By Jed Koball, PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker in Peru
¨I don´t understand why you are here!¨ The words came from an elder woman in the group we were meeting with in La Oroya. She had not spoken the entire time. In fact, it was the first time I had ever heard her speak. She was someone I had never met before over our many years of partnership with our friends in the high Andes of Peru.
She was speaking not just to me but to a group of Presbyterian pastors from Pennsylvania and New Jersey who had traveled to Peru to learn from our Joining Hands partners about their work in environmental health in relation to the contamination from the extractive industry in La Oroya, which is considered to be one of the five most contaminated cities in the world. Her concern was that she had seen many groups, foreigners and outsiders visit La Oroya over the years, yet nothing had changed. She explained that despite so many visitors, the people were still poor, still sick from contamination, and still without a clear vision for their future. She wanted to know what was in it for us because she could not understand what value we brought to her.
To be honest, I have asked this very question to myself many times over the years. Why do we travel to visit our partners? What good does it do to listen to their stories? What contribution can we possibly make to the cause of justice?
As she spoke, I paused my translation for the pastors, in part because I felt a little ashamed and embarrassed but also because I recognized that what this woman wanted more than anything in that moment was undivided attention. And so I listened to the frustration that she echoed through the room. Nothing I said could alleviate her pain in that moment. She had been harboring these feelings inside for years, if not decades, and just wanted to be heard.
It was our Peruvian partners, while identifying with her frustration of the static situation of injustice in which they live, also began to open her eyes to the value of our international partnership. Conardo Olivera, the director of the Peru Joining Hands network, expressed how our partnership had indeed led to tangible differences and gains. He named the health and environmental studies we helped make happen; the access to international media; the connections to health, environmental, legal experts and more; the advocacy both in the U.S. and in Peru to push legislators to recognize the rights of women and children in La Oroya and across Peru; the financial support year after year after year to continue the work when other funders had long ago moved on to the next tragic situation somewhere else in the world. And, he noted the prayers, the solidarity, the community that sustains us in the face of great evil.
At that moment, Yolanda, another resident of La Oroya, spoke up. She said very clearly and directly, ¨if not for the visits, I would not be alive today.¨ In the early years of partnership, the visits gave her spiritual life because she once stood against those of us who spoke up in defense of human and environmental health. Her eyes were opened as the visitors helped legitimize and justify our actions of advocacy. And later on, as she herself became an outspoken voice in defense of clean air, water and soil, she said the visits saved her physical life. As she received regular death threats from the powers that be, the visits from the Presbyterian Church gave her the visible support she needed to deter anyone from acting on those threats. She knew, as did everyone else, that she was not alone.
So, why visit? Because it is educational. It is eye-opening. It is community building: It is solidarity. It is a witness to the God who does not abandon us. It is empowering. And above all…it is life-giving – for our partners, and dare I say, for you, too!
If you are interested in visiting a Joining Hands Network, please be in touch with the Presbyterian Hunger Program for more information about upcoming trips!