Marilyn Turkovich, interim director of the Charter for Compassion, recently wrote on her blog, “There is a tradition in Latin America of calling out the names of individuals who have lost their lives in the struggle for human rights and justice–the individual is named and then “presente” is intoned. It is a symbol of recognition that their lives were not lost in vain. We remember them.”
We have a need for heroes – people we can admire for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. They give us encouragement for difficult tasks, and also help stimulate our vision for what we want to do to build a better world. Unfortunately the heroes we are presented with through movies and television stories are generally not the ones who promote human rights and justice/righteousness. That is unfortunate because the world is filled with such heroes and by recognizing them as “presente” we empower the hope, vision and energy they brought through their lives.
I think of Monika, a young African woman in Burundi who challenged me to recognize the racism in my own life and encouraged me to confront it for self-transformation. Monika disliked the tribalism which was rampant in her country during the 1960s and through her Christian faith and work, she struggled to raise awareness of it and called for unity among the tribes. She, along with all of her family members, was killed during a tribal uprising shortly after I left the country. In my mind, I see Monika looking up as the machete came down in its murderous blow and saying a prayer of forgiveness for those who had not the courage to be transformed. I call out Monika’s name and say, “presente.”
A young man in Vietnam became a close friend of mine in 1971. As a high school student he was always under threat of being drafted into the South Vietnamese army. He struggled to avoid the draft, telling me he could not imagine going into a war in which he would have to kill his own country folk. He yearned for peace and involved himself in work to make a more peaceful country. His life was taken from him when he was only 19 in a strange and unexplainable accident. I call out Yung’s name and say, “presente.”
Ted Studebaker volunteered to work in Vietnam with the Church of the Brethren in the early 1970s. He worked with Indigenous people living in the mountainous regions of South Vietnam to help them improve their agriculture. He also spoke out strongly against the war, openly sharing his commitment to live faithfully the Sermon Jesus gave on the mountainside as told in Matthew 5. Ted was killed in 1971 when the town in which he was living was caught in a fire fight between opposing forces. He died, still strongly committed to his belief that Jesus calls us to forsake violence and depend on love. I call out the name Ted Studebaker, and say “presente.”
I am remembering Saw Johnny, a young Karen man living along the Thai/Burma border. Saw Johnny’s parents were killed when his village was attacked by the Burmese military. He fled to a refugee camp inside Thailand along with other survivors of the attack. He felt great anger at the Burmese military for the destruction they rained down on his village and his family. He thought often of revenge. However, after attending as training course on human rights and community organizing, he committed his life to going inside the war zones of Burma to locate groups of Internally Displaced Persons. He documented the human rights abuses they had experienced, and also helped them find ways to grow food even while hiding deep in the jungle. Saw Johnny developed a dream of a peaceful land in which people of all ethnicities could live together in harmony. The work he was doing was dangerous, and one day he was caught by the Burmese military. For three days he was tortured before being executed. His dream for peace lives on and I call out the same of Saw Johnny and say “presente.”
Marilyn Turkovich continues her article. “There is another word that was and continues to be used in Latin American struggles and that is “Basta!” “Enough.” The more we collectively shout “Presente!” and “Basta!” the more we awaken others to our need to act in a different way—with compassion–and deepen our own commitment to peace.”
I have been blessed with knowing so many other heroes who continue to be “presente” with me and who continue to inspire me to go on with the struggle for a true peace with justice. Together with them I say, “Basta!” The violence, anger and hatred does not need to continue. We as Christian are especially challenged with a new vision for our world. We may find the challenge too great, but we can always look at those heroes who gave everything for peace and justice to draw our own courage and energy. I thank God for allowing me to know these and so many other, special heroes.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” Matthew 4: 9-12 (The Message)