Amanda was a VMM missioner in Batahola, Nicaragua from 2009—2011. She has just returned to Batahola to work now as an employee here at the CCBN. Hurray!
The Call of Mission
When I found out I had been accepted by VMM to be a missioner at the Cultural Center of Batahola Norte (CCBN) in Managua, Nicaragua, I felt pretty confident I would succeed. I had a mental checklist of what I thought created a recipe for success in international volunteering: Spanish competency. Check.—Flexibility. Check.— Good people skills. Check.— Passion for social justice. Check.—And…lack of belief in my ability to “make a difference.” Check.
That’s right. I prided myself on the fact that I was not going to Nicaragua to “help, save,” or even “make a difference.” I was going as a North American who wanted to learn from the people of Nicaragua, and especially from the community of Batahola. I wanted to be transformed by their community organizing, their faith, and their values. I wanted to find a unique perspective that I could bring back and share with my communities in the U.S. And while I certainly did learn a lot, and I do hope to share quite a bit back home, I have also come to realize (and perhaps accept) that, just as those around me touched me, I touched them, too.
That is the beauty of cross-cultural mutual exchange, and the unique opportunity VMM provides its missioners and their receiving communities. In Batahola, we call this mutual exchange accompaniment. We define it as “striving to live and work in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people by opening ourselves to listening, learning, and sharing with community members.” So with this definition as my guide, and an initial program emphasis on relationship building and observation, I began my journey.
Those who know me personally know that I am a mover and a shaker. So it wasn’t easy for me to commit to observing and following instead of taking charge and leading. But even with this commitment, I could never have predicted the ways in which these last two years would challenge me to grow.
Because I focused from the beginning on entering into relationship with the people of Batahola, I quickly found myself listening to their struggles to survive and feeling their pain. And being a problem-solver, feelings of powerlessness were particularly acute. But I felt called to be still and face the reality of what my sisters and brothers were sharing.
When a good friend didn’t have the money to pay for the special needs school her son would greatly benefit from, I was simply present with her. When a seven-year-old calmly explained to me that she had to hit her younger nephew to teach him a lesson because that is the only way she herself responds to authority, I was simply present. When my English student came to class with a cut on her arm from her boyfriend, I was simply present. When one of the youth I worked with explained to me that her parents had been fighting all the time and might be splitting up, I was simply present. When I saw a black eye on another young woman and was unconvincingly told she got it playing soccer, I was simply present. The examples are endless, but the theme is the same: being present.
What do I mean by “simply” being present? I certainly don’t mean inaction, or denial. Every one of these situations tugged at my heart, brought tears to my eyes, and caused intense feelings of anger. But what could I do? I couldn’t swoop in and save the world like a superhero. Even if I could give money to resolve a particular situation, intervene to stop the violence in a particular instance, I knew it would just happen again. And grounding myself in my value of accompaniment, I knew it wasn’t my job or my call to save everyone. But I was called to listen, to feel peoples’ pain and make it my own, and to lend whatever support I could. While oppressive structures have a lot to do with the hardships faced by Nicaraguans, and I most definitely feel called to work towards systemic change, I found more of my daily life in Batahola to be about encountering people on a personal level, seeing the fullness of their humanity, and encouraging them to find creative solutions for their struggles and put them into action.
When my friend couldn’t figure out how to pay for the education her son needed, I helped her brainstorm different alternatives. Whenever youth would come to me with stories and signs of violence in their homes, I would spend time with them, encouraging them to express themselves assertively and critically reflect on their experiences of violence. When my English student complained about her abusive boyfriend, I connected her to the CCBN’s psychologist and encouraged her to leave the relationship. Because of my experiences in Batahola, I firmly believe that a key factor in breaking vicious cycles of poverty and violence is empowerment, or giving people the tools to liberate themselves. And this is why my work at the CCBN became a concrete response to the dire situations I was encountering, a powerful recipient of the energy generated by my feelings of anger and helplessness.
The CCBN’s mission focuses on women’s and youth empowerment through technical education, arts education, a library, a scholarship program, and violence prevention programming. Every course and activity geared towards women helps them gain the skills and self-confidence needed to achieve economic independence, leave abusive relationships, and improve their lives and the lives of their children. Courses and activities for children and youth show young people how to become agents of transformation in their families and communities, emphasizing education as a key factor for change. The welcoming environment at the CCBN creates a safe space for increasing each participant’s resilience to the negative factors in their lives. And so I energetically taught English class, facilitated spaces for youth to build relationships, express themselves, have fun, and sought out striking stories of success to share with visitors and supporters back home.
Through this work, I certainly “did” a lot. I taught 20 English students each year, worked with 60 youth throughout the two years, attended at least 10 workshops, helped coordinate 5 delegation visits for 60 supporters, collaborated with 45 coworkers, and shared of myself with countless community members and neighbors.
But, as I said before, it’s not all about what I “did.” Some activities were more successful than others, a lot of the time things didn’t go as I had planned, and I certainly experienced my share of frustration, particularly due to cross-cultural communication. But those moments, those sparks, when kinship is felt, when a connection is made (which are completely independent of the “success” of an event)– that is God, that is the call of mission, and that is an accomplishment.
– Amanda Otero