Parishioners from a pair of Catholic Churches in Syracuse are watching with concern a new cycle of violence in Nicaragua more than three decades after they began their connection with the impoverished Central American country. But unrest in the larger cities has largely spared the smaller, rural sister communities the parishes visit and support.
Music blares from speakers near Columbus Circle in mid-July as at-risk boys from the streets of Managua perform cultural dances to show-off their talents…and raise awareness of the crisis facing their country. The Nicavangelists as they’re called come from gangs, or are orphans. Some have been prostituted and trafficked. 17-year-old Myron tells me the program might have saved his life. He joined when he was 11.
“A lot of my friends live near my house. They were killed. I think if I’m here, it’s because God has a plan for me, and I’m helping a lot of kids that came from the same situation I did.”
While discontent in Nicaragua has been festering for years, it reached a breaking point in April 2018 after students conducting peaceful protests were met with lethal force from President Daniel Ortega’s government and its supporters. At least 325 were killed and 2,000 wounded. Since then, the Sandinistas have ramped-up repression and genocide as they target opponents in an effort to maintain a tight grip on power. Another 17-year-old Nicavangelist knows he and the others would be likely targets after touring the U.S, Europe, and Central America and speaking out against the government. We’re withholding his name to protect his safety.
“They say it’s safe to go back. If you don’t disturb nothing, no one will hurt you. But the thing is you can’t trust them because one time, people from the government were killing people for just posting on Facebook that ‘we don’t want this president.’ He continued, "We’ve been talking with people and the news. This is more international. Being in the USA talking about the government in Nicaragua, the president doesn’t like us.”
He says he has faith that things will get better soon so he and the others can safely return home. The unrest hasn’t spilled over into Villanueva, a more rural area about 100 miles northwest of Managua. But villagers there are on alert since some violence did creep into closer cities.
Charles Clinton is a parishioner from All Saints Church who has made three trips to Villanueva since 2013, along with delegates from St. Lucy’s.
“They did send me some messages last summer about some protests that they were worried about. Some people were going to come into town and protest, and they hoped it would be calm. Nothing escalated at that time.”
He says the threat of violence did postpone their most recent mission.
“We had planned to travel in February 2019. We plan these trips 12 to 15 months in advance. In the fall of 2018, we had to make the determination with their counsel that it just was not appropriate to bring a group down there.”
Clinton says the community was also worried about being indirectly impacted by the peaceful protesters.
“Their method was to set up some blockades so their message could be heard and materials couldn’t get through and the government would have to give in some way. They were worried about some of their people getting basic materials. It was not as bad as they anticipated.”
He says they’ve been told things have since calmed down, so a joint delegation of parishioners will be making the trip in December. But, how was the connection first made with Nicaragua?
“They had a small delegation of maybe 4 or 5 people who were going to Villanueva. Then there were these two nuns also involved who had come to Syracuse to speak. So there was a convergence of different energies at that late ‘80’s time.”
RETURN TRIP CONTINUES 35-YEAR CONNECTION
A delegation of parishioners is planning to return to Nicaragua in December as part of a fourth mission in six years. But what is the purpose of the missions, and how did they get started?
Civil wars and communist revolutions had erupted in several Central American countries starting in the late 1970’s, so the region became a foreign policy focus of the Reagan Administration. The unrest and plight of its citizens also got the attention of several Syracuse-area peace activists like Kip Hargrave, Frank Woolever, Ed Griffin Nolan and many others who began visiting El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. David Pasinski of St. Lucy’s Church recalls his first visit to Nicaragua on a return trip from South America in 1987.
“I think the Syracuse delegation had been the only one during that time. At the same time I was there, though, a group from St. Andrews parish happened to be there, which was incredibly fortuitous.”
That’s because, Pasinski says, that’s when the first connection was made with the town of Villanueva in northern Nicaragua. St. Andrews has since closed and is now part of St. Lucy's Church, which, along with All Saints, resumed missions to Villanueva about six years ago after a hiatus.
“I would say for a number of years, we followed with interest all of the developments in Central America through the ‘90s and early 2000s”
That brings us to today, where the missions may have changed, but the desire to be connected has not.
“We try to talk to the people, hear their stories, witness with them…just walk their walk, understand their journey, and be in fellowship with them.”
Charles Clinton with All Saints Church has been to Villanueva three times since 2013, usually along with his wife or one of their children. He says their humanitarian-based missions focus on maternal and infant health in country with the highest maternal mortality rate in Central America. They work with Brigadistas, who work on behalf of pregnant women, children, and the elderly…expecting nothing in return.
“They have over 100 volunteers in 56 sectors, 56 communities that get basic training to do things like weighing babies, encouraging women to come to the clinic to give birth as opposed to giving home births, which are very at risk. We’re essentially supporting them in their work, finding out how we can participate, what their needs are.”
Clinton says during their visit, they break out into small groups.
“We try to go out and see some of the rural areas where the work is being done, get a sense of how difficult transportation is to get to those areas. That would certainly impact a woman’s health in her late term as she might get to the clinic.”
He says they also bring supplies, ranging from diabetic testing strips and examination bed to an ultrasound machine. Then there’s a man from a village who tells them he has solar panels but no way to store the energy.
“He was trained in doing things like suturing, making stitches. But at night, he couldn’t see it. So, they have solar panels…could we get a battery, which didn’t cost that much, maybe about $60. That just changed that community’s world right there.”
What’s not cheap, though, is sending a dozen or so parishioners to Nicaragua. Clinton says they always ask the townspeople if they’d rather have the $1,200 to $1,500 they spend per person on travel expenses.
“It’s more than the annual budget that we send them of $12,000. That would go a long way to doing some of their work. But they say ‘if you don’t come, we don’t really feel like you care, you’re not really invested.’ So, that personal visit is essential to our connection. And, we found that to be true.”
And therein lies the reason they continue the missions. David Pasinski feels privileged that he and his wife have had the opportunity to experience other cultures.
“We are part of a global community, and we’ve continued to see that we’re all in this together. It’s a very simple, basic insight, whether it’s under this spiritual auspice as parishes, we have certainly seen this as an extension of our Christian commitment.”
Clinton says as humans, we all struggle on different levels for the same things...to feed our families, raise our children, and have access to health care.
“We’re not that different. When we relate as human beings, when we eat together, sit down in their homes, sleep in their beds…and then are able to stay in touch, send photographs, exchange experiences before we visit again. I think that enriches us.”