Vulnerability and Development

One of the ways I express vulnerability is through finger-painting.

This week I realized that the blog I kept in Bolivia is still up and running. I enjoyed reading it, reminiscing, and noticing the ways I (and my writing style) have changed over time. For example, I used to write about specific events and things related to my work. With this blog, I often have heard people saying, “even though I read your blog, I don’t necessarily understand what you do.” I have shifted from writing about events to writing about my own, internal, vulnerable experience. My blog over the last few years has been a companion for me, a space where I can share, take courage in the fact that someone will read it, know that I have given voice to it, and let it go as I continue to grow.

In the world of development, no matter what model we use, so often we require vulnerability on the part of our beneficiaries. In some cases, we show up with a huge truck full of goods and ask people to put on the face of the “poor and needy” person. In other cases, we ask farmers to risk a portion of their harvest by dedicating a piece of land to organic-only methods. Or we ask participants to resist the temptation to sell their land for top dollar, and instead to stay and organize their community. But in all cases, we demand vulnerability. The irony is, in my personal experience, as MCC and other development organizations grow and change, they continually demand less vulnerability on the part of their workers with the communities they accompany.

To some extent, my writing has become my own effort to show up and do the work that so often I ask of others through my development work.

One of the most important things I have learned about vulnerability over the last few years is that there are moments to tend to it, moments to protect it, and moments to reveal it, both individually and communally. And these moments overlap and intertwine like a dance. And, like a dance, it depends critically on timing.

Pulling all these threads together, there’s a part of my work that I want the world to know about but I haven’t written much about yet, in part because it scares me. Here at the Institute, we train people that when something feels scary, you either need to bite it off in smaller pieces, or you need more people to surround you. So, in this case, I’m going the smaller pieces route.

The next few blog entries will feature my work with women around reclaiming menstruation as a sacred cycle. It hasn’t been a huge focus in the grand scheme of what I do; it has developed with a colleague over time with ebbs and flows. But it has been the most naturally evolving part of my work that connects to my own life in deep and transforming ways.

Ways that need to be named,  in this space at this time…


The shape of grief

A close-up of a weaving from the community of Pantelho, Chiapas

Ever since I arrived in Chiapas, I knew that I would dread leaving. Last year, we spent a good chunk of time discerning what our next step should be; stay another year, look for  a different job, look for work online so we can live here forever? We carefully, prayerfully explored each possibility, and came to the conclusion that we would move back to the US this summer.

But part of me resisted, and keeps resisting, that news. It resists in subtle ways, like keeping me so busy I don’t have to think about it. I would shut conversation down when people would talk about our leaving and just say, “oh, we have time still.” Once I slowed down enough to pay attention to it earlier this month, I was so overwhelmed by fear and its size; like if I sit down with it, its weight will squash me like an ant. But in acknowledging it, I could at least give it a name, my grief.

I decided to enlist a mediator for this conversation with my grief (a therapist). She did a really interesting thing. She told me to visualize Chiapas in a row of chairs in the room. She said imagine you are looking at Chiapas right now, and say, “Thank you, for all that was good and hard between us. Thank you for all you’ve taught me, how you’ve held and loved me.”

We could have worked on this in a lot of different ways, but something about beginning the conversation with gratitude let down the flood gates for me. I lost myself in it. I ugly cried for at least five minutes. No one tried to stop me. During this experience, I was reminded of a quote from a chaplain, “grief is just love looking its mortal enemy in the face, and love can handle it.” In my crying, I allowed myself to experience my agony in its entirety; I got to know its shape. I even feel like I got under it without it squashing me, so it doesn’t feel so scary anymore.

I also understood it as a part of love’s process.

I’ve been treating myself to weavings lately; one of my favorite physical things here. Sometimes I just roam the artisan’s market and take in all the colors, and feel all the textures. I hope to pack my bags with some of these amazing works, but not in a way that gives me the illusion that I can take Chiapas with me when I go.

I’m more drawn into the metaphor, that God is the Great Weaver. That my life is a tapestry; my communities are patterns, my family the color of the threads. The story of Chiapas has been woven in, and it’s time for a new pattern to emerge.

