By Judy Burnett, Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, Dallas TX

In July of 2013, our delegation of 18 youth and 6 adults experienced first-hand what it is like to live in a remote Nicaraguan village.  Our first impressions seemed to focus mostly on what was lacking, such as running water and electricity.  There were roofs over our heads, but no floors beneath our feet.  We soon came to understand, however, that the human spirit can soar even without those things.  CEPAD offered us the opportunity to develop cross cultural relationships with people whom we found to be warm and welcoming.  The staff of CEPAD prepared us well for our “campo” experience during our 2½ days of orientation at the Jeremiah Center in Managua and they patiently answered our repetitious questions to settle our anxieties, yet in all of that preparation, we could not have anticipated the emotional attachment that we would feel for these gracious and loving people.

The single observation that made the greatest impression on all of us was the sense of community that existed within the village.  When our delegation pooled our manpower to help clear a field for an elderly couple, many others from the village contributed to the effort as well.  And the practice of “taking care of our own” took on new meaning when I realized that the developmentally challenged man who lived in the house where I stayed was not a grandfather or an uncle, as I first thought, but an adopted member of the household who had no real family of his own.

CEPAD is an organization that “gets it right!”  It focuses on the needs of the people of these impoverished villages by teaching them how to help themselves.  And it garners support from people like you and me by sponsoring delegations to not just observe, but actually experience poverty face to face as honored guests in their homes.  We saw first-hand and through the eyes of our hosts, the good work that CEPAD initiates, and we witnessed the permanency of its programs that greatly improve the quality of their lives.  Our experience inspired us upon our return home, to encourage the members of our church to continue to support this valuable mission, not only with financial assistance, but with emotional support as well, by sending others to build on the relationships that have been established.

I have participated in youth mission trips with our church for over 20 years and I have watched the emphasis move slowly from “what can we give and what can we build?” to “what can we learn and how can we partner effectively with our neighbors in need?” whether in our own country or abroad.  It makes sense to me that the mission trip that focuses on education and relationships has a much greater chance of creating permanent and positive change for the greater good, than the older models which were often based on the Santa Claus principle.  The new approach goes a long way toward building understanding and respect between nations and cultures, and surely no one can question that these essential elements represent our best hope for establishing not only social justice, but peace among all the peoples on this earth.

By Diane Kenney, University of Southern California
I had been in Nicaragua several times as part of a Presbytery delegation when asked “Why don’t you bring students?  My response: “I really hadn’t thought of it; many of the students with whom I work have had little or no church experience —-.”  The conversation continued. The result:  each of the last 7 years 8 – 19 University of Southern California students have traveled to Nicaragua under the auspices of CEPAD to study WOMEN’S ISSUES AND IMMIGRATION REALITIES.   These 7 to 10 day adventures are advertised campus wide; most who travel have not known each other previously.  The result is a group that learns from each other as well as from those they visit.  Our approach is to informally learn about grass roots organizing.  We come bringing only ourselves and our own histories, and the Nicas are our mentors.  Highlights are continually provided by local community leaders who, with encouragement from CEPAD, have analyzed the needs of their own settings and moved ahead to improve community life.  Our students learn from those leaders, who generally have less formal education than our students.  They learn how to see, to care, to trust the “wise ones”, to engage already existing structures, and to improve the life of their own communities.

We are never quite as prepared as we would hope to be, but that never seems to affect the quality of our on-site experiences.  Home visits are essential; we make them brief to give students a “taste” —– and several students on each trip acknowledged their fears.  What do they learn from the home visits?  They redefine their own relationships, as Nica families teach them much about multi generational caring.

Each year our activities have been modified to meet the interests of our travelers.  A student doing research on GLBT organizations asked to meet GLBT leaders to learn more about how they function in what we understand to be a traditionally macho society.   The experience has become a regular part of our agenda.  A Muslim student asked if visiting the leaders of the Mosque was possible.  We were well received, her questions were answered and for some students their first encounter in a Muslim worship center occurred in Nicaragua.

We don’t avoid the role the US has played in Central America.  Perspectives are broadened and what it means to be citizens of the US becomes clearer.

How is the trip paid for?  First of all, it is an unbelievable bargain!  We have students check with their academic departments about study funds, and we’re always surprised at what is forthcoming.

Is it fun?  Always!  CEPAD staff know the fun places to go, how to venture out safely, the rules to follow, and willingly accompany us.   Check out our brief video!

By Peggy Becker, Delmar Reformed Church, Delmar NY
On our first trip to Nicaragua more than eight years ago, CEPAD and the people in rural communities changed us.  They helped open our eyes to the challenges of extreme poverty in ways that simply helping them build something couldn’t.  Coming down to Nicaragua to work on a project might make us feel better but it will not solve the long-term issues of injustice.

With CEPAD’s guidance we are learning how to build lasting relationships – in partnership as equals – so that we can respond with deeper understanding to the needs of our brothers and sisters.  Now, visits with our new Partner community of El Castillo are feeling more like a family reunion.  We are able to share our mutual needs and desires because Partnership is a two-way street.  El Castillo has welcomed us warmly, offering what little they have for our comfort, cooking and caring for us while we are with them.   We are learning to be patient and understand what they need and not just what we think should be done.

On our visits we sometimes help with local projects like building a new church or home.  We always spend time at the local school sharing games with the children.  One of our team brought binoculars last year and the children lined up over and over for the chance to “see” the world more closely than ever before.  Another year our delegation found an afternoon baseball game in progress on a hillside pasture.  We sat cheering the teams as they played on uneven ground with broken bats, a few shared gloves and horses and pigs in the outfield.  That day we saw the world more closely too.

We can never repay the gifts of hospitality, friendship and insight that we have all received.  And despite the support of CEPAD we still sometimes need to work out misunderstandings with our partners.  But we continue in the hope that through deepening personal commitment and relationships we will understand better how to be good partners not just in Nicaragua but anywhere there is injustice and poverty.