Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas: Called to Make the Poor a Priority

Almost 30 years to the day, Tiff (age 4), Jessica (age 2), and I were talking about the Christmas story…the birth of Jesus. I remember telling them it was important to remember that Jesus was born poor and homeless (we were running homeless shelters at that time). “Why?”

“Because then we can realize that we need to take care of the poor,” I answered.

Tiff thought and said, “We do more for poor people than anybody I know.”

I replied, “That may be true, but we can still do more…lots more.”

“But, Been…We. Do. More. For. Poor. People. Than. Anybody. I. Know.”

Sometimes I agree with Tiff, especially when I am weary. Not that I seriously think we do more, but sometimes it FEELS like that we have done enough and we can stop. Especially at Christmas…

We see the people who have so much in the world trickling down their generosity to the poor and if I have had a bad day, I think we do actually do more for poor people than anybody I know.

THEN I open my eyes and see anew the poverty staring me in the face and think of the stable and manger… I imagine what an improvement a stable is to the home that many babies are born into here… there is much still to be done.

Let me quickly say that I have no illusion that I am ridding the world of poverty or even enabling people to rise above poverty. The people we work with work so hard to make their lives tolerable. Mostly I hope beyond hope that the little we do might give some a chance to right a few of the wrongs that the powerful have dealt them.

BUT on bad days I think there is no more energy or imagination to keep pushing…to find money, to fight Coker International, to look at new clinic services, and, I think, we have done enough over the many years.

The Christmas story tells us that the embodiment of hope was born poor and homeless. There was no Santa Claus. No Christmas trees, stockings, and no roast beast…but poverty and hope. We who are Christians need to remember our profession of faith is rooted in the poor…and we need to remember that no politics, no economic system should divert us from those roots. We were called to make the poor priority…and we can never…never do enough. Not until all bellies are fed, all have a roof over their heads, feet with shoes, bodies with clothes, not rags…in other words not until shalom…salaam…justice prevails.

The Jubilee House Community sends you all the hopes of the angels this coming new year:

Peace on earth and good will towards all.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The First Purisima

This evening is the celebration of the conception of Mary without sin...Purisima. Nicaragua celebrates this Catholic Holy Day for than any other country in the world, I do believe.

I always think of it as a cross between China New Year with the fireworks exploding for hours, Christmas caroling with people going door-to-door singing songs about María and praying prayers to María, and Halloween with gifts handed out to the people who come to your house or shrine.

In 1994, our first year living here, we being the true newbies, were told by César, our Director of Projects, we should set up a Purísma shrine. Well, not being Catholic or Nicaraguan, we had no idea what to do.

“You put up a Mary down by the gate. You need to give some little food, and a little gift, like a toy,” he told us.

We had so little money. “For how many?” we asked.

“Oh, everyone will come expecting the gringos to do something…so 500.”

500! But we were up to the challenge! We popped and filled 500 little bags of popcorn. We went to the market and bought 500 little noisemakers…the toys were little the noise was LOUD! Henry and others from my English class came to help us set up our shrine.

The Purísma Marys are all very white skinned, dressed in blue, and have a halo. We didn’t know that then, so we pulled out our last Advent banner which has mother and child…Haitian mother and child on it.

“Whoa! You can’t use that!”

“Why not?”

“Well….hmmm…well…hmmm…she has a baby. Mary is a virgin.”

“But this is the only Mary we have.”

Then we could just see their resignation and the realization just how ignorant we really are…and like you say to a child who dressed herself for a party completely inappropriately but so proud… “This is great!” ….uh yeah.

So our banner went up, Henry et al, decorated our altar so, so prettily with flowers and palms and we got all set up. We stood with the Coury, age 5, and Daniel, age 2, at our gate in the middle of the countryside…the city then had not moved out to us…and we waited with great anticipation.

And we waited.

And we waited.

About 20 plus kids came from the cooperative next door. That was it.

The next morning….“Cé-é-é-é-sar. No. One. Came.”

“Well, of course not. You didn’t shoot up fireworks…they didn’t know you had an altar.”

Sigh. We too did not know.

