An International Human Rights Observer's reflection
By Brian Peterson
“I’ve seen the flame of hope among the hopeless. And that was truly the greatest heartbreak of all.” Bruce Cockburn The Last Night of the World
Canadian musician and poet Bruce Cockburn reminds us that even in a world of moral ambiguity, there are those moments in which one is confronted with injustice that is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.
A brief encounter with poor people in the Amapala region of southwest Honduras this past July was for me such a moment, one that opened a window to a world I never knew and that undoubtedly has changed me forever.
I happened to be there along with seven others as part of a delegation sponsored by the Alliance for Global Justice. We had been travelling for several days already studying the impact of neoliberal inspired mega projects throughout the region. I’ll leave it to others far more versed in the verities of geopolitics and economics to parse out just exactly what that means, but suffice to say that I caught a glimpse of how just as the day follows the night, corruption, impunity and failure of democratic institutions to do what they are supposed to do leaves some of the most vulnerable people in our hemisphere with nothing, nothing but hope.
As our intrepid driver Rey pulled our van off the main road into the parking lot of what appeared to be a house or some kind of community center it was clear that something was happening. A large crowd of people had gathered, young women in in brightly colored dresses undoubtedly pieced together in some nearby sweatshop but now having been returned as first world cast offs, serious looking young men, campesinos and fishermen whose sun baked, hard worked skin conferred upon them the visage of old men, gracious elderly women who like their poor hermanas throughout Central America are ever the ones to soothe and comfort the suffering while silently bearing their own heartbreak. Last but not least were the barefoot, rag tag children impatient and fussy in the way that children everywhere become when the grownups have to talk about serious matters.
We were there to listen, to endeavor through the lenses and layers of hegemonic privilege to understand, to walk in the shoes of these courageous human beings for whom the accident of birth had consigned them to lives of struggle and fear, of determination and hope. They insisted that we sit and so some young boy was assigned the task of rounding up chairs, white plastic ones as ubiquitous to Central American life as tortillas, rice and beans. In the very least, having walked for miles to get there, our hosts should be the ones sitting not us! But we were their guests and to do otherwise would have seemed a rejection of what they had to give that day, so we sat.
Beneath the shadow of a great Guanacaste tree, we heard from the priest, a brave man of devotion, faith and courage, far more so than this pastor could ever conjure up. They had all come that day from ten or so communities along the coast of the Gulf of Fonseca which for some had been quite an ordeal. Rich oligarchs in league with US backed political leaders who have effectively put the country up for sale on the US stock exchange providing ample fodder to stir Libertarian fantasies of Corporate City States ironically translated to English as Model Cities. In these playgrounds for the superrich that are effectively free of burdensome environmental and labor laws the fruits are ripe for the picking–IMF and World Bank funded development projects including a deep water port, scenic beach properties, tourist destinations to rival any other in the world. About the only thing standing in their way though are the men, women and children who stood before us that day. We heard too from an attorney working with a local Non-Governmental Organization who described in detail the legal difficulties these communities face, threats and intimidation, the probable end of their livelihoods and subsequent inability to provide for their families, and oligarchy in control of executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government eager to accommodate their rich benefactors by executive decree, changing and rewriting laws and brutally enforcing them with thugs armed with US made weapons and machinery.
Perhaps even more heartbreaking than the injustice being carried out against these hard working poor people was their hope in us, hope because we had simply shown up, because we were among the few outsiders who have taken the time to listen, to briefly walk in their shoes, to try to imagine what life must be like for them. As we wrapped up our meeting a community elder expressed what I suspect was the hope shared with his compeneros there. “You will go home and get your government to change its policies that are allowing these things to happen here, won’t you?” And as much as I wished I could say, “Yes, absolutely.” I knew better. I knew and know all too well what they are up against—economic, political and military systems that chooses not to serve the people, but the powerful few hell bent on extracting every ounce of life from those who want no more than to live and work in peace, to provide for their children and families, to live lives of quality and meaning. I couldn’t help but lament at the seeming insignificance of my lone voice and what I could ever hope to accomplish on their behalf.
