As part of her first trip to Nicaragua in 1986, JustHope Founder, Leslie Penrose, visited a farming cooperative in the mountains near Jinotega. The co-op was just two years old — part of the Agrarian Reform project that the new government had undertaken. And the six or so farmers who had gathered to meet with the visitors were bursting with pride as they displayed some of their recent harvest. Most had been squatters or sharecroppers before the revolution with little or no hope of escaping the desperate poverty that defined their lives. “We always hoped for land of our own,” one of the campesinos (peasant farmers) told us. “But it was hope with no legs...the Revolution has given our hope legs,” he continued. “Now, our hope has the strong legs of justice”.
Leslie wrote in her journal that night, “That’s what I want my work to be about — giving hope the strong legs of justice.”
Sharing in Hope
Leslie returned home, completed seminary, and for 20 years served as a community activist and pastor to those who had “hope without legs” within her home community. But her love for Central America drew her back, and year after year she took people and groups with her — groups from both inside and outside the church, drawn for their own diverse reasons.
Over and over again, Leslie found that other’s lives, like hers, were transformed in deep and profound ways through experiences and connections with people living in a radically different context, often coming home with a greater sense of purpose for their own lives, and a passionate desire to act on this purpose. For the U.S. participants, global partnerships resulted in making a big world smaller and wounded people whole. Participants found their values and perspectives changed and their priorities rearranged. As people reflected on their experiences in Central America and engaged in ongoing partnerships with those they had met, they found themselves rethinking earlier assumptions about others, about themselves, and about the world.
Changing the Paradigm
Along the way, those who went to Nicaragua discovered that single visits from groups perpetuated the historical colonial relationship between North and Central America, rather than transformed it. This “come, work, and leave” approach actually reinforced the giver/receiver, patron/client interpersonal roles instead of nurturing and empowering the self-determination and self-sufficiency of the Nicaraguan community.
The real transformation was happening not among those people and groups briefly traveling to Nicaragua, Guatemala or El Salvador, but those who were staying connected and involved. Those who went and then returned &dmash; some physically, but all with their hearts, passion, and checkbooks — are those who had a paradigm changed. And, conversely, it was the communities those "returnees" remained with whose hope had a fighting chance of "growing legs."
In 1996, after years of brief trips, a small group of companions made the decision to stay and to find a community in Central America with whom they could create a long-term relationship, with whom they could wrestle and hope their way into something deeper, something truer, something more mutual. More than a charity project, they wanted a partner with them in the movement toward justice.
It took two years to find the right community. The elements important to the U.S. group were:
- strong local leadership in place, willing to engage the North American group as partners, not patrons;
- both the partner groups remaining open to the diversity of the other; and
- a way for visiting partners to stay within, and engage with, the host community, rather than having to withdraw to hotels at night.
Solidarity, they were learning, is about more than investing a week in one another’s lives. It’s about even more than knowing one another’s names and caring about one another’s lives. Solidarity is about knowing what the real struggles and joys are in a partner’s life and making those struggles and joys your own in a way that has concrete effects on the priorities you set, the options you explore, and the decisions you make in your own day to day living. Solidarity means not only asking how will this vote affect me and my neighborhood, but how will it affect Maria and her neighborhood. It means considering not only how the way you budget your money or your time will affect your family, but how it will affect Juan’s family as well. Solidarity is a way of life, not just an occasional visit. The group’s hope was that by risking partnership, they would find their way into solidarity.
In 1998, just before Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, a small group of a dozen people or so made its first visit to Chacraseca, Nicaragua, a small farming community outside León with 1,500 households (8,000 people) and an average income of $1 per person per day (at the time). And they stayed.
A pattern developed as one trip turned into two and then three. Two years turned into six and then ten. And visits to Nicaragua grew to visits from Nicaragua. Several of the original group stayed involved, and every year new participants also got involved. Most years Leslie went, but some years she didn’t — the dream had grown well beyond any single person to a shared vision. Each team would meet with Chacraseca’s community leadership team to discuss projects for the week and make financial decisions together. They would take walking tours around the community, visiting with residents, stopping by schools, going to church, and each group worked side by side with Nicaraguans on some jointly agreed-upon project. At the end of each visit, those who had worked together all week co-hosted a fiesta for the community complete with piñatas and treats for everyone plus time for singing, and dancing, and sharing talents.
Growth and Continued Connections
Across the years, a number of the participants who had joined the group returned from their trips to begin working on getting their own churches or organizations involved in global partnerships. The original partnership with Chacraseca has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to its partnership projects, and the total donations to all Nicaraguan partnerships have grown to well over $1 million.
But it was the in between work that proved most exciting. In between visits letters were written and phone calls made. A map of Chacraseca went up on the wall marking places that had become holy ground to the partners. Pictures of Nicaraguans who had become family to other groups hung on their walls. Three groups started small fair trade stores to sell Nicaraguan coffee and artisan pieces, and encouraged “alternative gift giving” not only at Christmas, but on Valentine’s Day and Easter and for birthdays. Groups started keeping up with how U.S. foreign policy affected Nicaragua, and worked to understand the complexities of the World Bank and international foreign policy. Special worship celebrations were held on the same day at the same time in Nicaragua and Oklahoma to honor the partnerships, and delegations from Nicaragua visited Oklahoma on a regular basis. Somewhere along the way, partnership had become solidarity.
The way of partnership wasn’t easy for any of the groups, but it was enlightening and challenging and encouraging and rewarding. Groups discovered, with their partners, that when partnerships are truly striving for mutuality details are critical, especially details concerning decision-making and money — both symbols of power and fundamental to almost every interaction.
Maintaining the Struggle
North American partners must be constantly vigilant about making decisions “for” rather than “with” their partners, often without even realizing it’s happening. Experience revealed that often the deep cultural sense of hospitality and grace of the Central American partners kept them from calling North Americans on our failures of mutuality. But slowly, the group that sustained that original partnership in Chacraseca struggled (and continue to struggle) to unlearn their tendencies toward colonialism. And slowly, the Nicaraguan partners struggled (and continue to struggle) to resist their tendencies to "be nice" rather than holding their North American partners accountable to the covenant of mutuality. Slowly, trust grew and solidarity infused hope — real hope, hope with legs — into lives and communities and relationships worn threadbare, some (on the U.S. side of the border) by too much, and others (on the Central American side) by not enough.
With each step in that long and sometimes painful process, trust deepened and the partnership strengthened. And with each step the same small group that ten years earlier had decided to stay in Nicaragua, began to imagine ways that other communities in the U.S. might be nurtured into global partnerships of solidarity and hope with people in Central America and around the globe. In June of 2007, a small, committed core group of people invested their hopes, their hearts, their hands, and their resources in birthing the dream that beyond paternalism, partnership is possible; that beyond colonialism, covenant can thrive; that beyond just hope for global solidarity is the dream of JustHope: the dream of a world interconnected by cross-cultural partnerships of mutuality and trust that are working cooperatively to inspire hope, increase justice, and nurture the common well-being of the world.
Václav Havel has written, “Hope is not the conviction that things will turn out well, but the confidence that what you are doing makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” In a country dominated by an oppressive dictator, hope as the isolated wish of each individual farmer didn’t make sense, it didn’t "have legs." But partnering in the struggle for liberation and the work of social transformation did make sense. And it made Hope! Working together for common justice, not just for themselves, but for their neighbors, their children, their country, gave their hope legs. Partnering together to "be the change we want to see" does have legs. It does make sense. And it makes hope — JustHope.