A letter from Jed Koball in Peru
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
A year ago an unprecedented darkness fell upon the town of La Oroya. A group of 10 university students from the United States accompanying a group of 10 children and youth from La Oroya were violently attacked by a group of nearly 200 men. Throwing rocks and punches, the men chased the young people out of town.
It was upon the invitation of a group of youth from La Oroya that the 10 students from the Presbyterian Campus Ministry at the University of Arizona had travelled to Peru during their spring break. The students volunteered to accompany the youth in their ongoing activities of addressing grave environmental concerns in La Oroya. Together they would meet with churches, schools and municipal leaders—sharing their concerns and calling on everyone to do their part in caring for the environment. And, together, they would paint a mural for the town, giving a message of hope to all its passersby.
The grave environmental concerns the youth speak of are very real. La Oroya, a town of 35,000, in the central Andes of Peru, is often considered one of the 10 most contaminated cities in the world; 99 percent of the children (including some of the very youth who invited the students from Arizona) have chronic and severe lead poisoning. The source of the contamination is a lead smelter owned by a New York billionaire. For 15 years the lead smelter has failed to comply with Peruvian environmental laws. In 2009 the plant shut down indefinitely, but not because it failed to meet its obligations; rather, because it claimed to be bankrupt due to the high cost of meeting the environmental regulations. Today the plant remains inoperative; however, the severe amount of pollution already in the soils continues to affect the health of the children. All the while, the company fights to reopen the plant once again, without environmental controls in place.
The mural that the students and youth were painting was that of a dream. It was a dream of how the world should look. It was a message calling on everyone to play their part in caring for this Creation that God has blessed us with. It was not casting blame on anyone; rather, it was calling all to responsibility. It was an image of green hills and blue waters, cared for by the youngest to the oldest, picking up trash and installing clean technologies. It was a prophetic vision.
And, unbeknownst to them, it was a controversial image. Nearly 200 men, allegedly from the company, walked out of the lead smelter and approached the group of young people, stole their paints and paintbrushes, demolished the mural, threw rocks at the youth, and hit them and kicked them.
On that dark day, a year ago in La Oroya, the victory we claimed was that of the Peace of Christ that lived through the youth in that very moment. With an unfailing love, they protected one another, prayed for one another, prayed for the workers, and prayed for their lives. They did not respond in violence. They did not return evil for evil. The darkness did not overcome the light within them. They escaped with relatively little physical harm.
Since that day La Oroya has never been the same. The tensions have increased over the past year as the company has pressed even harder to reactivate the plant without environmental controls in place. In recent months Peruvian leaders from the church and civil society (including many of our friends and partners) began receiving anonymous death threats for speaking out against the reactivation of the plant without environmental controls in place.
In March, in the face of such threats and in the face of the imminent reactivation of the plant without such environmental controls, our partners at the Red Uniendo Manos Peru [the Joining Hands network in Peru] along with members of the Peruvian Interfaith Commission organized a prayer vigil in Lima. They called upon all peoples of faith to gather in prayer for peace, for justice, for health in La Oroya, and for a world befit for all children. The call to prayer extended beyond Peru to the United States—to Presbyterians in St. Louis, New York, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and ... Arizona.
In the days before the vigil was to take place, I received an email from the Rev. Ellen Dawson, director of the Presbyterian Campus Ministries at the University of Arizona. She informed me that, “it was almost done!”
A year ago, upon returning to the U.S., the students from the University of Arizona decided that they did not want the act of violence by the men in La Oroya to be the final word. They wanted the voice of the children and youth of La Oroya to be heard and shared. They decided to replicate the very mural they had begun to paint together with the youth in La Oroya.
Over the course of the past year, the students reached out to local Presbyterian congregations in the Tucson, Arizona, area. They shared the story of La Oroya and the dream of the youth. And then they had members of each church help paint a portion of the mural on canvas.
On the day of the prayer vigil that was held in a park in a central part of Lima, an image of the completed mural was projected on to a large screen. The same image was shared with faithful Presbyterians gathered across the United States. Inspired by the dream of the youth of La Oroya, the people prayed. And the people acted.
In the following days, Peruvians and North Americans called and wrote to their congressional representatives to encourage the government of Peru not to allow for the reactivation of the lead smelter in La Oroya without the proper environmental controls in place. And, in an unanticipated move, the government not only listened to the people, it stood its ground against the company. The lead smelter will not be reopening anytime soon, and certainly not without new technologies in place.
The story of La Oroya is far from over. The dream of the youth of La Oroya has yet to be fully realized. But there is a celebration to be shared nonetheless—the celebration of a prayerful people, inspired by the dreams of the young, working collaboratively across borders so that peace and justice may prevail.
From La Oroya to Lima to St. Louis, New York, Ohio, Washington and Arizona... a light shines. And the darkness did not overcome it.
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 23
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