Every humanitarian harbors the same fear in his or her heart.
We stepped out of the van, loaded down with bags of rice and beans in the heart of a small barrio in Nejapa, Nicaragua. A smiling middle-aged woman in a pink shirt greeted us outside the school.
She is the professora de la escuela, and she was there to guide a small group of North Country Mission of Hope volunteers around the barrio, to deliver some food to those in need. Little did we know we had stumbled into the heart of life.
We walked around the corner of the dusty dirt road with a few tin shacks on either side. A broken rowboat lay under a tree. An elderly woman with a cane stood smiling at us with a friend, waiting.
We gave her a bag of rice and beans, and Sister Mary Schneiders told the woman that she liked her pretty, red-patterned skirt.
“Would you like me to give it to you as a gift?” the woman asked in Spanish.
Something didn’t add up — that she offered an ornate skirt, while we offered a small bag of food.
Next, we met another woman on the road. We handed her the bags, and she patted her armful of food and inhaled deeply, nodding her head.
“I’ve waited for someone to come. I’ve waited for someone to care. That day is today, and God has blessed me.”
The immensity of her gratitude and relief seemed only to shrink the bags of rice and beans, in my eyes.
With almost no time for reflection, we found ourselves at the mouth of a small hut. We heard a call from someone inside for us to come in.
In the dim light, we saw the figure of a woman on an old bed, low to the floor, obscured by clutter. The small amount of light, from a single bulb hanging from the tin ceiling, shed on the concrete and tin walls, filthy and decaying.
“I’m sorry I can’t get up,” she said in Spanish. “I’ve been in this bed for a month. I have diabetes, and I was just hospitalized. They had to cut off my foot.”
I was horrified, and my eyes couldn’t help but wander down. One leg protruded from under her nightgown — just one.
She told us that she was turning 80 in the fall and that she had lived here in this house all her life with her six siblings. All are now dead but two.
She told us how blessed she felt to grow old here with her family.
“I have received many blessings in my life.”
The woman held up her head and looked in our eyes. In this moment, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
Screw the fashion magazines, the obsession with looking youthful and society’s standards of beauty.
It all melted away in the light of true human beauty, in the form of this one-legged, 80-year-old woman, head held high. It’s a beauty I don’t think I, or anything really, could ever touch.
At least not until I’ve lived 80 years myself.
We asked her if she had the medicine she needed, and she said no. I don’t think I’ve ever seen money collected so quickly, drawn from our bags. The medicines it would buy should last a month or so.
But after that, we don’t know.
4 CONCRETE WALLS
We walked to the next house in silence, reaching the door in a sudden torrential downpour. We were immediately ushered inside by the family. The rain was screaming on the tin roof.
As our eyes adjusted, we watched more and more curious eyes emerging from behind the thin veil of a sheet draped to separate the four concrete walls into two rooms.
A woman lay on a bed with a rag over her eyes. She had just had surgery on them.
A young girl in a purple dress sucking a mango sat in the corner. A young woman and a baby, two college-age girls, an older boy and an older woman. More and more. There must have been about 30 people in the room.
In all the chaos and confusion, we frantically tried to get the rice and beans handed around and toys for all the children.
A SINGLE UMBRELLA
We were feeling more and more intrusive, and yet they kept telling us that we had to stay until the rain stopped.
When we insisted on not overstaying our welcome, a woman with a small single umbrella offered to escort us one by one back to our van. Embarrassed, we declined and sprinted back to the van after saying goodbye.
We slid the door shut.
“Please let your people know we care about their community,” Clare Whitney said to our guide before we dropped her off at home.
She nodded her head, thanked us and disappeared.
WAVES OF RAGE
Now, while I usually specialize in spewing bouts of wisdom that I am highly unqualified to give and painting the most dismal of things in a manner that captures their utmost radiance, I will try for some unadorned honesty.
As we returned from the barrio to the compound, we all silently locked ourselves in the rice-and-beans room. We felt the waves of sadness, rage and disappointment in ourselves and the world wash over us.
We wept and mourned and wallowed in this room full of abundant food. Ugly, evil, privileged, filthy Americans.
Every humanitarian harbors the same fear.
This was a pain and disgust that stemmed from that fear, a fear that happens to be one of my deepest. Because, you see, I had fallen in love with Nicaragua and everything about it. I fell in love when I was 16 years old and never looked back.
