Ecuador, Part I

I am back from my first excursion into South America, a short trip to Ecuador. Here are some highlights.

The trip was organized through Memorial Church at Harvard but there were students from four universities among our number. It was explicitly organized as an educational seminar centred on the themes of mission, sustainability, and globalization. And it was short, only six days in country. Initially, this had made me wary of going – all that money for a plane ticket for just six days? how do you build relationships in that little time? – but I overcame that wariness and am glad I did. We were hosted in Ecuador by Chris Morck, an Episcopal missionary who splits his time between the Diocese of Central Ecuador and the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI, by the Spanish and Portuguese acronym).

A friend at Yale told me last semester that I struck her as the kind of person who is more comfortable on a garbage dump in South Africa than a place like Yale Divinity School. Driving through Quito on the first night in Ecuador, I was surprised at how at ease I felt – the traffic was nutty and there was a guy breathing fire at one intersection – but it all felt very familiar and comforting.

On our first full day, we visited a local Episcopal church and said morning prayer with the usual congregation of senior citizens. It was a proud-to-be-Episcopalian moment. There were thirty or so seniors who show up for morning prayer and breakfast afterwards. The church pays for the breakfast itself even though it’s in a poor neighbourhood. The church wasn’t much – just a converted house – but they still get 100+ people on Sundays and run a pre-school nearby.

From right to left: Luis, a postulant for ordination; Father Raoul, a priest in the diocese; and Chris Morck, Episcopal missionary in the church pictured below

Fellow Berkeley-ite Steve and I with Quito in the background.

In the afternoon, we strolled through Quito’s old, colonial section. It was very interesting, all the big churches the first missionaries had thought it necessary to build and the close proximity of the presidential palace to the archbishop’s residence.
Steep streets in the Old Town.
The major basilica, the name of which eludes me at the moment.
A church built by the Franciscans.
I speak about 12 words of Spanish but I could understand this! Sadly, all the books were in Spanish.

Our next two days were spent at CLAI, meeting with various CLAI (and non-CLAI) people about a wide variety of topics – indigenous cosmology and theology, ecological perspectives from Latin America, ecumenism, and a bunch else. I have a lot of notes.

For me, this was really the first time in which I’d heard an educated, middle-class perspective from the developing world. In South Africa, the people I worked with were poor and uneducated and didn’t often have the resources to intentionally reflect on their situation and share that with me in a way I could understand. But the people at CLAI are thinking about this all the time and are adept at PowerPoint presentations and making their views comprehensible to people like me from the north. In fact, one of our presenters had just returned from the Copenhagen climate change conference.

What struck me the most was how our presenters framed issues. Language use has always interested me – for instance, why is it that when a tax is called the “death tax” there is more support to repeal it then when it is called an “inheritance tax”? – and our presenters used language in ways that was unfamiliar to me.

For instance, Frederick Canelos, an economist for CLAI who has also worked for the government, framed the issue that I previously knew as “debt relief” as “illegitimate and illegal debt.” The idea is that the money the north loaned to the south was illegitimate, because it was loaned to dictatorial regimes and didn’t benefit the people, and illegal because some of the projects the loans supported weren’t lawful. (There are arguments to back up these statements but I won’t rehearse them here.) As such, these are not loans that are to be forgiven because they never should have been incurred in the first place. It is the north that should be asking for forgiveness from the south because of the way in which the money was given and the ways in which the loans have forced developing world governments to repay them multiple times over with high rates of interest.

Another presenter, Ivonne Yanez, from an NGO called Accion Ecologia, told us about “ecological debt.” This is the idea that the combined impact of global warming, resource exploitation, industrial agriculture, and so on has created an ecological debt that the north owes to the south. Ivonne was particularly pointed in her presentation, using the word “you” a lot, about how our lifestyle has contributed to the problem, but it was well-received. She articulated the “Verona principle,” taken from Romeo and Juliet, that the offender needs to atone for the wrong-doing and then leave the city altogether, as Romeo did. In this case, that means that big oil companies in the Amazon have to atone for the wrong they’ve done and then get out and never come back. (It’s possible she also meant the Verona principle to apply to us but that wasn’t clear.)

