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Reflections from Nicaragua

This post comes from Mary Witt Scholarship awardee and Augsburg College student, Emily O. She recently returned from an Augsburg short term program, Faith, Vocation and Social Change in Central America to Augsburg’s Global Site in Nicaragua. Thanks to Emily for sharing!

Grassy knoll overlooking lake
View in Nicaragua

Here is my written summary, discussing 3 separate “slices of life,” or important experiences in Nicaragua and what they taught me:

My first slice of life had to do with the speaker at Cafe las Sonrisas, Tio Antonio.  As someone who grew up in an area considered “developed” like me, I was shocked that he even moved to Nicaragua in the first place.  After the initial confusion as to why he would move to a country where things are so different, I was amazed and inspired by the way he lived out his vocation and listened to his calling in life.  Tio Antonio is a chef who noticed that people with disabilities in Nicaragua often receive adverse treatment from their peers and sometimes even family members.  When reflecting on this and thinking about how to merge these two areas into his work, he decided to hire a staff of all-deaf workers.  There are lots of barriers to this kind of work and it was definitely a feat that needed lots to fall into place for it to happen, but he persisted.  The work that Tio Antonio is doing in this cafe is miraculous.  Not only is he helping employ those with disabilities, but he is providing a center for community members, reducing waste and toxic buildup by making hammocks out of plastic bags, sending profits to meaningful causes and people, educating communities and visitors, and inspiring people every day.

The work of Tio Antonio and his colleagues at Cafe las Sonrisas is altogether wonderful.  They have a unique way of breaking down stereotypes and building up communities simultaneously.  I believe that this is much more than a place to grab a bite to eat, but more so a place where everyone is welcome.  Many of the people we met with in Nicaragua had one specific mission and mainly focused on that, but Tio Antonio seemed to be the best example of social change in general.  I do not think there is anyone he would turn away or who would not be welcome in his cafe and that he cultivated love and acceptance.

Listening to Tio Antonio talk about the work he did truly inspired me.  I was very interested to hear him talk about Starbucks opening a coffee shop solely with deaf workers and claiming to be the first to do so.  I know from business classes how difficult it can be for small and locally-owned business when larger and well-established corporations steal ideas or take credit for work that is not their own.  He was a great example of resilience and how to use the trials as stepping stones rather than boulders.  This makes me want to pursue my passion for business even more but also to focus on the ethics behind it and only put myself in situations where I would be completely comfortable with the public knowing about my private business decisions.  I think social change can happen right where we are, as social people altering the way we think, speak, and act.  Tio Antonio also inspired me to approach those who society deems “unapproachable” based on social constructs.  For example, I have been warned so often about homeless people and how they could have negative intentions and try to harm me in some way.  I want to be able to take that into consideration but also give people the benefit of the doubt.  Those people are a part of my community just as much as the ones living in Minnesota mansions, so why do they deserve to be looked down upon?  I think business is still important in the world and should continue at a fast pace, but the intentions behind each business decision should focus on the good of the entire community rather than one elite or privileged group.

I briefly discussed this in one of the reflection sessions with the group, but ‘la paz,’ or ‘peace’ during the church service was very touching for me.  We went to a church in a small community where everyone knew everyone and the majority did not speak any English.  We were greeted with open arms and welcomed into the space.  Although it was a traditional Catholic church, I believe it had a much better sense of community than most of the Catholic churches I have attended in the midwest.  Growing up, my family brought me to a Catholic church.  I realized that this was to get me through the sacraments so it wouldn’t be so difficult later on if I decided to marry a Catholic man.  When it became about routine and religion rather than relationship, I really struggled.  I hated going to church and swore I would never put my children through the same thing.  I don’t think I would have felt this way if I had grown up attending this Catholic church in Nicaragua.  I learned the importance of hospitality there, and how they did everything in their power to make sure everyone felt comfortable and welcome.

