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Good News from Nicaragua
Ron Rivera, in memoriam
Richard M. Chapman

The day was hot and very muggy—like most any afternoon in late August in Managua. I was standing atop La Loma Tiscapa, the city’s highest point, distinguished further by a large silhouette sculpture in the figure of Nicaragua’s patriot son and national hero, Augusto César Sandino. On the hilltop also stand several large memorials to martyrs and heroes of the resistance against the long Somoza dictatorship, and an exhibit of photos and memorabilia devoted to Sandino’s life. Had I known the words of Carlos Mejía Godoy’s beautiful anthem a bit better I might have broken into song: “Ay, Nicaragua, Nicaraguita, la flor mas linda de mi querer... Pero ahora que ya sos libre, Nicaraguita, Yo te quiero mucho mas.” (Nicaragua, little Nicaragua, loveliest flower of my longing... But now that you are free, little Nicaragua, I love you so much more.)

I took it all in, inspired and thrilled by the history on display; but now, after two hours, I was fading, in dire need of some liquid refreshment. I purchased a booklet of photos at the tiny museum and thanked one of the young female attendantsel museo era muy interesante, graciasand then inquired where I might fetch something cold to drink. She motioned back towards the hillcrest behind the museum but quickly moved along side me and offered her company. Turned out she was also a student in Managua but lived a distance south of the city.

Usted es cristiano, no? she asked effortlessly, really more a statement than a question. You’re a Christian, aren’t you?

Her abrupt, knowing query caught me off guard, but it seemed sincere and well-intentioned. I answered directly after the slightest hesitation. Sí, soy cristiano. She just had an inkling about me, she said, adding that she was one as well. Perhaps it’s one of those things where it takes one to know one. But I still wondered what had she noticed about me? The crosses I wear were out of plain sight, hidden under clothing. Perhaps the crosses I bear were more visible. She might have observed my incessant mumbling as I read Spanish descriptions to myself in the museum, thinking them prayers for the country. Perhaps I resembled to her one of many well-meaning gringos, come from abroad to save Nicaragua. We chatted briefly about her life, her studies, her home, and parted ways. I enjoyed the conversation. She made me feel welcome, at ease, at home, cared for. I felt solidarity, common cause with her. Still parched, I ordered up a cold Coke and slaked my thirst in the shadow of Sandino.

What does it mean to be a Christian? What would it look like to live out the words “dedicated to the Christian life” in my university’s mission statement? It is salutary, I think, to open up such questions to view on occasion, to take a closer look, even to subvert the answers to which we’ve grown accustomed. My hermana, my Nicaraguan sister, had left me two gifts. She had modeled a way of being in the world, sharing humbly life’s joys and sorrows in community, as with me. And she gave me a question to ponder.

Some two weeks following my encounter atop Tiscapa, I brushed up against the gospel in Nicaragua in a most unexpected way—I got acquainted with a potter named Ron Rivera.

 

The gospel writer in Luke reminds us that traditions are moored in history; stories are indispensable to who we are. They are many; they compete for our attention and allegiance; where we come out determines much about whom we become and where we will go.

[Many] have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have [happened] among us, just as they were handed on to us . . .

I am struck by two things in this text. First, we sense the writer’s enthusiasm, nay compulsion, to tell his narrative of the gospelit is a story he must tell. The writer, furthermore, endeavors to anchor a narrative amongst many traditions and points of view. I am similarly inspired to tell Ron Rivera’s story, because it’s an amazing story and because it provides a fresh angle on a familiar one. Luke’s author, like a good historian, seeks to provide “authentic knowledge” of the gospel narrative, but I also know that any record loses authenticity as it ages and wears out, its context and applications less regnant. Having several gospel traditions is surely a blessing and not a curse. Here is a fresh narrative of things I learned from eyewitnesses in Nicaragua about the life of Ron Rivera. We shift from the gospel of Luke to the gospel of Ron, if you will, but I wish to punctuate Ron’s journey with snippets from the evangel of Jesus, to see his life and his witness in that context.

Sadly, I met Ron Rivera only in death, when I attended his funeral memorial and celebration of life on 6 September 2008 on Managua’s Central American University Campus. The occasion was profoundly sad, but equally joyous and deeply moving. Ron’s story is one of promise, of hope, of life... finally, it is a story about waterclean, sparkling, pure, life-giving water.

Jesus asked them, “What are you looking for? They replied, “Teacher, where are you staying?” “Come and see,” he answered.

 

Ron was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the Bronx. As a young man he joined the Peace Corps, getting acquainted with the struggles and hardships of poor folk in Panama and Ecuador. His journey continued in Mexico where he met a fresh vision of education and human progress in the community gathered around the radical cleric Ivan Illich. Illich had heard a call for liberation and empowerment of the majorities in the barrios and fields of Latin America. Feeling ill-equipped and disengaged, Rivera was drawn to put his hands to creative work and took up pottery. He returned to Puerto Rico to establish his own workshop, but restive and needing more, he returned to Ecuador, and then visited insurgent Bolivia before landing for a time in Miami. Still learning from the book of life, he worked there as a bricklayer, did social work for struggling Cubans from the Mariel boatlift, and completed a master’s program in development. This training got him a return ticket to Ecuador where he worked in a series of development projects.