In the same way, I have offered my pattern to the groups and people I accompany here, something that makes their weaving exciting and different, and in my leaving, a new pattern will also emerge for them. All I have to do is to trust in the Great Weaver for the rhythm and the movement, and a new great shape will come to be.

Love and Cultural Roots


“Did you know that amaranth was prohibited by the Spanish Conquistadores?” My friend and co-worker paused to ask me this one day as she caressed a handful of seeds.  Apparently, the Aztecs used amaranth in religious ceremonies, and the Spanish were afraid of their spiritual power. We stood looking at the seeds, laughing a little at the ridiculousness of the idea of being afraid of such tiny little things. “And to think, they traded us for white flour,” she remarked.


My coworker’s name is Marielena Moshan Alvarez. Moshan, because in her native language Tsotsil, many clans are named for animals (in this case, Moshan means “cat”). Alvarez, because the Spanish insisted on imposing their names on indigenous slaves. Her family came to live in the city of San Cristobal a few years before she was born, due to some health issues that her mother faced in the village. She carries herself with a certain finesse, weaving threads of her indigenous culture with the threads of mestizo city life.


Over the last 5 years or so, she has made some conscious decisions to honor her community elders and the richness of being an indigenous person. For example, last year she decided that she won’t drink coca-cola, even if it is given to her in a community and there is nothing else to drink. She is passionate about seed saving and exchanging as a way of life. She manages to do all of this without becoming bitter, or shutting herself off from the good things that come from outside her cultural context (like her friendship with me and my family).


Watching her process of cultural revival is kind of like watching a love story unfold. I saw it manifest physically with these amaranth seeds. She planted them in our garden out back. Thinned them and watered them, watching them grow tall. When it came time to harvest, she cut down the stalks and spread them wide on our front patio to dry in the sun. We shook them out together creating a storm of thousands of little seeds. We have dreamed about what to do with them beyond saving them for future plantings. In the end, we choose to make cookies on Valentine’s Day.


I love bringing my cultural tradition of baking cookies and celebrating Valentine’s Day, and fusing it with her cultural revival of growing amaranth. It is a beautiful manifestation of what we hope to do in the organization where I serve. We’ll sit down and eat them at our coffee hour (11:30 every day, you are welcome to join us if you are ever nearby). We’ll be joined by some visitors who just happen to be stopping by; a long-time friend and volunteer from Switzerland and her family, and a couple from Northern Mexico who will be taking a course with us in the coming days. There is so much potential in loving the cultural roots of our being, and in spending time learning from the gifts of other cultural roots as well. When we participate in such an alternative form of exchange, we connect with the Love that is so much deeper than our own individual lives.


Participants in a course at the Intercultural Mayan Seminary translate concepts of dignity into their native Tsotsil language.

I started learning about dignity last year, it’s a big component of a trauma awareness course I am receiving (and bit by bit, offering to others as well). Of course, it isn’t a new concept, but learning about dignity as it relates to trauma has shifted the way I see my life, the country where I live, and my homeland. I take notice of different things than before. I find the conversation with the taxi driver is just as important and significant as the big event I’m planning at work. The way I lean down as I look eye to eye with the woman who sells her produce in the street is just as significant as any sermon I can preach.

I would say at least a third of the time we go somewhere in a taxi as a family, the driver will ask about where we are from, and share with us his experience of living and working for a time in the US (it makes sense if you think about it, as being a taxi driver requires a big upfront investment, and the only way to get the money for such a thing is to go somewhere else to work). Last week we took a taxi with a young Tsotsil man, who said he spent some time in Alabama. Chris asked how it went, and whether he didn’t suffer from racism. He responded by saying, “Of course. White people and Black people didn’t like each other, and they certainly didn’t like us, but at least there was work, and we got paid well.” He then asked us how our stay has been living in Mexico. As he and Chris exchanged experiences, I marveled at the way they so quickly got to the deep, important work of caring for one another. Work we strive for in our plans, projects, and policies, but don’t always achieve.

