There and Back Again

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I am still recovering from getting hit by a white Toyota Prado.  My broken rib still hurts when I try to do too much or move the wrong way…and that’s how I learn what “the wrong way” is.  My brain seems relatively clear after my concussion.  And I’m starting to go stir-crazy for lack of exercise.  I’m afraid that was predictable.

So today, I walked to school again.  It’s between four and five kilometers.  I probably wasn’t quite ready for this walk, but I’m not ready to go insane, either, and if I have to pick between the two…   I walked. Continue reading

What Racism?

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People I know, wonderful, godly people who are doing great things in the world, have said these things to me:

“I’m not racist and no one I know is racist.”

“I don’t think racism is a problem in America anymore.”

and multiple variations of

“If people obeyed the law and did the right thing, they wouldn’t have a problem.”

But I believe this:

“Believing the black experience is different than the white experience is the beginning of changing white attitudes.” Jim Wallis

I think so much of my people’s–the white folks’–insistence that racism is 1)over, 2)someone else’s problem, 3)an excuse for self-caused problems, stems precisely from the lack of grasping this point.  If we are never on the receiving end of racist behavior, it becomes easy to question whether…just maybe… they’re being too sensitive or misreading someone’s motives.  I don’t understand the black experience in the U.S.  I simply know that it is not my experience.

When I was 18, I was in our car driving to work, a very unpleasant job at a restaurant/truck stop where I washed dishes.  I didn’t like my job and I made $3.35 an hour, but it was spending money and I liked that very much.  My parents were generous enough to let me use their car and very rarely expected me to pay for gas.  This particular day, I was late (no comments, those who know me).  So I sped.  I don’t mean I went 5 miles over the speed limit.  Our family car was a 1973 Buick Limited, (semi-)affectionately known as “The Tank.”  It was a 455, V8 monster, that could go from  0 to 60 in a mere 12-15 seconds, but then would keep right on climbing and top out at xxx.*  I turned the corner at the Fairgrounds and from there on I just floored it.  I blew around someone–I think a full-size van–while racing down a hill before a stop sign, where I barely paused before puling onto the highway and–saw cherries in my rear-view mirror.

In order, I thought, “That’s going to be this month’s pay,” “My parents are going to kill me,” and “I’ve already got a ticket on my record,” which I’d earned from speeding on this exact same road on my way to celebrating our track team’s conference title victory.

I don’t know how fast I was going, but it was likely around 80 on a 55.

I didn’t recognize the cop who walked up to the car.  He verbally ripped into me.  He asked me if I could see whether there was anyone coming when I passed that van.  Asked me how fast I was going.  Asked me what I was in such a hurry to die for.  Then he left me to stew and went back to his cruiser.

Only two minutes later, he was back.

“Well, the chief says you’re alright, so I’m going to let you go.  Don’t drive like that anymore.”

I looked back, and there was our police chief, Jim Robertson.  He raised his hand to me.  And then they were gone and I was left in a puddle of cold sweat, trying to make sense of this moment of grace before I understood what grace means.

Now you can deconstruct my story a dozen different ways–and with God as my witness, that moment changed how I drove and I have no idea how many times I’ve slowed down when it comes to mind, hundreds if not thousands–but I will tell  you this:  it is the diametric opposite of my friend James’s experience.  He lived in a poorer, South Side Chicago suburb, but worked in a more well-off suburb.  Between his home and his work, he drove through a suburb where the police pulled him over every time he drove through.  He said it was literally Every. Single. Time.

They didn’t just talk with him.  They pulled him out of the car, made him lie down on the pavement spread eagle, frisked him, grilled him with questions.

James told me eventually one of the policemen said, “You aren’t learning.  We don’t want you to drive here.”  Of course, James is African-American.


 

I told my folksy story about my own driving experience not because I need to apologize or feel guilty for having it–my narrative is my own, good, bad, and ugly, given to me by God, and I’m very grateful for the small town in which I grew up–but to emphasize how utterly my experience is not James’s experience.  When I lived in Wenatchee, Washington, I got pulled over maybe half a dozen times in 10 years.  James told me he got pulled over twelve times in his first six months there.  There’s a temptation to conclude, “Well, he’s a bad driver.”  But he got pulled over while waiting at stoplights, doing nothing, and he wasn’t told that he had done anything specifically wrong.  That is not my experience.

That’s personal anecdote.  What I read, and what I hear from friends, is so far outside my experience that I don’t even have grounds to compare.  My parents supported my going from our little Midwestern town to attend college in Los Angeles (okay, eastern suburbs, still big city to 18-year-old me), and they talked about how to be safe, but they never tried to warn me that I would be in danger just for being my color.  Because I’m not.  African-American parents warn their children very differently than mine spoke to me.

I don’t have these experiences while flying.  Though I’ve focused on it so far, racism is not just the black experience, of course.  And often subtle racism is more prevalent, and even more damaging, than overt racism.

