Winter 1985, Vol. 37, pp. .

Clare Wagner: Current Trends:
      New Wine, New Wineskins: Gospel Life in Nicaragua

Sister Wagner, O.P., with a background in teaching and preaching, recently returned from afield study of Nicaragua, and is currently on sabbatical study in Berkeley, California.

MY brief and powerful June journey to Nicaragua confirmed what I have often heard from prominent members of the faith community: that the Latin American Church has something of great significance to say to the Western Church and, even, as Henri Nouwen writes, that our spiritual destinies are intimately connected.(1) I went to Nicaragua to pay attention to the faith of her people, to stand in solidarity with them and to search for truth in this little nation about which there is such great controversy.(2)

We don't like all we see around us.
We dream.
We want to be different; to make
    something new.
We want to give the third world
    an example for a new option.
Give us a chance.
                    Nora Astorga, Minister of the Exterior
                    Managua, Nicaragua
                    June 25, 1985

I returned with great hope because of the strong, deep faith alive in people there and with overwhelming grief because the new life there is seriously threatened, primarily by the government of my own country. After a brief introduction to Nicaragua, I want to focus in this essay on the reasons for the hope and the grief that are in me, particularly on the striking integration of faith and life among Nicaraguan Christians.


The theme of the Nicaraguan people's life together is well expressed in two closely related scriptural quotations:

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live (Deut. 30:19).

I have come that you might have life and have it to the full (John 10:10).

Little Nicaragua, which is about the size of North Carolina, has three million people and has been struggling for quality of life and often even for physical life-for centuries. Most of its gracious and spirited inhabitants are poor and have suffered much from lack of food, shelter, medical care and education. As early as 1544, the third bishop of Nicaragua, a Dominican named Fray Antonio de Valdivieso, struggled for the rights of the native peoples there and was assassinated by an agent of the Spanish Crown in 1550.(3) He is considered by some in Central America the precursor of El Salvador's Monsignor Oscar Romero, and Valdivieso's actions are seen as prophetic of the current Christian effort in the Nicaraguan revolution. In Managua, the center of theological reflection for the country is named after him, Centro Antonio Valdivieso.

As Catholicism brought from Spain was developing in Nicaragua as in other New World countries, the Christian faith became strong among the people. In the beginning of the twentieth century, new religious orders came to Nicaragua and educational centers developed primarily for upper classes with a few schools for middle and lower income people.

The year 1850 marks the first United States invasion of Nicaragua; the Southern states had the hope of making slave states of Central America. Although this failed, the interest and influence of the U.S. was there to stay. In 1912 the marines came to Nicaragua out of fear that Europe might gain power there, and in 1940 the U.S. marines still operated the National Military Academy. In 1926 the now revered national hero, Sandino, began to rally the Nicaraguan people for the defense of their sovereignty. The marines resisted Sandino forces and after he was shot in 1933, the United States was instrumental in bringing Somoza to power and supporting this regime. Through a difficult period of forty-three years, the power of the Somozas, with full support of the United States Government, effected the neglect of the poor masses and oppression of the people which resulted in a people's revolution initiated by those who had remembered and passed on the dream of Sandino for a free Nicaragua. In the 1960's, members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which generally supported the Samoza dynasty, began to change their attitudes. The revolutionary movement, the Sandinista National Front for Liberation, and the Christian movement touched each other and have been involved until the present time. In 1979, a pastoral message from the Nicaraguan bishops supporting armed struggle as a legitimate form of defeating the dictatorship and condemning "class hatred that is directed against individuals and is in radical opposition to the Christian duty of governing according to love" encouraged Christians in their work for a more just and humane society in their country.

On July 19, 1979, the National Guard collapsed and the revolutionary Sandinista National Front began the new Nicaragua. With its principles of a mixed economy, political plurality and nonalignment with the super powers, the six-year-old revolution struggles to build a strong and free Nicaragua.

