A letter from Chenoa Stock in the United States (transitioning to Bolivia)
November 19, 2010
Building on Foundations of Partnership
As I sit here on a sunny day in Pittsburgh, I realize that this is the first time in four years I have been in the States for the mid-November season. My pale skin and perpetually frozen appendages are ever-present reminders that I am no longer in the tropics of Sri Lanka. But more than that, that I am indeed living in a time of transition that has graciously given me the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends, sort out some health issues and share stories about Sri Lanka Joining Hands with congregations in the area. As time quickly closes the gap between this experience and my next journey, I have also had the chance to research more about my next home, Bolivia, as well as travel across the country to visit the Bolivian network’s U.S. partner presbyteries of San Francisco and Cascades (Oregon). My visit out West provided me with an abundance of information that no research could have provided and allowed me to build relationships that will be a source of support and encouragement throughout my time working with this network. These travels allowed me to meet the Joining Hands coordinating teams for each presbytery, to learn more about Bolivia and the partnership, to speak in churches within these presbyteries and to share and discuss our hopes for the future.
It was in this time of sharing and learning that I have come to understand better the importance of the Joining Hands partnership. Because the Sri Lanka Joining Hands Network does not yet have a U.S. partner, learning this facet of my role as companionship facilitator in Bolivia was completely new territory for me, territory in which I will not be walking alone.
Here is how Joining Hands partnerships are designed to work: A country network (in this case, Bolivia) identifies and studies issues that they decide contribute to the existing system of poverty or injustice in their country. In Bolivia, contamination of water sources by the mining industry is such an issue. The network then partners with Presbyterian churches in the United States (San Francisco and Cascades presbyteries) so they can work together to discover solutions for the chosen issues, including advocacy campaigns. The U.S. presbytery takes cues from the global partner on how to focus the campaign and through coordinated actions in their respective countries, they create strategies together to increase awareness of these issues in their communities as well as to work together toward the transformation of unjust structures. Through this partnership we can learn that systems of exploitation are just as much a part of daily life in the United States as they are in developing countries. Joining Hands seeks to build spaces where people from different nations can share their stories and build solidarity rooted in the belief that all people have a right to a full and abundant life.
With this conviction, San Francisco and Cascades presbyteries have been working with the Bolivia Joining Hands Network, UMAVIDA (Uniendo Manos Por La Vida — “Joining Hands for Life”) since 2001 and 2005, respectively. My time spent in California and Oregon these past weeks allowed me to become part of these partnerships. I had the opportunity to speak in churches that were longtime members of the partnership as well as introduce the Joining Hands model and my experience in it with those new to this form of mission. It was a time to build new connections, strengthen existing relationships and try to recover old ones. In San Francisco this meant speaking in churches, attending meetings and discussion groups, sharing fellowship and Ultimate Frisbee with an energetic and inquisitive youth group as well as sharing personal time with the generous members of the Coordinating Team, including a Three Bridges Tour of the Bay Area.
That generosity continued as I traveled up to Oregon to meet with the Cascades Coordinating Team. While visiting churches on both sides of the mountains in Cascades Presbytery, I had the pleasure of meeting church members, preaching, attending a church Halloween party (with gluten free pizza!), participating in my very first Tai Chi class and receiving a Three Waterfalls Tour of the Columbia Gorge. A team of us also took a road trip to Kellogg, Idaho, where residents of the Silver Valley region shared different perspectives about the workings of the U.S. mining industry. As mining and water contamination is a key issue being explored by UMAVIDA, the U.S. team was asked by the Bolivian network to learn about mining in the United States, both as an educational tool and to provide needed background information for the partnership. While traveling we heard many voices, including environmental advocates, a longtime mine owner and residents of a mining community who support the industry and the benefits it provides. This whirlwind tour, a kind of “Mining Issues 101,” offered many insights that will strengthen the partnership and permit U.S. partners to better understand mining in Bolivia. For me, I will now be able to compare mining procedures and regulations used in the United States with those existing in Bolivia.
The UMAVIDA Joining Hands partnership will continue to grow as we add more voices and experiences in both Bolivia and the United States. Our Bolivian partners advise us that their government has called for an environmental impact audit of the Kori Kollo gold mine, located 200 kilometers southeast of the capital, La Paz. Though the Kori Kollo mine is shutting down, local communities have expressed concern that the company might leave without accounting for the contamination that occurred throughout its operation. Due to the community’s skepticism about the thoroughness and accuracy of the government audit, UMAVIDA members have asked for an independent evaluation that would cover areas the government audit might miss.
The accumulated knowledge of the UMAVIDA Joining Hands partnership as well as the commitment of members to continue to grow, learn and strengthen our network have led members in San Francisco and Cascades Presbyteries to learn from our Bolivian sisters and brothers and accompany them as they call for environmental accountability. The network has also been able to reach out to Earthjustice and other respected environmental advocacy groups for needed expertise.
As I enjoy these last months in the States before flying to Bolivia in January to begin a six-month Spanish immersion course, I look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday with family and can only be grateful for my life journey that has brought me to this point. Though the future is full of unanswered questions, ranging from, “Will my brother and I bake pumpkin or banana bread for Thanksgiving?” to “How can I help UMAVIDA create sustainable change for the Bolivian people?” I have faith that I am guided by God’s presence each step of the way.
Let us all be grateful for the foundations that have been set for us and for the opportunities we have to build on them each moment of our lives. Thank you to all of you who are a part of my foundation. I look forward to sharing this next adventure with you.
For more information:
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 125
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 301