Tag Archives: Bolivia

Meanwhile…

Well, I am certainly missing the lifestyle we enjoyed in Charagua, Bolivia that allowed me to read and write so prolifically. These days I struggle just to find balance between work, more work, family and community. Welcome home to the United States and North American culture!

I am now working in the technology department for the local school district, exploring my inner geek (which is more and more becoming my outer geek). I am also continuing to try and grow my small business, Edible Lawns, which is as much about education as installing raised bed gardens, compost and rainwater systems.

For a couple months now my third job has been working on buying a house (without a realtor and with extra work getting assistance from the city and a community development corporation). Now that that process is complete life is slowing down slightly. Even though I have a long list of plans to make my lawn more edible, perhaps things have slowed down enough that I might be able to read and write some more.

I have a long list of posts that I started in the last year or so, that I can pick up and I’m still excited about the Food in the Bible series. However, I might spend some time first, processing what we have been going through and dealing with in our own lives first. So, here’s some things you might read about in the near future:

“How to Start a Business When You Don’t Believe in Capitalism” or

“Reconciliation: Something We Do or Something God Does?” or

“Adventures in Avoiding Real Community” or

“The Gospel of Unschooling and Dreadlocks”

Hopefully that whets your appetite and hopefully I will have time to satisfy it with some thoughtful, provocative posts.

Immigration and Incarnation

This is an article I wrote recently for Shalom Connections, a newsletter for the Shalom Missions Communities. It’s a good summary and synthesis of our time in Bolivia.

If it is about the journey and not the destination, then our family has certainly been in the midst of it for the past year or so. After living at World Hunger Relief for a year as the Urban Gardening intern and becoming part of Companerismo de Esperanza in Waco, TX, we made the decision to accept a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia working with their Low German Program. Even though MCC takes care of all the financial needs of volunteers, we still considered ourselves sent and commissioned by Hope Fellowship. We felt their support and connection throughout our time in Bolivia, skype-ing with people when we could and reading emails and minutes of meetings.

We also made the decision that storing our things for three years of our lives seemed like a waste of resources. So we began to give our things away, to shed ourselves of that heavy, dead skin that so easily weighs us down. We gave away things that did not seem like a necessity to own such as a stereo, movies, books, toys and kitchen gadgets. We also gave away things that feel more like necessities: beds, dressers, pillows, pots and pans.

We were on an adventure and there was no telling where it would take us. We were excited about learning Spanish in the context of Latin America. We were also nervous about learning a second language and culture of the Low German Mennonites, old colony Mennonites that are culturally similar to the Amish who speak Low German and have migrated throughout the Americas. There was a world of unknown possibilities, anticipation and excitement ahead of us.

We arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia on November 8, 2010 with our entire lives stuffed into eight suitcases. We were there for a month for language school. We lived with a host family and slowly adjusted to our new surroundings. Every member of the family got sick in the first weeks as our bodies adjusted to altitude and new microbes in the food we ate and the air we breathed.

After language school we flew to Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia, for orientation with MCC, where we lived with another host family. There we experienced Christmas and New Year’s with a Bolivian family. Then in January we lived for three weeks with a Low German family in Chihuahua colony.

The little that I have learned about the history of Low German Mennonites (LGMs) is a fascinating tale. Like other Anabaptists, they were persecuted for their beliefs in Europe. They eventually settled in Russia with an agreement between their people and the government that has come to define their history. They were initially granted the right to their own land, their own schools in their own language and their own form of governance. For all intents and purposes, colonies were (and are) their own separate entities apart from the nation-state in which they exist. This was their way of living out their two-kingdom theology of being “Stille im Land” or “Quiet in the Land”.

After many years the Russian government decided that these colonies should become more integrated into the broader society and, at the very least, learn Russian. The response by the LGMs eventually was to leave Russia and settle in Canada where they were able to secure a similar agreement with the Canadian government. This pattern repeats itself throughout the LGM history, mixed in with internal disagreements over how to deal with these changes. When the Canadian government challenged the colony educational system, many colonies and families moved to Mexico and eventually throughout the Americas.

Often when colonies became divided over an issue (such as whether or not to use rubber tires on their tractors), the more conservative groups would find their way to Bolivia. So, Bolivia became, in some ways, a repository for the most conservative of the conservative LGMs. However, the colony we stayed in was considered the most progressive in Bolivia, which primarily meant that they used a lot more technology, modern tractors, combines, cell phones, computers and the internet. Worship was still segregated by gender, however, and their theology is very conservative.

