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Solidarity from afar

JustHope provides a local base for sustainable global partnership in Nicaragua



Jennifer Payton, Rev. Chris Moore, and Rev. Leslie Penrose

Greg Bollinger

Rev. Leslie Penrose started working to combat poverty in Central America in 1986, the year the United Nations’ International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. violated international law in backing a right-wing rebellion against Nicaragua’s government. The country was in chaos as a result of the conflict, and Penrose, then a new seminarian, found herself encountering a human reality far more complex than what was reported in the news—so complex that it called her to explore a model of aid that could better reflect that nuance.

Dropping off supplies and going home, she saw, just wasn’t working.

In 1998, after Hurricane Mitch dealt the region another devastating blow, Penrose gathered a small group to begin working in long-term partnership with community leaders in Chacraseca, a town of 8,000 people near Nicaragua’s western coast. In 2007, that partnership took official form as JustHope, a Tulsa-based “social-profit” organization that provides opportunities for North Americans to work with Nicaraguan community leaders to bring about sustainable change.

For the past decade, that effort has happened mainly through the PartnerTrips program, which takes groups of eight to 20 people—from TCC nursing students to members of church congregations—to Chacraseca. Participants spend weeks immersing themselves in the community and assisting with needs identified by local leaders. Every project is guided by what executive director Jennifer Payton said is an informal tag line for JustHope: “Nothing for you without you.”

It’s the opposite of a flashy, quick-fix program. This is—like slow food—slow aid: a refusal to shape an outcome according to one’s wishes (however well-intentioned they may be), an effort to help the community speak for itself and stand on its own.

Both words in the organization’s name are mission-critical, part of a commitment to cross-border aid based in the principles of solidarity, mutuality, collaboration, and sustainability.

“Our developmental model is the ‘hope’ part of it,” Penrose said. “The ‘justice’ part is that we don’t take a single group down there that doesn’t get sociopolitical education. That part comes also when they come home and watch the news and say, ‘That doesn’t sound like the people I met.’ Maybe they come back with more questions than they went with, with a long-term hunger to understand whatever context they’re working in here through the eyes of the people on the ground.”

The current conflict in Nicaragua has thrown JustHope a massive curve ball, said board president Rev. Chris Moore. For the safety of staff and participants, all planned trips for the rest of 2018 have been cancelled, resulting in a significant hit to the organization’s budget and an equally significant challenge in how to think about what their mission means without on-the-ground contact. If North Americans aren’t able to be present with their Nicaraguan counterparts, what does sustainable help look like? How can someone stand in solidarity from afar?

In reality, JustHope’s programs in Nicaragua—education, agriculture, health, and social enterprise (or microcredit)—are running all the time, regardless of trip participants being there, according to Payton. “This how we know that the work we’ve been doing works. Our staff of nine in Nicaragua is fully capable of continuing these programs without Americans there to make sure it’s happening. There’s sustainability there.”

At the same time, maintaining financial, organizational, and volunteer support for those programs remains critical.

“If we are paying that Nicaraguan staff member who goes to Chacraseca every day to run a program, the community knows that, and they know that JustHope is standing with them,” Penrose explained. “In continuing to run this organization, we’re providing the ability for Nicaraguans to stand on our behalf.”

Given the gravity of the current crisis, Moore said it didn’t feel right for JustHope’s annual “Wine for Water” fundraiser on Oct. 11 at the Greenwood Cultural Center to be just another “dinner, drinks, and dancing” event.

“Standing in solidarity means that when things change there, things change here,” Moore said. This year’s event will be an opportunity to gain some human-scale, sociopolitically contextualized understanding of the situation on the ground, as well as information on ways to get involved with the organization’s uniquely post-colonial approach to mission work.

Payton said the crisis has created an opportunity for JustHope’s staff, board, donors, and volunteers to think about global engagement in creative ways. “It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also amazing,” she said. “What we’ve helped the Chacraseca community achieve so far in terms of its own resiliency, sustainability, and decreased dependence—we get to put that to the test at this point. I’m inviting people to be part of that. The potential is limitless.”

Up close or from afar, this sort of aid is primarily about developing and sustaining relationships. It can be more challenging to support the kind of growth JustHope facilitates than to help in ways that make us feel that hit of “rescuer” gratification. But that’s the difference between charity and solidarity. The latter, in Penrose’s words, means this: “Dreaming another’s dreams with them, instead of your dreams for them.”

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