Nicaraguan Nativity


My oldest son Pablo was born in Managua, during the contra war. We had moved to Nicaragua in December 1982, when I was five months pregnant, because my ex-husband, a Salvadoran Episcopal priest, had a job with the church there. When we arrived, one of the first things I did was to find a midwife who would come to the house — I wanted a home birth — but one day in my seventh month she knocked at the door and said she couldn’t do the delivery because the new Sandinista Healthy Ministry had outlawed home births in the hope of reducing the country’s high infant mortality rates.

It was a challenge to find a new ob-gyn at that late date, especially a female doc, which was my preference. I finally found a woman I liked a lot, who agreed to deliver me at home, but when my water broke one afternoon, and I called and told her my labor had started, she said she couldn’t come because her daughter was sick. Appalled, I asked her what I was supposed to do, and she told me to go to the public hospital, where they would induce me and there were two women to a bed. So much for my plans for a home birth! What to do? I knew I didn’t want to be induced, and that afternoon my solidarity with Nicaraguan women didn’t extend to being in the public hospital with two women to a bed! Night was coming, with a city wide curfew, and I was in labor with my first child.

My husband and the church driver, who was a contra sympathiser — which meant he was very hostile to us, as fellow travellers with the liberation theology movement and the revolutionary government — brought the old and unreliable car around and decided to try some of the local hospitals. Nicaragua was under a US blockade, so we couldn’t get car parts, or medicines, or any other essential items, so if the car broke down, we were stranded. I remember going to the pharmacy and asking for aspirin once, because the baby had a fever, and being told ‘no hay’ — the commonest words in Nicaragua then — ‘there aren’t any.’

I don’t remember much of that night, except driving around for what seemed like hours, and stopping every so often to find out if a hospital would admit me, only to be told it wouldn’t. One of the few blessings of being in labor (in the back seat of a car) is that all you can focus on is breathing through the waves of pain. I figured the men in the front seat would take care of the rest. That was Joseph’s job too! I had no idea how to pray, being quite the heathen…I just focused on my breathing.

Although married to a priest, and committed to the social gospel and the preferential option for the poor, the Church itself, and what I called the ‘hocus pocus’ left me cold. But the people, the priests, sisters, and lay catechists we met and worked with in Central America, inspired me beyond anything or anyone I had ever met before. They gave up their lives, day in and day out, for their people, who lived on next to nothing, toe to toe with violent death at the hands of the military and paramilitary forces, largely funded and trained by the US. It was an extraordinary and humbling privilege to know them. That was how I understood faith then, not as organised religion. I worked with the women at the Salvadoran refugee camps, raising funds through my friends in the US for sewing machines so they could support themselves with small businesses.

Salvadoran refugee women

Photo: Donna De Cesare from “El Salvador’s Children of War” Mother Jones

I vaguely remember being told that the first hospital we pulled up at that night had no free beds, and the second had no available doctor. The third, the Baptist Hospital — to which I will always be grateful — had a free bed, but wasn’t sure if any of their doctors on call would come in to deliver me. The nurse at the front desk seriously doubted anyone would, but said she would call through her list to find out.

Apparently few Nicaraguan doctors would risk delivering an American woman at that time. The US was waging what was euphemistically called “low intensity warfare” against the Sandinista government in the early 1980’s, arming and training the ‘contra rebels,’ guerrillas who would attack villages and schools in the countryside, executing and massacring civilians. My husband used to go and do funeral services in those villages.

Managua was on war footing for a US invasion, and all civilians, including me, who had never handled a gun before! had to do guard duty, since I worked in the Council of State as a translator.  The US, as Nicaraguans would dryly remind me at every possible opportunity, was ‘el enemigo de l’humanidad‘ — the enemy of humanity. Their national anthem said it was so, and American advisors were training the soldiers who were killing them.  And as the US found out during the Iran-contra hearings, their salaries were paid by CIA run narco-trafficking.

Bowling For Columbine

I was put in a small dark room by myself while the nurse called around. Luckily, I had read a lot about birth and labor during the previous nine months, mainly the classic Spiritual Midwifery, so I knew something about how to breathe through the contractions and keep my mouth loose. Although the pain was like nothing I had ever experienced before, I knew to expect it, and was grateful for the ever-shortening lull between contractions, which allowed me to prepare for the next more intense wave. Eventually someone appeared to tell me that I could stay at the hospital, since the nurse had located a doctor who would be in soon to deliver me. Luckily! The pains were coming faster, which I knew from my reading meant that the birth was imminent.

Soon after that— I had lost track of time! — a nurse came to check how far I was dilated and since I was ready, wheeled me into the theatre for the delivery, which was duly accomplished on a steel table, under lights, with an episiotomy, and gloved masked attendants. Not the home birth I had planned or hoped for, but I was safe, clean and sheltered, and my new baby was healthy.

In retrospect, thirty some years later, that Nicaraguan nativity was a harrowing ordeal, but nothing like that being endured by so many women refugees at the moment, or throughout history. Yes, we drove around the dark, deserted, war and earthquake devastated streets of Managua under curfew, looking for a hospital where I could give birth. Yes we were turned away twice, and I was left alone for the labor, but I was safe and sheltered, as Mary was, even in the outbuilding in Bethlehem.

