Sunday, November 28, 2010

Q: Can I get a Witness? A: Yes. I would be delighted.

In the spirit of my friend Megan Highfill's blog 10 Churches,, in which Megan writes about different churches that she visits each week, I am devoting this post to a group of religious folks about whom I knew little before coming to Puerto Cabezas: the Jehovah's Witnesses, or Testigos de Jehova (which gives rise to the most offensive moniker "Testiculos de Jehova," employed by some of Bilwi's more vulgar constituents).

Today, I attended part of a two-day conference, one of many being held around the world by various gatherings of Jehovah's Witnesses, which featured various speakers and a "full-costumed drama"(!). Michael invited me to come along, since his family are Jehovah's Witnesses and had asked him to attend. I was ready to shake up my weekly religious regimen, so I accepted.

First of all, I will put forth several terms as I understand them to differ from those used by other Christian sects:

1) The meeting-place is the Kingdom Hall (Salon del Reino in Spanish, Asla Aidrubanka Watla [something like "House of the Mission Done Together"] in Miskito), not the church.
2) The body of believers is referred to as an "organization," rather than a denomination or church.
3) Like the Society of Friends, they call their regular gatherings "meetings," rather than worship or Mass.
4) Like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, their leaders are called elders.

What strikes me the most about Jehovah's Witness meetings is how cerebral they are. It feels more like a religion class than a worship service. There is very little prayer. Rather, if you want to seek the presence of God, if you have any question, you are exhorted to read the Bible. In the part of the conference I attended, a series of speakers came to the microphone, each expounding upon a different quality of God: empathetic, forgiving, generous, impartial, loyal. They drew from various parts of the Bible, citing exactly one verse in each example, in effect constructing scripture by stringing verses together. I tend to be open-minded when it comes to strategies for interpreting sacred text, but I find this sort of sound-bite exegesis jarring and somewhat irritating. It works well, however, for creating the cogent, accessible theological treatises that are the hallmark of the Jehovah's Witnesses. They work very hard to provide understandable and relevant guidance for believers in all aspects of life, an effort I very much admire. In doing so, they provide both the questions and the answers: no muss, no fuss. No existential angst. Every speech was followed by a sort of conversation-testimony in which an elder asked another member of the church how they had overcome some life challenge through their faith. The exchanges were so succinct and rehearsed, with no show of emotion or struggle. I was unsure if these were the actual life stories of the people involved or if they were doing a dramatization.

If I had to sum up the Jehovah's Witnesses in one phrase, it would be "quality control." They pump out a truly impressive array of materials in hundreds of languages on every possible subject. The missionaries they send to Puerto are already conversant in Miskito, which makes me a tad envious. This raises their esteem in the community. Their meetings feature a discussion based on articles in the Watchtower ("Atalaya" in Spanish). The intent of every presentation is overtly didactic, and they take pains to make it as easy to understand as possible, flatly rejecting any ambiguity or complication that might muddy up their message. The "fully costumed drama" was actually a pantomime to an hour-long Spanish-language audiotape furnished by Jehovah's Witnesses central. I laughed at first, but soon came to appreciate how much easier it was to follow the well-annunciated and well-broadcast dialogue than the audio nightmare that is the typical church drama. Leave it to the Jehovah's Witnesses to have the audacity to shun the mediocrity of the traditional church pageant (perhaps there's something to the "testicles of Jehovah" thing).

The message of the drama was that we walk by faith and not by sight, and if we trust God and obey God's commands, good things will come to us, and if we don't, we will be killed by the incoming Roman army. It was quite uplifting, actually, except for the part with the Roman army. It reminded me of coming to Nicaragua and how it's both super uncomfortable and challenging but also makes me feel able to follow Christ in ways I had never experienced before, and that is truly joyful.

Coming from the American Christian scene, without realizing it I had come to believe that I should either agree with theology or be offended by it. My experience with the Jehovah's Witnesses gave me the delightful gift of utter bafflement. For example, they believe that communion, originally only offered to the apostles, is reserved for highest members in the order who are part of the 144,000 believers who will go to heaven to reign with God, while ordinary believers will live in the new earth under God's reign. This is an entirely different way of viewing communion that I certainly don't agree with, but it is so far away from anything I had previously considered that it can't help but provoke thought. Though I was a little irate when the whole message on the importance of generosity was about giving to the worldwide mission of the Jehovah's Witnesses despite the economic crisis.

