She strives to bring forth the best in people; to walk by the side of the downtrodden; to hear their inner voice telling him/her that “HE DOES COUNT.”
[Editor’s Note: Jeanne has traversed the globe from her original roots in the Twin Cities of Minnesota; then east to a college campus in Michigan; across the Atlantic to Liberia with an unanticipated zigzag into Senegal as Liberia was at the brink of war; into Guatemala with an adopted child in tow; and finally to El Salvador where she hopes to apply for Salvadoran citizenship. At times when asked why she has done this or that in her life, she responds in a contagious giggle, “I was young and stupid.” Her tone and demeanor change on a dime to a more serious and articulate side and soon you realize she makes very purposeful decisions to live by her compassionate beliefs in human rights and social justice each and every day. ]
Although it may appear that I’ve changed quite a bit since I was a child born in 1965 and grew up in an average suburban household in the Midwest, I remain the same empathetic person I’ve always been. That trait of identifying strongly with others’ feelings is sometimes difficult when you are young and tend to confuse your feelings with those of others.
Even during college my personality was introverted and self-conscious. I attended Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the 1980s.
During my junior or senior year of college, I had contact with a lot of politically engaged students. I didn’t ever feel like I had enough facts or details in the political arena, such as the U.S. involvement in other countries to become involved in their activities. The concerns were often based around issues in South Africa, Central America, and Chile. I began to process internally some of what I came to see as rhetoric and propaganda about capitalism and communism. I found myself trying to process and question possible solutions. I was asking myself, What is our collective responsibility to the suffering in the world? Why are people excluded from social, justice, and economic systems of the world? How can we extend our collective obligation to include and care for others? How do we change conditions and structures to avoid some people being exploited? I became bothered by the hypocrisy in the US of an automatic response that is not genuine or consistent, but rather a lame excuse for not addressing these issues. An example is when people blame the poor as “living off the system” instead of addressing the issues of poverty. There was a whole set of responses that was not good enough for me. These views didn’t seem up to par to the people giving them, including the wealthy people. Questioning issues of gender, war, violence, economics, and racial inequalities and were often dismissed by focusing on non-issues.
The college courses I majored in were English literature and German. My best professors, in the German, philosophy and even religion departments asked real questions like “How are you going to live your life and apply your Christian values? How are you going to apply what you learn and know academically to what you say you believe?” The compassionate pastor of the church I attended in Grand Rapids talked about social justice, also. These persons challenged me to formulate the thought processes that were already percolating internally.
My religious background in Minnesota was in a Swedish Covenant Church, which in socioeconomic terms was white, privileged, middle-class, conservative. Later in St. Paul I attended an Episcopal Church, which was more connected to the world at large. The liturgy spoke to me and provided a security in speaking that script which kept me in the Christian church; at the very least I could be saying what I believed. There was more of a social justice emphasis on living out your faith on a daily basis and on participating in faith rather than listening to a 45-minute homily on what you SHOULD do.
I began discovering my deepest values were socialist and leftist.
Soon after I graduated from college, I married a politically minded person very interested in Christianity and Central American politics. He had a plan to work for the Reformed Church in Central America. I planned to get my PhD in English literature but wasn’t on a particular timetable. He helped me define my political positions by adding facts on issues to empower me. He helped me overcome my self-esteem issues around political engagement. We were active in “house groups” in the Episcopal Church, which proved to be a solidifying experience on spirituality by allowing me to integrate different aspects of faith into my spirituality and by re-emphasizing that I didn’t need to align myself with any one religious group.
I began to apply my Christian values and social justice beliefs as my world took an unexpected turn. We applied for and were accepted into a volunteer position with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee in Liberia working with the Christian Health Association of Liberia. I ended up working as a classroom teacher but stayed connected to the issues of health and community development. It was a huge change for someone who did not like smells or heat and had never really visited a “third world” country.
I myself am an adopted child. My husband and I had decided to adopt a child and met a three- month-old girl soon after we arrived. When we found out they had trouble adopting her locally and were looking toward an American adoption, we asked, “How about us?” She came to live with us when she was six months old at the end of ’89. I called her our “unplanned adoption”.
We were living on the Lutheran compound in the same area as the bishop when we were hearing rumors from reliable sources about the country being on the brink of war. We went to the American Embassy asking for expedited paperwork for our adopted daughter to leave the country. The woman had a very dismissive attitude, saying these rumors of coup attempts come every week and we were over-reacting. The following week all non-essential staff, including the Peace Corps workers, were evacuated. My job was teaching a 2nd grade classroom, and the principal at my school insisted that I have my finals on her desk before I was to be on a flight the next morning. We got out on the last plane before war broke out, although the killings had already begun. We were sent to Senegal for two to three months waiting to see if we would be able to return. That was never possible. We were in immigration limbo. Eventually we were granted a special humanitarian parole status for our daughter to come to the U.S.