 

Now, let me say here that I really dislike the category “white.”  My heritage is Irish, English, and German.  I strongly embrace the Irish part.  My mom is Irish.  I like that my parents gave me a strong Irish name (though I’m “Mike” to everyone except Mom when she’s unhappy with me:  “Michael Alan!“).  But I don’t get to correct that lumping together of all Caucasian heritages.  And none of us are Crayola white, though thanks to some strong Swedish influence my wife bestowed on her, my eldest daughter makes a good run at it.

But my personal preferences notwithstanding, I have experienced untold advantages by being this Irish-mix-American.  I didn’t choose it, I didn’t do anything “wrong” to have it, but that doesn’t change that it is so.  I’m never tailed in retail stores.  Women don’t clutch their purses tighter when I pass them.  There are literally thousands of things that don’t happen to me, or do happen for me, because of my pigmentation or other privileged positions I did not earn.  I do not know what blacks experience, but I know my experience and I hear and read about theirs, and they aren’t the same.

As a Christian, my response when another human being made in the image of God and offered grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus describes their abuse or suffering or persecution is to listen.  As I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ always sided with the persecuted.


 

The United States is a country which was formed and founded on some horrific, racist acts.  We played “cowboys and indians” when I was in grade school, but the reality is that European settlers and the colonists who believed in Manifest Destiny committed genocide against the Native Americans whose home was that land.  The U.S. established our thriving economy largely on the back of slaves from Africa, and on immigrant laborers–Chinese, Mexican, and yes, Irish–who were woefully underpaid and horribly abused.  Our constitution still includes this:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.                                                                                                        ARTICLE I, SECTION 2, CLAUSE 3

I taught comparative government at our international high school last year.  We discussed why this is still found in the US constitution, and how this reflects on the debate of how we should interpret the constitution.

This is our heritage of race relations in the United States.  Read Mark Charles’ blog, Wireless Hogan, on The Doctrine of Discovery.  Do you know what The Doctrine of Discovery is?  I didn’t.

This isn’t ancient history.  These actions by our forebears have massive implications for our present.  We have a long and ugly history of racism in our country and we are still trying to find our way out–which makes it tempting to deny this history and it’s impact, and to deny the evidence all around us that people who don’t check the “white” box on surveys experience racism on a daily basis.


 

That brings me to this point:  Donald Trump speaks like a racist.  His words are rife with racism. I’m not saying his hair is funny or that I dislike him personally.  I’m saying he acts like a racist and incites racist behavior in his followers.

Though I like having you read my blog–it makes me feel like a writer and all–I think this post, “Nikabrik’s Candidate” in First Things makes the argument more poignantly than I have:

Tired of waiting for Aslan—who may be nearer than we think—we turn elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if our candidate hates, bullies, and exploits other people, the reasoning goes, just as long as he’s good to us and gives us what we want. Hatred is a perfectly acceptable weapon, as long as it’s “on our side.”

I don’t know what percentage of Donald Trump’s supporters are full-fledged, unashamed racists.  Some are, certainly.  Though it may sound like it, if you are a Trump supporter, I am not accusing you of this.  I am saying that we are blind to our own faults, sometimes blind to our motives, and we seem willing to overlook some pretty awful things in our champions when we think we need them to protect us and our interests.

To cite one clear example, and there are too many, Trump sent a tweet with a graphic claiming statistics of murder rates between blacks and whites.  The numbers are laughably inaccurate–except that the humor is ruined when you realize that Trump is claiming blacks murder whites at a rate 5.4 TIMES higher than actually occurs, and that whites murder blacks 4 times less often than they actually do.  (Statistically, whites are most often murdered by whites and blacks are most often murdered by blacks.)  Trump’s claim makes blacks into murderers of whites while whites rarely kill other whites or blacks.  That’s simply a lie.

The Trump campaign never acknowledged the skewed numbers, never apologized, and, when taken with the pattern of racist attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, and African-Americans, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that this was a calculated, strategic decision.  Fear-mongering has successfully inflated Trump’s support.  Put more personally, a whole lot of people have rallied behind the campaign of the man who tells them racist lies about blacks, who plays on their fears that blacks are thugs and murderers who threaten them directly.

When an African-American man tried to protest at a Trump rally–remember, non-violent protest is still legal and non-violent protesters are still protected by law in the U.S.–he was beaten by Trump supporters.  Trump said, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

Okay, I’m speaking as a follower of Jesus here: the candidate for president who explicitly approves illegally assaulting anyone–and we are talking about a citizen acting within the law–is not someone I could vote for as my country’s leader.  Trump tells his supporters that blacks are the biggest threats to murder whites and then approves beating up a black man at his rally.


 

Now let’s talk about my heart.

