A letter from Carlos Cardenas Martinez in Nicaragua
September 2012 #2
Sisters and Brothers:
“We learned that another perspective of psychology in emergencies is possible…."
Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy… (I Corinthians 14:1).
My warm greetings and best wishes to you from this wonderful tropical land of lakes and volcanoes, Nicaragua. I would like to dedicate this letter full of gratitude to all of you who support and made possible the accompaniment of our partners in development work, advocacy activities and emergency response in the Americas.
One of the core issues dominating our minds and thinking during the last years in our disaster relief work in central America was the concern for the transition from the mental health approach of psychology into a more humble and human approach of this science.
We cannot deny the importance of knowledge and skills received from institutions like the Mennonite University through its program STAR (management of post-traumatic stress), the Panamerican Health Organisation PAHO with abundant theoretical resources, others like the InterAgency Steering Committee IASC and the Church of Sweden providing guidelines and training for trainers (2004-2006).
An important shift of psychology for us, humanitarian workers, was first announced and taught by Kathy Angi, former coordinator of a vigorous and prestigious psychosocial team in PDA, arguing that to provide psychological and pastoral care to disaster survivors, our field workers have not to be psychologists but to be sensitive to others' pain, suffering and to be loving care–oriented.
Since then it was like a forbidden field of science opened its gates for community participation in such important area of our lives. Here we reflected on the words of the prophet: 1 Corinthians 13: 2: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Later on in PDA we moved ahead and added that psychosocial work is also an urgent need in development programs due to our historic inheritance of social trauma brought from times of revolutionary violence and military conflicts suffered in the '70s and '80s, which expresses itself in growing levels of social and intra-familial violence in Nicaragua today.
It was in this crossroad where I met important people and valuable human resources working as staff of our partners, like Mrs. Ramona Lopez, called Monchita among friends and colleagues, social worker and current manager of the CEPAD's Integral Program for the Family; Mrs. Josefina Murillo, doctor/psychologist, executive director of Professionals for Psychosocial Support Group (PAE); and Eduardo Izaguirre, pastor of God's Assemblies Church, psychologist practitioner, actually a freelancer consultant for the North Atlantic Autonomous Region RAAN. They have been dedicated in the last five years and more to training a lot of people at the community level in Nicaragua and beyond its borders in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Let me share a bit of the experience and work developed by Monchita in CEPAD in the frame of the Community Based Psychosocial Service approach. Last year, in July 2012, I was invited to the CEPAD's National Forum of Psychosocial Work Community Groups, a gathering of 43 communities. There Monchita spoke to young participants, encouraging them to be better prepared to improve their capabilities and provide to families and individuals a psychosocial accompaniment with quality. She also called them to take advantage of the healing power of pastoral care in such crises by bringing consolation to people in despair and suffering.
Monchita and other speakers pointed out that “collective trauma remains inside the consciousness for years, making a painful existence, which is why churches and communities show strong interest in continuing to support these efforts, from which we observe the transformational results at the individual level and the restoration of community links as well.”
Monchita also complained, saying: “There is still too much awareness work to do on this issue. Too many people think that investment in psychosocial programs is a worthless expense and they don't see the importance of meeting the emotional needs of people affected by disasters and conflicts.”
Her concerns made me reflect on recent big emergencies confronted in Latin America where often it was expected that psychology as a science could focus its work on a more critical perspective, recognizing that the process of emergencies production is deeply linked to political, economic and social realities of our societies.
One of the aspects to overcome is the understanding of disaster phenomena and the dimension of the post-traumatic stress. We call colleagues to admit that we as church-based disaster relief agencies have to redefine our presence in the field of disasters, encouraging people and communities to play the role of direct protagonists by addressing all aspects of disaster management on the ground.
Our psychosocial practitioners agree that the essential of our work is the understanding of its cultural nature. To do psychosocial work is compared with a cultural dialogue with communities. A dialogue aimed to empower individuals in the local community networks to manage all the aspects affecting their lives, including those related to the risks they face, the reflection and analysis of social and economic conditions they live in, available resources, and organizational capabilities and other skills.
While I listened to Monchita in several workshops it was clear to me her belief in a psychology in emergencies and disasters was linked to a perspective of a communitarian psychology in which the community is the fundamental target.
In conclusion, based on the mentioned experiences, I call you to support in your prayers and your actions the Community Based Psychosocial Service approach and to join our partners' efforts in this field that impact also the effectiveness of development work.
The Grace of our almighty God be always with you!
Carlos Cardenas M
PCUSA Mission Co-worker at Nicaraguan Council of Evangelical Churches (CEPAD)
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) representative for Latin America & Caribbean Region
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 11