This blog post is the second in a two-part series. For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/08/08/wading-in-the-water-pt-i-guest-blogger-sarah-ullom-minnich/. What follows is a continuation of Sarah’s story about her experience studying abroad in Ecuador.
My washing complete, I slip back into the welcoming water. I swim out several meters and try to hold my own while swimming against the current. I manage it for a few minutes, but then begin to tire and make my way back into the shallower water. My feet find purchase on the sandy bottom of the river. I close my eyes and let myself feel the rush of the chill water against my arms and legs.
The Church of the Brethren, my community, has a particular historical connection with resistance against a hegemonic system and a river. The story of the original brethren entering the Eder River to be baptized, undertaking a resistance against what they felt was a moral injustice as a community, is one with which I have grown up. The church has a rich heritage of resistance to injustice, and living in Tzawata has helped me feel that heritage more present within me. But it has its ties to racist and colonial systems, ties that here are impossible for me to ignore. I feel a calling in Tzawata, a place very different from my community, to reconnect with the Brethren idea of radical justice – the life courageously lived in the example of the radical love of Jesus, simply, peacefully, together. It is easy back home to let my modern, United States, middle-class, materialistic lifestyle make me comfortable. But living on this side of the bridge, where there are only a few hours of generator electricity and no clean running water (the government has done its best to discourage human habitation here), provides the opportunity to see beyond it.
A couple of small girls swim out to me and hold on to my back. I swim around with them for a while, and we all laugh when one of them lets go briefly to slip under the water, then pops up again and grabs on tight. They, like all the children here, speak in Spanish to one another.
Even as the adults of Tzawata continue a long legal battle against the government and the mining company, their youth are coming of age in a globalized world. One in which speaking Kichwa is looked down upon, and in which the language of power is Spanish, or even English. These youth have their struggles, that of managing their identity in a changing world, without losing their connection to their culture and community. Many leave to study in big cities or find work on the other side of the country. Some become ashamed to speak Kichwa, even with their families. Others invest themselves in preserving their language and culture. All have to negotiate a complicated relationship with the community they have grown up in and the hegemonic culture that pervades their world. When I think about growing up as a Brethren youth, I feel a resonance between our experiences. We live in complicated worlds, affected by complicated systems. Like the toxic laundry soap seeping into the beautiful river we hope to protect, there are parts of our identity that conflict with other parts, parts of the culture we live in, breathe in, that are oppressive, and that seek to smother our less-mainstream values.
I check my watch and realize that it is almost time for class. Today we will be working on some of the theater pieces we have been creating in small groups that deal with the struggles faced by Tzawata. Our final presentations are coming up, where our group of local and international students will have the opportunity to share all that we have been working on this semester. I take one last dip to say goodbye to the river, then gather my things and carefully climb back up the rocky bank. The heat of the Amazonian sun on my skin already makes me miss the cool, clear water behind me.
The community of Tzawata will continue their struggle and their negotiation of the many cultural pressures they face. While I have had the opportunity to learn alongside them for half a semester, I will be only a tiny part of the story of their struggle, and they of mine. But if there is anything that I have learned from this semester, it is the power of story to empower and transform our identity. And just as we as a class have been working with the story of Tzawata, the story of Tzawata has been calling to my own story. The story of how the church of the Brethren negotiates a changing world is one with significantly lower stakes. We are not at risk of losing lives, of losing thousands of years of culture, of losing a language, or of losing our homes. But our stories are interconnected, because “Peacefully, Simply, Together,” also calls for resistance against a system that seeks to assign everything a dollar value, including life itself. Our shared humanity interconnects them, and our desire to see a juster world. And for me, they are also now interconnected by human relationships, by friendships and shared experiences.
I finish hanging up my clothes and walk to the roofed area where we have class. One by one, international students and local counterparts trickle in. Around me float the sounds of jokes and laughter, of the giggles of children as they chase one another in and around our group of 13, and of the barks of excited dogs as they romp around the perimeter. As class starts, I feel a twinge of excitement as we split into our groups to rehearse and prepare to reimagine our stories, to reimagine our realities, together.
Originally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.
Image Credits: Rehearsing Change