I live in Nicaragua.  I am a minority here, but a very powerful one.  I live in a poor barrio and we presumably have a higher income, “poor missionaries” though we are, than any of our neighbors.  I will tell you that I am continuously waging a war in my heart against taking on racist attitudes toward Nicaraguans.

Mind you, I love these people and have chosen to live here with my family for the past five years.  I love Bismarck and Alfredo and Juan Ramon.  These are true friends and brothers.  But I also get angry, very, very angry over systems that don’t work, over drivers whose decisions endanger me or my children, over attitudes that seem beyond nonsense, reaching actually malicious.  These are all my problems.  I am not saying that I’m wrong about dangerous drivers or broken systems, but declaring “I hate how Nicaraguans drive” is racist.  It is.  Complaining in front of my children how awful “Nicaraguan customer service” is helps instill a racist attitude in them.  These show the sickness of my soul, not because I am mistaken and all Nicaraguans are safe and conscientious drivers or customer service here turns out to be first rate.  No, these are racist attitudes because 1)I am stereotyping a people and generalizing individuals’ behaviors to reflect on an entire race; in contrast, I don’t respond to a maniac gringo driver here (and there are plenty) with “White people are the worst drivers!”, 2)I am ignoring the systemic, generational poverty and injustice that impact everything that happens here.  Here, too, the Nicaraguan experience is different than the white experience.

Teen pregnancy is at epidemic proportions in Managua, especially in the most impoverished communities**.  That does not mean Nicaraguan teens are slutty or that Nicaraguans lack moral character.  I live in a barrio where a shocking number of children don’t go to school at all.  I have neighbor kids, four- and six-years-old, who attend their fathers’ ice cream cart while he gets drunk.  I mean, daily.  Nine-year-old girls get sold by their families, or sexually abused by their mothers’ boyfriends.  If there’s no school and no employment, nor realistic prospects for either, then starting to have children doesn’t seem that bad of an option.  It gives a girl identity; it raises her value because now she is a mother.  One of the most shocking attitudes I’ve encountered here is that when a 15-year-old girl we know got pregnant, she and (seemingly) her family were thrilled.  According to our culture’s values, this made no sense.  But we have a daughter attending a highly-ranked college and two more looking ahead to college.

I have to recognize and interpret the actions in the context of extreme poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and hopelessness–all of which contribute to an extremely limited and truncated view of the future.  Almost 30% of the Nicaraguan population is zero to fourteen years.  Another 24% is fourteen to twenty-four.  That’s about half of the population made up largely of what we would consider dependents.  Such demographics, coupled with high unemployment (50-70%) and the collapsing of generations (babies of 14-year-old mothers, 28-year-old grandmothers) puts an immense demand on those responsible to support them–with jobs that pay an average of $150-$200 per month.  48% of the population lives on $1 or less per day and 76% on $2 or less per day.

Those are numbers.  Here’s how it looks:  last week, a friend called my wife six times.  We were out and she hadn’t noticed the calls (it’s nice when we can talk without being interrupted).  Kim called her back to be told that the woman’s husband had been drunk again and she’d just found out that he’d lied about paying their two children’s school matriculation fees.  They owed 2,800 cordobas ($100) and she had only 1,800 cordobas ($64).  We have learned that giving people money directly leads to serious problems and breakdown of relationships.  She asked if there was any way we could help, and we hired her for a few days, enough to earn that money.

Later, my son asked me, “Dad, was 1,800 cordobas all the money she had to pay for school or all the money she had?”  I could only answer, “I don’t know, Son.”

What does this have to do with racism, in my heart or in the U.S.?  Everything.  Systems that oppress certain people and benefit others frame how we experience and how we relate to one another.  If I adapt the opening quote from Jim Wallis for my context:

Believing the impoverished Nicaraguan experience is different than the ex-pat gringo experience is the beginning of changing ex-pat gringo attitudes.

Everything from why immigration office red tape is so maddening to why the police are so arbitrary in pulling drivers over is influenced by their experience, which is vastly different than mine.  This doesn’t excuse sin or bad behavior, but it requires me to understand it in context.  If I am inclined to deny that Nicaraguans suffer and have difficulties that I never face and do not understand, then I am projecting my experience and cultural view on their lives, which reinforces my stereotypes and racism.

 


 

So the answer is, this racism, the racism still present in U.S. culture, in the U.S. race for President, but also the racism that is right here, trying to take root in my own heart.  The racism that camouflages itself under my privileges.  The racism I’m learning to identify and confront, in myself first, and then in others, as a follower of Jesus.

 

 

*[I’m not going to complete that sentence because my mom is reading this].

**The average age of a woman giving birth for the first time is 19.8, with just over a quarter of babies born to mothers who are 14 to 18 years old. About half the women have a child by the time they turn 20.  http://passblue.com/2013/03/15/lets-talk-about-sex-in-nicaragua/

 

Sources and Resources

Doug Schaupp, a friend of mine, co-authors this blog and book by the same name: Being White.  This is the strongest discussion on the topic I know from a Christian perspective.