Yvonne, the environmental activist, with her bike.

We heard a lot about “food sovereignty,” which is the idea that a country should be able to produce all the food it needs itself. This is distinct from the idea of food security, which is the idea that a country needs to be able to access all the food its people need. In many respects, the food sovereignty movement is like the “locavore” movement in the United States. Its leaders, some of whom we met at a very impressive CSA-like organization, are teaching and encouraging people to grow and buy local, Ecuadorian food and take themselves out of the agribusiness food chain. I didn’t get a good answer to the question of how really poor people, like those I worked with in Itipini, could credibly take part in the food sovereignty movement.

We heard an excellent presentation about the indigenous Andean worldview, from Julian Guaman, a Quechua theologian. He talked about the idea of harmony and non-linear thinking and how these ideas challenges the western way of thinking that holds true even in Ecuador. He was critical of liberation theology as a western way of thinking, which was surprising to me as I had always associated it with Latin America. But as I learned and re-learned on this trip there are divisions in the region between indigenous Andeans and the mestizos who have most of the power. He showed us how on the Quechua calendar there are 500-year periods of rise and fall. This is a period of decline but the eras shift in 2012. Look out!

(Liberation theology, we heard time and again, is definitively not dead. It may be dead – or in disfavour – among the Roman Catholic hierarchy but it is still the animating principle at CLAI and among many other people we met with.)

Ecuador has a large population of Colombian refugees and we heard about the discrimination they face. They are stereotyped as narco-traffickers or paramilitary types, even though they are usually just refugees from the long civil war. It is easy for us in the United States to see South America as one giant, undifferentiated place. That’s obviously not the case and hearing about the divisions that exist within and between countries was important for me. One of the women who taught about this was a Mennonite missionary from Colombia to Ecuador. The example of south-to-south mission was relatively new to me.

Our group was a wide mixture of people but one theme that was common in many of them was a general suspicion or distrust of mission based on what I would consider out-dated (but still dominant) ideas about mission and missionaries. One person said, “Wouldn’t it be great if missionaries could become agents of dialogue?” I shot back, perhaps a bit too brusquely, “What do you mean – ‘become’?”

I asked several presenters about how people from the north could best support people in their positions. Time and again, the answer I heard was some variation of “listen to the people you want to work with” or “learn about what you are doing” or “come alongside us.” All of it was very much supportive of the thinking about incarnational mission I had been doing in South Africa.

But the idea that stayed with me the most was something we heard in our first presentation from Nilton Geise, the general secretary of CLAI. He concluded by saying, “Latin Americans don’t usually do what I did today, which is speak. Latin Americans generally just listen to Americans. Dialogue works when both are speaking.” That struck me as so true and reminded me of all the times I had gotten myself in trouble in South Africa by failing to actually listen to the people I was working with. I was left wondering how we can create more situations in which people like Nilton, our other presenters, and those we didn’t hear from, could share their message more broadly.

Nilton, secretary general of CLAI.

On the second half of the trip we visited the rural area around Riobamba, higher in the Andes and about three hours south of Quito. I’ll say more about the learning aspects of what we did there in another post but let me end with a few pictures of Chimborazo, one of the highest peaks in the Andes. (Because of the bulge at the equator, the peak of Chimborazo is closer to the sun than the peak of Everest.) We drove to about 15,500 feet and then were able to hike up to 17,000 feet. It was intense! The altitude really does a number on you at that elevation and going uphill is a matter of saying to yourself, “one foot, other foot, one foot, other foot…” and on up. Going down is a lot easier than going up, a reminder of how much gravity weighs us down.


Going up Chimborazo with the mist burning off

That was Sunday morning. I left Sunday night, was back in New Haven on Monday morning, and in class at 1:30 that afternoon. Seventeen thousand feet to sea level – outdoors, above the tree line, to classroom environment. Can you say whiplash?
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