June 22, 2011
Our seven female college students from Illinois perched in plastic lawn chairs under an old awning in a freshly painted bright green courtyard, interspersed with just about as many members of Tejalpa’s Base Christian Community (BCC). The text for the regular weekly meeting was Daniel 13, the story of Susanna.
Earlier in the day, we had been served an amazing comida, the mid day meal, at the home of the woman who founded the liberation theology community here on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, Mexico, many years earlier. She told us stories from her life: How she demanded an education as a young mother, how she came to consciousness as a feminist activist while trying to extricate herself from a bad marriage, and how it was that she had gone on from this place to advocate for poor women in Nicaragua and to represent her community at a meeting for peace in the former Yugoslavia. She served us mezcal that had been made by her partner and sold us jewelry and scarves that had made by members of her family. It was just another day of a BreakAway studying Gender and Social Change in Mexico that my colleague and I were leading.
Carlos Mesters describes three key elements that shape a BCC meeting: the community (con-text), the reality (pre-text), and the Bible (text). Additionally, BCC’s typically conclude with planning for action based on the day’s reflections. In Tejalpa, after a brief opening activity designed to create community, we listened as participants discussed what they saw going on in the community around them. One woman talked at length about the increase of violence in Mexico, even here in their local community. She spoke of the way that society was actually decomposing around them. Another spoke of regional and national politics with a strikingly informed passion. Still another mentioned the march for peace that was going from Cuernavaca all the way to Ciudad Juarez, one of the flashpoints for the most dramatic violence in Mexico at the moment.
The image of social decomposition stayed with me. Here we sat in our plastic chairs, on the cool tile floor, with walls stretching to protect us, and society was decomposing all around. Everyone with whom my small-town students spoke to about this trip before we left was alarmed that we were going to Mexico. Comments like “It’s so dangerous!” and “They kidnap people there, you know!” or “Isn’t that where they hang bodies from bridges?” had become commonplace conversation whenever talking with family and friends.
And now here we were in a calm courtyard on a warm and breezy Tuesday afternoon. Social decomposition doesn’t make the international news, but it was a far more powerful a reality than any gang violence. What would our students think of this? Did they see what these people saw? Would they remember this when they got back home to their comfortable “first world” privileges?
After seeing and naming our collective reality, we moved on to hearing the text. Read first in Spanish, and then in English, we engaged the full story of Susanna. A woman stalked by predator men in power, falsely accused and not believed by anyone, she nevertheless continued to speak out in defense of herself. One point of the text is that the only one who heard her was God. And, the one who was able to engineer her acquittal was our hero, Daniel.
The text not only spoke to the reality that the women and men in Tejalpa saw, it became for me a model to help our young white Midwestern college women understand their work after this two week trip was over. My feminist sensibility was initially irritated by the fact that in the text, no one paid attention to the woman. It had to be a man who saved her. Typical.
But wait. Who are we Midwesterners in this story when we sit in Tejalpa? We are not Susanna. We are Daniel. Not the facile “Daniel as hero,” but Daniel as the one to whom society afforded privileges that he had not necessarily earned. Daniel as the one who used his intellect to ask the right questions and elicit the truth from the corrupt men in power. Daniel as the one who listened. Listened to God. Listened to Susanna.
As we closed the BCC meeting, each of us was asked to offer a word that might contribute to our collective prayer. My word was Listen. Now that I am back safely ensconced in my air conditioned Midwestern home, it is time to move to the important action component of the BCC model, I offer a new word. Speak.
Because we saw how widespread poverty is doing far greater damage to the people of Mexico than the drug cartels, we listened to the members of the BCC talk about social decomposition. We listened to the seamstress who told us how hard it is to get a visa to come to the U.S., and how her mother urged her not to migrate as she herself had. We listened to the economist who showed us how NAFTA has done nothing good for Mexico and brought great harm to the labor class in the United States. We listened to the NGO director when she explained how they are doing sustainable development work in a radically impoverished indigenous village. We listened to the Nahua shaman lament the loss of his people’s traditions and how he worked to reintroduce them to their spiritual heritage.
Now we are called to speak and to act. Speak about how the U.S.-Mexico relationship resembles that of an abuser and his dangerously dependent victim. Speak about our ignorance and complicity. Speak about the social impact of economic policies, and how, as the economist described it, “when the U.S. sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia.” Speak about the dehumanization inherent in calling anyone an “alien.” Ask questions, pay attention to politics, look for any hidden agendas behind decisions made by the corporate class.
As I read our students’ final reflection papers after returning from the experience, I see the kinds of actions some feel called to take: One seeing poverty in her own backyard and donating goods to the shelter in that community, another wanting to spearhead fundraising to help the NGO supply stoves to the impoverished indigenous village, still another trying to simply speak out when friends and family make misinformed comment on international economic policy.
It also seems to me that progressive Christians in the U.S. would do well to learn and practice the type of engagement with sacred texts that Base Christian Communities have been modeling for decades: Establish community. Look at reality. Engage the text. Take action. This would contribute much to dethroning the stranglehold that the conservative right has on religious political discourse.
If we do not, then there will be no one to work for justice on behalf of those to whom no one else listens.
Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religion and chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she spends most of her time working with undergraduate students who are learning to find their place in the global community. Her most recent book is Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave. You can follow her on twitter @feminismxianity.
The experience described here took place in May 2011 as part of an Illinois College travel seminar hosted by Augsburg College's Center for Global Education.
 Carlos Mesters, “The Use of the Bible in Christian Communities of the Common People” (1981), in Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Edited by Alfred T. Hennelly. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990. 14-28.