Nikabrik’s Candidate, in First Things

Mark Charles, the friend of a friend, writes very challengingly and insightfully on racial issues from a native, Christian perspective.

White Mom Blog is exactly what it sounds like: a mom who is “white” talking about her experience and perspective on race issues.

Tim Wise is a profound thinker on issues of race and white privilege.  This essay more thoroughly considers the discrepancy between black and white experience in the U.S.

Though you may not agree with everything in this article (nor do I), it does a good job of examining how we experience privilege in different ways, even if we have also experienced disadvantages.

 

 

Embracing This Advent

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I miss snow.

It’s easy to make lists of what we miss, any time, but it feels far easier in December.  I’ll probably make the “stuff we miss daily” list here one of these days, because what we miss most of the year is not what you’d guess (I’m guessing).  But during Christmas time, during Advent, I think it’s a lot more predictable.

I’ve lived the majority of my years in places with well-defined seasons, in which Christmastime pinetreesinsnowmeans cold and snow and sledding and hot chocolate and pine trees.  A tradition I miss, possibly  more than any other, is getting our permit from the Forest Service to cut a tree–which benefits them through receiving fees and helping with thinning (cumulatively)–then bundling us all to tromp through the snow, up and down some national forest hills until we find the perfect tree (i.e. the one on which we can agree, which becomes progressively easier the colder we get), then burrow down in the snow and take turns with the saw until we bring it down (Dad pretty much always bats clean-up on that one), haul it back, drink the hot chocolate waiting for us in the car, tie that tree on top, and drive it back home so we can set it up and decorate it.  I’ve done this since my father and I went out together during my college Christmas breaks.

But of course, we don’t do it here.  That’s a cost we pay for living here.  It’s a real one, and for me one much harder to pay than the luxuries or physical conveniences that we barely notice living without anymore.

It never snows here.  I know, when your car won’t start and your hands are stinging and you’re so sick of scraping your windshield, that sounds like heaven.  I don’t miss winter very much of the time.  But winter and cold and snow mean Christmas to me, and living in Nicaragua means never having these cues of the Advent season.  So I have learned to start believing in Christmas without snow.

I wish my kids could sled.  I wish we could build snowmen.  I wish we could make snow angels and throw snowballs and suck on icicles and come back in to thaw out by our woodstove.  Where we lived in the States, we could sled on our driveway.

Advent is the season of waiting, of preparation, of anticipation.  We await the coming of the Christ child.  We prepare our hearts, as originally new converts to Christianity prepared through Advent for their baptism at Epiphany (the celebration of Jesus’ incarnation as represented by the visit of the magi, the “wise men”).  We sing and we light candles and we give presents and we rejoice that God, almighty God who is light and love and joy, came to be with us.

So how does this work for me?  I’m not waiting for snow.  I’m not hoping for cold or preparing my heart for a white Christmas.  I would love one (though that would be classified a natural disaster here), but there are ways to wait on God and there are…delusions.  I’m not the Guinness World’s Record healthiest human, but I’m not  delusional, either, hardly at all.

One of the things I’ve learned living in Nicaragua is that you choose to pay the cost, as Jesus described, of trying to follow where he leads, but some of the choices are not once and for all.  Some of the costs require ongoing choices.

I don’t mean that I’m still choosing a place that lacks the joy of all my childhood associations of winter for Christmas.  I don’t wake up each morning in December and decide yes, I’ll keep living in Nicaragua.  We are here, and until God says otherwise, we are staying.

I mean that God has taught me how to embrace the choice.  Tonight we had a special dinner with our fellowship’s elders and council.  The table had decorations suggested Christmas.  The table had candles.  It was probably 80 degrees outside, but I chose to feel Christmas in the decorations.  The youth band played at our fellowship this morning and after the service they played an impromptu mashup of carols.  I soaked it in.  I look at all the lights my neighbors put up in this poor barrio, and I choose to feel their celebration.  Two years ago, a friend here who taught blacksmithing made three-foot metal Christmas trees, and we hang ornaments on it and surround it with a Nativity set and wrapt it with a red tree apron.  We aren’t pretending it’s an 8-foot pine tree; we’re enjoying what we have and celebrating what is here.  Nicaraguans adore, I mean adore, fireworks, and the month of December is a non-stop firework festival in Managua.  That is not my tradition, nor my kids’, but we join in.  We run around with sparklers and we go outside to watch them light up the sky.  I think sometimes we enjoy it and sometimes we enjoy their joy in it (and sometimes we wish they wouldn’t start before 6am).

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Looking a lot like Christmas

We replaced snowball fights with water fights.  We still bake cookies and share them with the neighbors–yes, you’re right, I do more sharing than baking, but most folks are grateful for that choice, too.  We sing carols in the car.  We do “The Twelve Days of Christmas” when we’re driving far enough to get them all in, and “Christmas Is Coming” when we’re not.

