ABOUT LATIN AMERICA
by Benjamin Reese
Based on an interview with Gregg D. Garner
How Did You Begin Working in Latin America?
We have a long history in Latin America. Our founder, Gregg Garner, grew up in California, a quick trip from the border, and this proximity afforded an illuminating view of the issues facing the people of Mexico.
"Immigrants were crossing the border for a better life, but the life they found in California was not the life they had been promised. It was a life of hostility and bare means."
When Gregg took his first trip to Mexico, he witnessed the effect that the American promise had on the localities of Mexico. People put their stock in heading north or benefiting from it in some way. Children were being educated, not to improve their own communities, not to become farmers or educators, but to be business liaisons or technicians, all in the hope that they might exit their world and find a better life. They were being prepped for a hope that wouldn’t pan out. And if they did succeed (and it only takes a few successes to keep an impoverishing hope alive), it would be a prosperity they alone could share in, as the communities they left would be left the same and robbed of their contribution.
We learned that the people of Mexico were not just poor; they had been left without any viable option of escape. The Bible, on the other hand, held the promise of this other hope, a salvation not dependent on exit-tickets or governmental saviors. It is this belief and hope that has driven our work in Latin America.
But, you didn't remain in Mexico. How did you begin your work in Guatemala and even now El Salvador?
"From Mexico, we travelled down to Guatemala, the country that borders Mexico on the south. We came into contact with two missionaries, Al and Gail Anderson. They were missionaries who walked the walk, lived among the people, and sought to make relationships with the people they lived amongst. We learned a lot from our experiences with them."
Like Mexico, Guatemala afforded formative experiences, which continue to shape who we are and what we do. Before settling, however, we would move one more country south.
"The idea to move to El Salvador came from several directions. There were the conversations and experiences we had with the large Salvadoran population in Tennessee. At the same time, we were introduced to the works and ideas of a group of theologians that had been working out of El Salvador, some of whom had been martyred for their deeply held convictions about justice and God’s kingdom. And along with these, a young woman joined our organization. Lavinia Fernandez had moved from El Salvador when she was young, and her presence in our organization presented us with the clear need to reconnect her with the historic plight of her people. It was another sign along the way, as we sought God’s direction for our work in Latin America."
With El Salvador now as your hub, what are you doing in the region?
We have been working in El Salvador now since the winter of 2009. Our work there has been fruitful, and it has impressed us with the deep belief that God has led us and will continue to lead our work in El Salvador.
We have chosen a hub outside of San Salvador, which provides an ideal environment for transitioning workers into a 3rd world environment, but also as a place to model the practices we are teaching others.
At the moment, our primary concern has been with neighbor relations. We have been ensuring that our purpose in El Salvador is being clearly communicated. We have also begun developing land, building houses, and introducing people to innovations that can be implemented by others in the community. We also work with the public school in the neighborhood.
And so we move forward, remembering the lessons we have learned in Mexico and Guatemala, remaining attentive to the newness that El Salvador offers. Our hope is growing. It’s a hope you won’t find on any billboard, and it’s better – it is the hope that can only come from God.
"From the beginning, we have desired to offer a way for people to flourish by cooperatively working to achieve the hope for a better life."
Here are some of the ways we are achieving this goal:
We are currently involved in what is typically called a “settlement scheme.” A settlement scheme is the multi-faceted process of preparing a piece of land to sustainably support a group of people. In 2011 we purchased a piece of land in a community 2 hours north of San Salvador. Since that time, we have been developing the land, readying it to sustain a group of full-time development workers, as well as improving the living situations of our neighbors.
Jesus tells people to avoid teachers that don’t model what they teach (Luke 6:39 - 41). The goal of our work is to help people flourish on their own land and in their own community; How could we do this without modeling the very lessons we want to teach? The end-goal of our settlement scheme goes beyond physical presence. We want to have a particular kind of presence, one that models the very solutions we want others to implement.
And we have developed our land with this goal in mind, choosing local materials, using available technologies, and using reproducible methods in our building. We have modeled sand-bag construction, compostable toilets, and grey-water drainage systems. These are all available and duplicable technologies. We have already seen the fruit of this method, as several of our neighbors have asked for information and help in implementing these solutions into their own homes.
Our hope is to model more than technologies and techniques. Jesus says that we will be known by the love that we have for one another. Ultimately, we want to model the ability of a group of people to work cooperatively, driven by love rather than profit. A development scheme has allowed us to do that thus far, and we will continue to work together, demonstrating our commitment to God, one another, and the community within which we serve.
Latin America has a rich religious background. Most people’s experience of religious education, however, has been more traditional than life-giving. We want to change this, by helping people experience God’s word in fresh and applicable ways.
We are doing this by first taking biblical education seriously in our own lives. Our team has worked to learn, internalize, and live out God’s word. Before working in Latin America with our organization, each agent receives years of biblical education at the Institute. Through this process, our team shares values, goals, and concepts. This allows us to work together, efficiently and faithfully, demonstrating to others the benefits of God’s education in real time.
We have been able to offer biblical education in a variety of ways--talks, community gatherings, and church services. We have also started to offer formal classes to people who want to participate with us. Teaching God’s word is central to what we do. “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” What this means is that life does not solely consist in satiating physical needs; True life is only achieved when communities understand and apply God’s word.