When I speak with Dominican Sister of Hope Debbie Blow, O.P. on July 23rd, she sounds worried. This is unusual. Sister Debbie has ministered for twenty years in Nicaragua through an organization that she co-founded and is Executive Director of, North Country Mission of Hope. Even though Nicaragua is the second poorest country in this hemisphere, Sister Debbie never ceases to bring up hope and sound hopeful herself.
Now, sociopolitical unrest has erupted in Nicaragua. Even Catholic leaders who are usually well respected are under attack.
According to Sister Debbie, understanding the significance of this upset requires one to understand its context. Historically, Nicaragua has been one of the calmest and safest central American countries. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security reports that“Nicaragua has low overall reported crime rates.”As recently as January of this year, Nicaragua was reported to have a significantly lower crime rate than its Central American neighbors.
“Nicaragua was rising,” Sister Debbie says. “It was trying to rise out of poverty.”
In April, the climate of calm dissipated when an anti-government March in Managua turned bloody. Covering the unrest, The New York Times wrote: “In just a week, ‘Nicaragua changed’ as protesters cracked a leader’s grip.” In the time since, more than 2,000 people [have been] arrested. According to Today Nicaragua, “at least 400 people are believed to still be held in jails, prisons and police stations across the country and some consider them to be political prisoners, according to the non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Center.”
Of course, Sister Debbie has been following the news closely. She recounts stories from her friends and coworkers who recount horrific stories of raids, beatings and disappearances. Online reports detail incidents such as babies being shot in their mothers’ arms and pregnant women being brutally attacked. Protestors are being detained and tortured. Dozens of medical professionals were either fired, arrested, or worse because they treated the wounded members of the opposition to the government. Many of the North-Country-Mission-of-Hope-sponsored students study at multiple universities in Managua including UNAN, a university currently under attack by the government. Universities have also been the central points of protests until two weeks ago, when the government began a very aggressive and violent counter measure including imprisonment and violent attacks.
Sister Debbie says that “fear is palpable’ in the voices of her staff in Nicaragua.
The violence is unprecedented, but the horror doesn’t stop there. For the first time, the Nicaraguan government is rebelling against Catholics.
In a country that is 85% Roman Catholic and over 90% Christian, the government typically cooperated with leaders of faith. In the past, the Catholic Church has been the “negotiating party,” Sister Debbie says. Now, there’s a phenomenon of “accusing the Catholic Church of being subversive.”
Bishops, clergy, students, and journalists have been attacked in churches, including Cardinal Brenes who Sister Debbie has worked with personally. Sister Debbie fears that, in the coming weeks, Cardinal Brenes and some of his priests and nuns may be killed.
So, it’s no wonder that in July, after months of hearing of attacks, raids, and murders, Sister Debbie hardly sounded hopeful. She especially expressed concern about the delivery of shipping containers containing medical supplies, school supplies, and food to the remote villages that the Mission of Hope serves.
“We’re with the people no one wants to talk about: the extremely poor,” she says. At that point, her programs had not had interruption, except for university or technical school students who have to go to cities to study. But Nicaragua put a ban on receiving the exact kind of shipping containers on which her Nicaraguan community relies.
It was a joy when, on the Feast of Saint Dominic, Sister Debbie shared optimistic news.
North Country Mission of Hope sent a container of food and vitamins to Nicaragua back in December but it had been confiscated by the government. Common consensus dictated that the container was as good as gone.
“We have been praying and keeping a vigil of HOPE even though we were told to let it go,’ ‘we will never see it,’ ‘it will never be released now that the government has confiscated it and blocked hundreds of containers,’” Sister Debbie wrote in an email.
Then, on August 8th, Sister Debbie received news that the container was released by Nicaraguan customs. As a result, over 250,000 meals and all our children’s vitamins, which were received via a grant, will reach rural communities and more than twenty-four poor schools in Nicaragua.
“There is no doubt in any of our minds that, given the present violence and situation in Nicaragua, this is nothing less than a miracle and no one can quite explain why!!” Sister Debbie wrote.
“What a surprise, what a miracle, what a sign that we continue to be called to serve with the transforming power of HOPE in spite of all odds stacked against us at times,” she continues. “Waiting for over 6 months is a very long time for a family who’s trying to feed their children.”
“We had actually just been notified that our food warehouse was bare, so desperation was setting in,” she clarified in a later email. “Then, due to perseverance of our administrators in Nica and our endless prayers and hope, we were notified that Customs was releasing the container of food….JUST IN TIME!”
The container grants access to rice, soy, and vegetable mixtures, which provide children critical nutrients that they don’t get elsewhere in their diet. Through containers such as these, the Mission feeds over 6500 children daily via school programs.
Although Sister Debbie continues to be concerned about the sociopolitical situation in Nicaragua, she counts this as a true miracle. And, with one miracle witnessed, she continues to hope for more. Likewise, she awaits the day when she can begin bringing mission volunteers back to Nica to serve via the Mission of Hope’s programs in education, healthcare, community development and ecological sustainability.
“YES, a miracle happened today,” Sister Debbie writes. “YES, hungry children will be fed and YES, HOPE LIVES!”