This week at a Dr’s office, the waiting room was full, so Chris pulled out some books to entertain our girls. A man sitting beside them was struck by our daughter’s ability to read in both English and Spanish, and started asking Chris questions about who we are and what we’re doing here. When Chris mentioned that he works with issues of migration, the man, who is a teacher in a rural village, told him there are many unreported cases of migrants being dumped off at the border, and not returned home the way they are supposed to be. An indigenous woman sitting across the way chimed in, “How strange, they brought us the whole way home when we were deported six months ago.” She told them her story of crossing the desert, working 3 years in a poultry plant in Atlanta, feeling proud of going from getting paid $8 per hour to $10 per hour during her time there. She wondered if the kinder treatment she received (she didn’t go to a detention center, they brought her directly back etc) was due to the fact that her daughter is an American citizen.

These are the stories we hear almost every day in Southern Mexico. I have been thinking lately about how the sharing of stories relates to dignity and trauma. In the kitchen at my work, a colleague has painted a sign with the quote, “When I care for your dignity, I care for mine. When you care for my dignity, you care for yours. Dignity is lived in community.” When we are listeners and tellers of stories between North and South, we are caring for one another’s dignity. The battle raging that threatens everyone’s dignity in the world right now will not be won by fantasies of retribution or retaliation, or by self-deprecating hatred. It will be won through consistent compassion and care for dignity, others and my own.

What the day of the dead teaches me about being alive

Looking at alters made to celebrate Day of the Dead at school.

For the past several months, I’ve been quietly grieving my last year of living in Chiapas. I had my last birthday, last week we celebrated Ruthie’s. Today’s last was particularly difficult, since next year at this time we will be in a place where there’s no cultural framework for celebrating the dead. There will be no alters, no cemetery visits, no marigolds, and no sweet bread.

I tried to hold on and savor it all the best I could for one last time.

But that misses the point of the Day of the Dead. It’s a day to remember that nothing will last, and the more we deny or attempt to hang on, the more unhappy we feel. It’s a chance to greet life’s mortality; a day to mark the passing of time, and the passing of people who have influenced you.

It’s a day that speaks more to me about life than it does of death.

Life is a burst of color; here one day and gone the next. Armloads of flowers are lugged for kilometers in order to break petals into intricate designs paying homage to the beauty of the fleeting time we are granted among the living. It is sometimes agonizing, and what I have learned in Latin America is that you should never leave anyone alone in their agony; thus the parties at the cemetery. It is sometimes a cruel joke, like skeletons dancing.

It’s a chance for food made with love to defy the time/space continuum, satisfying spirits in other worlds.

This is a great chance for me to let go of my western understanding of reality. Friends from both Bolivia and Mexico have shared with me beautiful rituals around food, gratitude and fellowship (connecting with ancestors, the earth, God and the growers) and I participate with them in faith not unlike the disciples who ate fish on the shore with the resurrected Christ.

Yesterday I took some time to make a recipe of my ancestors. In it I sought to honor Eugene Miller, Anna Hot and Ralph Miller, Mary Wyles and Raymond Stapleton, Gladys Miller and Leon Frye, Chester Frye, and Hattie Mae Treese, and the many ancestors I never got to meet. I made it to thank them for the gifts they have given in creating me and surrounding me, and I welcomed them to my table.

It is a celebration of the cycle of life; a harvest of fruits which came from seeds once a part of a dead plant’s last offering.

Everything alive right now will someday die, and every dead thing, in one way or another, continues to be a part of that which is living. The day of the dead is an enthusiastic affirmation of our interconnected relationship. And paying attention to that makes me feel deeply hopefully and miraculously alive.



Taking a moment during our lunch break to play in the kid’s tent.

One of the aspects of MCC that we don’t talk about enough is the unique way kids of MCC service workers grow up. Their play is different. They have a unique love for one another, as they understand one another’s experience like no other; not from here, yet not feeling at home in their context of birth. In my experience, they also bring imagination and creativity to understanding reality that fills me with hope and invites me to adapt to ever-changing contexts.

Last weekend, the girls walked out with their backpacks filled.  They said they were going to a city that was more affected by the earthquake, that they’d be back in about a week. I kept listening as they walked out onto the patio to hear what they would do once they’d arrived. Attend a community meeting? Facilitate a workshop? Make tortillas with a host family? Nope, they checked into the hotel americano (thanks for the reality check kids!)

