A letter from Tracey King-Ortega, regional liaison for Central America, in Nicaragua
Those of you on Facebook may have seen a series of memos that were circulating recently describing certain professions with illustrations like “What my mom thinks I do,” “What society thinks I do,” “What I think I do,” and “What my friends think I do.” In many of them, the final image was a dreary someone in front of a computer with the caption “What I actually do.” That resonated well with me.
The reality is that much of my job is spent in front of a computer. I often feel as if I don’t “do” anything. My job isn’t very “sexy.” I’m not feeding hungry children, teaching rural farmers how to improve their crop production, or providing clean water. My role is often removed from those activities, though I do hope that I indirectly facilitate these things happening in some way or another by being present, accompanying our partners, and making connections. I may not be able to produce a tangible list of things I do or people I help, but I do work with partners who can.
CIEETS (Interchurch Center for Theological and Social Studies) in Nicaragua is one of those partners. In their work as both a theological seminary and a community development organization, they know that real community development, real change, is less about a list of things accomplished and more about preparing hearts and minds to embrace the fact that God wants something better for us. For this reason I am particularly excited about the way they are teaching theology. Using the “see – judge - act” method often used by the churches here in Latin America to put social justice principles into practice, CIEETS is transforming lives.
This way of reading the Bible, formerly known as liberation theology, is what put Central America on the map for many social justice-minded U. S. Christians. This contextualized reading of the Bible created a palpable energy, spirit, and hope that in past decades drew so many to come to this part of the world and experience it for themselves, myself included. In the midst of military dictatorships, war, and abject poverty, people were studying the Word and seeing their lives and communities being transformed by it. Ernesto Cardenal’s famous work, The Gospel of Solentiname, is a worthwhile example.
Today you may have to look harder to find it, but that energy, spirit and hope is still being created. Now referred to as Latin American theology, CIEETS is teaching it and lives are being changed.
To give you an example, I want to share with you Yami’s story. As part of CIEETS’ theology school’s 30th anniversary celebration, I spent a morning with some of their students as they shared how what they are learning has impacted them. One of the students, Yami, shared her own experience of liberation through studying the Bible. She spoke of her childhood cut short by her parent’s divorce and having to take on much of the responsibility of raising her younger siblings. Soon afterward she had her own child at age 15. With that added responsibility of motherhood, coupled with living in a violent relationship, she said that she was “drowning in bitterness.” At the age of 17 she became an evangelical. You may think that her story of liberation begins there. But it doesn’t. In fact, for her, life as an evangelical was worse. Participating in a church that preached a fatalistic message, she was told that the abuse must in some way be her fault and that it was her “cross to bear.” Her subjugation as a woman continued.
Fortunately, a few years later she participated in one of CIEETS’ women’s theology courses, and she says, “I opened my eyes.” Reading the Bible and contextualizing it into her Nicaraguan reality gave her the freedom to seek solutions and to be free in her identity as a woman. She gained a deep sense of gratitude for understanding God’s presence in her daily life and in her own country, not abstractly in another time and in some foreign land. As she told her story, she came across as a truly joyful person, no longer bitter. The joy and responsibility that came with her own liberation has led her to seek a master’s degree in women’s theology with CIEETS. Her thesis work entitled “I opened my eyes” explores methodologies to bring this same kind of learning/liberation to illiterate women in rural Nicaragua.
Yami’s story may not make sense to everybody. But for me, someone who believes in the dignity of all God’s creation and our call to honor that as key to our struggle for justice, her story strikes at the heart of the gospel message. In the words of Archbishop Romero, "God needs the people themselves to save the world. . . .The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of handouts from governments or from the churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation."
CIEETS is doing this important work and I feel proud that the PC(USA) partners with them. Because they have shared with me their experience of the gospel that is at the same time challenging and spiritually nourishing, I want to expose others to CIEETS and their transformative model of ministry. In doing so, I hope that we can learn to ask a different set of questions. It is a different way of engaging in mission, but rather than being so focused on what we can do, maybe we can start with asking, “What do I need to learn?” “Where do we need to grow and be challenged?” And then enter into relationship with our southern partners, like CIEETS, and ask them to lead us in finding the answers so that together we can do the work of Kingdom building.
Blessings and peace,
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 2