It was a wonderful experience to live with a LGM family and understand their culture in a more personal and intimate way. Similar to our experience living for many years in the shadow of the largest military installation in the free world, it was a lesson in loving people with whom we have fundamental disagreements, in humanizing “the Other”.

After our colony stay, we made the decision to move to Charagua, a small town in southern Bolivia in the foothills of the Andes and seven hours from Santa Cruz by bus. Charagua is divided into the pueblo, the main town, and the Estación, the small community around the train station about 8 kilometers from the pueblo, which is where we lived. Charagua is the largest municipality in Bolivia in terms of land area.

The largest population is the indigenous Guaraní who were famously portrayed in the movie The Mission. Their territory covers areas of Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia and is known as the Chaco. This area crosses lines arbitrarily drawn and fought over by both Spanish conquistadors and multinational corporations (who used the indigenous as proxies during the Chaco War).

The second largest population is the LGMs that live in four colonies to the east of Charagua Estación. They are one of, if not the largest, economic drivers in this region as agricultural producers. Since LGMs do not believe in using modern vehicles, they contract Bolvians for transportation. This includes transporting their produce, primarily sorghum, sesame, soy and corn, as well as themselves for travel primarily to Santa Cruz. While the colonies in this area are among the poorest in Bolivia, they enjoy a standard of living well above many Bolivians. There were also other indigenous people in Charagua including Quechua and Aymaras. The smallest population is referred to as “Spanish-speaking Bolivians”.

Our work focused on water issues and small-scale agriculture with both the Guaranís and the LGMs. Part of our work was also what MCC refers to as “connecting peoples”. In the past MCC put together workshops where indigenous people and LGMs learned from each other about soap making and agriculture.

Our neighbor in Charagua was a Guaraní sociologist, who had worked for the Bolivian government, traveled the world and represented his people on a national level. One day he was showing me around some land where he was working to establish a new community. As we walked through fields of sesame, he shared with me about an international conference of indigenous people that he attended in the United States. The conference came to an agreement about some of the basic rights that indigenous people wanted. These included access to land, their own education system in their own language and their own form of governance.

Then he made the connection that these were the things that the LGMs had secured from the Bolivian government in 1963. It was eye-opening to see that two very different people with very different cultures and worldviews had something very fundamental in common. In fact I began to realize that we are all indigenous to somewhere. Anglos come from particular places that originally shaped them genetically and culturally. They are also the ones who decided to go out and conquer other peoples across the world, but they belong no less to those particular places that originally shaped them.

Charagua municipality voted in December 2009 to become one of 11 “autonomous indigenous zones” under the new Bolivian constitution. While we were there, we helped the Autonomy Assembly organize a meeting with LGM leaders in which they explained the autonomy process and invited them to participate. The LGM’s two-kingdom theology sharply distinguishes between the church and the world. As the secular authorities the LGMs believe that they are ordained by God and therefore submit to any decisions they make. They politely thanked the Assembly for informing them about the process, but declined to participate in any way. They were very reluctant to even give any opinions, ideas, questions or thoughts. It was fascinating to see these worlds collide.

Not long after that meeting, we received a phone call early one morning from our country representative informing us that Bolivian immigration had called and said that we had to leave the country and would not be allowed back into the country for five years. We were in shock. We had three days to pack up our eight suitcases, say goodbye to all of our friends, my son’s kindergarten class at the local school and the people with whom we worked. Our neighbor and his family threw a wonderful despedida for us the day before we left.

The reason we were given for being deported was that we had overstayed our tourist visa with which we had entered the country. There were also clearly political tensions between the Bolivian government and the United States. The U.S. Ambassador was expelled from the country and Evo Morales continued ratcheting up his rhetoric at the United Nations and elsewhere. There are clear historical precedents for many Latin American leaders’ animosity toward El Norte. However, the Morales’ administration began to seem paranoid.

The Bolivian government announced plans to build a road, partially funded by Brazil, through a national park that is home to three indigenous groups. The indigenous groups responded by denouncing the move as unconstitutional since they were not consulted. When the government continued, they protested by marching in the streets and blockading roads. The morning that we were supposed to leave our home for Santa Cruz so we could be at an immigration hearing, the Guaranís blockaded the only road to Santa Cruz in solidarity with the other indigenous groups.