This past week was a tricky one for our family, as I co-facilitated an intense workshop on trauma (here in San Cristobal, but with a group of pastors and church leaders from the city referred to in the girls’ playing). I had 12 hour days, and could barely get the girls breakfast in the mornings and tuck them in at night. One morning, I was trying to collect some toys to take with me for a few kids who came and had to entertain themselves for hours while their parents participated in the workshop. Ruthie, only 3 years-old, was having a hard time with this idea. But Ramona, now 6, went to her toy drawers, pulled out her current favorites (3 ponies), and handed them to me. We both got teary-eyed as I told her a little more about the kids. The day before during a break, I pulled out jenga (used for the workshop) to play with them. A five year-old in the group said she used to have this game, but it got lost along with her house in the earthquake. I hugged Ramona and thanked her for her offering.

Kids caring for kids. Such holy ground.

During a week where I was feeling guilty about my lack of availability for my family, when it truly counted, my daughter had it in her to share her favorite toys. It served to transform the guilt I felt into hope and gratitude. I am honored for the space to model my values, and for what I learn from little people as they make the reality in which they live their own.

Everyone has something to give and something to receive; a key principle for any worthwhile learning experience.

Born out of the rubble; a migrant’s story

The remnants of a house destroyed by the Sept. 7th earthquake getting cleared out to make room for eventual rebuilding. (Photo credit: Elena Huegel)

In the moments leading up to a meeting we hosted for a group of pastors in the city of Juchitan, Oaxaca, I stopped to catch my breath. It was 94 degrees and humid, and between the weather change and the images of destruction throughout the city, I was gasping for air, wondering how to summon the strength to do my part in the meeting. I sat alone in a circle of empty chairs, when a friendly voice interrupted my thoughts. It was a young woman swinging a newborn baby in a carrier. She gave me her best, “hi, how are you” in English. I said I was fine and returned her question. “Oh, my english stops there,” she chuckled. “That’s ok, we can talk in Spanish,” I said.

She began to tell me her story. She is from Nicaragua, and had been hanging out in Tapachula, a boarder town on the coast of Chiapas with her 6 year-old daughter. She was living at a center for migrants, and she spoke positively of her housemates; they would bring her food when she was too far along in her pregnancy to work. Her son was born there just a few days before the earthquake. His father is from El Salvador, and she said they had been in a big fight. When I asked if there was any chance at reconciliation she said, “No, he’s been detained. It’s complicated…I didn’t know he was in a gang when I met him.” There were elements of her story that were so raw and painful, they were hard to understand clearly, like where she actually was the moment the earthquake hit.

But somehow, she ended up in Juchitán, one of the most destroyed cities on the night of Sept. 7th. Someone told her not to bother with the migrant safe house there, and to try the church grounds where they were organizing temporary shelter and food distribution. They let her stay there for the past 10 days, and the sisters there said they’d help her find a permanent home. She was unsure of taking that offer though. She said her ultimate plan is to try and cross the Northern boarder, but she won’t try for the next four years, “Not with your current president,” she joked.

At one point, one of the busy-looking volunteers stopped to say hello. She admired the babe and the perfectly-fitted blue onesie the mama picked out of the mounds of clothing piled up five feet high behind us. “He’s getting chubby,” she praised. “He was nearly dead when they got here,” she told me. “He was so dehydrated. Mama hadn’t eaten in days and her milk was drying up.”

I could hardly believe the miracle sitting before me. An indescribable human tragedy, a center for emergency supplies, worker bees attempting to satisfy desperate human need in an orderly fashion (we walked past the line-up of people standing at the gate to receive bags of food and clothing), and in the midst of it all, room for one more desperate story sustained by nothing more than the will to survive and several open serving hands.

I heard the good news for this family at the end of my visit as mama pointed out that baby was born in Mexico with Mexican papers. “No one can throw us out now,” she said as her face beamed with pride. As I leaned down to kiss baby’s new fuzzy head, I knew I was participating in a holy act. On our way home,  I looked out at the starry night sky, trying to understand the day. I wondered if Jesus were to be born into this world at this moment, whether he might choose to be born in this family, to a Salvadoran gangster father and a Nicaraguan mother and sister, trying desperately to make their way north on the earthquake-ruined coast of Mexico.