We share more here.  When we give presents, some of the people who receive them aren’t getting anything else, so it isn’t piling on top of all the others and they aren’t trying to figure out how to say “thanks” for something they didn’t need.  We ask this question: “What do we get for the person who needs everything?”

We buy fewer presents.  If there is one thing I am grateful for in celebrating five years of Christmas in Nicaragua, it’s that we’ve been able to scale back our family presents to closer to what I would consider a sane, reasonable level…and no one has complained.  We don’t have a lot of spare money for Christmas, and our exchange of gifts often comes largely through the generosity of our families.  When our children receive small presents and rejoice, genuinely cheer and holler and, in our young son’s case, jump up and down, I can almost, almost see that this isn’t a cost we’re paying; this is a blessing we’re living.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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You got a ticket…

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You got a traffic ticket.2boletas-131x300

Most of you have had this experience, so stop a moment and consider what that’s like.

Now picture this:

You’re driving back from a family getaway and you change lanes.  You’ve been driving about the same speed as everyone else, averaging 70 kph, with the usual mix of pedestrians, food sellers and window washers, plus taxis and buses crossing back and forth, cutting others off, stopping at their convenience and backing everyone up. The driver ahead of you slows down, for one of a hundred possible reasons, so you switch from the left to the right lane–and a policeman immediately steps out into the road maybe 30 yards ahead, waving his arms, indicating that you have to pull over.  He stands squarely in the lane until you’ve come to a stop.

policia-de-transito

He asks for your license, registration, ID card and insurance.  You give him all of these.  He tells you that you changed lanes illegally.  He speaks very fast.  He suggests that for about ten dollars and eighty-three cents, he could just take care of the problem right here.  But you’re not totally sure you’re tracking and usually patience and politeness do the job, so you apologize for what you did wrong.  He asks where you live and how long you’ve lived there.  As you’re answering these, which you know are standard questions and usually lead to a couple other questions and then a polite or brusque return of your documents, he is suddenly writing very quickly and less than thirty seconds later he hands you a ticket–for about forty dollars–keeps your license, and walks away.  He said something about “transit central.”  Now you’re driving without a license, owe forty bucks, and have to figure out how to get your license back.

At this point, it’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback, or backseat drive, and second-guess whether you should have given the bribe.  Ten bucks.  The rest of the drive home is very quiet.

The first and most crucial guess is where to go.  You can pay the ticket at any bank, literally any bank that has a teller is supposed to take your money and give you the stamped, signed form that says you paid your fine.  That part isn’t difficult, and involves merely standing in line and handing over the cash.

No, you now have to guess where they have taken your license.  Because you were halfway home, it could be in your home city of two million people, probably at the police station where they generally take licenses for traffic infractions, but not necessarily.  There are several police stations in your city at which your license might now be residing.  But, it could also have been taken back to the city you had already passed through.  There are no phone numbers to call, no clerks who will check for you, no database to confer.  It’s just somewhere, and you are left to guess where…before you get pulled over and found to be driving without a license, for which you can be put in jail.  At the very least, you will be encouraged to pay a much larger bribe to avoid this.

But hurrying won’t necessarily help, either.  For some reason, there is a delay between when your license is taken and when it arrives at a police station.  This delay is 3 to 10 days, or more, or less.  You are clearly out of your depth, so you contact a good friend who has traversed these waters, and thank God that you have such a friend.  You discuss it and he suggests that you wait exactly one week and make the drive back to the city you had already passed, since you might have been closer to there when you were pulled over.  He also agrees to go with you.  Again you thank God, and you thank your friend.

Exactly seven days after your incident, during which you have been driving very cautiously and nervously (and with your expired license at hand, in hopes that will get you by, should the unfortunate need arise), you head out early in the morning with your friend.  He drives, to minimize Murphy and his Law that you can feel stalking you.  The drive is about forty minutes.

He takes you to the police station, you walk through (as a recon mission), then walk two blocks to the bank.  It’s a large police station, and you soon realize that this is a special bank window, external to the building, which serves this express purpose: you are all paying your fines.  It takes you about an hour to reach the front of the line, at which point you pay, get your change, sign a document, and your friend has to provide identification which is recorded in case you are trying to pass counterfeited currency.

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Not the station I was at. It didn’t seem a good time for photography.

Then you return to the police station.  It is very full, with perhaps a hundred chairs lined up in several sections facing six or seven different windows with clerks sitting behind them.   On the far side of this large rooms are doorways to several more rooms.  BUT…to your left is a small room, no windows, maybe eight by ten, with a little sign above it that says “Traffic Inf.” Your friend leads you in.