I'm definitely not okay with all of the practices of the organization, like shunning former members. I think it's unfortunate that Michael's dad will not be escorting him down the aisle at graduation because the ceremony will be held in a church building that does not belong to the Jehovah's Witnesses. However, my experience at the convention taught me that there is a way to disagree with theology without being offended by it. Bewilderment, rather than righteous indignation, can be a wonderfully healthy response. In no way does it impede relationship. The Jehovah's Witnesses will be happy to continue attempting to enlighten me, and I will joyfully choose to remain bewildered, by them, by God, and by my own murky faith that lacks any means of quality control.

It also leads to some wicked games of Who can find the Bible verse faster: Jehovah's Witnesses vs. Baptists.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Not a week goes by without some kind of drama. Some weeks more than others.

Last Sunday, I went to the beach with Michael, where two men with machetes ambushed us. They took my backpack, his shoes, and my camera. I'm so used to being accosted by people asking for stuff and ignoring them that I didn't fully appreciate the situation until it was almost over. Then I was irate that two glue-sniffing drug addicts could take what they wanted because they happened to be armed, which they would then sell for maybe five or ten dollars to get their next fix. I took some comfort in knowing that come the next day, I would go back to living a productive, meaningful life while theirs continued to be shitty and pointless.

After passing a surreal hour walking back to Michael's house to find clothing to wear (since my house keys had been in my backpack), then going to the police station to file a report, I was so exhausted by the shock of it all that I fell asleep. By the time I woke up, Susan and Lee had returned from what should have been a far riskier sojourn to a river outside of town. I caught them up to speed on the situation, then went to the harvest celebration at church, which was the reason I had decided not to go to the river in the first place. Harvest Day is a day for giving thanks for all the bounty we have received. I had spent two hours on Saturday baking bon, or sweet bread, with the young adult group, which we sold after the service, along with the pies, cookies, and "chap siu" (chop suey) brought by others. For the service itself, the sanctuary was adorned with palm branches and the clothes that were going to be sold after the service. A bunch of stuffed animals that were also for selling had been placed on a table before the altar like ritual sacrifices.

I felt a sense of panic rising in me from not having my camera. The reason I had it with me at the beach was because I had begun to take pictures of everything, in recognition that I would soon be leaving. This special moment in the life of Puerto Cabezas was passing me by, and without my camera I was going to lose it forever. This feeling has been one of the hardest to deal with since the robbery. I feel even more intensely that my time here is slipping away from me, never to return.

The other feeling I struggle with is guilt. I knew that part of the beach borders on one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in town. I knew there was a risk. Never mind that these things just happen here. There's always a risk. Go with a local person, go in the middle of the day, don't bring any cash, whatever. Yet somehow my response is not fear but just guilt, like being robbed indicates some kind of failing on my part.

Maybe I strive to emulate superheroes a little too much.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Ode to Susan Elle

I offer this blog post in humble tribute to my noble comrade in the struggle, Susan Elle. She who brazenly threw to the wind the warnings and admonishments of those citizens who counselled her to stay in at night, for fear of assailants, and set out into the dark streets of Barrio Moravo to befriend all of those who might therein be lurking. Jesus-like, she reached out to all she found there; in her eyes, no one was too young or too dirty or too stoned. Ah, that we all might show such disregard for the dictates that demarcate decency! And so Susan, in her indiscriminate ambling, came to know and be known by all of the barrio, gangsters and housewives alike. To know, if not by name, at least by face. To be known by name, namely "gringa loca": she who cotemns the customary feminine comportment. She who by so doing gained that elusive, coveted freedom to meander aimlessly about the streets, saluting those gangsters who have beaten their swords of "Give me your money" into the (idle) plowshares of "Oy, Susan!"

