Not by Our Strength Alone - Abridged

Department: 

Not by Our Strength Alone Excerpts from a talk given to North Pacific Yearly Meeting July 18, 2013;  Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon

by Becca & Paul Mohally Renk

Becca:  Good morning, Friends… Paul and I have been in Nicaragua for 12 years, working in sustainable development with the non-profit Jubilee House Community and its project … to help [the poor of Nicaragua] reach their own goals. … Jubilee House Community is also a faith-based, intentional community that was started nearly 35 years ago in North Carolina.

Now I have a confession to make.  The talk we came to give today is not an easy one... We will show you our broken hearts, and then we will invite you to make common cause with the losers in this world… Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health in Haiti says of working with the poor, “… I’m not going to stop because we keep losing... people from [the U.S. are] used to being on a victory team, …We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it...”

The Losers we try to make common cause with are the poor of Nicaragua, … those who are calling us to let our hearts be broken, to make common cause with them... Mother Teresa prayed, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” 

I first came to Nicaragua as a volunteer with the Jubilee House Community in 1999, nine months after Hurricane Mitch.  I spent the summer building provisional plastic houses in the refugee camp of Nueva Vida. I saw families living in plastic shacks, sleeping on the ground in mud. … I saw a three year old who weighed 13 pounds. …

Paul:  It still breaks my heart to have come from so much privilege.  I came to Nicaragua 12 years ago for a “short visit.” … Afterwards, when I went back to Ireland, … suddenly I was uncomfortable and was astounded by the wealth I saw.  Who was I to have so much, just because I’d been born in Ireland?  … [I began] to understand about privilege and power, ... [which] is very uncomfortable for me. … I think of myself as one of the people.  So for me to acknowledge that I have power – and even unintentionally have power over others – is hard for me.

Sometimes visitors to Nicaragua ask us, “After so long here, do you feel Nicaraguan?”  And it would be lovely to say, yes, we’ve been here so long that all the differences between my neighbors and me have just disappeared.  But that wouldn’t be honest.  Because as long as I have the option – whether I ever take it or not – to get on a plane and fly out of Nicaragua, then I will always have more power than those around me. …

With all my privilege, I have the power to not open my heart.  …  We have the privilege to ignore what we see.  That is a power we have, and one we must give up.  We must surrender our hearts.

Becca:  After so long in Nicaragua, sometimes I find myself taking the injustices here for granted.  Sometimes I find myself looking at homes made out of the sides of kiddie pools as if that is normal… Getting used to poverty is dangerous, because I might get so used to it that I can’t see it… We as human beings try to avoid pain – seeing another person in a desperate situation is a painful emotional experience for us.  If we don’t have to look into the face of a desperately poor person and recognize them as fellow human beings, then we don’t have to feel that pain of connection with them…

But if they can live there, and dig through the trash each day, and eat trash fried in a trash can over a trash fire, then the very least I can do is go there and see it with my own eyes… One morning’s visit is not solidarity, it doesn’t even come close… But for a moment, as Paolo Freire says, we “suffer with them and fight at their side.” …

Paul:  Now that we’ve talked about … our inherent power over the poor with whom we feel called to work, we want to talk about giving up that power: the concept of voluntary powerlessness.  We recognize that we will never be able to completely shed our power.  But we do believe that in order to make any real change in the world, those of us who were born into positions of power and privilege must strive to give up that power over others…

Becca: … Growing up in the U.S., we are taught that for every problem there is a solution, and that our ideas are always best.  Unconsciously, we believe that if other countries don’t look like ours, that’s because they haven’t “gotten there” yet…  I have to forcibly turn off the voice in my head that is constantly “fixing” what I see…

Paul:  Renouncing anything is scary, giving up power is scary, ...  We can’t do it by our strength alone.  To have any success, we need to be surrounded by people who support us, [and] ... who aren’t afraid to be brutally honest with each other…

Becca:  And yet, [it took us a long time to] join the intentional community…  It’s very scary to throw your money into a pot with others.  I was afraid of what people would say, afraid of taking a step outside the societal norm.  I was also afraid to sign myself up for the Losing Team, ... And if I signed up for the Losing Team of Jubilee House Community, not only would I be guaranteed a string of losses, but I wouldn’t even be able to take credit for that, I’d have to share it with eleven other losers…

[But] being together in community gives us strength to do the work we do.  When one of us is sick, or our hearts are too raw, or we just can’t handle another flat tire or another defeat in a long line of defeats, then another one of us will step forward in our place.  When a big decision has to get made, there are many of us to make that decision together…

Friends, it’s possible that we … are hungering and thirsting to have the world distilled down to food, water, shelter, so that we can be free love one another as brothers and sisters ... We don’t believe that the Spirit calls us to make minor changes… Jesus didn’t say “Go unto your closet and pick out a handful of things you don’t wear and give them to the poor.” Jesus said, “Sell everything that you have and give it to the poor and come and follow me.” … The Divine calls us to make common cause with the poor, and to absolutely pour ourselves out in the struggle, into the Long Defeat…

We’re not meant to do it alone, but together, as brothers and sisters, as community… Let’s clasp hands for strength, take a deep breath, and open our hearts.  Our Beloved Community will be here to hold us when they break.  And through the cracks in our broken hearts, Friends, we must trust that Way will Open. ~~~

Becca and Paul Mohally Renk met in Ireland in 1994, during the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage there. They now both work for the Center for Development in Central America, located in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, and live in the live in Jubilee House Community and with their two daughters, Eibhlan and Orla.

Click here to read the unabridged version of this talk.

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