While Evo Morales is, himself, indigenous, he belongs to the highland indigenous, who have historic animosity toward the lowland indigenous which continues today. The Morales’ administration claimed that these protests by indigenous groups were orchestrated and backed by the United States.

So, you can begin to understand the atmosphere under which we faced deportation. As privileged people of European descent, it was certainly a new experience for us to be uprooted and expelled by a government for reasons that were flimsy at best. We felt rejected and ashamed. We had done nothing wrong. In fact, we were there to help.

Yet, while we felt some solidarity with what many of our immigrant brothers and sisters experience in the United States, we also realized how different our experience was. We had native speakers working on our behalf with the Bolivian government. Not many immigrants in the U.S. can afford that. We had a safe place to stay while the situation was worked out. Many immigrants in the U.S. are taken away from their families to detention centers and held without contact. We had a community to come back to in our home country. Some immigrants in the U.S. who get deported were raised there, do not speak Spanish and have no support system in their “home” country.

Our experience moving to Bolivia and ultimately being deported is one of immigration and incarnation. We were immigrants in a foreign land, “extranjeros, imigrantes, exiliados.” This is part of what it means to be a pilgrim people. We are not Jesus, but in imitation of him we cross borders and boundaries. We cross over to the Other to understand, embrace and love those whom God has made and gifted. In many ways we continue to grieve the loss of our time in Bolivia, but in others, as you can see, we have been enriched and blessed in the midst of our suffering, not in spite of it.

Living With Less in the Land of More

Many are reflecting on the stuff we own and how it owns us in this season of shopping and gift-giving. I read an excellent article recently about one family’s journey with their relationship to their stuff (Stuffed to the gills: How crap took over my life—and how I intend to take it back). So, I thought I would reflect on my family’s journey with our relationship to our stuff. Many of your stories are probably similar in many respects.

The Birth of the Monster
It all began… well, when I was born, but that would take to long. Accumulating stuff really hit an exponential growth curve when we got married. Neither of us had too much stuff after college, but we had both lived on our own long enough to accumulate more than enough. Not only does a wedding combine two people’s stuff, it piles on a whole host of new stuff on top of what you already have. We tried to keep it simple by encouraging people to donate in our name to a charity, but in our culture it doesn’t really count unless you buy something for somebody. So, we filled our registry at various places and people piled up the presents. Even with all the gifts we still had room to spare in our little two bedroom apartment.

Then we made two more decisions that many people make which set us on a trajectory to having more stuff, 1) we bought a house (bigger than our apartment) and 2) we decided to have kids. We bought the house first and people tend to fill the space that they live in. We tried to keep things minimal, but living in an empty house also seems kind of silly. Then we had kids. Between baby showers and grandparents these little 7 to 8 pound bundles of joy come with an incredible amount of stuff for being unable to eat solid foods, walk, sit up or burp without help. They continually acquire new stuff every year for birthdays and new clothes as they grow faster than sea monkeys.

Taming the Monster
While we considered ourselves to be people that tried to live simply and consume less, we found ourselves trying to figure out what to do with a 1600 square foot house full of stuff when we decided to move to the World Hunger Relief, Inc. farm where we had a small two bedroom apartment. There were a lot of craigslist ads and a big yard sale. We tried to think hard about what we needed and what was worth keeping. Still, when moving day came we had to put a lot of boxes into storage (at my mom’s) and managed to fill up the apartment nicely.

Then we accepted a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia. We thought it was silly to put our stuff in storage for three years. So, we got rid of everything. This time we really did. We got rid of all our furniture, chairs, table, futon, beds, dressers…our car…everything. We still had some things stored at my mom’s but even that was picked over and cleaned out. We pared down our material possessions to an absolute minimum. It was a crazy, radical move that tested our faith and resolve to trust God and the Body of Christ.

Yet, when we got to Bolivia our eight suitcases seemed a little excessive in light of the people around us who had so much less. While living there and working with MCC, I wrote about what it means to live simply (What is Simple Living?). Once again our ideas about what was enough, what was simple and what we needed were challenged. Each time we moved and tried to simplify we learned more about what was important and what was not.

Now that we are back in the United States, we are looking to replace some of those items we so happily gave away. We hope to add these things back into our life slowly and be discerning about what we really need. We’ve asked our community to share their excess with us as we shared with them. What we have found is that we continue to have more than we need, because our friends both have more than they need and are willing to share it with us.