We ate the 480 bags of popcorn. And since that time, we have just enjoyed OTHERS’ celebrations of Purísma. -- Kathleen

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To Hell With Good Intentions

For all of us who go to Nicaragua – or indeed, any place poorer than where we are from: India, Mexico, Appalachia, Detroit – our first instinct is to fix it. Whether we will admit it or not, the very first thing we do when confronted with a terrible situation is to furiously work through possible responses to that problem in our mind until we hit upon the “magic” solution.

I know this because I do it all the time. Even after ten years of living in Nicaragua, I still do it. I go to Nueva Vida, the neighborhood created by Hurricane Mitch resettlement, and with everything I see, I work through scenarios to “fix” what is “wrong” in Nicaragua. It works like this: Wash water running down the street. That creates mud and breeds mosquitoes that carry dengue and malaria so the city should put in a sewage system but they don’t have any money so people should have gray water catches in their houses but then children fall in those all the time so we should go to each house and put in a filter system so families can filter wash water to water plants and have kitchen gardens in their backyards and feed their families so they aren’t malnourished. There! Gray water filtration systems for everyone! Gang members on street corners: there’s crack cocaine and thievery in the community because all the young boys join gangs because they don’t have any skills to go to work and they beat their girlfriends because all they know is violence so we should teach them all how to treat people and give them skills so they can work for a living. There! Gender trainings and carpentry workshops for all gang members! Skinny dogs: pets don’t get fed enough, so…

And the list goes on, a constant and steady stream in my head.

Growing up in the U.S., we are taught that for every problem there is a solution and that our ideas are always best. Unconsciously, we believe that if other countries don’t look like ours, that’s because they haven’t “gotten there” yet. The idea that other ways of living are just as valid as ours does not even occur to us. We are hard-wired this way to such an extent that it is simply inconceivable to most Americans that our ideas aren’t the better way of doing things and so it is veritably impossible for us to keep our great ideas to ourselves.

Monseñor Ivan Illich condemned this is the mindset in his address to US volunteers in Mexico in 1968, “To Hell With Good Intentions.” In his address, Illich disputes “the idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it.” He challenges the volunteers – and all of us who go to a place poorer than where we are from to “help” – to “recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do.”

Illich is absolutely right, we must stop trying to fix everyone…who are we – who am I – to know better than my Nicaraguan neighbors how to “fix” their country? Who am I to assume that it needs fixing?

I have struggled with this, and indeed continue to struggle with this all the time. It was not until I was a junior in college that I began to understand that these were even issues that needed to be dealt with. I was well educated, open-minded, and extremely well-traveled for a U.S. citizen. I had traveled alone around Europe visiting local families, I had spent a summer volunteering in Mexico, I had spent an entire semester studying and volunteering with reconciliation organizations Northern Ireland. I was critical of US foreign policy and practices, and considered myself well-informed. And still, I was completely unaware that the way I wanted to do things as a U.S. citizen – and the ideas that I instinctively wanted to spread that around the world – were actually part of the problem.

That didn’t change for me until one day when I was fervently arguing with my Spanish housemate that the image of the U.S. in other countries – and feelings about the U.S. – are overall very positive. After a lengthy discussion, she finally turned to me and in no uncertain terms said, "No, they’re not. We don't even like you."

It took someone shocking me, angering me, and in the end offending me to get me to begin to see my own irrelevance… the idea that I might be insignificant to the rest of the world had never even occurred to me. What an incredible sense of entitlement we are given as U.S. citizens! I cannot thank my housemate enough for turning my world 180 degrees so that I might finally get a glimpse what others see of my country, from outside of it.

When I first came to Nicaragua, I thought I was coming to help Nicaraguans. I was sorely mistaken. None of us are needed here. No matter what my skills are, Nicaraguans are capable of doing everything I will do here, and in most cases, do it better, faster and more efficiently. So what is it exactly that I do?

What I try to do is to accompany Nicaraguans, to, in the words of Paolo Freire, “suffer with them and fight at their side.” To walk beside them for awhile, as much as we ever can with that great gulf between us, between what we have and what they have. Accompaniment means that we don’t call the shots. We strive toward – and oftentimes fail to reach – a voluntary powerlessness. This is hard. And it’s certainly not sexy. We try to learn. And we receive infinitely more than we can ever give, as Illich says, we are “receivers…without any way of returning the gift.”