Basically I left the U.S. in 1989 and have never returned to live in the United States. Following Liberia/Senegal, we moved to the Peten Department in northern Guatemala for two years. I worked together with a small team of people from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) in coordination with the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala. Our job was in community development during their civil war. It got ugly at times with political problems filtering into the church. There were pastors kidnapping pastors. When we were accused of being subversives, there were months that we were unable to work at all. The complaints about our work seemed to be based on the thinking that a Christian group should be doing things like Bible study, NOT getting involved in the community issues as we were. The crux of our work was to be involved in health issues, such as building latrines; literacy issues; and micro-enterprise issues. These were seen as too political “of this world” issues which were brainwashing the people.
In 1992 shortly after the El Salvador Peace Accords were signed, we moved here to El Salvador. I shared a position with my husband with CRWRC working with local non-profits on community development. In this country there is often no clear division between secular and faith-based work because they frequently overlap; as a result, there are benefits in the work environment. I had a pivotal experience on my journey being connected with persons in my office space whose lives networked with persons whose way of life was following the liberation theology movement. El Salvador is a holy land of martyrs and their followers of faith are willing to die in the blood of what they believe. Everything I believed in came together for me in a powerful way here in this land. By this time, I was clear that I was politically a leftist, a socialist and that that only made sense in the context of my broader values of human worth and spirituality of life and liberation.
At the same time I was painfully aware of the imperialist attitude of the U.S. toward third world countries without regard to the countries’ own needs, economies, culture, or existing systems. One country trying to impose its values on another country simply does not work. Even more distressing is the U.S. involvement during the Salvadoran civil war was one of deceit and cover-up. My personal frustration lies in wondering how it is possible that intelligent people who have freedom to think, who are not threatened to be killed, who have the Bible, and who have a history of revolutionary values end up supporting so many contradictory things because they believe their government is NOT lying to them. Do they think they don’t need to know what is happening? Do they think it is a matter of national security? These people came from the same background I did. I have the greatest compassion for people who realize that everything they believed about the world is NOT true. That is scary. None of us wants to believe our government is in the wrong and most people don’t have a community of support when they discover that to be true. I have admiration for those persons who are willing to take the risk to discover that not everything that we’ve been taught is true.
Ingrained cultural differences make it difficult for some to explain and for others to accept the realities of life in another country, as shown by an incident that happened when my dad came to visit us in Guatemala. He had been a former U.S. Naval Reserve officer for years. When we visited a local marketplace, he observed the local police, who were very young and intimidating to the people, appearing to be on drugs. My dad was bothered by what he saw. Soon afterward we heard about a massacre of protesting civilians there. I think my dad realized in that concrete and horrific incident that what you read in the newspapers just isn’t always true. We had seen what was happening that day, and what was reported and how “regular” people dismissed it or talked about just didn’t coincide with what we saw.
That incident became a turning point to remind me that many times unless you live and experience at a personal level, there is no way to explain to someone else the emotion or sentiment around a given issue. There is a cultural disconnect in perceptions and expectations. I have resolved not to try to argue people into feeling or seeing what I see or feel. There are some things people won’t understand and arguing won’t help. It doesn’t mean I won’t talk about real issues and real experiences, I just don’t see the need to fight for my point of view.
Through this kind of trust/distrust experience, I have learned to be wary of information I receive and research it carefully. An example of a sociological term used in media is moral panic. This pertains to the situation when a group collectively worked up into a panic mode, disproportionate to the level of threat, usually fueled by media focus and political rhetoric around a real issue exaggerated beyond its real threat. In El Salvador, for example, there are definitely gangs, and gang violence. This country has some of the highest homicide rates in the world and if you read the newspapers you would think that gangs are responsible for all of the violence. This just isn’t the case, the police themselves say that only 25% of homicides can be attributed to gangs. So who is committing the other 75%? Why is society so willing to scapegoat? In my opinion, it’s because we don’t want to ask the more difficult questions.
I have worked in various positions here, and each was fulfilling while I did it. My best decisions in life have been consistent with my life values. That pertains to my jobs. I try to be mindful of where my values are in whatever job I’m doing, and if it doesn’t feel right, I move on. I make choices based on this as a life option rather than this as my career path. I may or may not be paid for it. I’m currently working in an area in which I believe I’m impacting lives and that is important to me. I have financial support as a “volunteer” to do this work with gang members, their families and prisoners, but I don’t have financial security. I do some freelancing as a translator on labor issues mostly.
