These are hard stories. We can describe our life in Nicaragua in different ways: we eat fresh mangoes, we’ve met some of the most gracious, beautiful-hearted people of our lives, I never wear long sleeves. All of these are true. So are the following descriptions.
Yesterday afternoon, I walked home in the rain, which isn’t that unusual. Seeing that I was getting rained on, the father of one of my students stopped to pick me up and gave me a ride partway home. The rain let up by the time he let me off and I was damp but not soaked when I reached our street.
On our street, a man who lives nearby caught me. He was drunk, as he often is. He has a small business, which we often see one of his young children attending; when that happens, I assume it is because he is “indisposed.” Yesterday, he wanted to talk to/at me. He wanted me to give him money. He introduced me to his father, who was with him and also drunk and who left immediately. We don’t hand out money to anyone on our street because we’ve learned (the hard way) that this is the quickest and most efficient way to ruin relationships. I offered to buy him some food, which he waved off dismissively. But he was more interested in a “refrescante,” a soft drink.
I directed him to the pulperia (small convenience store in someone’s home) up the street, but yesterday happened to be Mother’s Day in Nicaragua and they were closed. So we took a walk down the back road behind our close friend/neighbors’ house to check a different pulperia. I say “walk,” but it was more of a stagger/stumble/wrap his arms around me or grab my hand or arm and refuse to let go. If you’ve spent time with someone drunk who is trying hard to convey something to you, you probably have the picture.
The second pulperia had no soft drinks, no drinks of any kind except what the woman working/living there called a “jugo natural,” but was a rice-drink with some juice. They sell it in a tied-off baggie for five cordobas each (30 cords to the dollar currently, so say a touch over three cents) and it is a shocking pink. I’d had it before and while it’s not my favorite, it’s certainly fine and much healthier than either the cola I was expecting to buy or what he’d spent his day drinking.
He wasn’t thrilled, to put it mildly, but he ended up accepting it when he understood there was no other choice. So we walked back to my house, carrying our pink baggies of liquid, which neither of us started drinking. I’m sure he was trying to ask me for something else, but I couldn’t understand him well enough to know exactly what, and I knew the answer would most likely be “no” (to either money or alcohol). So I asked him different questions. I tried to ask him about his children, of which he has quite a few. He kept wrapping me up–picture a boxer in a clinch–and three different times after I said “goodbye,” he reacquired me. I finally had to beg off that it was Dia de las Madres and therefore I needed to talk with my wife.
If you’ve ever spent time trying to help someone in this condition, you probably know the mixed feelings I had: I’m doing my best to pay attention to him and show kindness, but there’s a strong possibility he won’t remember the interaction at all, and there’s a vague feeling of…not threat, exactly, but certainly awkwardness and discomfort. I’m never quite sure what he’ll do. Those are a small price to pay if I’m doing any good, but it’s hard to see that I am. Maybe God is planting seeds that I can’t see. Certainly that’s worth praying for.
Not long after that, Kim gave me an update on a dear friend of ours who also lives in our barrio. She has an exceedingly difficult situation, with a husband who not only drinks but goes on benders in which he is gone for days or weeks at a time. She struggles to feed her children and keep her home together. If I’m honest, hers is the situation which reminds me that virtually all of my problems are first-world problems.
She finally, finally got a job, Kim told me. But. But her job is working at a fast-food restaurant a long way from her home and her work schedule is–no, I’m not exaggerating this–10 AM to 10 PM, six days a week. With transportation, meaning city buses, she will be away from her home a bare minimum of 13 hours each day, six of the seven days. She won’t be traveling at a safe time of the evening. And though we don’t know exactly what she’ll be earning, as Kim described it, we do know it will be almost certainly be peanuts. I mean, it will be. That’s how such jobs pay here. She’ll bring home two hundred dollars a month for these hours.
As I describe this, I’m not suggesting we do no good or accomplish nothing here. We do. God is working through us. Kim is having a major impact on the kids coming to preschool and their moms. I’m very encouraged at how the young people I’m mentoring are growing and maturing.
But these are the questions without answers. This is what poverty looks like at our eye level. It has many faces in many different cities and nations. But I had never seen this face of it until we moved here.
The man I described must make different choices before we can help him in any meaningful way. Perhaps my conversation with him–and our ongoing presence here–helps him to know that we are available if he is ever willing to try. Our teammate, Phillip, has attempted to approach the men who spend a lot of their time drinking on our street. Unless and until an addict is willing to recognize the addiction and seek real help, a refrescante, or a cup of cold water (which we frequently share with them), is an act of mercy but only that.
In his case, the answer is clear and straightforward, though very hard. I’m contrasting his situation with hers. The rule, for very good reason, is that we don’t give people here money directly. We make exceptions to that, but sparingly, carefully and cautiously. We’ve successfully made two loans to friends in our barrio, both of which have been repaid in full, one quickly, the other over time.
But this friend of ours, this mother, doesn’t need a loan; she needs a job, one with which she can feed her children and keep them in school without it costing her being present to be their mother.
What should she do? This is the rock and the hard place where poverty traps people.
Why are we here? For her, specifically, why are we here? We don’t have a job to offer her. I wish with all my might that we did.
The principle of not giving handouts is good and wise and we have learned the hard way how badly it goes when we disregard it.
And yet, this is a different situation, we have a different, closer relationship with her, and watching her try to keep these hours, to run herself ragged because she is stuck between these two miserable choices, also seems wrong.
So what is the answer?
What do you do when you have the means to help, but you know that just pushing in and trying to fix the problem will not fix it, and in fact could potentially make it worse? Yet neither can you just stand by wringing your hands.
I don’t know. We’re praying. We’re praying for her and we’re praying God will show us what to do. I know that God loves this woman and the fact that we’re here and friends with her, seeing this up close, means that He has some purpose of which we are a part–though as yet I have no idea what part.
There are also many others here in similar or worse situations. Over fifty percent unemployment and a per capita income of less than $300.* What happens to them and their children?
Those are the real questions without answers.
I would not trade the time we’ve spent here. I sometimes love it, though it’s almost killed me (literally), and I know we have good purpose here in God’s Kingdom. I wish I could do more. I often feel lame and helpless.
Yet “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I’m leaving you without answers for this one, because I don’t have any at this moment, and cheap answers are worse than no answers because they try to minimize that which needs to be faced not brushed aside. But I do have faith. We have faith enough still to be here and to believe God will intervene for our friends.
I’m asking you, please, to pray for them.
*Meaning after weighing in the income of the 10% of the population who are very wealthy, it’s still this low,