-- Becca

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Plantains & The Fishes

This week we fed the masses with plantains and fishes. On Monday 25 people – our staff at the Center and the Genesis Co-op – enjoyed a lunch of fried tilapia, plantains, rice and salad, thanks to the miracle of aquaponics.

Many of you have read about our aquaponics system that can grow up to 100 pounds of fish and several hundred pounds of vegetables in a backyard. The setup cost is around $300, and when 1/3 of all Nicaraguan children are chronically malnourished, providing families with a source of vitamins and protein is invaluable.

Our volunteer, Jason, the mastermind who has set up the aquaponics system, headed home to visit his family for the first time in nine months. While Jason will be back to continue his work in aquaponics in the new year, he felt that it would be best to shut the system down, especially since we will be closed over Christmas. So we had a fish fry…

Josefa and Nubia stuffed the tilapia with cilantro and fried them, along with plantains, and complimented it with rice and salad. The meal was enjoyed by all, and we look forward to re-stocking the fish tank in January, this time with tilapia of staggered ages to try to achieve a steady reproduction (and harvest) rate.

-- Becca

Monday, October 25, 2010

Equipment story on TV, matching donations up to $1,000!

Our Nicaraguan organic cotton production chain, our partner Maggie's Organics and our Fair Labor Certifier Scientific Certification Systems just got a big mention in Apparel Magazine, a major publication in the textiles industry. To read the article, click here.

In other media news, a story on the spinning plant equipment debacle will be airing on WYFF News 4 in Greenville, SC on Tuesday November 9 at 5 PM and again at 6 PM, so local SC folks tune in. Those of you not in SC can see the piece as well on WYFF’s website. We're hoping this will generate publicity for the story, and bring more pressure to bear on Coker International, the Greenville-based equipment brokerage company that we paid $150,000 more than a year ago as down payment for the spinning equipment that has never been delivered. The October 5 and 8th protests in front of Coker International offices went well, thanks to those who organized them and showed up!

Meanwhile, we’re feeling first hand just how complex it is to work with an entire production chain like our organic cotton chain, especially in the process of trying to get each link going at the same time!

Organic cotton production: We’ve been working for four years to get our organic cotton production up, and this year we feel like that link is finally solid! There are 50 farmers who have planted 450 acres of organic cotton and will be employing nearly 1,000 seasonal workers in the cotton harvest this year! This is enough cotton to keep the Genesis spinning plant going for an entire year…but the downside is that since Genesis doesn’t yet have their equipment (see more on that debacle below) we had to make a choice of whether to hold on to that cotton indefinitely or sell it outside of our production chain. Unfortunately, we don’t have the economic luxury to hold onto it, so that once Genesis is up and running, they will probably have to import cotton for their production. Heavy rains have caused some crop damage, and we have seen for the first time this year isolated incidence of a fungus affecting the cotton leaves. Still, we are expecting a harvest of 250,000 to 300,000 pounds! Even better, the good news is that the market for organic cotton is excellent right now, and we’ve already pre-sold 280,000 pounds!

Cotton gin: With this year’s cotton production, our small gin will be able to work all year round, making its operation much more stable. We were saddened by the sudden death earlier this month of Uriel Hernández, one of the cotton gin workers (who also had formerly worked with the block making cooperative). Uriel was a kind, hardworking man and loving father. Photo at left by Ben Stechschulte

Cotton spinning: We’re seeing firsthand that when one link in the chain experiences a setback, the whole chain suffers the consequences! We have worked in good faith for over a year with Mr. Coker and Coker International to try to bring this situation to a satisfactory conclusion. We still hope to do so, but time is growing short. The women and men of the Genesis spinning cooperative deserve to be treated justly. If we cannot resolve this situation soon, we will have to seek remedy in other venues.

While they wait, we are continuing to give basic grains to the Genesis folks to help them feed their families, but because of the heavy rains this year, harvests have been bad and food prices are skyrocketing…in the last few weeks the price of beans has risen from $0.40 to $1.05 per pound!

But of course the Genesis folks don’t want handouts, they want to work…in order for them to get working and start receiving the salary they so badly need, they must have machinery… fast. We've located alternative equipment, but we need money to buy it. If you are interested in helping, we need it!

We have a supporter willing to match up to $1,000 donated for spinning equipment! To make an online donation go to: Checks can be sent to CDCA, c/o Peggy Murdock, 352 Carly Lane, Rock Hill, SC 29732. For more information on how to loan money to the cooperative projects through the Vida Fund, see or email us at

-- Becca

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Get $10 added to your gift right now!