Thirty to forty men have packed themselves into this room.  It’s warm.  No air flowing.  Everyone is scowling.  Nearly everyone is standing, staring forward, waiting.  Suddenly, they are lunging forward, each reaching their tickets as far as possible toward the clerk standing behind the counter.  You’re bewildered.  You look at your friend.  He shrugs, and you join the melee.  You’ve been to rock concerts where people respect personal space more.  For the next two and half hours, you stand in this room, standing idly, shoving forward, standing idly again.  It feels like you’ve become the tide.  A few people are friendly and want to commiserate, laugh a little, exchange cynical comments.  A very slow trickle leaves the room, a quicker stream enters the room, so it gets more crowded.  Three or four women come in; however, all but one of them have men who are doing their shoving.  You feel bad for the one who is trying to make it to the front for herself.

You ask your friend why they conduct the rest of the police business in the building through taking numbers and waiting in line and only in this room do they have a free-for-all.  He has no idea.  But he tells you that if you complain or manage to get on the wrong side of the people behind this counter, your license may never appear.  There are many stories like that.  He once had a serious problem with the license plate on his motorcycle–he’d bought the motorcycle from someone else, but somehow that plate had been identified on a vehicle involved in a crime–and he’d had to return to this station a number of times. You ask how many?  Ten, he says.

After about an hour-and-a-half, your friend finally succeeds in getting a clerk to take your paperwork.  The clerk disappears for twenty minutes.  When he comes back, he confirms that your license is here.  Only now are you pretty sure that you’ll get this done today, in one trip.  Nothing is certain, mind you, but it looks good.  You celebrate by going outside for a minute to buy a cold drink–there are several vendors right outside the door, for obvious reasons.

But you dare not stay out of the room for long, because if they call you and you aren’t there…game over.

The next hour is easier, relatively.  You wait.  You don’t have to fight for the front, you just have to be there, sweating and watching the tide, until finally your name is called.  During this time, you look at all the others in the room more sympathetically–you’re no longer competing with them, after all–and wonder what jobs they are missing for this.  How many work hours are these men losing, how much are their employers losing?  Your friend tells you that employers are required to give a day off without firing someone so that they can deal with their ticket.

What if it takes more than one day? you ask.  He shrugs.

Your friend elbows you in the ribs.  They are calling your name, though you would never have recognized it as your name.  You push forward-excuse me, excuse me–and grudgingly people step aside far enough that you can squeeze through.  The clerk, a tall man in glasses, shows you where to sign and then tells you that these are private documents; it’s a bad idea for you to be letting your friend handle them with you.  You swallow the first five comments that come, and thank him for his service.

Then, shockingly, you are out of the room, back in the open air, walking away, license in hand.  The day is yours again.  You’re back on the right side of the law.

But you ask your friend to drive back, to where you can buy him lunch, just to be sure to keep out of Murphy’s reach.

 

Questions without Answers, Part 1

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Today I got ripped off by a taxero.

Context:  I live about 10 minutes drive or 45 minutes hard walk from the school where I coach, teach, and mentor a bunch of students.  My wife works there and my kids attend there.  So I make the trip there quite often, and about 5 days a week the rest of my family has already gone in the car, so I find alternate transportation.

I used to avoid taking taxis here, because there are horror stories of people getting kidnapped, being held and forced to give up their debit cards and PIN’s, and most of the stories come from someone who knows someone who knows the victims.  But…I’ve grown a little bolder, because 45 minutes power-walking in Nicaragua sun and humidity along a busy highway doesn’t always appeal, sometimes I don’t have the time for that form of exercise, and sometimes I don’t feel like arriving at school to mentor or teach looking–and smelling–like I’ve just played 3 hours of ultimate.  While getting bathed in exhaust.

So now I take taxis, sometimes.  I pray.  I walk.  I see who comes along.  Sometimes a friend will pick me up on the highway, so I walk 1/3 or 1/2 of the way.  That’s not bad.  Kinda stinky, some exercise, lower risk of disappearing.  The typical rate for a taxi if I get picked up within 1/2 a kilometer of my house is 70 cordobas.  I’ve had them ask 80, I’ve had them ask 60.  The current exchange rate is 27.66 cords to the dollar.  So if I pay for a ride to school, I’m spending about $2.50.  Not a lot, but if I do it five days a week it’s not nothing, either–especially when you consider that my wife’s pay for being the teaching coach at school is about $700/month.  Yes, life is cheaper here, but not consistently, not across the board, like with those tires I mentioned last time.  I usually tip 20-30 cords, because I know most people are living on much less than I am.  Honestly, most of them seem surprised and thankful for my tip.

Today, I needed to get to school as quickly as possible.  I flagged the first taxi I saw, and just as he stopped, some dear Nicaraguan friends of mine passed, but going in the opposite direction of what I needed to go.  Had I waved them down, they probably would have gone out of their way to give me a ride.  I didn’t.  I just called out “Amigos!” and went to the taxi.  I explained where I was going, then asked,

“¿Cuánto vale?”

“Un y media.”

One and a half.  This took me a second.

