During my ten and a half years with MCC (between 1979 and 1994), I had the privilege to work in three very interesting places and learn from many inspiring people. The cliché about gaining more than one gives was true for me. My first three years out of college were at the MCC headquarters in Akron, PA, working in what was then called the U.S. Peace Section. While our focus was on being a peace education resource for the MCC constituency, I was exposed not only to the broad range of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, but also to the peacemaking efforts of several other church groups. During that time, President Carter reinstated universal registration for the military draft, and we devoted a lot of time to working with churches and young men on our response as a peace church.
While in Akron, I would see dozens of new volunteers coming through for orientation and then heading off all over the world for their assignments. I decided to explore that option. El Salvador came into the picture for me because of a long-time interest in Latin America and a desire to do something more concrete with my interest in peace issues. In mid-1982, I joined another MCC volunteer who had begun working in El Salvador the previous year. The country had been in the midst of a civil war for several years and MCC was beginning to explore opportunities to respond.
As in many other places, a small wealthy minority had been exploiting the poor majority for decades and a corrupt government with its military forces was enabling that system to continue. A revolutionary guerrilla movement had begun attacking government and army positions in an attempt to force change. The army responded with devastating repression in large areas of the countryside where they determined the guerrillas had their bases. Within a few years, a million Salvadorans were displaced from their homes. About half fled the country as refugees and the other half moved to nearby cities and villages where there was no housing, food, sanitation or other vital services.
A number of Salvadoran churches stepped up to begin filling these needs in spite of the danger of being viewed as guerrilla sympathizers. MCC began supporting some of these programs with money and materials, but also, of equal importance, with our presence. Having a North American visible as part of the program provided a small bit of protection from the military repression because the U.S. was the primary funder of the Salvadoran government and they did not want to risk the bad publicity that would result from harm being done to the people or projects. While we and the churches we worked with tried to be very clear about our focus on providing humanitarian assistance, there was no escaping the highly politicized environment.
If you weren’t a supporter, then you had to be the enemy. Within MCC and among our Salvadoran partners, we had many long discussions about what humanitarian aid in such a situation meant. Who were we helping? Were the displaced persons really benefitting? Were we simply making it easier for the repressive government to pacify and control the population? What did it mean to be a Christian peacemaker? There are no clear right or wrong answers that apply in every situation, but it was important to ask the questions and be aware of our impact in a complex situation.
Following a several year break for further education and getting married, Colleen and I rejoined MCC for four years in Nicaragua, a very different experience but also very interesting. We arrived very shortly after a change of government from the Sandinistas who themselves had overthrown a brutal dictatorship a decade earlier. The U.S. had funded a counterrevolution since then, and also instituted severe economic sanctions. Nicaragua had turned to the Soviet Union and Cuba for support but by 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to drastic reductions in aid.
The Sandinistas were forced to become more pragmatic about their relations with the U.S. and hold elections where opposing parties could compete. A more conservative candidate with U.S. support won the presidency and, under pressure from the U.S., turned the economic and social policies upside down. Within a few months, unemployment rose to over 50%, government services and subsidies were cut drastically, and the country went into a severe depression. Hyperinflation was so severe that we had to change dollars into local currency weekly or the cash would lose most of its value.
MCC had been in Nicaragua continuously since a major earthquake in 1972, again working with local churches and relief and community development agencies. As MCC country representative, I supported about a dozen volunteers working with our partners in appropriate technology, health, agriculture, women’s programs and community development projects.
In the midst of dire poverty and economic policies making things worse, I was able to work with many dedicated Nicaraguans and MCC volunteers trying to demonstrate ways to improve the situation. As in El Salvador, we relatively wealthy North Americans in a poor country had questions about how to be of assistance. How should we build a balanced partnership with Nicaraguan churches and organizations when we had access to much greater resources? How do we encourage making use of local resources as much as possible? What is an appropriate lifestyle when even on a minimal MCC stipend we could be so much more comfortable than those we worked with?
These were certainly not new questions and I’m not sure we arrived at satisfactory answers, but my life was certainly enriched by the experience of living and working with many Central Americans and North Americans committed to service.