It was extraordinary for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to support a people's revolution. It was the involvement of Church leaders in the consciousness-raising efforts throughout the country about human dignity and gospel values and the oppressive tactics of the Somoza regime that brought about this unusual stance. The testimony of the priest Gaspar Garcia Laviana, who was also a commander in the people's army, helped move the bishops in the direction of support. In 1977 he wrote the following words to his Nicaraguan brothers and sisters:

As an adoptive Nicaraguan and as a priest, I have seen the open wounds of my people. I have seen the shameful exploitation of the peasantry, crushed under the boot of landowners, who are protected by a National Guard. I have seen a few grow obscenely rich in the shadow of the Samoza dictatorship. I have witnessed the degrading traffic in human flesh to which poor young women are subjected, forced into prostitution by the powerful. And I have touched with my own hands the baseness, the humiliation, the deceit and the robbery brought by the power and domination of the Samoza family.

Corruption and repression are merciless. They are deaf to words and will continue to be deaf, while my people groan in the dark night from the bayonets and my brothers and sisters suffer torture and prison for demanding a just and free nation, from which robbery and assassination are gone forever.(4)

This quotation reflects the kind of situation, familiar in Latin America, which moved the bishops to include a statement in the Medellin documents on the legitimacy of revolutionary insurrection in a case of clear and persistent tyranny which endangers human rights and seriously harms the common good of the nation. It is from these kinds of understandings that the expression now often seen and heard in Nicaragua has developed: "There is no contradiction between Christianity and the revolution." While pacifism is the stance of some in Nicaragua, especially in the Protestant communities we visited, this situation of oppression made clear the reasons for the Church's tolerance of the just war theory. At the time I am writing this, there has developed a great deal of tension between the Church hierarchy in Nicaragua and the Sandinista government. I do not intend to write about the Church-State conflict except to express the hope that the dialogue which has begun and the prayer and vision of the people will lead to a resolution of this unfortunate conflict.

In spite of insurmountable obstacles since the 1979 success of the revolution, life has been triumphing over death in Nicaragua. That is especially evident in the improvements in life for the poor majority in the areas of health, education, welfare and housing. Critical economic and political problems seriously threaten Nicaragua now; what is clear is that her people will not stop struggling to develop a free Nicaragua whatever the cost may be.(5)

As part of a mural in a church in Managua where we participated in a lively folk Mass, there is a painting of an elderly Nicaraguan campesino carrying the cross. His bearded face, peasant hat, bent body and common clothes reminded me of a gardener near the cathedral in Leon, a farmer in the open prison near Managua, an old man in the resettlement camp in the north country. This figure with the cross symbolizes for me a unique and outstanding feature of the people's faith; they see Jesus Christ in one another. They own and understand the preferential option for the poor and express it in art and life. Nicaraguans mean it when they print on a sign over what we would call a welfare agency, "To serve the poor is to serve Jesus Christ; to serve Jesus Christ is to live in the Kingdom." The figure beneath the cross might as easily have been a mother of young men who died in the revolution, such women are called, "mothers of heroes and martyrs." There was evidence among the people with whom we visited and to whom we listened that they perceive their own lives as the way of Christ, and the work they do as God's work. Complete integration of faith and life is very natural among the believing Christians we encountered. This struck me as quite a contrast to the North American religious situation in which great efforts are made to help Christians to integrate life and faith, to recognize the Spirit in daily experience, to incorporate Gospel values into social and work realities.

This phenomenon of the wholeness of the Christian life and the role in it of neighbor-love and the preferential option for the poor is well illustrated by experiences of the people we met as we journeyed. Two well-traveled Christian authors wrote, "Never before have we found such religious vitality combined with total commitment to the construction of a just social order."(6)

That religious vitality was particularly apparent in Angela Rode and Marina Esquivel, two women who live in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Leon. Angela spoke to us one evening on the convent porch while her young son slept in her arms. She is a teacher and told us of her participation in what she called the "gracious reading campaign" designed by the Sandinista government. She was not a Sandinista at that time, but when the schools closed for six months so the literacy campaign could be carried out among the many peasant peoples who could not read and write, she volunteered to be part of the project.