If you've ever thought of donating to the CDCA online, now is the time to do so -- not only because we are in need those gifts so much right now, but also because if you donate between now and the 19th of October, we'll receive an extra $10! To celebrate their 10th anniversary of helping with charitable giving, JustGive, is adding an extra $10 to gifts made through them. Use the link and enter "JHC-CDCA" as your search information. We'll pop up, click "Donate now", and go from there. Any gift of at least $10 between October 10-19 will generate an extra $10 for us! Pass this along to your friends, please... remember it applies only to gifts given October 10-19 through Thank you!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

5 October protest at Coker for Genesis...

Fifteen people showed up for the first protest in front of Coker International in Greenville, SC, supporting the Genesis spinning cooperative. Check out these photos [Channel 4 interview & partial group in front of Coker sign], and you participants.... Thanks to everybody who showed up, especially from Winthrop, Furman, and North Anderson Church... remember, we're on again for Friday!

Date & Time: 8 October,10AM - until???

Address: Coker International,
2721 Whitehorse Rd, Greenville, SC

Contact info for Narcie Jeter, organizer:

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Call for Action on Behalf of Genesis

Latest news regarding Genesis, the spinning plant cooperative, and the lucha (struggle) of obtaining the spinning machinery from Coker International!

We are trying a new tactic to get Coker to pay attention to the plight of these people…the Rev. Narcie Jeeter ( is organizing 2 demonstrations in front of Coker International in Greenville, SC. The first is on Tuesday October 5th from 2:00 – 5:00PM and then again on Friday, October 8th to begin at 10:00AM.

Why this call for action? Coker International wants more money from the CDCA to get the machinery other than the $150,000 they have already. They are not willing to put up a secure bond to insure that they will actually buy and ship the machinery. We have a lawyer from the Wake Forest Law Center who has advised us not to talk more with Coker except to say "deliver the goods." We want to put pressure on him to do right by these 18 women and men, who have been working on this dream for more than three and a half years with no pay.

If you are in the area please make a poster and go and represent the members of Genesis. Call for Coker International to do the right thing and get Genesis the machinery so they can work and feed their families. Hopefully the media will cover it and that too will make an impact.

If you are not in the area but know someone who is, please ask them to go represent you.

We are working on other avenues as well. We are grateful to our lawyer, Steve Virgil; Mark Lester; Narcie Jeeter; Paul Susman; and Greg Nevers, a lawyer in SC, for serving on a task force to help us explore ways to make the plant a reality…to think outside the box since the box did not serve Genesis well. We are so very grateful to those of you who emailed and called Coker International to encourage him to move forward.

Genesis has good friends in people like you…and so do we at the CDCA.

Here is a link that has a timeline for what has happened

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Businesses that Care

A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog explaining my dislike of capitalism. That notwithstanding, I now want to mention a couple of businesses that use capitalism in a small way to spread justice.

Once Again Nut Butter and Maggie’s Clean Clothes work closely with Nicaraguans and with us. Once Again Nut Butter is a cooperative in Nunda, NY, who makes nut butters (surprise!) and roasts nuts. They have worked with us since 1996 giving capital to growers here, buying their products at fair prices, and traveling down to meet with growers to make that one-on-one connection.

In 1998 through us, they loaned growers $142,000 in seed money, then Hurricane Mitch hit and all the crops were lost. It took eight years but the loan was paid in full. They continued to buy Nicaraguan organic sesame for the best tahini I have ever had, by the way.*

For several years the members quit coming but in the past year have started traveling back and it means so much to the growers…to put a face on the one who buys their products. OANB have tried to help the Center in other ways: they recently bought their promotion peanut butter scoopers from the woodworking shop that we have helped start here. You can find their products in the organic sections of food stores or on their website

Maggie’s Clean Clothes has been working with us since Hurricane Mitch in 1998…helping to establish cooperatives and fair trade businesses to make organic cotton clothing**. They were very involved with the Fair Trade Zone, a women’s sewing cooperative, in its early days…buying the cloth first, helping them learn about quality, and buying their garments at fair prices as well as promoting the women themselves.

