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Nicaraguan village. Photo by Nola Haynes

January term at HDS is an opportunity for the HDS community to engage in studies and specially designed programs that offer enrichment, knowledge, service to the community, or experiences outside HDS’s normal offerings…HDS faculty and students traveled to Latin America for “Spirit of Resistance,” a course that provided a firsthand look at the legacy of faith, solidarity, and social action in Nicaragua. The group talked about liberation theology and social justice with Nicaraguan environmental activists, Jesuit priests, advocates for women’s health, and rural peasants.”

In order to paint the most vibrant portrait about my experience in Nicaragua, I feel a quick stop in my past texturizes my sentiments and passions about the trip. I grew up in the 80s in New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans is popular, famous or infamous for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are rooted in folklore around voodoo, great cuisine, Mardi Gras, vampires, and most recently all the negative and horrible truths (some fabricated) revealed during and following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The New Orleans I grew up in was divorced from many of the city’s darker secrets. Like thousands of other kids in the city, I attended Catholic school. I was born into Catholicism as some might say. I participated in all the rituals and even led a campaign to induct girls into the fraternity of alter boys. In my New Orleans, Catholicism was in a sense cultural-socio-political currency. It linked families to their European ancestry and perhaps more insidiously, Catholicism spoke to the unsaid disease of classism. New Orleans is a very old city. The first colonizers, France and Spain bought Catholicism and African slaves to Louisiana. While ironic in the Louisiana context, a hodgepodge of human sentimentality and pure economic decision-making prompted early European colonizers to emancipate African slaves before the American Emancipation Proclamation was signed. So, Catholicism contributed to or built a hierarchy among Blacks, Creoles, and Quadroons in the city.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans. It was a major moment for this American Catholic city’s narrative and legitimacy. I was quite young when this happened; still I knew it was a blessed and sacred event to have the Vicar of Christ pay attention to us, a predominantly Black city. At that time, I’d never heard of Nicaragua or Liberation Theology. I did however feel a palpable tension between the so-called “traditional Church” versus “The Jesuits.”  The Pope’s visit aligned with political unrest in Nicaragua.

The summer before moving to Cambridge to begin studying at HDS, a friend handed me a thick book about the Jesuits. I read all 500 pages within days. The take away from the book was two brothers, Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, both priests, were at the heart and soul of Liberation Theology and Nicaragua’s Revolution. I began my career at HDS obsessed with Liberation Theology because it spoke to my own Catholic formation in New Orleans. When the moment presented itself to travel to Nicaragua, I leapt, ran and sprinted toward the opportunity. In my wildest dreams I never imagined I’d meet Padre Fernando Cardenal, still a Jesuit, still an advocate for the poor. In his late 70s, he was poised, yet feisty and passionate about working with campesino (peasant) communities. It was terribly difficult to hold back the level of emotion I experienced while the group of 14 sat and chatted with this living Saint. I liken the experience to meeting Dr. King if he were still alive.

The entire trip was filled with moments of profound hope, joy, sadness and inspiration. We traveled the country from north to south meeting incredible Nicaraguans who against unbelievable odds led their communities through dark days during insurrection, revolution and war. Women or mujeres were front and center in caring for their communities, through health education, cultural education and spiritual education. We met children who were forced to live or subsist on the streets because their families did not rebound from the war. We visited and ate in campesino communities, spoke with indigenous Elders, toured breathtaking organic coffee farm.  We were treated to an extreme hospitality that will forever inform my own way of receiving guests in my home.

I’ve seen poverty in various countries including my own. What stirred my emotions so strongly in Nicaragua was the level of hope, the narrative of struggle or las luchas that bled so strongly throughout the country’s cultural-socio-political framework. I experienced healing through faith first-hand. In Nicaragua I danced ritual healing dances with perfect strangers and felt connected to their pain, their joy, and tears.

At an outdoor mass in a beautiful community called Batahola, I listened to a priest from España preach about justice. After receiving communion, I dropped to my knees to pray and revel in a moment of humility and servitude. In that public moment of worship Paulo Freire’s call to embody both theory and praxis resonated like never before. There it was, Liberation Theology living, breathing and practiced. Or to borrow the voice of campesinos, I understood the social, political and spiritual call to “See” with my eyes, “Judge” from my experiences, then “Act” for the betterment of humanity.