And the extraordinary reward, the gift of my son, overshadowed the dim memory of what could have been a nightmare. I had the miracle of a newborn. I remember when they handed him to me that first time, marvelling at each tiny, delicate fingernail, being in love in a way I had never been before. And I remember the gift of a cup of coffee — hot sweet milky Nicaraguan coffee — that the Magi nurse brought me the next day at dawn, when coffee had never tasted so good, and all of a sudden I was a mother.

Praying the second decade of the rosary yesterday, journeying from Nazareth with Joseph and a very pregnant Mary to Bethlehem through Samaria for the imperial census, transported me into the company of the tens of thousands of families fleeing ISIL in Syria and Iraq.  Heavily pregnant women who, like Mary, are finding shelter, if any, only in the humblest places, giving birth in the cold, unsanitary conditions, on the side of the road, in crowded tents, or abandoned buildings.  It also brought back the almost buried memory of that Nicaraguan nativity almost 32 years ago.  The second Joyful Mystery.

Drug Policy, Faith and Vulnerability: Salt and Light

A meditation on drug policy and the Word: security, vulnerability, and light. 

Katherine Irene Pettus, PhD 

If you remove from your midst / oppression… then light shall rise for you in the darkness, / and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

 Isaiah 58:7-10

I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

I. Corinthians 2:1-5

Much of the talk about “drug policy” in local, national, and international circles I move in focuses on the concept of “security” and indeed, much of drug policy is now “securitized” – meaning that politicians connect the threat of “drugs” with threats to national security, combating it with increased law enforcement funding and intelligence services.  The rationale is that drugs not only threaten individual and public health, but that trafficking and money laundering destabilize good governance, sustainable development, human rights, etc.

There is no doubt that many individuals, families, and communities experience the very negative and often tragic effects of illegal drug use and trafficking. My family is only one of the millions suffering the effects of prohibition and mass incarceration.  The question, though, is whether it is “drugs” themselves – the plants and pharmaceutical preparations that cause narcotic effects, that are the problem, or the fact that they are illegal and therefore unregulated. By definition, their illegality puts the drug economy in the hands of criminals and international criminal networks. People who use drugs, whether for pleasure, because they are “dependent,” or are “addicted” must then also participate in criminal networks, often at the cost of their health and their lives.

What on earth, or in heaven’s name, you might be wondering, might this have to do with faith, or with religion, or even today’s readings?  A lot.  The oppression Isaiah names, which must be removed, is the illegality and stigma that accompanies drug use.  That oppression brands people who use drugs as outsiders, as separate, or unholy, and is reminiscent of the illegality, ostracism, and repulsion that branded the lepers and “demoniacs” Jesus healed from his compassion.  Purity laws, whether Talmudic, Christian, or secular (in the form of drug prohibition) by definition separate people considered ‘unclean’ from the body of Christ and the Kingdom.  Jesus very intentionally turned those laws upside down when he touched the ‘impure’: bleeding women and sex workers, paraplegics, schizophrenics, the dying, and even the dead.  It seems self evident that, as Isaiah said, and Jesus demonstrated, removing oppression from our midst brings light.

Paul’s disarming admission of weakness, which he (counter) intuitively understands as Power, combines two apparent opposites that generate the paradoxical resource of vulnerability. This universal, incredibly uncomfortable, aspect of the human condition, makes us shriek as infants, and use substances or activities (alcohol, coffee, tobacco, sex, shopping, or narcotics] as young people and adults. Paul’s letter puts us on notice that our search for the (individual or collective) security that temporarily offsets our vulnerability is futile. As one who oppressed the vulnerable himself – Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? –would have rung in his ears through his dying moments, Paul learned at a molecular level on the road to Damascus that the current of Power only flows through the fabric of utter defenselessness.

Jesus tells the disciples that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, a light that must not be hidden. Apparently speaking in riddles, he asks what salt can be seasoned with once it loses its taste.  His/our vulnerability is our saltiness: even our tears are salty, and the moment we try to armor ourselves against the “weakness, fear, and much trembling” Paul describes, by scapegoating and sacrificing others, we lose our savor and dim our inherent and collective radiance.   Societies that support rather than punish vulnerable people who use drugs are more resilient and have better public heeclipsealth outcomes than those that try to stamp them out in the futile effort to create a “drug free society”.

The apparent power of the state (us) to criminalize drug use only empowers traffickers, police, and prison guards. Admitting and sharing our individual and collective defenselessness in the face of our very human desire to alter our consciousness, paradoxically returns to us the power to remove oppression, casting a very different light on the “drug problem” and allowing us to begin resolving it together, in the parliament of the Kingdom that admits of no outsiders.

Katherine Pettus, PhD is an independent scholar and consultant who represents the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care as an NGO at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.  She is also a convert to the Roman Catholic faith and a member of the English community of Sacred Heart church in Budapest.