Pilgrimages for Peace: A Lenten Reflection for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-17; Isaiah 58:1-12
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
They left their families, their homes and their jobs. They left communities where they felt safe, where they knew the language, where the streets were familiar such that they could find their way to buy groceries while thinking about something else. They came to a place where the people spoke a different language; where it didn’t matter if you could find the grocery store as its shelves where nearly empty; where they would find young soldiers with automatic weapons on the street corners; and where the occasional boom of a supersonic spy plane would rattle the buildings and send people running for cover.
But they came anyway. By the thousands, they came.
They were ordinary members of ordinary churches throughout the United States who traveled to Nicaragua during the 1980s, seeking to understand God’s word amidst the swirling, often conflicting words that came from their own government, the Nicaraguan government and Nicaraguan churches.
The U.S. government was sponsoring a war against the people of Nicaragua. Among the reasons proffered by the U.S. administration was a claim that the Sandinista government was persecuting Nicaraguan Christians. It wasn’t true. While Nicaraguan Christians didn’t always agree with everything their government said or did, they usually enjoyed an open, respectful relationship. The Nicaraguan Council of Churches (CEPAD) claimed that Nicaraguan Christians were suffering far more from the U.S. war than they were from any differences with the Sandinistas.
As a missionary, my ministry was to assist CEPAD in receiving the hundreds of US church folk who came each year. The dark clouds of armies we read about in Joel takes my mind to recent events in Gaza. And I remember the illegal Contra army that was paid for with U.S. tax dollars and which killed several colleagues and friends of mine. The delegations of ordinary U.S. church folks came to stand with them, to mourn, to witness.
This Ash Wednesday, as I remember their ministry of presence in the dusty places of Nicaragua, I realize that their trips were Lenten pilgrimages. They fasted from their regular foods to eat more rice and beans than they had probably seen in their whole lives. More importantly, they set aside the security of their homes to travel on potholed roads from city to countryside, to homes and offices and farms to meet with church leaders, political leaders of all stripes, parents, farmers, workers, women activists, widows, soldiers and the wounded. They fasted from their own perspectives on life in order to listen to the experiences and perspectives of others.
They gave alms in secret, as directed by our Matthew passage. Instead of personally handing out crayons to children, and taking pictures of the event, gifts were given to church leaders or teachers in private. The dignity of the receivers was carefully protected.
They prayed. They prayed for the safety of those they met. They prayed for peace for all the people of the country. They prayed for wisdom for themselves, for the churches and for the leaders of the U.S. and Nicaragua. And then they went back home, where they continued the fast by setting aside their normal complicity with the powers and principalities of their own dark age and demanded an end to the war against the poor in Central America.
This Ash Wednesday, I’m considering how I am going to celebrate Lent this year. I don’t expect to travel to other lands; but I do plan to learn from those who visited Nicaragua and choose to fast from things that limit my perspective, to give in secret, to pray in quiet, to look and listen for how God is creating light, life and peace in the far flung corners of our world.
*Lyda Pierce is a missionary who served 20 years in Central America. She currently serves in the Northeastern Jurisdiction encouraging dialogue and support for mission.