And yet, a broken heart does not inevitably lead to despair and hopelessness but can serve to transform and change. The lyrics of Cockburn’s song describing the “greatest heartbreak of all” go on to declare “And that was the straw that broke me open.” A heart, broken open is a heart that can now be filled with something new, with something that for whatever reason couldn’t enter before.
So in the time since that brief encounter under the Guanacaste tree what has come to fill the cracks in my own heart?
My broken heart is filled with compassion. The faces, the words, the hospitality shown to us that day are forever etched in my memory. The world is terribly unfair and unjust. By mere accident of birth I live on the other side of the fence enjoying a lifestyle that in many ways is borne on the backs of poor people like them and so many others around the world.
My broken heart is filled with frustration, frustration at those who don’t seem all that interested and wonder what it all has to do with them, at those who ask “Oh how was your trip?” but who aren’t interested in any response other than “Oh, it was great!” I’m frustrated at the Church I have served as a pastor for almost twenty five years, a denomination that extols the virtues of “accompaniment”, that raises millions of dollars a year to support helpful and well-meaning development projects and ministries staffed by hard working dedicated people around the world, but a church that perhaps out of fear of upsetting an overwhelmingly monochromatic, upper middle class, middle to right of the road constituency or of demonstrating “questionable theology” generally shies away from addressing the systemic issues at the root of poverty and injustice. My heart is weighed down with frustration, I find myself reluctantly agreeing with a bishop’s assistant’s observation nearly ten years ago that while important such ministry “is unfortunately not a priority.”
My broken heart is filled with rage, rage at the powerful voices in our society that seek to demonize and dismiss those whose options have been taken from them and have no choice but to become immigrants. I am outraged poor and vulnerable people like the ones I met become pawns in political games and are deemed “dirty, rapists”, parasites in search of a free education and health care and a refrigerator, leeches who are out to take American jobs. My blood boils at the thought that my government supports a country whose leaders act with utter impunity, without any regard for basic human rights, for whom personal gain and profit are valued above all else. I am furious that the presumptive nominee for a major political party has been given a pass with regard to her collusion as Secretary of State encouraging and later justifying a 2009 coup that overthrew the democratically elected president, a properly elected leader who, much to her consternation and all those like her held captive by the chimera of so called free trade and rule of law, had begun to broach the taboo subject of political reform.
That being said, a broken heart is just that, a heart cracked and fissured, a heart that can be open to other possibilities as well. A heart filled with compassion, with frustration and even rage is never the less a heart that is also filled with hope. Yes, in the hopeless hope of poor desperate campesinos and fishermen of Amapala I find hope, in their courage and determination, in their willingness to strive for a better life for them and their children and unwillingness to accept the world as it is. In the brave Roman Catholic priests and human rights workers who literally put their lives on the line every day I find hope. Among the women, men and children of the small community of faith that I serve as pastor my hope is renewed, as they listen, understand and encourage their sometimes hair brained, crazy talking pastor, as we support one another in the covenant God has made with us in baptism which leads us “to serve all people following the example of Jesus and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” The flames of hope are stoked as I reflect on the work of others, a dear friend, a pastor like me who has gifted the church and the world with a book that challenges us to consider the common good, an activist friend on the ground in Honduras who though not a person of faith shares a sense of compassion for those on the margins, of rage at the present order of thing, of hope in a world where people can live lives of quality and peace, another friend who brings hope and healing to poor disabled children in Nicaragua through a newly founded nonprofit. What I find even more hopeful is that my list is rapidly growing.
Finally hope abounds in the conversations and connections with others who are willing to at least listen, to question their assumptions as well as mine, to be open to new perspectives maybe even a new world, the kind of world that a young, frightened girl sang a very different song about centuries ago, where the proud are scattered in the imaginations of their hearts and the rich sent away empty while the lowly and hungry ones are lifted up and filled with good things. The accident of birth has afforded me great privilege in life and so while Mary’s song serves to convict me of my own hard hearted complicity, her words at the same time open the way to continued transformation and change, to find a heart though scarred and cracked filled with compassion and hope for a world in need.