From 1996-2007 I worked for Crispaz, Christians for Peace in El Salvador. [Editor: This is a faith-based organization dedicated to mutual accompaniment with churches of the poor and marginalized communities.] I started as a delegation leader, a role I enjoyed because it showed North Americans in a compact period of time what the Salvadoran experience was all about, affirmed what they thought was true, and allowed them to assess their commitments and limitations. I shifted in and out of various roles with Crispaz, including coordinating their volunteer program and ended up as the coordinator here in El Salvador during a really exciting time in the life of the organization. I still do some work with delegations, mostly I give talks on national reality, security and violence issues, human rights issues. I actually met my current husband, a union and labor organizer, as a result of hearing him speak to one of my delegations.
Since 1993 I was involved in the Mejicanos City youth work and a group called Generation 21. This is a heavily populated and extremely poor section on the outskirts of the capital. Since 1996 I’ve been volunteering in the prisons, concentrating on gangs. I’ve actually worked with some of the same gang members for ten years. I find it easier to work with gang members than with non-gang members in prisons. With an non-gang members, you need to begin from ground zero to develop that trust and build that rapport. Gangs, however, already have their structure built in; once they accept and trust you, you can accomplish something with them and their families.
My job in the prisons is working with a well-respected human rights organization which is also a kind of legal think tank for progressive public policy. [Editor: It is the same one that worked on the Romero case.] I work on human rights training with prisoners’ families, with gang members’ families, and with prisoners in both juvenile and adult centers. We provide training on human rights, accompany human rights committees, and organize family members and people in communities to denounce human rights violations. We have been involved in roundtables involving monitoring human rights making sure a lot is happening in what prisoners are naming as priorities of their needs in the framework of rights. If the state has deprived you of your liberty by putting you in prison, the state has an obligation to provide what is needed, as defined by international law, of minimum levels of health, education, living conditions, and of not being subjected to torture or cruelty.
The majority of the persons we deal with in the prison system are in conflict with the law and have committed some sort of crime. We are there to empower people to make use of the institutions that have been created to guarantee their rights. The job involves working with them to teach them that they have not unequivocally lost all their own rights or their own humanity. It’s not their individual rights we are working for so much as their collective rights; the work revolves around conflict transformation, mental health issues, stress reduction, and basic needs like recreation and work opportunities in the prison. These things are part of a larger framework which says you are still a human being. Affirming their humanity is a big part of our job. It is not for us to judge their life stories, but to provide tools to change their life stories.
I’m asked about my personal safety, and I am not naive. Liberia showed me that human potential for violence is horrific and the consequences are very real. On a small scale trying to avoid violence for my family means taking security measures and not taking unnecessary risks. I’ve only had a gun held to my head a couple of times in criminal events. I don’t think my kids were ever faced with unmanageable danger. None of the dangers of living in El Salvador has outweighed the benefits of living here.
I hope to someday get Salvadoran citizenship, which would then give me dual citizenship with the U.S. Up front it cost $610, which I don’t have. My current status is considered permanent residency.
My frustrations living in this country have to do with people in power who make decisions over the lives of other people without applying human values to that power. They treat their role as though they are entitled to exercise it for their own benefit. The bank teller is one example of someone who treats me with contempt as though she is doing me a favor by allowing me to have money in that bank, let alone complete a transaction. That is a small example, but its everywhere, people using the tiniest bit of power they have to make someone else feel smaller.
Just as some of my college professors and the pastor of the church in Grand Rapids inspired and influenced me, there are three things I would like to leave with people I meet. First, I would hope that occasionally I can be the person who stops that person exercising control over others and make them realize it is a privilege to do what they are doing and to exercise their job with compassion and justice. I give workshops to police officers, prison staff, juvenile detention staff on different topics, but I hope what I can communicate is a renewed sense of vocation in people. Second, I hope I can influence people by being the person who challenges the excluded, dehumanized person disconnected from humanity by being his inner voice telling him that he does count. Finally, I hope I can make people question what is true and discover that it doesn’t matter if the truth isn’t what we thought is was because it is better to know the truth.
North Americans always want to know your hopes; Salvadorans never ask that question. I tend to think I am responding to a vocation or a sense of rightness. My deepest hopes and values and convictions are being lived out when I’m on this path I’m on right now. I want to be linked to a community with a similar conviction in life. It gives me hope that there isn’t another choice. If we want to end violence, we have to get down and dirty. Other people can have discussions, but it can’t be ONLY discussions, research, proposals, and public policies; it has to involve being WITH people who are deeply immersed in violence. When you walk with the poor, look at the economic perspective, and make plans, you see that structures in place are disconnected and are actually creating some of the impoverishment. Some of the same things happen in violence.
My soul is nurtured and closer to God when that empathetic nature deep within me combines a call to heal or works toward change which transforms or liberates people from pain and suffering. I am a person whose activism is born connected with what is right and what is healing and transforming. It pulls together all the components of my political, intellectual, and critical mind of who I am into the same thing. When I play different roles in the world, I can do so with a sense of clarity that I am combining my own spiritual journey with a human rights perspective.
“A People In Journey Together”