¿Cien y medio?”

“Si.”

So he wants 150 cords, double then what I am accustomed to paying.  But I’m in a hurry.

“Cien,” I counter-offer.

“Cien viente,” he says.

I’m irritated.  I don’t want to pay this much.  I say okay.

He talks on his cell phone the entire ride.  I think he makes three different calls.  So far, I’ve ridden with a young kid who really wanted to race everyone else on the road, two different taxeros who looked and acted like maybe they were a little happier than ideal for driving, though I didn’t realize it until after we were underway.  So having a talking while driving, though not my favorite, isn’t the most dangerous thing I’ve experienced on the road.  But I’m already not thrilled with this experience, so it grates.

When we arrive, I hand him 150 cordobas because I have three 50-cord bills.  He takes it and makes to leave.  I ask him for change.  He shakes his head and tells me he needs a tip.  I tell him no, I want my change.  He tells me he wants the tip, and he is hungry.  I ask for my change.  He gives me twenty cords back, effectively short-changing me, and then stares at me to see if I will challenge him.

And I get out of the cab.  As I go, I say, “Precio gringo,” which translates quite nicely as “Gringo price.”  In other words, I tell him he ripped me off because I’m a gringo.

One more crucial piece of context before I get to the point, beyond a simple story about Mike and the Taxi Driver.  Finances are tight for us right now.  For four years in Nicaragua, we enjoyed relative financial ease, low stress, and have had plenty to give and share.  This year is different.  Two major circumstances have conspired to slam us solidly in the red each month; if things don’t change, we won’t be able to stay.  So there’s that.

Now, the question:  Is it right or wrong or backwards or sideways to quibble with a Nicaraguan taxi driver over paying $4.70 instead of $2.50 for the ride?

  1. $2.20, the difference between what I wanted to pay and what I got charged, is not a huge deal for us, even with the tightest budget we’ve experienced, maybe ever in our married lives.
  2. $2.20 may be a big deal for the man driving the cab today.
  3. If $2.20 is not that much, then the extra 10 cordobas are even less that much.
  4. Feeling ripped off is never pleasant.  Feeling targeted to be ripped off is less pleasant still.
  5. In this culture, unlike in U.S. culture, there is an expectation to haggle.  Much commerce happens in mercados where prices are less fixed than they are in U.S. stores.  There are many stores here, too, where it would be nonsense to try to get a different price than the one the scanner tells the register.
  6. There is a difference between haggling and short-changing.
  7. Feeling like you’re getting ripped off really screws with your desire to be generous.  Well, with mine, anyway.
  8. Tips are voluntary.  In the US and in Nicaragua.  Perhaps customary, but voluntary nonetheless, and the expectation for tipping here is actually much lower than it is in the States.  Sometimes we tip wildly high because the expected tip seems ridiculously low to us.
  9. The man may have been hungry.  Or he may have been manipulating me.
  10. I live in a country in which 90% of the people dwell in some level of poverty.  It is the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and 50-70% of the population is unemployed or severely underemployed.  In the simplest view, we live here because it is such an impoverished country.  We are seeking to do what we can to empower people to rise out of poverty. If you want to understand our approach, you can read about the Eight Signs of a Transforming Community.
  11. Our work here is both focused on developing deep and long-term relationships and on working for systemic change.  It’s dubious that paying the man an extra $2.20 will contribute to either.
  12. Grrrr.
  13. After I feel Grrrr, or maybe alongside it, I feel guilty, because I don’t want to value money over people.
  14. Jesus says,
    “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Luke 6:27-31
    Does this apply?

I could go on…and on.

Here is the gist:  we have more money than most of the people here.  We came here to try to contribute to positive change.  That sounds great in the Big Picture.  What does it mean in the daily grind, the details, the daily taxi rides of life?

Or, to frame the question biblically:  How do we live justly among people in poverty?

“How do you like it?”

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I met a man in the grocery store tonight.  To be precise, I met a gringo with his two sons in one of the nicer grocery stores.  We talked about what he considers Nicaragua’s best export (that would be rum), then swapped info, as often happens in these conversations:

“How long have you been here?”

“Two years.  You?”

“This is our fifth year.”

“Huh.  How do you like it?”

“It’s taken a while, but it feels like home now.  You?”

“I’m ready to go.”

He proceeded to tell me about some things he dislikes:  driving, power outages, customer service (oh, wait, that was me), and then we compiled a list of good things about living here: lower cost of living, less demanding pace of life (he said he had 80-hour work weeks in the U.S.), our kids becoming fluent in Spanish.

I tried to share with him our informal motto, “Flexibility and humor,” encouraging him that getting angry when things don’t work the way we expect really does not help, but learning to laugh and roll with it really does.  He seemed unconvinced.  If I had to summarize his position, it would be “This place DOESN’T WORK RIGHT!”

