From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
[PCUSANEWS] 'Those who fail to learn from history...'
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
Wed, 7 Apr 2004 14:22:32 -0500
Note #8190 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
April 7, 2004
'Those who fail to learn from history...'
A missionary letter from Nicaragua
by Stephen Herrick
PC(USA) mission co-worker
MANAGUA, Nicaragua - As I reflect on two and a half years of living in
Nicaragua, it occurs to me that I've learned a lot about history.
Nicaraguan history is colorful - full of dictators like Zelaya and Somoza,
revolutionaries like Sandino and Fonseca, and of course, repeated invasions
by the U.S. Marines.
But that isn't what I mean. Rather, I mean that living here, I've learned a
lot about U.S. and European history.
I understand the Great Depression. Of course, the economic situation here is
far worse than it ever was in the United States, but it doesn't stand out as
much, because our Depression followed a decade of unprecedented prosperity,
whereas here, the poverty grinds on, generation after generation.
There are "Okies" today, only now we call them "illegal immigrants." They
follow the same pattern: leave everything you've ever known to go to a
far-off place, only to find you're cruelly exploited, assuming you can find
work at all.
I understand the Dust Bowl. I've seen the dust here billow up in thick,
opaque clouds. It gets into everything - your food, your papers, your hair,
your eyes, your lungs. In the United States, the Dust Bowl was the result of
a drought. Here, there is there is still plenty of rain, but because of sixty
years of large- and small-scale deforestation, it runs right off, leaving the
land as dry and thirsty as it was before.
I understand the sweatshops that early social reformers railed against. Like
DDT, sweatshops were banned in the United States, so they came here. The
casual observer won't see the obvious effects of 100 years ago, because the
sweatshops here don't use coal or heavy machinery, but there are serious
problems just the same.
They employ mostly young women, who tend to be the most compliant workers. In
spite of this, managers seem to find it necessary to shove them,
shout at them, hit them, deny them bathroom breaks, and arbitrarily dock
In addition to dismal pay for long, hard hours, the workers also suffer from
damaged vision, damaged hearing, intestinal problems, respiratory problems,
arthritis, and miscarriages, not to mention the social cost of having young
wives and mothers away from their families for 10, 12, sometimes 14 hours at
a time. The managers of these latter-day sweatshops have read their history
as well, however, and have undermined any thought of collective bargaining
much earlier than their predecessors.
I understand the Old West. People here still ride horses, carry guns, plow
their fields by hand, and slaughter their own animals. Many still do not have
running water or electricity. Cattle-rustling is a common problem. Vigilante
justice is a common solution.
Going back much further, I even have some understanding of the Middle Ages. I
see now how an entire society can revolve around the interests of a few
extremely rich families, who jostle and jockey to climb over each other in
the search for power. They live in opulence, paid for by the labor and
suffering of the poor, who have only their deprivation for compensation.
Yet the poor divide themselves according to which rich camp they identify
with. It helps, of course, that the leaders of the Catholic church continue
their millennium-long tradition of bestowing their favor on the most
well-established and generous of the rich, in flagrant disregard of gospel
values. (As in every age, there are local Catholic priests here opposed to
Going back farther still, I understand what life must have been like in a
colony of an empire, such as first-century Israel. There would have been
overt reminders of its colonial status, such as foreign troops on its soil.
Almost as bad, however, would have been the more subtle invasions, such as
imperial currency and language.
The worst part of all would have been hearing one's own leaders talk about
how important it was to maintain good relations with the empire,
meaning that the colony needed to do anything the empire said without
I have seen all these things firsthand. I am left with the same realization
that strikes me on a regular basis: what an island of comfort and stability
the United States is. I feel privileged to have been able to use my education
and skills to contribute my "grain of sand," as we say here, towards the
building of the Kingdom of God.
There is much work to be done, though, before we have an entire world that
enjoys peace and prosperity, well-being, and dignity, comfort and stability.
My only prayer for the future is to continue to be able to work for such a
For information about and correspondence from Presbyterian mission personnel
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