Nicaragua – Christianity on Trial

Nicaragua is an oblong shaped country, about the size of England and Wales, which lies between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. I was given the opportunity to represent Christian Aid as one of a delegation from the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC) on a two week visit there earlier this year. Its people know tension and suffering as a result of poverty and civil war. They also know the effects of volcanic eruptions in the west of the country and of hurricanes in the east which not only scatter homes but also cause the sea to inundate the land thus bringing further disruption.

Many of us can remember press reports of the political revolution when the people rose up against the dictator, General Somoza, and of how the FSLN, the Sandinistas, took over the running of the country after the bloody civil war. Soon afterwards the right wing took up arms again. They used the name ‘Contra’ and began a counter‑revolution with financial help from the United States. The resulting conflict left the economy in ruins and today the national debt per head of the population is the highest in the world. As a result of the economic collapse schools and hospitals are deprived of resources and unemployment is as high as 90% in some areas. More than 80% of the national income is used to pay the interest on loans from the World Bank thus worsening poverty year by year. Cancelling this debt would be just the first step in restoring the economy of the country but much more than that is needed.

But what of the role of the church in this situation? In February this year (1996) the Pope visited the country which is over 70% Catholic. He himself celebrated a special Mass and spoke at many services. Unfortunately he made no mention of the situation of the 90% of the people of the country who endure poverty and of the 40% whose poverty is really dreadful. In his last address he compared the current situation with what he had seen on his last visit when the Sandinistas were in power (the Sandinistas lost the general election in 1990 when the present right wing Chamorro government took over the administration – Ed.). Although the debt to the World Bank had increased and communal resources had declined he said that he had noticed an improvement and that he could see “light at the end of the tunnel.” It seems that Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who leads the right wing in religion and politics alike, is one of the most powerful men in the country. More radical believers assert that he had invited the Pope so that the people would hear the Bishop of Rome praising the present right wing government at the expense of any more radical alternative in the Presidential Elections due in late 1996. I myself travelled the roads the Pope had used and when my vehicle drove over other rough roads full of dangerous potholes I was told that the Pope had not travelled that far and there was no point therefore in wasting money on repairing them.

One of the key developments in contemporary theology is ‘Liberation Theology’ and students of this subject will be familiar with names such as Boff and Romero. When I asked one of the leaders of the Ecumenical Movement in Nicaragua how many Catholic priests accepted such radical ideas he could only think of a handful. As far as I understand the leading priests have to operate in secret to avoid drawing the attention of the Cardinal to the work they do among the poor and the underprivileged.

Among those who are not Catholics the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Menanites and the Pentecostals have an obvious presence, although making up only 25% of the population. One notes that the Christian faith embraces almost the whole of the population of Nicaragua, and although the denominations vary in their political views they are a major force in the social fabric of their communities. I could see that there is a greater personal commitment among the Protestants than among the Catholics and that the Catholics have fewer priests to meet the needs of their parishes. The Nonconformists, on the other hand, take members of the laity and instruct them so that they are able to provide strong leadership in the worship of their congregations. Despite this the Catholics have beautiful buildings, apart from the new Cathedral in Managua with its strange towers which looks more like an egg box than anything else!

When I visited the poorest communities on the outskirts of Managua or in the middle of the tropical forests it was obvious that the chapels had got the best worshippers. It was explained to me that every one of the Protestant denominations was very evangelical and that they laid great stress on the reading and the explaining of the Scriptures. They also stressed the importance of tithing, and although many people could not contribute anything at all, that principle was strongly upheld by all of them.

One of the most important development bodies was CEPAD, one of the partners of Christian Aid in Nicaragua. They represent most of the Protestant churches and are eager to help in many fields. I saw the marks of the help they give to communities across the country – they see helping the weak and evangelising as going hand in hand. Despite this however they were anxious to avoid making giving conditional and they try to find ways of supporting communities or groups rather than individuals. They emphasise the development of health projects in the community, general and religious education – the former by funding the building of schools, the latter by supporting students who are receiving theological training. I saw schemes such as financing concrete paths through the middle of a village, a sewage system for a community, a water purifying project in a rural settlement.

One of the most moving experiences was taking part in a service to prepare 45 members of the Baptist mother church in Managua to become independent and to establish themselves as a new church. The mother church was preparing four congregations to become established this year, some 200 members in all, so that they could gain more members within their own communities. They send members to the ‘suburban’ communities to invite people to Bible classes and they see evangelisation as one of the principal activities of the church. This mother church, under its Minister, Dr. Gustavo Parajon, the President of CEPAD, hopes to establish new branches and that it will not be long before they restore their own numbers. They support a local health centre and Dr. Parajon and his wife welcome young people to their home in order to promote the vision of the importance of education and to encourage them further.

I also went to worship in a Baptist church more traditional in its theology and closer to fundamentalism in its approach to the Bible. The minister tended to take a right wing position in politics and, although he had come from among the coloured people in the east of the country, I could sense his concern at the possibility of a left wing government being elected. He was a minister who had come from among the members and he had been installed as minister of a daughter church of the flock in Bluefields when he was only 19. A quarter of a century later he was working with the congregation of his mother church, strong and clear in his ministry.

I was also moved to hear the young people of a Pentecostal church at worship. The coloured minister represented the area in the national parliament as a menber of the government and his church shared premises with the only bilingual school left in Bluefields. Was it just a coincidence that his wife was the Principal of that school? Somehow, I felt that he was running with the hare and the hounds in politics, being a keen supporter of the reactionary politics of the country. He was more than ready to put his views forward at the expense of many other important matters.

The visit to Nicaragua was both a privilege and a blessing. I saw real poverty and I am unable to offer any political solution other than a revolution in the unhealthy political system which enriches politicians around the world. I also saw religious sincerity and missionary inspiration. I would like to hope with those people that the sun may yet shine out over their hills. I realised that they were happier in their poverty than we in Wales are in our wealth. Is God asking us to hold His hand and to share our wealth with the people of Nicaragua so that they will hold His hand also to enrich us from the abundance of His grace?

: The Reverend Denzil John, Minister of ‘Tabernacl Caerdydd’, the Welsh Baptists’ Church in the Hayes, Cardiff. This church, which hosted the AGM of the Wales Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in 1996, along with other Baptists’ churches in Wales, actively supports the CEPAD project in Nicaragua.

Translation from Welsh : Wales Famine Forum.

Published in The Green Dragon No 1, Winter, 1996

Another article by the same author.