I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it in all its fullness.

rivera

In 1988 Ron moved to Nicaragua to become united with Kathy, his first love, and to support the country’s youthful, beleaguered revolution. His second love, pottery, continued to blossom, energizing Ron as he rapidly transcended the role of artist to become teacher and community organizer. He crisscrossed the country, setting up workshops, advancing and experimenting with new techniques and materials, and above all giving dignity, pride, and recognition to scores of Nicaraguan potters. As Ron put it, “I want to know each and every one of Nicaragua’s artists.” Then in 1998, Hurricane Mitch blew in and Ron’s world changed forever. The storm surge was unimaginable. Winds, mudslides, floods, and ruined crops killed Nicaraguans by the thousands, and many thousands more throughout Central America.

Lord, when was it that we saw you thirsty, and gave you drink? ... I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers and sisters here, however humble, you did for me.

Indeed, Ron was stunned to discover that the mere lack of clean drinking water compounded the misery—and mortality—of so many young Nicas in Mitch’s wake. The memory of a filtering technology devised by a Guatemalan chemist he’d met years earlier in Ecuador rushed back. It promised a solution and impelled Ron Rivera on a mission to wed this technology with a clay-fired form that could filter impure water. So the “filtron” was born through painstaking trial and error. Ron famously held forth the device for audiences in North America, declaring exuberantly and not a little irony, “I hold in my hand a real WMDa weapon of mass bacteriological destruction!” Ron committed himself to the promise of crystalline water not for Nicas only but for people around the globe. He could cite backwards and forwards the pertinent and disheartening figuresone sixth of the world’s population lack clean water, 80 percent of illnesses in the developing world stem from contaminated water. Every year 1.7 million children under five years of age die from impure water.

Greater love hath no one than to lay down his life for a friend.

Ron’s relentless efforts to produce a working, dependable water filtration device made him a globetrotter, a truly committed world citizen. He found his way to Vietnam and Cambodia, to Sri Lanka and Indonesia, to sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, sharing the filtron technology and working with local potters to start factories and reproduce the clay form that might snatch life from death and disease. Last summer he visited Nigeria to set up a new factory and while there contracted the deadliest form of malaria. It was detected upon his return to Nicaragua but too late to administer the medications that might have saved his life. By the time he died, Ron Rivera had worked with potters around the world to create thirty filter factories in about the same number of countries.

You will recognize them by the fruits they bear.... Not everyone who calls me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly Father.

 

I’ve learned that Ron Rivera was a self-proclaimed atheist and not a Christian. This raises interesting questions I cannot readily answer. The realities of the Kingdom are assuredly larger, grander, and more capacious than all human efforts or words to encapsulate themno metaphor is adequate. What about Ron? Perhaps Ron was too engaged in the vital struggles of the world to be concerned about labels. Perhaps he had grown weary, skeptical of politicsand of religious claims as just another form of politicsto be bothered. Maybe he just had too much work to accomplish to sweat the theological details. Perhaps he even had some affinity with some of those old Cretan battle axes I grew to admire in Nikos Kazantzakis’s great novel Captain Mikalisin the crisis of Crete, in the crisis of life, waiting for God wasn’t always efficacious, best to take action because God didn’t seem to be there at the most critical junctures. Maybe God wantsindeed needs our help, and religion prevents us from acting, from doing what we know cries out to be done. Ron saw what needed doing, and he did it. I would like to do it as well.

Managua is far away now, the days here much cooler, but challenging questions remain. I still search after answers that will quench the mind’s thirst. Christian or not, Ron Rivera was engaged in bringing the kingdom of peace, hope and life—the water of life—to so many in Nicaragua, Latin America, and around the globe. And so I take heart, my soul unburdened, knowing that the gospel is alive and well and living in Nicaragua. Turns out Nicaragua is exporting revolution after all, though not the kind some feared in the 1980s. We should all take heart. God bless the memory, the life and the ongoing work of Ron Rivera. May we, like him, apply our minds and hands to growing the kingdom—así en la tierra como en el cielo. On earth as it is in heaven. AMEN

 

I am an honest man
From the land where palms grow
Before I die
I want to share these poems
From my soul.

My poems are clear green,
They are flaming crimson,
My poems are a wounded fawn
Searching through the hills.

With the poor people of the earth
I want to cast my lot.
The coolness of the mountains
Pleases me more than the sea.

José Martí, Guantanamera

 

Richard Chapman is Associate Professor of History at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.  The author wishes to extend his deepest gratitude for the gracious hospitality of Joe Mulligan and María López Vigil, Catholics by training and tradition, good Christians by example, and exemplary human beings by practice. López Vigil’s essay on Ron Rivera, “The Constant Potter,” a near companion during the writing of this homily, may be accessed in English translation at http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/3997.

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