Winter 2000
Volume 4 Number 3

Powerful Thieves

by Michael Mann

“Somos ladrones, hermano Miguel.” He dragged the stolen electrical wire into the room and started stringing it across the ceiling. Marcos has a checkered past. He once told that he was a lieutenant in the Revolution of 1979, at age 13. After the war he exchanged his rebel gear for an electrician’s job. Ten years after the war, he became a Christian and started pastoring in a Pentecostal church. 

I visited Marcos and his family last summer. He has four kids now and just moved to a new parish. The youngest is five, but I constantly think he’s more of a man than I’ll ever be. The eldest daughter is ten and has little time to play the rock game played with smooth stones that the girls like so much. It takes a whole family to do ministry in Nicaragua.This is the home of Marcus, the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Nicaraqua.

“We’re thieves, Brother Michael,” he had said as he grabbed the wire and strung it across the house to put in a new light bulb (somehow managing to work the wire in “live”). The juice was flowing - the wire sparked and popped. I was scared. “¡Cuidado!” (Careful!), I half-screamed, but he laughed at me. He was an expert. 

The new light might help the small quarters they live in. The house is made of dark, wooden planks. It has two rooms: a large room with a plastic, rainbow-colored hammock strung through the middle of it and a sleeping room with a small, hard bed. The rooms are painfully cramped for the family of six, especially since there is a partition in the large room to give some privacy while they dress (there is so little privacy in small villages). The kitchen is a pot outside, burning sticks to cook with. Here, Marcos’s wife cooks the handfuls of rice and beans they get from the parishioners. He makes thirty dollars a month, so they live from the gifts. There is a path that leads to the outhouse, and a dirt floor that they keep immaculately clean.

“Bueno, vamos a visitar la gente” (OK, let’s go visit the congregation), Marcos said after the light was in place. His energy never ceases to amaze me. He never rests. Church services are every night at 6:00 p.m., so we go visit folks before that. Marcos is electric in the pulpit, embodying the story as if it were a present-day cosmic struggle. His energy is good for the congregation, especially during this time of reconstruction. We visit a few folks and he plays guitar, sings, prays, and reads Scripture verses while I sip Pepsi. 

While he sings, I reflect on something he and I discussed the night before — a discussion about his sermon that night on Mark 5, the story of the Gerasene man and the legion. Somehow, our talk turned to the Revolution of 1979. I asked him whether he would fight again if there were another one. That sparked some interest. He said he can’t because he is a Christian (and what’s more, a pastor) and Christians don’t fight politically but spiritually. But wasn’t Jesus political? I asked. After all, the demon in Mark 5 had a name - a militarily/politically important one, too — Legion. I faced him and said that sometimes the demons have names — like Alemán (the current president of Nicaragua). 

The houses we visit are poor. They are mostly white potato-sack and black plastic garbage-bag shelters with tin roofs. Few have outhouses. The families in the village get their water from the local river (the one that washed the houses away). Now, there is a USAID project to give them clean water. The French government, the Red Cross, and some U.S. agencies try to rebuild the homes (but richer areas get houses first). This is post-Hurricane Mitch Nicaragua.

North American development in the northern part of Nicaragua is fairly new. I remember one volunteer, Ben Linder, in particular. Ben was about my age when he came to this region in the 1980s to help install electricity in the rural villages and to promote peace. He was killed by the Contra war that the United States funded. Some think that Contra troops trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas killed him. Ben had a crazy way of being with people, of living with them and laughing with them. I remember seeing a picture of him on a unicycle, juggling, with a sign around his neck that read “Study War No More.” His grave is in the city near Marcos’s village. Electricity is, after all, a dangerous thing.

I remember hearing from Ben’s mother last month. She told us that his vision of a hydroelectric dam to give power to the people is now coming true. 

Twelve of us from PTS drove to the military base at Fort Benning in Georgia in November to protest the School of the Americas. Using U.S. tax money, the school trains folks to do what was done to Ben. This is the ninth time this protest has taken place, to give voice to the suffering in Latin America. Electricity was in the air. Nicaragua has been hard hit by the school — the drain of money needed to fight the war is partly to blame for the poor response to Mitch. To protest, we trespassed onto base property. We were breaking the law, like thieves. 

“We’re thieves, Brother Michael.” And I wonder how true his statement is. I wonder how much I steal from people every day, even when I don’t realize it. The benefits I enjoy come at the price of trespassing on someone else’s land. Poor folks make my food and my clothes. But if we have courage, we can be a conduit for change — a spark that gives power to people. Sometimes, that involves breaking the law. Christ made a habit of doing that, bringing a new order into the world for the poor. And he was killed between two thieves. Killed for living too close to the poor, for turning the tables on those in power. Marcos’s words remind me that we are thieves. God, charge us all to have the courage to stand up for the poor.

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