Saturday, yesterday, was a day that Kim jokingly described as “The Universe conspiring against us.”  She said it with humor because she said it today.  Yesterday, no one was laughing.  Trying to leave for ultimate, we discovered that our van had two flat tires.  One of our dogs had vomited everywhere, including all over the trampoline (you know how trampolines aren’t actually a solid surface?  Yeah.).  All the lights and outlets inexplicably stopped working in the kitchen and nothing we did with the fuse helped.  Our internet was on day 4 of being out.*  We have three phones and none of us could even make a call (we buy calling time by the minute, and we had all three run out).  I was trying to finish a sermon that I stepped in last-minute to cover for someone else, and I was not experiencing precisely the peaceful, meditative mindset that lends to efficient sermon writing.  I was not experiencing a mindset that lends to any sermon writing whatsoever.

My son started begging me to play Stratego.  I initially rebuffed him, explaining “Dad has lots of work to do, and blah, blah,” then amended that to “Sure.”  Because a)he had helped me clean up dog vomit, voluntarily, and b)composing a sermon in that frame of mind might have led to my excommunication.  So we played.  And had a blast.  And he came close to beating me.

Kim came home from successfully buying new tires, which really weren’t in our budget, but neither was having a blowout followed by a head-on.  To our great surprise, the massive communications multi-national corporation sent their repair guy out five hours into their promised forty-eight hour response time–this after Kim had fought through three levels of “customer service,” mind you–and we were back online.  That makes sermon writing easier, especially when you live in the land of I-can’t-transport-my-reference-library-here.

By today, the dog had stopped vomiting, the kitchen power is–again inexplicably–working just fine, no steel belts are showing on our tires, I can work on this blog, and we can even make phone calls.  The sermon went fairly well, I think, though God gets to make that judgment.  Someone gave us a gift, totally out of the blue, that covered a chunk of the tire expense.

Ready for the connection, you who noticed that I went on a big tangent?  I hated living here in Year Two.  I mean, really hated it.  I probably told people, in conversations like that, how ready I was to move back, and certainly I told myself in my head, if I didn’t say it out loud.  I could see exactly where I was then, reflected in his eyes.  And now I’m here.  We have The-Universe-Lays-Siege days and by the next day, we’re laughing about it.  I didn’t laugh during year two.  Maybe twice, and both times bitterly.  If I’d had a longer conversation, I think I might have told the guy all this, an extended version of “hang in there.”  But that may not be right for him.

Here is what I know today:  I no longer expect for everything to work the way “it’s supposed to.”  I don’t go cheerily along while cleaning dog vomit or frantically trying to change a tire while I and my daughters are scheduled to be playing ultimate–I NEED my fix–but it no longer reinforces a mindset that everything just sucks and I would gladly leave in approximately the time it takes me to pack a suitcase and drive to the airport (barring tire blowouts).

We’ve bought four (I said “four”) sets of tires in less than five years here.  I’m not counting the ones the van had when we bought it, so two new sets, two used sets.  A set of new tires costs $500 here, and those are nice Firestones.  We’re putting maybe 6,000 miles a year on our car.  The roads eat tires.  Ravenously.  And the driving surface in front of our home now would likely not fit many folks’ definition of “road.”  I give you this as an example of how differently things work here.

I don’t think things have changed that much in Nicaragua since I’ve gotten here.  But something has changed in me.  Maybe several things.

I don’t feel entitled as much as I used to.  I believe, I mean really believe in my bones, that I am very fortunate, regardless of how difficult things get for us here, because I have seen what real suffering looks like, and it wasn’t our Saturday.

This probably needs its own post, but I have learned to live around suffering without having it make me insanely angry, guilty, or miserable.  I might be getting calloused, but the thing is, if you can’t find a way to bear it, you can’t stay.  I think I’ve found a way to bear it that isn’t numb or indifferent.  So that is a breakthrough.

I’ve internalized “flexibility and humor.”  It took a long time.  I said it a whole bunch of times while I was actually seething internally, but I knew I needed to believe it.  I’m not saying I roll with every punch or laugh off every mishap, but this is my general mindset:  It isn’t going to work the way I expect, Plan A is a fantasy, and I may as well laugh about it because ulcers and high blood pressure just don’t help.

I know some people got to where I am in much less time, and likely far beyond.  Other people left.  It took me a long time to say this, but I’m glad I didn’t.

 

*We lost our internet because someone arrived outside our home wearing shirts that said the name of our internet provider, proceeded to set up a new connection for someone living close by but in an area unlikely for anyone to be paying monthly for internet, and somehow that zapped ours out of function.  It was clearly cause and effect.  We asked the workers to see about making ours reconnect and they nodded and said okay, and then left.  When Kim described this on the phone while making her push to get it fixed, the person confirmed that was the problem and explained, “Oh, those were vendedores.  If you see that happening again, take a picture of them and give it to us.”
Uh-huh.  We probably won’t do that.