Jeff Paschal: Nicaragua — poverty, smiles and universal health care | Columnists

On July 23-29, almost a dozen members and friends of our congregation and I went on a mission trip to Nicaragua. And it gets me thinking not only about Nicaragua but our own country. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (only Haiti is poorer). Almost 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Here is a summary of what we saw and learned:

After landing in the capital city, Managua, we receive a remarkably polite welcome from customs officials. Then we gather our luggage and meet our main leader for the trip, Luis, a cheerful man wearing a T-shirt plastered with Al Pacino’s face courtesy of “The Godfather” movies. (Later, we’ll meet a young Nicaraguan woman named Yemila, our second leader for the trip. Like Luis, she exudes a gentle kindness.)

Luggage stowed on the van, our driver weaves through the untamed Managua traffic with a peace that passes my understanding. In less than an hour we arrive at the Nehemiah Guest House for a brief orientation and delicious meal. Geckos crawl on the walls. We keep an eye out for scorpions. A hand-sized hairy spider plops from the ceiling onto a bed in one of the women’s rooms. Clare, our 17-year-old participant, picks up a notebook and shoos it away. We think we’re roughing it. Little do we know.

The next day we hear presentations about the work we’ll do and about CEPAD, the sponsoring council of Protestant churches started in 1972 as a response to the earthquake that leveled Managua. CEPAD focuses on leadership training, food and environmental security, strengthening of families, and community bank and micro-loans.

The following day we board the van and go to stay a few days in Bijague, a remote farming village in the mountains of the Matagalpa region. Upon our arrival, dozens of villagers of all ages line the street to welcome us. Plastic lawn chairs are brought and we sit while children perform traditional dances. A community leader offers a brief speech, as does one of our church members.

We’re shown to our quarters, a house the owner has recently vacated. Stone-and-mortar walls. A tin roof with a few holes in it. Two rooms and a kitchen we’ll use as a changing room. Barred windows without screens. Dirt floors throughout. Electricity available most of the time from a couple suspicious-looking outlets. An outhouse with termites and other bugs crawling around in it. Cows, chickens and a rooster (who insists on wake-up crowing between 2:20 and 3:40 a.m.) wander a few feet away. It’s the rainy season, muddy, and I’m worried about cross-contamination from the animals. I pull one of our participants, an RN, aside and share my concerns. She thinks we’ll be OK. We stay.

Later we learn that some groups showed up, saw the humble accommodations, and demanded to be taken to a hotel. This wounded our hosts. If we’d done the same, we would’ve missed a life-changing opportunity for solidarity and learning. And as a trip participant reminds me, there are people in Greensboro who live in housing that’s not nearly as clean or well-maintained.

Highlights? Playing with the kids — soccer, running, dancing and bubbles. Simple shared meals. Visiting the lush farms grown in rich, dark soil and seeing how CEPAD is teaching the farmers to diversify and grow more effectively.

Observations.

One afternoon our group joins worship at a Catholic church in the village. During prayer requests, a woman from the village asks for prayer for the poor and suffering in the world, but we realize she’s not thinking of herself as being in that category.

Luis mentions that he’d been in a motorcycle accident that put him out of work for a few months. Fortunately, Nicaragua provides health coverage for all its citizens. If the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere can provide universal health coverage for its citizens, surely the U.S. can too. Right, Congress and President Trump?

The Nicaraguans are incredible hosts, and everywhere we go we are met by smiles. Thank you! We can’t wait to visit again.

Jeff Paschal is the pastor of Guilford Park Presbyterian Church in Greensboro and a News & Record columnist. He can be reached at jpaschal@guilfordpark.org.

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