Liberation theology en vivo: The foundation upon which a long-term partnership was built

March 19, 2018

By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Director of globalsl and a Fellow for Ethical Global Learning at the Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship

For the last 16 years, I have worked regularly in rural Nicaragua. When I wrote my dissertation about a global service-learning (GSL) partnership between this community – Waslala, Nicaragua – and Villanova University I did not ground my research or writing in liberation theology. As I spent more time at GSL conferences and in the existing scholarship, I continually found myself trying to describe to friends and colleagues what was so special about this GSL partnership and this community. Liberation theology had not surfaced in my research findings; however, as I described what was so special, ideas central to liberation theology emerged.  Reflecting on this seems particularly relevant as we approach GSL 5: Dignity and Justice in Global Service Learning, which will be held at Notre Dame from April 15 – 17.

Gustavo Gutierrez, known as the father of liberation theology, published A Theology of Liberation in 1971. A brief summary of Gutierrez’ three dimensions of liberation include:

First, it involved political and social liberation, the elimination of the immediate causes of poverty and injustice. Second, liberation involves the emancipation of the poor, the marginalized, the downtrodden and the oppressed from all “those things that limit their capacity to develop themselves freely and in dignity.” Third, liberation theology involves liberation from selfishness and sin, a re-establishment of a relationship with God and with other people.





Caption: Paintings on the walls inside the priest house clearly demonstrate alignment with liberation theology (photos taken in 2004).

I now see clearly how ideas of liberation theology shaped so much of what made this GSL partnership, La Parroquia Inmaculada (The Immaculate Parish), and the community of Waslala, Nicaragua so special. I share this to encourage others to uncover the foundation that may be underlying GSL partnerships. Foundational elements that we take for granted might be exactly what makes partnerships so special. What are we not seeing clearly in each of our partnerships?

Love for People; Love for Theology in Action in Waslala

A friend of mine in Waslala recently asked me how Water for Waslala (WfW) first got involved building water systems here. I told her the story of the Villanova students who first came here nearly a decade ago, who returned not only impacted by the injustices they witnessed here, but also having fallen in love with Waslala and the Waslalan people. My friend smiled and added, “and in love with Padre Nelson, I imagine”

(Water for Waslala blog post excerpt, Iain Hunt, 2012)

In 2002, graduation at Villanova passed by and a week later I boarded the plane from Newark, New Jersey to Managua, Nicaragua. I was 21 years old, excited to travel with friends, see a new place, and use my Spanish. I think my friend had mentioned something about painting a school and told us that the padres (“the Brazilian priests”) were amazing! At 21, that is about all the information you think you need, so off I went. We landed in Managua and piled into a vehicle that fell somewhere on the spectrum between small bus and a beat up minivan to begin the eight+ hour drive over unpaved roads to Waslala. Once in Waslala, we met Padre Cleto and Padre Nelson, the two Brazilian priests who have been described by Villanova faculty and trip advisors as “liberation theology in vivo” and “the closest person I’ve ever met to a saint.” One time, a male engineering professor from Villanova with tears in his eyes asked me to translate his sentiment about feeling like he had met a saint in Padre Nelson. When I did, Padre Nelson did not miss a beat before responding as he lifted the beer he was holding in the air and chuckled, “Santo con cerveza!” (“Saint with a beer!”).

During that two-week trip, there are a few memories that are still crisp in my mind 16 years later – first, a meeting with several community members in one of the rural villages and, second, sobbing uncontrollably as I headed to the airport at the end of only a two-week trip. The first marked the true beginning of Water for Waslala (WfW) and the second was evidence that it only took me two weeks to fall in love with the people and community who embody and apply a theology of liberation in Waslala.

La Parroquia Inmaculada in Waslala, Nicaragua

Padre Nelson described “the wealth of La Parroquia [as] the solidarity” – born of working with groups of Italians, Germans, North Americans, and others who “have gotten to know our reality and support in order to help this community recover so one day it can walk on its own feet”. During my dissertation research, I asked community organization representatives about the history of the partnership between Villanova University and La Parroquia and specifically about the work of La Parroquia with so many foreigners. Responses about La Parroquia’s many foreign relationships focused on liberation theology, the “open doors” of La Parroquia, and the nature of interactions with visitors. Padre Nelson described La Parroquia’s approach to their work based in liberation theology,

I cannot say mass for a town that is hungry. We cannot say mass to the sick and force ourselves to say it is the will of God. I think that the Church is pushed to go find where it is most needed. And the Church in Latin America has made an option for the poor and the children. And so, here we are not afraid of working with the poor. And the day that we say mass for money or obligation I think we are no longer church.

Caption: Mural painted by Waslalan artist on the wall of the La Parroquia, photo taken in 2005; Translation: Hunger, unemployment, assassinations, violation, illiteracy, prostitution, sickness, exploitation, drugs

Based in liberation theology, La Parroquia created a number of ministries employing locals to serve the people of Waslala not only physically, but also spiritually, economically, and socially. These ministries included: health, education, production, promotion of the woman, street children, and, more recently, water (with the start of Water for Waslala). In reference to the foundation of liberation theology shaping the work of La Parroquia, one community organization representative attributed the involvement of foreigners to their search for this type of church. They commented,

So the Church on the global level is moving towards a path focused on spirituality and forgetting a bit the social side. So, when people from other countries discover and get to know the work that La Parroquia was doing in different areas – health, education, production, they feel committed to this different model of the Church.

Another community organization representative attributed the relationships with so many foreigners to the “open doors” of La Parroquia. This community organization representative commented,

A characteristic of La Parroquia is to be open to anyone who wants the experience. All the work they have done has started from open doors. So it is not so much that they wanted foreigners, but that they started with open arms and welcomed anyone who arrived, from outside or inside.

As this representative continued, they described the interactions with visitors as another factor. They described the experience that foreigners had once they arrived,

I think the relationship was really good, very affectionate. They always stayed at La Parroquia in the priests’ house where there was very much an atmosphere of community or sharing of the table.

This community organization representative did not think La Parroquia sought out relationships with foreigners as much as they were open to everyone and then foreigners found in La Parroquia something they desired – a place where theology is made real through material and spiritual practice, a place of openness and shared liberation, a place where partnership means solidarity. For many years I have felt that I fell in love with La Parroquia (with Padre Nelson) and with Waslala. As we approach the upcoming Summit at Notre Dame, I wonder if the deep connections I developed in Waslala actually grew in part from a prophetic application of liberation theology.

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