Red domed church with a cross

This church was a  beautiful representation of community.  Although their social views did not align with those of all Augsburg students in attendance, there were more connections than there were barriers.  La Paz was my favorite part of the entire service.  All of the members of the church embraced me fully and I truly felt at home there.  People were even cracking jokes to make us laugh and feel included.  I think this is something that needs to be embodied in more traditional churches in the United States.  There needs to be some type of appeal for young people.  That appeal can range from contemporary music to inspiring speakers to a strong sense of community, but if it is not there the church will die out.  Also, this church was educated on so many levels.  Not only did they know about each other, but they knew about the issues that their own church faced, the issues of the surrounding churches, the causes they were fighting for, and exactly why they were there.  I think those people have found their vocation and are much more confident because of it.

After a positive experience in a Catholic church, I was honestly confused and surprised.  I expected to never smile in a Catholic church again unless a close friend was getting married.  I am glad this changed in Nicaragua.  The session of peace reminded me to embrace others fully with no expectations or judgments.  It reminded me to focus on our common humanity rather than our differences.  I hope to live a life that reflects love and peace, and the people at the church were living testaments to these attributes.  In the United States, even the media focuses on the barriers that individuals and groups of people have between each other.  There is a huge emphasis on differences, some that lead to violence.   This is a troublesome view of the world because in this context we forget to embrace others.  When was the last time you hugged someone fully for more than a second?  Even acts of love like this have been limited or even eliminated, and people are feeling more distant than ever.  I want to be the one smiling, hugging, laughing, making jokes, and living a full life according to my vocation.  This church raised a few questions for me but also answered many of my questions.  The problem is not the Catholic church in general, but the actions of the people within it.  The solution is not to eliminate this branch of Christianity, but rather to make it radiant and worthwhile.

The final slice of life came out of our rural homestays.  This was quite the experience.  With no air conditioning, no refrigerator, no television or internet, limited electricity, etc., this family was still able to live abundantly.  This family did not speak any English, and both my classmate and I had limited Spanish.  We used lots of hand gestures and other means of explanation to try to have meaningful conversations.  This went better than expected, and language does not even need to be a barrier when you are in a place that is so welcoming.  We felt so at home in a place that was nothing like home.  Although sleeping under mosquito nets and unable to scroll through social media, we got to experience a different type of living, one that is not less than but is just different than what we are used to.  This lifestyle is based in the kitchen, where an hour of preparation for each meal takes place.  Fresh fruits are cut up, eggs and rice are put over the wood fire, and dishes are washed with water that makes Americans sick.  Life is simple there, but not the same “simple” we are used to here.  I think simple often gets confused with easy.  To me, simple means only having what you need, whereas easy means doing the least amount possible regardless of resources.  This distinction was important for me to make because simple is not easy for me.  I am used to abundance in the sense of having much more than I will ever need and that is something that makes me comfortable.  I loved hearing stories of how comfortable people were having exactly as much as they needed, because they no longer wasted what they had.

This type of living is something I realistically will never achieve.  I do not think in my lifetime I will get to a point where the things I have are only the things I need.  I enjoy having things I want but do not necessarily need, but I also think it is important not to take for granted the fact that necessities have come fairly easily to me.  We pride these people on being happy with much less than we have, but the truth is that is all they have ever known.  We should not treat them as heroes, but rather as people living in different circumstances who have stories to tell and lessons to teach.  I learned a lot just through interacting with the mom as well as the children.  I actually felt like she was my mom for the few days, as she catered to my needs and was always ready to listen.

colorful pottery

The thing that stuck out to me the most was that two of the languages that are worldwide that we often forget about are love and laughter.  No matter who someone is, how different they are, or how many barriers are in the way, I believe you can connect with one or both of these languages.  Love can take on many forms, from physical touch to words of affirmation to quality time to gifts.  Laughter should also be thought about because jokes do not always cross cultural contexts well. However, I still think it is possible.  I will never forget the amount of laughter we shared with this family and how much love they poured into us.  If we think of each other as plants, I believe we each watered each other enough to grow on this trip, and that is something so beautiful to me.

Augsburg Students can see the full list of upcoming short-term programs at our application portal, the “Global Gateway