T.S. Tuesday: Bearing Witness

This week I’m sharing a series of stories and reflections from my time spent studying abroad in Central America. These are excerpts from my memoir in progress; stories that have shaped me, shattered my pretenses and preset beliefs, and sculpted the way I live and love and encounter God today. I hope in some small way, you can relate and be challenged to reflect more deeply on the experiences that have influenced you and your faith. To read yesterday’s story, click here


Bearing Witness

“Some presage of an act
Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet
Toward the cathedral. We are forced to bear witness.”T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

In the spring of 2006, I was forced to bear witness to a new reality, to a different story.

“How long until he brings up the unofficial story?” my classmate snickered to me as we waited for Don Mike, our professor, to tape up his next chart that would surely detail a history of abuse and exploitation. Don Mike loved to compare the “official story” of Latin American history that we had been taught (or purposely not taught) with the “unofficial story” of the indigenous people, the exploited nationals, the Two-thirds World. We were on our way to Nicaragua to witness firsthand the “unofficial story” of the people of Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua my meticulously constructed faith identity crumbled like a house of cards. I’d seen pictures of course. My family had sponsored a little boy from Colombia named Darwin ever since I could remember. His rich, brown eyes would stare solemnly back at me whenever I raided the fridge for a midnight snack of Swiss orange sherbet or updated the ample grocery list posted below his photo, reminding me of the many who do not have the luxury of ice cream, grocery stores, or even refrigerators.

So I’d seen pictures before.

I’d even been to places much like Nicaragua—the dusty slums of Tijuana, Mexico, the rural, buggy mountains of Ecuador—but it had never sunk in. Mission trips had always left me with immense feelings of gratitude, reminding me that I was blessed.

In Nicaragua, I stayed with a 21 year-old, host, Grey who was a teacher at the local school and didn’t speak any English except for hello and No woman no cry, courtesy of Bob Marley. Sitting with Grey, on the battered stone curb outside the small concrete house she shared with a girlfriend, a rebellion against gratefulness burned within my stomach, an acidic, festering burn harsher than the sting of the snow-white pineapple juice that dribbled down my chin and parched my lips.

Poverty wasn’t a picture on my refrigerator anymore. Grey didn’t stare back at me with a solemn dignity, unattached and disconnected. She shared her life with me. I practiced my Spanish as she allowed me to ask her questions about her family, her life as a teacher at the local technological high school, the small, dusty town of Jalapa, and the cultural norms in Nicaragua.

From Grey, I learned that most women either marry or become pregnant by the age of 16. I was on the receiving end of many a horrified gasp when I’d answer yet again that, no, I did not have a novio, or boyfriend. The ring by spring pressure of my small, Christian college was child’s play compared to these cultural norms and expectations. Grey’s mother, one of the most beautiful and tenderhearted women I have ever met in my life, was one of 18 children. Grey was one of five. Grey explained to me that many women never even get married, an alarming trend that condemns the woman to the restrictions of marriage and domestic work, yet allows the husband the freedom to be unfaithful, irresponsible, and absent. 

In this machismo environment, women without husbands or boyfriends weren’t left with many options. If they could afford to go to school, they would most likely graduate and begin teaching immediately whatever subject was available at the local schools. Grey taught technology to high schoolers and junior highers, though many of the students knew more about the subject than she did. Those with advanced degrees or expertise didn’t stick around. There was little opportunity, and education seemed futile in a town where the majority of community members made a living from the land. The town had been sprinkled with U.S. aid and unfinished projects since the 1980s. Countless development groups, both religious and nonreligious, had been through the town, but little real progress or improvement had occurred.

I was impressed and touched by Grey and my other Nicaraguan friends. Despite their poverty, they seemed happy.

But just because they had found a way to cope and smile in their desperate situation, did not make their poverty okay.

I found it impossible to sentimentalize their smiling faces, supportive community, and “simple life.” They shouldn’t have had to live in poverty. They shouldn’t have had sheets for doors or muddy, amoeba-filled water as their lifeline. Their teachers should have known their subjects. Women should have had more options than marriage and pregnancy. “What shouldn’t be” circled round and round in my head, a waterwheel of indignation. I didn’t find any answers to these deep social and economic problems, but for the first time at least I wasn’t ignoring them. 


How do you react when you encounter poverty? What have been some tough things you have had to “bear witness to” in your life? What have you done to make things better?


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