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A letter from Tracey King-Ortega in Nicaragua

Spring 2013

Many people think my life as a “missionary,” by definition, must be exotic.  You may be surprised to learn how ordinary my daily life is.  But I’ve found that the extraordinary blessing in choosing a life of service lies in finding that in the most ordinary of tasks we are connected and can contribute to the dignity of all God’s children.

Ervin Leiva, Nicaragua country director of Food for the Hungry and Tracey King-Ortega at the inauguration in the community of Alemania Federal

The first thing I do most mornings, much like many of you in the North, is brew my much-needed coffee.   Actually, the first thing after I nurse the twins and get them changed and dressed for the day, is to head straight to the kitchen to make that pot of coffee.  Still seven months in with twins, though they are sleeping much better now, the sleep deprivation demands that cup of Joe every morning. 

Coffee, quotidian and seemingly essential to many of us, but not the source of our sustenance.  Yet here in Nicaragua it is the backbone of the economy, making up 17.5 percent of total exports. I was surprised to learn recently that 300,000 jobs in Nicaragua are tied to the coffee industry—that’s 14 percent of national employment.[1] 

Coffee makes headlines here in Nicaragua.  Last season and this one, coffee plants are being negatively impacted by coffee rust, a fungus that if gone unchecked can kill the plant.  As a result, production is down, the seasonal work that many count on for their annual income is harder to come by, and some are even going hungry as a result.  Because 95 percent of coffee producers in Nicaragua are small farmers, with little to no access to credit that would allow them to adequately combat this blight, the poor are being disproportionately affected. 

Bathrooms and hand-washing station

Who knew there was so much behind that morning cup of coffee?  Coffee is the source of livelihood for many here, and thankfully, through connections we have as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we can be a small part of providing innovative solutions to problems like this one. 

As a member of the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) we raise money to help people in developing countries grow their own food.  Through the hands-on engagement of U.S. communities carrying out “growing projects,” money is raised that then goes directly to overseas partners.  Last month I was invited to participate in a networking event among local FRB partners here in Nicaragua, which is where my eyes were opened to the importance of coffee in Nicaragua’s economy and the crisis that is being caused by coffee rust.  But I also learned about work that our local partner CAFENICA is doing to accompany small farmers to ameliorate the impact and strengthen their trees against future plagues through organic methods.

And it’s all connected.  Tierra Nueva, a member co-op of CAFENICA, sells their fair trade coffee to Equal Exchange. This coffee is then made available to you through the Presbyterian Coffee Project, helping you as a coffee consumer to practice better lifestyle integrity in choosing a product that doesn’t exploit local labor but rather supports their development and resiliency in the face of the challenge of poverty.

Make-shift preschool in Alemania Federal and some of the students who are benefitting from the new bathrooms

Something else that is mundane and essential to all of us, and not a topic I thought I would be writing about in my newsletters, is toilets.  Last month I was invited to attend the inauguration of anaerobic fermentation restrooms that were built with Presbyterian Hunger Program grant money in the community of Alemania Federal near Chinandega here in Nicaragua.  A simple project responding to a felt need of sanitary bathrooms in a rural elementary school is having a huge impact.  Food for the Hungry (FH), the implementing partner that solicited the grant, in their holistic work for community transformation sought out a way to change the unsanitary, overflowing latrines with the simple technology of low-maintenance composting latrines that are flushing toilets.  As an added bonus the children now have a sink with running water to wash their hands. 

At the inauguration I spoke with one mother who shared with us about a fairly severe infection that her daughter acquired from the old latrines.  As a result she was hesitant to send her daughter back to school, and when she did send her, she usually left school early if she needed to go to the bathroom.  But now her daughter is excited to have these beautiful toilets to use and happily runs off to school and stays all day.  How many of our children get excited about having access to decent facilities?  It is something we just don’t think about. 

You’d think I’d feel a bit silly cutting the ribbon for toilets, but after hearing these testimonies, I was proud, proud that our Presbyterian money went directly to such a tangible change for this community.  Ervin Leiva, the FH country director, and I met a couple years ago to talk about funding possibilities, and I encouraged them to apply because they aren’t just about a project but look at the big picture, holistic transformation and behavioral change.  Not an easy task, but just the kind of thing we should be supporting.  Now, in seeing the project come to fruition, Ervin mentioned to me that the Presbyterian Hunger Program grant application was challenging.  It wasn’t at all like other grants that he has experienced from other denominations—this one made them think.  He was up to the challenge and glad to know that development experts were going to be evaluating the proposal.  He was glad to earn the grant by doing good development work.  As regional liaison and representative of the PC(USA), it made me proud to hear this, knowing that we work hard to assure that your money that comes from sources like the One Great Hour of Sharing, collected on Palm Sunday each year, is put to good use supporting projects that make a real difference for real people.

In my role representing the PC(USA) on the ground, it is exciting to see places where different parts of the church come together to make a difference; Presbyterian World Mission, the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, presbyteries and congregations.  I want to thank you for your contribution that makes this kind of collaboration possible, and I invite others to consider supporting me in this role.  As they say, “it takes a village”—what part will you play?

Blessings and peace,
Tracey

The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 35
Read more about Tracey King-Ortega's ministry

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[1] Statistics provided by CAFENICA at a talk on coffee rust hosted by the Foods Resource Bank in Nicaragua, February 21, 2014.

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