A letter from Tracey King-Ortega in Nicaragua
This year marks 40 years since the devastating 6.2 earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua that destroyed 90 percent of the city, killed about 5,000 people, injured some 20,000, and left over 250,000 homeless. The quake struck just after midnight on December 23, 1972, forever impacting Christmas memories for an entire nation. I just came across a Walter Cronkite news report on the earthquake on YouTube. It was the first time I’ve seen moving images from that time. I had no idea just how desperate things were.
I’ve asked many members of my husband’s family what that time was like. Rather than stories of fear and devastation, I hear about resiliency, of the family working together to salvage their belongings and relocate to Masaya, where they had relatives willing to take them in. We have inherited the pickup truck that Mainor’s great-uncle bought just a few months before the quake and used to transport people and things in days following. Nicaragua has always surprised me in that way. Rather than get stuck in the destruction, it has shown itself time after time to be a resilient place where hope prevails. Perhaps the greatest story of hope that rose out of the ruins is that of CEPAD and its now 40 years of service to Nicaragua.
On December 27, just days following the earthquake, representatives from eight denominations met together under the mango tree of the Baptist School of Managua, responding to the call made by Dr. Gustavo Parajon made over the radio to come together and find a way to help people with food and housing. In a recent worship service giving thanks to God for 40 years of service, some of those who met under that mango tree and many, many others gathered in celebration. It was a time of rejoicing, thanksgiving and hope in celebration of an incredible legacy that has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans.
No one thought CEPAD would last much longer than six months—just long enough to respond to the emergency. But by joining together to serve others, this new ecumenical model was so powerful that it couldn’t be stopped. Never before had there been collaboration between denominations. They learned that by serving together many more would benefit. They wanted to use this model not just in emergency response in Managua but out in the rural communities where there was need for long-term development.
In the 40 years since those humble beginnings, CEPAD has grown and transformed itself from an emergency relief group to an organization that really understands what it takes for real community development to take root. And throughout these four decades, what has kept CEPAD strong has been the unwavering focus on the simple desire to serve the least of these, as Jesus calls us to do. This testimony has been seen in every single department of the country, in 4,277 communities, both rural and urban, where there have been organized Community Development Commitees, Cooperatives, Campesino Banks, and Women’s Banks.
The numbers are impressive, but what has really spoken to me over the years are the countless testimonies of individuals whose lives have been forever transformed by the work of CEPAD. The thrust of CEPAD’s development work is based on training and organizing community leaders so that they can then determine and lead development projects in their own communities, with accompaniment and guidance from CEPAD, but essentially empowered to do it on their own. I distinctly remember sitting down to lunch one day with a community leader from a rural community outside Matagalpa who could not contain the joy at his and his fellow leaders’ accomplishments to benefit the women of their community. They had recently applied for a grant from the United Nations Development Fund to build 120 improved stoves in their community. They were going to select the women, train them, and together with the women build these stoves from local materials. Ultimately these stoves would improve the lives of these women and their families because they meant need for less firewood because they burn more efficiently, but also no smoke filling their kitchen that affects the families’ eyes and respiratory health. But more than the project itself, the fact that they were doing it themselves is what he was most proud of. I will never forget that smile on his face when he said to me, “If you had told me six years ago that I would be receiving a grant from the United Nations to train women in my community, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that is what we are doing, and we are bringing benefit to our community!” And that is what CEPAD does—empowers leaders to change individuals and communities.
Of course CEPAD has not been able to accomplish this work alone. In their 40 years of ministry they have invested a staggering 100 million dollars in development projects, emergency response work, and efforts towards unity and dialogue among the evangelical organizations that make up CEPAD, thanks to major accompaniment, solidarity and economic support from churches in Europe, the United States, and Canada. It is important to recognize that this accompaniment and solidarity with the North has not been a one-way transaction. Countless lives of U.S. Presbyterians have been touched by firsthand experiences facilitated by CEPAD here in Nicaragua. As CEPAd hosts nearly 30 delegations a year and serves as a bridge for over a dozen long-term partnerships, the number grows every year of people being exposed to other realities and challenged to follow God in more faithful ways after being witness to the lived faith of dedicated Christians in Nicaragua like those who make up CEPAD. It is an ongoing ministry of CEPAD to us, the people of North America. As Maria Arroyo, Presbyterian World Mission’s area coordinator for Latin America and the Carribean wrote to CEPAD in honor of their 40th anniversary: “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) celebrates these years of friendship and ministry with you. The continued partnership at all levels of our church has enriched our life and ministry. We keep you in our hearts and our prayers these days as you celebrate a most important anniversary.”
This time of celebrating CEPAD coincides with Advent, a time of waiting and preparing our hearts for the child who came to dwell among the poor. CEPAD has been a living example of that for me and many others these past 40 years. Join me in giving thanks to God and to CEPAD for their testimony of embodying Christ’s example through service to Nicaragua and beyond. May they continue to be that for 40 more years.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, wherever it is you encounter the Lord this season.
Blessings and peace,
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 2
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 12