Angela left her two small children with her mother and went to live with a campesino family she did not know in order to teach the adults and children living and working there. She told us that while the volunteers taught reading and writing, the campesino women taught them about making tortillas and planting. She would go into the fields with the workers, and they would work together; while there they would learn letters, saying again and again "M-M-M, L-L-L," and learning the sounds. In the evening, they would all gather around and spend hours together studying. The elderly father of this extended family wanted to learn to read just to be able to study his Bible. Angela said that one of the things that made her most happy was that just before she left, this 82 year old man opened his Bible and began to read it. He said to her with great joy "Thank God, I can read my Bible before I die."

It was difficult for Angela and the other volunteers. She said she had to sleep in a bed that was too short for her and that, "one suffered at the beginning." Many cried for their children, she told us, because they had never been away from them before. The family Angela stayed with had little food, so her mother and aunt came with food every fifteen days. Angela told us that her mother had to learn to ride a horse because no car could travel the last ten miles of the narrow dirt road leading to the campesino home.

It was difficult, but 58,000 volunteers went to teach. It was, as Angela said very simply, the way to love one's neighbor. What was not at all difficult for Angela to see was that Jesus Christ was the campesino carrying the cross in the mural in the Church, and that Jesus Christ was the 82 year old campesino she taught to read his Bible. In light of that awareness, what else could a Christian do, and what would give a Christian greater joy than to so directly serve Jesus Christ?

Angela began her teaching career under a tree. Now each student has a chair and materials; education is a high priority in Nicaragua. Until last year, the school where Angela teaches had preschool through sixth grade. They needed a seventh grade but could not get money for another teacher, so each teacher in the school agreed to teach one hour without pay, thereby accumulating enough from their salaries to pay the seventh grade teacher. Decisions like this one made by the teachers give an American visitor pause and evoke questions and a search for motivation.

Marina Esquivel, a neighbor of Angela's, offers further insight into life and faith in their country. Marina has two grown children, one a doctor, and has been involved with Women for Peace Organization or AMLAE (a national women's organization that assists with various developments among the people). She said to us, "We have taken part in the building up of Nicaragua. We are all Christian; we all believe in God. No one will take away our faith. Don't you believe it. A new, a better Nicaragua is our struggle. We want to live a few more years to see what it will become .... We have faith, hope-so much reality we want to see." Marina meets weekly with a Bible study group and she told us that every time the group meets they pray for Ronald Reagan-that his heart will be changed. She asked our group for solidarity with the people and prayer that we can live in brotherhood and sisterhood. Her closing words to us were, "We hope all who want to know about us will come that they may see that in spite of weakness and poverty, we have accomplished something."

The "something" they have accomplished is to live out the gospel in a way that startles international visitors when they begin a journey in Nicaragua and that moves many to stay for a long time. The "something" they have accomplished is evident in the complete amnesty that has been granted to 2000 contra soldiers who have chosen to return and that is available now to any who ask for it. And it is present in the reverence and pride with which they tell the story of Tomas Borge, their minister of the interior. Tomas Borge was in prison for seven years and tortured daily; his wife was sexually abused and eventually murdered by the same torturer. When the revolutionary victory came, Borge was appointed to handle the prisoners. He visited every prisoner personally and one day came face to face with his torturer and his wife's murderer. After a long silence, Tomas Borge said words remembered by the storyteller as, "For your punishment, I forgive you; you are free." Shortly after that the man went to Miami and became a chief leader of the contra revolutionaries. Tomas' response to that was to say that the man doesn't understand forgiveness. This story is a part of the country's national pride, and forgiveness is one of the operating principles of their life-style.