Lessons From the Monster
The obvious lesson here is that you should pursue downward mobility by moving every few years to poorer and poorer places in the world, right? As the aforementioned article also points out, moving does provide an opportunity to evaluate what’s worth piling in a moving van. Yet I’ve often talked about the importance of place and putting down roots. So, perhaps the solution is a discipline of seasonal cleaning. We already have this cultural concept of “spring cleaning“, but how many of us practice it? Choose a time of year to give your stuff a good cleaning and share with others out of your abundance.

There’s also trying to cut the monster’s head off from the beginning. We tried an alternative wedding registry for such a purpose, but with little success. I know others have held their ground and been more effective. I found The Scavenger’s Manifesto to be a great resource with more than just tips and tricks for finding free stuff, but a different way of thinking about our stuff.

Patience is the most important and most difficult virtue when considering our shopping. Consumerism is based on impulse buys and tickling our acquisition bone. The longer you can avoid the instant gratification temptation to buy stuff the moment you think of it, the more things will simply filter out over time. Then you’re left with things that were worth the wait to buy. You’ll probably find a good deal, find a cheaper alternative or at least thought more carefully through your purchase.

Finally, I mentioned in Wading Into the Pond last week some ideas about how to move from charity to justice in our lives.

  1. Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
  2. Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
  3. The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
  4. Saints and Sinners- Show yourself and others grace. The goal is not being more righteous or holy than others, but attempting to follow Jesus into a new way of living.

Living in Limbo

I’m not unemployed or underemployed like some of the people protesting at various Occupy gatherings across the US, but I am in limbo. When we were deported from Bolivia, I thought our time at home would be a vacation while we visited family and waited to hear from MCC and figure out what to do next. We have visited family and friends all over Texas from Waco to San Antonio, Kingsland and Fredericksburg to San Angelo. It’s been good to see everyone again, especially my new niece which I couldn’t visit for a while because of a case of shingles.

Shingles comes from the chicken pox virus that lies dormant in your spine. It can be triggered by stress and comes out in your nerves which is often very painful. My case was pretty mild, but it definitely got me thinking about stress and how I was really feeling about our situation. Since we’ve had a lot of down time, I’ve also been following the Occupy Wall Street movement pretty closely. Democracy Now! in their coverage of the movement interviewed Dr. Gabor Maté who was at the Wall Street encampment. Maté makes some interesting connections between the protests, economic crisis, stress and our health:

“50 percent of American adults have a chronic medical illness, and much of that has to do with stress. And if you look at the literature on what causes stress, it’s uncertainty and lack of information and loss of control and lack of expression of self. And the uncertainty that has been forced upon the American population by the recent economic crisis, the loss of control as power has flown into the hands of very, very few people, and the absolute powerlessness of the many in the face of all that, and the lack of expression through the ordinary political process, people are totally disempowered and deprived of their voice. This protest addresses all those issues. So I can only say that this is an extraordinarily healthy thing to happen. People who participate here will be healthier for it as a result, and maybe society, in general, as well.”

Uncertainty, lack of information and lack of control describes our lives over the last few months pretty well. It’s hard to thrive in these circumstances. There’s nobody to blame except the Bolivian government for our situation, but it is clear from this experience that we are not meant to live in an extended state of limbo without job, purpose, productive work or direction. In this period we have also lacked the kind of community we enjoy as a part of Hope Fellowship in Waco.

I’ve written before about this tension we feel in our culture between jobs and community defining and ordering our lives (Looking for a Job in the Kingdom). The thing is that while my life is in limbo, community can provide more certainty, stability, purpose and maybe most importantly a place to express myself. We have not been living in that community and that has made life extra stressful. We’ve visited a couple times and it has helped us remember what life in community provides in circumstances like ours.

I have also missed the time that I had in Bolivia to read and write a lot. Last week marked the end of what I wrote while we were in Bolivia. It also marked the end of our time away from our community. We are now back in Waco. I hope that this will be a time of renewed life with our beloved community and also a renewed energy for the writing and reading I have left off in the last few months. If posts are more sporadic and infrequent bear with me as we make yet another transition to some sort of new norm.

My prayer is that you and I find ourselves in a place and with people that will allow us to freely express ourselves in the midst of a sick society. Raise your voice. According to at least one doctor, it’s the healthiest thing you can do. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll start to make a better world.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)