Oh Susan, she who rules the third-grade B class with an iron fist. Who rigidly enforces her schedule irrespective of the arbitrary ringing of recess and dismissal bells, stubbornly refusing to submit to the subdirector's caprices in determining exactly when her students will commence and terminate their learning. She comes home to lament her lack of control over the devils, yet remains revered by all the teachers for the discipline she imposes in the classroom, her voice at times rising to such a sonority as can be heard by the nuns in the neighboring convent. Would that she had had a class of students from the beginning of the year, so as to mold the young breed to her expectations over a longer course of time. The result, I've no doubt, would have been quite remarkable.

While at times, like the rest of Puerto, I find myself bewildered by her propensity for the culturally inapropos, I cannot but admire her ability to elicit affection from all corners. Following the example of Christ, she who makes and divides the bread in our house has garnered quite a following from the people in the streets. I can only hope that I shall be recalled with such fondness after departing this place.

In other news, I'm reading and very much enjoying Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Autonomy and Identity

October was Autonomy Month on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, culminating in Autonomy Day on the 30th. It celebrates the relative political autonomy that the Coast has while still being under the federal government of Nicaragua. Politically, it means the Coast has its own Assembly, and culturally it means there's a public recognition that the Coast has its own cultures that ought to be recognized and promoted. It's an intentional response to the Sandinista mandates of Spanish-only in schools and a general devaluation of Coast traditions like dance, due perhaps to its sensuality. While it's certainly a good move, it seems to me like a lot of talk that doesn't often turn into action. Still, there have been some joint government-nonprofit efforts to promote bilingual education, as well as tourism.

As part of the effort to promote Coast culture, a reporter from Managua came to film local cultural acts. Our dance group got called up to perform. As we prepared to get taped, the reporter told our director, "Now I don't want any Honduran dances. Just Nicaraguan dance." Which meant he didn't want us to dance the punta garifuna, which is most commonly associated with Honduras. Neco responded, "Actually, there are garifuna communities in Nicaragua." I encountered a similar situation when I asked a music vendor in Masaya, on the Pacific side of the country, if he had any punta music, and he replied, "No, we only sell NATIONAL music."

The garifuna are an ethnic group that have preserved their own language, descended from members several different African ethnicities that escaped slavery due to shipwreck of slave ships. There are garifuna communities along the Atlantic Coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Like the Miskito and Creole cultures, it is not bound by national borders. Part of the Pacific-Atlantic Coast tension lies in the fact taht while the Pacific side of the country has developed a strong nationalistic identity, people on the Coast still identify with ethnic groups that have more in common culturally with places like Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, where much of the Creole community has roots, and the Atlantic Coast of Honduras, which also has Miskitos, garifuna and Creoles. This is part of the reason Nicaragua has historically struggled to integrate its coast with the rest of the country. Efforts to create stronger cohesion, by promoting the teaching of Spanish and national symbols, invariably comes across as a repression of local cultures. It is a common tension that comes with the national identity. The new response of the government is to emphasize diversity and talk up the Coast culture as a part of what makes Nicaragua the special country that it is. As a result, those elements of the Coast that make Nicaragua more like other countries cause a bit of uncomfortableness.

After the interchange with Neco, the reporter from Managua looked at me skeptically and said, "And where are YOU from?" Neco replied, "She's, um, a gringa costena." The others said, "Speak to him in Miskito!" I said, "Ao, yang miskitu sna." Which means, "Yeah, I'm totally Miskito." Although my size is somewhat formidable compared to the people here, there are Miskitos, mestizos, and even the occasional Creole who share a similar complexion. Still, he looked unconvinced, but decided, "As long as she dances like a negra, right?" Whatever, dude.

After the performance, he came up to congratulate us. He looked at me and said I was approved. I actually felt irate despite myself. I didn't need his approval. He's not even from the Coast. Who was he to decide who and what it ought to look like? The people here in Bilwi have always expressed the utmost enthusiasm for me sharing in and thereby helping to promote their culture. That's the only approval that matters. If I'm accepted by the group then what is this reporter worried about?

So it seems some of the defensive indignation costeƱos feel towards people in the Pacific part of the country has stuck to me. Perhaps I'm just overcompensating for always being the outsider by pretending to be more like an insider when someone from the other side of the country shows up. Or maybe the time I have spent here, building relationships and learning the language and the culture, really has made me more of an insider in this city than even a Nicaraguan from somewhere else.