The "something" they have accomplished lives when a woman who works for the social security and welfare agency meets with Americans to tell about her work and concludes her talk with the story of her own struggle in faith against polio and the role of faith in her work. She concludes, "We cannot be without faith. we began a literacy campaign with no money, yet illiteracy was reduced from over 50% to 6%. We began a vaccination program with no vaccine, yet polio was 0% this year for the first time. Other countries helped. In Nicaragua, children, housewives, engineers all participated. We succeeded due to the faith of all; it was no magic act."

This faith gives witness, I think, to a new movement of the Spirit which has clearly transformed believers' lives. A testimony to the presence of new life is joy, and we found that. In Nicaragua there must necessarily be joy in the midst of suffering. Political trauma, economic disaster, fear of losing what is so precious, division in the Church and the confusion all of this creates are elements which make up the daily life conditions of the people. That is what makes it so important to include here the description of a barrio which fully concretizes Christian joy in the midst of struggle.

Two thousand little houses were built by the government for the poor in a small barrio in Managua. Preference was given to young couples with one child. The homes are to be paid for over a period of twenty years. A Saint Joseph Sister and a Spanish Dominican priest came to build a church in the barrio. They travel house to house in an effort to build hope among the people. In this barrio are the "descendants" mentioned in the Deuteronomy quotation; there are literally children everywhere. Fourteen is the median age in the barrio and most of the sixteen to twenty-year-olds have gone to war. The fact of having so many children is a promise of an outstanding future; the somber fact of the very young men on the border moved Margarita, the Saint Joseph Sister, to ask the question, "What can you do here when everything looks like it might end in destruction?" The answer, "Build life." And the center, quite literally without walls, that the people, sister and priest have built is definitely a life and joy center. We entered to find it filled with women learning to sew and others engaged in needlework, including a very old woman who was recently "discovered" when she won second prize for her work in an art fair sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. Now she is paid a salary to teach needlework many days of the week.

In the evening, we walked into the center to the strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" being rendered by a lively group of flute players. Guitar, singing, music lessons are taught by the Dominican artist priest. Margarita told us that one girl who knows ballet came and offered to teach a class at the center. In no time at all, forty-two had signed up to participate. I got the distinct impression that as soon as someone knows very well how to do what someone else does not know, Margarita shows them how to teach their skill and they pass the knowledge on to someone who needs it. A fifteen-year-old girl is a catechist, a teacher, a musician; her mother is one of her students. A fourteen-year-old boy played classical guitar for us; he is also a tutor for a fifty-three-year-old woman.

Two young Australian artists came to stay a few days and wanted to do something; to leave something of themselves in Nicaragua. They decided together with the people to direct the painting of a mural on the walls that surround the center. It is a beautifully colorful rendition of the creation story, the Genesis story which leads into the creation of the new and free Nicaragua. Sandino's hat is immense, and on it -- in it really -- are the green covered mountains, water and the sunrise of Nicaragua. And the heroes and martyrs are painted there, too; they include Maura Clark, two Nicaraguan women, and a young man from the barrio who was recently killed defending his country. In this way, the ongoing creation story surrounds the sacred space where the poor of Nicaragua become rich through song, dance, flute playing, art, reading and faith; a space where one can touch the Spirit in the barrio and celebrate. How fitting it is that the flutists play "Ode to Joy."

What I have described through these experiences is the "new wine" of Nicaraguan faith life. I had only a taste, but it is good wine. The process of making it has been going on a long time through reflection on the gospels in base community groups, through liberation theology and the leadership of Christian women and men, through the experience of the poor themselves and the interaction of middle class Christians with the poor, through the entire revolution and the cost of it. Life has been chosen by the people of Nicaragua and they will not let it go.

While riding along a road north of Leon, we were asked to pull over to the side, and I saw a living, image comparable in meaning to the image of the campesino carrying the cross. As the latter image exemplified for me integrated faith and awareness of Christ in the poor, so this living image of a convoy of young soldiers waving at us, smiling, giving us the peace sign, conveyed the deepest pain and greatest fear of the Nicaraguan people. As the convoy turned off on a dirt road to go into the hills where the war was being fought, the response of people in our van was silence, tears and prayer. The overwhelming grief that remains with most Americans who spend time in Nicaragua is not only for the promising young men in those trucks and their mothers, fathers, wives and children. It is also for the role played by the United States government in seeking to obliterate the legally established government of Nicaragua.


