You see it in the movies… someone is having an emotional meltdown, babbling away about their seemingly insurmountable troubles… then a good friend gives them an alarming slap in the face. Suddenly, the babbling idiot looks up, refreshed and ready to move forward with new energy and a fresh perspective. “Thanks! I needed that,” they say.
Traveling to Nicaragua last week was my proverbial slap in the face. This was no classic resort vacation, where I was pampered and restored with VIP accommodations, R&R and therapeutic spa treatments. In fact, under any other circumstances, I would have considered it a disaster: Only a dribble of cold water in the sink and shower (and don’t you dare drink the untreated tap water!); sparse dormitory-style accommodations in simple bunk beds with hard pillows; toilets that can’t handle toilet paper; up before 6 a.m. each morning; simple mid-day meals of turkey-and-cheese sandwiches made by the side of the dirt road each day; sudden, unexplained blackouts… You get the picture.
And yet, this was luxurious compared to the plight of the people outside the high walls of the Land of Judah orphanage in central Nicaragua, where my Living Waters mission team stayed for the week. Along the roads from Managua to Masaya and Granada, and in the small towns and villages like Masatepe, San Marcos, Santa Teresa, Casares and Los Medranos, I witnessed crushing poverty among the people. They weren’t hidden away in contained slums; they were everywhere, walking along the road, riding a bicycle or motorbike, sometimes heaped along with dozens more in the bed of a pickup truck or crammed into a rickety bus.
They were walking for hours to get to work at the big chicken processing center or picking coffee beans for our special shade-grown blend of gourmet brew. They were gathering firewood along the side of the road; or grazing their scrawny cows or horses along the berm of the highway; or burning their heaping trash wherever it happened to pile up (because there is no trash-pick-up program in Nicaragua)… or begging for a handout at the airport and tourist attractions.
The homes we passed by ranged from miserable to inconceivable. The best ones were made of adobe-type material with either clay or thatched roofs. Others were made simply of sapling pole frames with sheets of cardboard and plastic stretched across. Most North Americans wouldn’t find these shelters fit for a stray animal.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America (about the size of the state of New York); one of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean to the east. North of it is Honduras; Costa Rica lies to the south.
This tropical nation has been pretty much out-of-sight-out-of-mind since the Iran-Contra affair blew onto the scene during the Reagan era. But this country appears to be suffering from a deep, pernicious neglect. Consider these statistics from Global Exchange, Britannica and the Central Intelligence Agency:
The five major causes of death in Nicaragua are: 1) circulatory system diseases; 2) infectious and parasitic diseases; 3) accidents and violence; 4) respiratory diseases; 5) cancer.
Nicaragua’s health care crisis is pretty simple: There’s only one physician per 1,882 patients and one hospital bed per 804 persons. The life expectancy of the average Nicaraguan is 71 years.
Beyond that, 16 percent of the working-age population is unemployed; 36 percent is under-employed. Those fortunate enough to secure a minimum-wage job rake in cordobas equivalent to $4 a day. (Per day; not per hour.) Nearly 50 percent of the population exists below the poverty line.
The nation of Nicaragua relies on international economic assistance to meet internal- and external-debt financing obligations. The country cannot sustain itself.
These statistics are overwhelming. Immersing ourselves into this reality was nearly unbearable at times. It seemed that our efforts here would prove fruitless at best. As an extension of the indigenous Christian missionary organization, Messiah Project Nicaragua, our mission was “to reflect God’s love by bringing relief to physical suffering along with spiritual truth and direction through Jesus Christ to those without hope.” All we had to offer were songs of praise and encouragement, a funny puppet show, an encouraging message, practical Christmas gifts for the children, our prayers and hugs.
All of these small measures were warmly and graciously received by the throngs of people who met us at the intersection of a rural dirt road, in an empty urban warehouse, in the back yard of someone’s home, in a church recently built by the faithful community once ruled by gangs… even by a community subsisting across the road from the local dump. The former gang leaders now are indigenous street preachers who deliver the Good News as well as a food program, medicine, vitamins, reading glasses, radio programming and even a public lending library. These efforts are nothing less than revolutionary. The effect is miraculous.
So, Nicaragua has been my slap in the face this Christmas season. I’m not sweating the small stuff any more. I realize – despite my troubles – I am richly blessed. My New Year’s resolution is to hold on to this Nicaragua state of mind.