But that love was unrequited, ill-fated and unhealthy. It had to be. Because the more I saw, and the more I learned, the more I believed that not only was anything I did unhelpful, but somehow hurtful.
A GAPING WOUND
I began to believe that simply by the nature of my privilege, my nationality and my skin color that I would damage everything I touched. I began to believe that I would do what my people had done to their people all throughout history — steal from them, corrupt them, ruin them, push our own agendas on them. All under the guise of “helping.”
I was so afraid because the Nicaraguans’ own way of life is so beautiful just as it is. It doesn’t need to be Americanized or materialized.
I didn’t want to dirty it all. It seemed like, once again, we held all the cards and were playing them with the rice and beans, only giving them a bit when we come from a place that has a lot. Only putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and then walking away.
In this moment, as I had feared, I looked at my reflection in the dripping windowpane, and I saw a user.
HEAD HELD HIGH
However, even in the complete darkness of that moment, when my fears had been realized, a tiny beam of light was shining through.
It was another memory tugging at my better half.
It was the 80-year-old woman again, sitting on her bed. It was her face when we gave her the money. It was not a face of shame or anger or sadness. It was a face of relief. And acceptance. And gratitude.
She still held her head high and with dignity, and she looked us each in the eye and shook our hands.
“Thank you so much, and may God be with you wherever you go. God has blessed me.”
I came to realize, slowly, in the waning hours of that afternoon, that we did not, and could not, strip her of her dignity by offering her assistance. That this was real. That we were actually helping her.
It is so easy to believe when people tell you that you are not making a difference. We know that humans can be terrible and selfish. History books and war and playground bullies teach us this. But we forget that humans can be beautiful, too.
All our lives we are taught to be afraid of our darkness, but what we are really afraid of, ironically, is our light. Never before has this quote made more sense to me. We are so worried that what we do is unhelpful, none of our business, even hurtful.
And this keeps us from helping one another.
We cannot succumb to that fear. I must know and remember that we are helping these people just as they are helping me, and it is not because I have white skin and they have brown skin. It is not because I am from the United States and they live in Nicaragua.
And why is it, I wondered as I pondered those thoughts, that these boundaries that have mattered in the past do not play a part here?
The reason is simple: It’s because we love each other.
In all my searching, in all my knowledge and books and academia on the subject of Latin America, human rights, global justice and power and privilege, and in all the logical solutions I tried so hard to find to all the world’s problems, I found nothing. How could I?
Trying to remove the human factor in favor of rational, logical thinking in the face of a human problem was doomed to fail, and fundamentally illogical itself.
FLAGS OF PRAYERS
Instead, the truth came to me on the outskirts of Managua itself, subtly, simply and breathtakingly powerfully, right before my eyes.
The warmth of this 80-year-old woman’s hand; the diligence of her husband in taking care of her; the smiling children who hang their flags of prayers and dreams for the future on a clothesline and who I have watched grow like weeds the past three years; a pat on the back from an older brother; a hug from a friend; a kiss from a mother.
It is the only thing that is real, and the only thing that I trust more than my books, my cynicism, the doubters and critics.
That can transcend death and life, books and continents and poverty, doubters and hurricanes and fear of spiders. And 80 years.
“Sara Beth LoTemplio,” mission Director Sister Debbie Blow said sharply when I confessed all my doubts.
“You think far too much.”
Sara LoTemplio, a graduate of Saranac Central School and student at Colby College, is a volunteer with North Country Mission of Hope and recently returned from a mission to Nicaragua with the group. Her father, Joe LoTemplio, is a longtime journalist with the Press-Republican.
HOW TO HELP
North Country Mission of Hope, based in Plattsburgh, has made more than 50 trips to Nicaragua over the past 15 years, bringing humanitarian aid and establishing sustainable programs for the poor.
Learn more at ncmissionofhope.org. Donations may be sent to Mission of Hope at P.O. Box 2522, Plattsburgh, NY 12901.
Entries are still welcome in the ninth-annual McSweeney's Mission of Hope Golf Classic, set for Friday, Aug. 16, at the Barracks Golf Course in Plattsburgh. The event, with Mission of Hope Leadership Board President James Carlin named honorary chair, raises money for the group's Children Feeding Children program. Entry forms are available at the Barracks or McSweeney's Red Hots locations in Plattsburgh.