They also have put themselves “out there” for the Nicaraguans taking risks. Bená has been down twice this year with a film crew to promote the efforts that are being done here. Maggie’s is giving $5.00 for every order of $35.00 or more to the CDCA until November 30th. Their clothes are comfortable and very pretty…and are organic cotton. I love them…really. You can order from their website Use this promotion code JHCFAIRLAB for $5 to come to the CDCA. Do your holiday shopping early!

* Why organic foods? It is good for our health and good for the health of the earth.

**Why organic clothing? Cotton is the second most pesticide laden crop (coffee is first). Besides being good for the earth, the byproduct of cotton fibers goes into tampons…who wants to use pesticide laden tampons? No one but most women do and it is not healthy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Suffering of the Poor

My father suffers from chronic pain. Daddy and his doctors struggle to keep the pain at a livable level. It cannot be eliminated completely. My dad has access to pain medications. He has a comfortable bed and chairs to sit in. If he has to go anywhere Daddy goes in a car that is also comfortable. He does not have to work, do his own laundry, cook, or clean. And it saddens me to see him suffer even though his pain is managed as best as possible.

Imagine if you will having the chronic, ever-present pain and not having the luxuries, Daddy has. This is the life of the poor.
If they have a bed it is usually a poorly made, cotton stuffed, lumpy mattress on broken frame. Although the bed is more likely to be two saw horses with 2 or 3 pieces of rough wood straddling them. The chairs they do have are hard and very uncomfortable. If they have to go anywhere they have to walk or go by bouncy, crowded buses.

The women, who suffer from pain, continue to wash clothes out on their pilas (concrete scrubbing sinks), cook on wood fires, and care for their extended families of six or more. The men cut firewood with machetes and put in long and hard hours each day.

Often we, who are not desperately poor, don’t think about the poor suffering from pain. We tend to think of hunger and disease, but we forget about actual arthritis, back pain, bad knees, and osteoporosis.

In our clinic the most sought after service is the care of the volunteer orthopedist, who comes from Managua two mornings a week. His mornings are full-to-bulging with patients. He offers injections to help those who suffer from chronic pain as well as acute. He relieves to some extent the swollen joints, the chronic back pain, the knees that want to give away…he helps to ease the pain.
 I remember the first time that I went up with doctors to El Porvenir (the coffee cooperative). We rode in an open trailer pulled by a tractor bouncing and bouncing…holding on to the rusty rail to keep from falling down or out.

One of the doctors, Randy, asked, “Kathleen, did we bring acetaminophen?”
“Good, because I’m giving lots and lots of it to every single patient that shows up.”
Bottom line, the poor hurt.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pulling Up by Your Bootstraps

Thank you all for your emails and calls to Coker International encouraging them to do the right thing. We are amazed at all the goodwill shown to Genesis. This whole debacle has reinforced in me what are the evils that capitalism birth on a regular basis.

Many in the States cannot understand why countries rise up. Why would they turn their backs on capitalism when so many of us think of capitalism and democracy as synonyms? Looking at Genesis, I understand.

Capitalism has at its basis greed. It also spreads the notion that if one just worked hard enough, put in enough labor, sweat, and time then one can pull one’s self right up and prosper. One just has to play by the rules and the system will work for you.

Well, first…there seems to be no rules. The JHC took out loans to pay the broker…to pay him up-front money. Loans with ridiculous interest and the broker took the money and didn’t play by the rules.

Second…these women and men have worked hard enough…harder than most of us ever have. They built their huge building by hand….by hand! No troughs for cement to slide down. Hand shoveling cement. Hand-tying rebar to reinforce the building. Digging and leveling with shovels. Hard…they worked hard. And they have no boot straps to pull themselves up with!

Oh! We hear how desperate “some” people feel in regard to money problems…problems
that caused them to not honor their contracts. They may not be able to go on vacation or even lose one of the many businesses they own…but they do not lie in bed worrying about the next day’s food….literally Food. For. The. Next. Day. Not next month. Greed.

The members of Genesis worked/are working incredibly hard. They have sweated. They have put in the labor. They have waited and waited. They have worked within the capitalistic system and played by its rules and where are they? Hoping that enough pressure can be put on the broker to do the right thing. This is not right. Not by any measure.

The poor are poor because others reap the benefits of their labor. This is why peoples rise up. Plain and simple.