peels, and scraps that were so degraded and mixed that they had become one with the mud.

We trekked up a sopping hill of compacted trash. The utter separation but proximity of that world surprised me. We had left a poor but peaceful barrio of tin houses a moment before, and were now entering a trash tundra. Children—much too skinny and young—running, jumping, smiling, or wide-eyed with trauma and maturity, swept by us to plunge into piles.

Dump trucks, ironically labelled ¨Managua Limpia,¨ passed on their way up the hill. The vested workers hanging onto their beds whistled at us. My sneakers sunk into seedy mud and I felt the toxic ooze between my toes. I took a labored breath and told myself, ¨This is what you asked for. Here we go.¨

There were a hundred workers that day, which was a lower than usual, due to the rain. I cannot grapple with the fact that the workers there looked completely used to everything. They poked and hauled and smiled at each other´s jokes. The smiles mystified me. I couldn´t smile. This experience is hereby added to the list of times I have seen Nicaraguans smile and wondered if that´s what they´re really feeling. So much can hide behind a smile.

I am surprised I wasn´t even more emotionally moved. I think it was the rain. No matter where you are and how dirty you get, water heals. I felt separated from the workers by a mist shield. And from the fumes. They say the fumes of La Chureca are the hardest to bare—they make your eyes water and throat close up. But the rain kept them tamed so that they burned less.

I did feel one thing, strongly. Mistfit. Tourist. Ickily privileged. I watched while everyone else dug and pushed and scurried over the best trash, sometimes clawing at each other, sometimes getting pushed full-bodied into a pile of mush by a fellow hungry worker. I watched, with my hands in my pockets, my fingers fiddling with guilt, incredulity, helplessness, and powerlessness, instead of trash.

My God Scavenger Hunt

Those who´ve followed my random interests and travels have probably observed that I like God. Tehe. That is, I like experiencing the different ways culture and heritage play into our concept of God and I like arguing with those who seem to have closed God in a box, as we all seem to do.

Nicaragua has provided the opportunity to grow in this interest. Although my community and I are Jesuit Volunteers and thus resonate with a liberation-theology-Catholic perspective, I have been able to explore multiple views of the divine. Here are my reflections on a few of them.

God Among Us: Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (CEB)

Our favorite ¨mass¨ to attend regularly is a Christian Base Community, much like CLC groups at Catholic campuses. A group of family, friends and neighbors meets every Sunday at 9:30 in an auditorium to read the Gospel and talk about living it out, share bread and wine, and sing and sway to guitar, marimba and drums. There is no priest. I like this. Firstly, there are a shortage of priests in the world, and Catholic communities in poorer places have had to adapt like this CEB has. Secondly, this weekly celebration is a reminder that a chaste, adult man isn´t necessary to encounter God. At the CEB, teenagers and grandmothers preside at the altar, guide the conversation and share their thoughts. We´ve liked it so much that my commate Tony and I facilitated a celebration with and for the 9 JVs, modelled after the CEBs. We took the readings from Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, and the teaching of Buddha, and we sat around candles and a globe. God was personal, internal, comfortable, empowering.

Universal Energy: Buddhism, Yoga, and Tai-Chi

Two of my commates hold views in line with Buddhism. They practice yoga and tai-chi regularly and have helped me to respect my body, accept all of my thoughts and live in the moment by paying attention to my breath. I have also learned inclusive language from them. They believe in sending and receiving energy from the universe. This is their way of prayer, and there is something quite enabling to all people in difficult times, religious or not, about being able to say ¨I send you positive energy¨ rather than ¨I pray to my God for you.¨

La Pachamama: Mother God of the Earth

During our retreats, we have focused on the theme of God in the wild, of respecting nature as a miracle and as the Mother who gives us life. In the Andean spirituality of Bolivia and Peru, God is Pachamama, a feminine spirit alive in nature. We sometimes meditate on Her image, and this holds us accountable to living simple lives in solidarity with the poor. My belief in stewardship for the Earth has been expanded. The Earth is no longer ¨given¨ to humankind; rather, She is the Giver and the Creator. I am thus much more likely to think twice about my enculturation into a wasteful, consumerist society.

Iglesia de Dios: A Venture into Firey Evangelization

I recently accompanied my friend Edwin to his evangelical Christian service. Jehova´s witness, Mormonism, and evangelical Protestantism are quickly overtaking Catholicism in the number of converts per year in Nicaragua. This service took place in a high-ceilinged, linoleum-floored hall with huge electric lights and hundreds of plastic wicker chairs. The first half of the service consisted of ear-drum bursting, joyful praise and worship music, led by a hefty guitarist who sweated and jumped in his shirt and tie. Hands reached toward heaven and worshippers spun in circles for almost an hour. Edwin spent most of the first hour speaking the words of the songs to me so I could understand better.

Next a small, put-together pastor took to the pulpit and pulled out his Bible tranquilly. Before I knew it he was screaming into the microphone about what love really means and the brilliance of the prophet Isaiah. He spoke for a half hour, interrupted by ALELUYAS and LA GLORIA DE DIOS from his enthusiastic congregation. We sang and danced a little more (which was interesting, because outside the church, members aren´t allowed to dance or drink), greeted Edwin´s family, and left.

I enjoyed witnessing people on fire in their faith, whether or not I shared it. The experience was loud and intense, and I found myself wanting a little reflection time and a little more variety. I also wish I had gotten into a better conversation about convictions with Edwin. The stereotype is that evangelical Nicaraguans are closed-minded and pushy, but he was nothing but welcoming and happy. Good for him, good for them.

Saint Peter of the Rich: a Conservative Catholic Church

My commate Tobin and I once attended a Catholic mass in an infamously well-off barrio called Martha Quezada, also called Gringolandia, for all the embassies and gringos (white people) found there. San Pedro´s is huge, new, and glistening, quite an anomaly according to my Managua experience. Imagine leaving work amid cardboard homes and hungry children and then entering a palace full of ironed silk shirts, pearl earrings and diamonds, to talk about God, a God who supposedly hears the cry of the poor. It didn´t make sense. And it made me think about every time I´ve attended mass amid the rich of the States—do people commit to serving the God they believe in by living for and with the people that God loves most? Or do they too easily forget the reality of the world?

The next day I told my co-workers I had gone to mass at San Pedro´s. They´d heard of it and made fun of me. They call it ¨San Pedro de los Ricos,¨ or Saint Peter of the Rich.

In the future, I hope to attend a Korean church nearby, and have conversations with some of the Muslim vendors at one of the markets. Not only because I like talking about God—it´s more that I like talking to and learning from people.