A letter from Jenny Koball serving in Peru
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In the high jungle of Peru in the indigenous community of Tununtunumba I met Felicita, a young woman who is 110 years old. Felicita does not speak Spanish, but rather her native tongue, a Quechua dialect.
I was not surprised to hear Felicita shout, ¨Gringo!¨ as I approached her because I was being accompanied by two visitors from the United States. Throughout Latin America gringo is a common reference to foreigners. Between laughs, I asked the Apu (the leader of the community) how Felicita came to know this Spanish word. To my surprise, he told me that Felicita thought that I, too, was a foreigner. She was referring to all of us as gringos!
The word gringo may sound like an insult to some foreigners, but many Peruvians use this word today in a friendly way to call the attention to a foreigner, typically one who has white skin. This is why I was confused to learn that she was calling me a gringo. I do not have white skin, and my hair is black! Why did she think I was a gringo? How can I be a stranger, a foreigner, in my own land?
Felicita has lived in Tununtunumba her entire life. She has 12 children and is a widow. Her husband died at the tender age of 112. I asked her to tell me the secret to such a long life. She responded: eat fruits and vegetables directly from the Earth, just as God provides them.
It is this close relationship with the Earth that expresses the spirituality of Felicita and her community. Sadly, it is the rupture of this relationship by outside forces that has altered this community’s history. The gringos who came believed they had the right to take from the Earth whatever they wanted in order to sustain their way of life.
The Apu shared with me that Felicita remembers seeing foreigners come to her community when she was a child. Foreigners, to Felicita, were people who lived by different customs. They had a different relationship with the Earth. They exploited natural resources like petroleum, gold and silver. They cut down the ancient forests. The plants and animals died. They left behind polluted rivers and scorched land.
The community did not believe that this kind of behavior was respectful of the Earth, so they did not welcome the gringos. They came anyway. Many women and men from Felicita’s community died defending the Earth. And so, the Apu continued, Felicita remembers hearing her parents speak of the gringos as bad people.
When she married and had children, Felicita remembered the need to live in harmony with Creation that her community had planted in her. She longed to plant that same sense of peace and well-being in her children. She did not want to plant hate. She did not want her children to believe that all foreigners are bad people. Felicita wanted to believe that harmony and well-being could extend beyond the boundaries of her community, even if she would never travel there herself.
Today Felicita and the whole community invite and welcome gringos to visit with them—tourists, humanitarians, and even misioneras like myself! But in this community it is Felicita and the Apu who are preaching the Good News—the Good News that progress is not about promoting the creation of wealth, but rather about respecting the wealth of Creation. They model for all of us the Good News that living in harmony with the Earth will lead us to God’s promise of abundant life—maybe even for 110 years or more! They share the Good News that hate will not have the final word, but kindness—even when expressed gleefully through the shout of “Gringo!” reminding us of where we come from, inviting us with a love that welcomes.
Though I am married to a gringo and work with gringo Young Adult Volunteers, I must admit that it was difficult to learn that I, too, am a gringo in the eyes of Felicita. I, too, am a foreigner in my own land. But is this not the challenge of the gospel—to hear and accept the truth that God calls and graciously leads us to a broader, deeper hope that transcends our divisions, our borders?
I give thanks for Felicita, for Tununtunumba, and for their commitment to harmony and hospitality. I also give thanks for gringos who open their ears and hearts to new invitations. I give thanks for all of you who pray with us, learn with us, and journey with us from afar. This journey is a gift of Grace, and it could never be a reality without your financial support. To all of you who gave from your hearts this past year—Thank You! And I encourage you to continue supporting us financially in the years to come as we join hands with our partners to share God´s Good News for all of Creation.
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