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Walking with the Poor

A letter from Tracey King-Ortega in the U.S. on Interpretative Assignment from Nicaragua

April 2016

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Dear Friends,

I am a little over halfway through my time here in the United States. As mission co-workers not only do we serve with our partners overseas but we also spend time interpreting our experience of God’s mission with churches across the PC(USA).

Here in the U.S. I’m home, but I’m not. I’ve lived nearly half my life now overseas, the vast majority of that time in Nicaragua. I am blessed with two places to call home and a calling that allows me to spend significant time in both places. I slip in and out fairly easily—and then something happens that makes me remember that the U.S is not my primary home anymore. I miss Nicaragua and my community there. I am blessed because stepping out of the country that has been home for over 17 years now has given me a new perspective to see just how much Nicaragua and her people have influenced and shaped me and formed fundamental understandings of my faith and the mission to which God calls us.

I was first drawn to Central America in the early ’90s on a semester-long study-service tour through Central America. We traveled throughout the region, spent time living with local families in both rural and urban settings, and studied history and current events. My eyes were opened further. The learning on that trip went far beyond a field study on politics, economics and sociology through the interaction with people, hearing stories of faith and hope. They taught me a new way to see and understand God. I started hearing about liberation theology.

Liberation theology put Central America on the map for many social justice–minded U.S. Christians.  This contextualized reading of the Bible created a palpable energy, spirit, and hope that drew so many to this part of the world and experience it for themselves, myself included.  In the midst of military dictatorships, war, and abject poverty, people were studying the Word and seeing it transform their lives and communities.  They understood that God is a God of justice who wants to see all people live with dignity, and that structural violence and poverty are not inevitable but the result of sinful structures and systems. This interpretation of scripture pushed me to start seeing mission as much more than short-term mission trips. Becoming a partner in God’s mission means transforming society and liberating the oppressed. We are called to “do justice.”

I also encountered the phrase “preferential option for the poor.” This basic principle of Catholic social teaching refers “to a trend throughout biblical texts, where there is a demonstrable preference given to powerless individuals who live on the margins of society.” This principle profoundly shaped my own understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

No one has taught me how to live this better than Father Fernando Cardenal. Over the decades he has generously shared his time, experience and passion with countless mission teams visiting Nicaragua, talking to them about his life as a Jesuit priest, the Literacy Crusade he led in the 1980s, his service as Minister of Education for the Sandinista government, and how, through it all, walking with the poor has brought meaning to his Christian faith. In the fall of 2004 I was honored to serve as Father Cardenal’s interpreter on a visit to Davidson College where he gave a lecture series. I’ve heard and interpreted his story many, many times, and it always moves me.

One vignette he always shared gives the key to who he is. Cardenal was born into a well-to-do family in Nicaragua and wasn’t really exposed to poverty until he served in a marginalized community as a young Jesuit in Medellin, Colombia. He recounts how his daily task was to walk down to the local bakery and buy the day’s bread. On his morning walk through the impoverished neighborhood to buy bread he would always be accompanied by local children. After buying the bread, on his walk back to the house, the children, who were hungry and whose families were struggling, would ask for bread, and he would tear off pieces of it and share it with them. More often than not, he would get back to the house empty-handed, having given away all the bread.

His housemates complained. His one job was to buy bread for them, and he gave it all away. He replied very matter-of-factly that he could not know these children and know their need and not share what he had with them. “If you all are so determined to have bread for the house, then send someone else,” he said. The household continued to let Fernando buy the bread.

He would share the stories of the people he befriended in that community. Knowing their stories and struggles changed him forever. When he was called back to Nicaragua, he left his Colombian friends physically, but he committed his life to fighting for the liberation of poor people. And the only way he was able to remain true to that commitment was by continuing to live and work with the poor and marginalized. He did that until the day he died, just this past February 20, at the age of 82.

Word of his death hit me hard. I was traveling to Pennsylvania to spend a week sharing with churches in the Presbytery of Carlisle. Though I had traveled all day from the West Coast, I stayed up late figuring out how to incorporate Father Cardenal into the sermon I was to give the next morning. I wanted to somehow honor this great man. He had been such a clear example of how Central Americans had shaped my understanding of Christ and mission. The fact that he remained so steadfastly committed to the poor inspires me to remember Christ’s fundamental message as written in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

As I reflect on my own story, I see how early exposure to poverty has been key to shaping my faith and life. I vividly remember returning to the comforts of my own home after a high school mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico, and feeling incredibly out of place and uncomfortable. I had been touched by poverty. I found it hard to comprehend how three hours down the road and across a border from my house, a family of five was living in the back of a black station wagon covered with a blue tarp on the edge of a dump. We spent a week working with the family to build them a house and hear their stories. I remember how deeply moved was the father, working harder than we were on the house, as he saw taking shape before him a dignified living space for his three girls. A dream he had not dared to dream was becoming reality. Getting to know that family transformed me.

This, to me, is why God calls us to mission, and why so often mission means serving the poor. I believe God calls us to mission not just to transform the world, but so that we can be transformed. Mission, when focused first on building relationships, can lead us to wholeheartedness. It can help us understand and experience our shared humanity. If we challenge ourselves to go into the other’s space, we become vulnerable. In our vulnerability, God touches us and transforms us. Mission involvement exposed me to other realities and opened up my world. My definition of family suddenly got bigger: these were all God’s children and we are bound together in Christ. Now in my work I try to transmit this message across the church, inviting others to follow that call.

God calls us to be close to those experiencing poverty and those who suffer. Only when their struggle becomes our struggle, when we really see the pain and marginalization of our brothers and sisters—all children of God—will we be moved to challenge the unjust systems that create poverty and suffering. The purpose of the church is mission. And mission is the work of implementing the vision that God desires for God’s people. My hope is that sharing these stories touches you as it has me.

Thank you for walking with me on this journey, for your prayers and financial contributions that make it possible for me to be on this journey, and for taking the time to read my reflections.

Blessings and peace,


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