Most Nicaraguans see their revolution as the "wineskins" for the "new wine" which is a Christian people consciously in the process of transformation. Their revolution has meant liberty for them, has meant a dignified life for the poor majority, has meant a future full of hope. And so I raise the question Nora Astorga asked our group, "Do you have a right to destroy a nation?"

The fact is that many Americans say, "Yes." No matter what is said about eye witness accounts of atrocities committed against civilians by American armed and trained Contra soldiers, no matter how strong the proof is for freedom of religion and even the centrality of Christianity to the governmental philosophy, no matter how much one quotes leaders of the party in power in Nicaragua or opposing party members who are all against American intervention, no matter how many statistics one can give to show marked improvement in the lives of the people; it is to no avail.

It is to no avail that what you saw and heard and experienced in the country is the opposite of that purported by the American media. The reason is that these people feel that Nicaragua, because of its relationship with Russia and Cuba is a threat to United States security. People close to the Nicaraguan situation, complex and difficult as it is, and many nations of the world which are in relationship with Nicaragua would deny there is such a threat at all. But underneath even this reason for the position of the United States government towards this little country is an assumption. This assumption is that a powerful nation has a right to do anything, anyplace in the world to protect its security now and into the distant future. Whether international law is repeatedly broken and human rights frequently violated, as they are by the United States in Nicaragua, does not matter. The unavoidable question I need to pose is this: Does a person of Christian faith necessarily have to question that assumption?

Is a necessary "current trend" which must develop among Christian U.S. citizens a heightened gospel sense with regard to our place in the global community? Is there an urgency to reflect on the gospels in the manner of these base communities and examine our country's policies in the light of those gospels? The next step is to bear the consequences of the stance we are brought to through study, prayer and communal discernment.

The gift of my Nicaraguan journey is one of hope and grief, a celebration of faith intensely lived and a challenge to pose questions that might effect a revolution-at least in the hearts of those who hear them. It makes me glad to have this to share with you in my final contribution to "Current Trends." I invite you to pray with me for the Nicaraguan people in a manner familiar to them:

Our Father, who are in this our land,
Nicaragua, may your name be blessed
in our incessant search for justice and peace.
May your kingdom come
for those who have for centuries
awaited a life with dignity.
May your will be done on earth
and in heaven
and in the Church of Nicaragua,
a Church on the side of the poor.
Give us today our daily bread
to build a new society.
Forgive us our trespasses,
do not let us fall into the temptation
of believing ourselves already
new men and new women.
And deliver us from the evil of war
and of the evil of forgetting that our lives
and the life of Nicaragua are in your hands. Amen. (7)

  1. This thought of Henri Nouwen's is from a talk entitled "A Journey Interrupted" which was delivered in Washington, D.C. on July 27, 1985.
  2. My trip to Nicaragua was designed and sponsored by an ecumenical group called G.A.T.E. (Global Awareness Through Experience) which is based in Mt. St. Joseph, Ohio.
  3. Margaret Randall, Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution, trans. Mariana Valverde (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1983), p. 24.
  4. Ibid., p. 27.
  5. This brief historical summary is based primarily on lectures I heard in preparation for this trip by Edgar Jimanez, a professor at the Jesuit University in Mexico and George Pixley, a Baptist minister who teaches Old Testament at the seminary in Mexico City and grew up in Nicaragua.
  6. Richard Shaull and Nancy Johns, Responding to the Cry of the Poor: Nicaragua and the U.S.A. (Pennsylvania: Omega Press, 1984). The date here indicates first printing; copyright is pending.
  7. This prayer is a part of the Nicaraguan Campesino Mass, a folk Mass written by Mejia Godoy.