Gracias! Nouwen prays for the poor in Latin America

The 1980s were a tumultuous time for Latin American countries. After enjoying a time of prosperity and economic growth, most Latin American countries borrowed extensively from foreign governments because they felt that any debt could be repaid. And, because of Latin America's prosperity, foreign entities were more than glad to make loans. They did everything to encourage borrowing and Latin American countries kept borrowing. 

Mexico was first to realize that it was unable to pay on its loans; the country defaulted. As a result, foreign lenders called their loans and Latin American countries plummeted into a deep financial crisis because they were unable to repay what they had borrowed.

Wikipedia notes, "The debt crisis of 1982 was the most serious of Latin America's history. Incomes dropped; economic growth stagnated; because of the need to reduce importations, unemployment rose to high levels; and inflation reduced the buying power of the middle classes. In fact, in the ten years after 1980, real wages in urban areas actually dropped between 20 and 40 percent. Additionally, investment that might have been used to address social issues and poverty was instead being used to pay the debt."

From October 1981 to March 1982, during the time of the economic crisis, Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen began exploring the question, "Does God call me to live and work in Latin America in the years to come?" His exploration resulted in the book Gracias! A Latin American Journal, in which he writes about the conditions of the continent and its people, as well as his quest for a vocation. 

During his six-month sojourn in Latin America, Nouwen would first stay at a language school in Cochabamba, Bolivia and then live at the parish in Ciudad de Dios (City of God), Peru. He was associated with the Maryknoll Society, a group of "fathers and brothers" whose mission is, Nouwen wrote, "to recognize and elaborate a mission of spirituality which integrates community, prayer, a simple life-style, apostolic work, and commitment to the poor."

It took Nouwen less than a week to perceive "... the impressive wealth and degrading poverty, splendid flowers and dusty broken roads, loving people and cruel torturers, smiling children and soldiers who kill...".  At this time, class structure in Peru was classified by race. The poor consisted of Indians, blacks and mestizos (mixed Indian and white). The middle class was small and was comprised of white or mestizo professionals. The upper class was made up of white people who controlled the wealth and political power in the nation.  "One fourth of one percent of the population receives more than 33 percent of all income in the country. The predominant social dynamic in Peru is the structural oppression and domination of the 'lower class' and the emerging resistance of the poor to this domination," Nouwen quoted from a Maryknoll publication.

An example of the plight of the poor is in the beginnings of Ciudad de Dios, the city that Nouwen would stay in after language school. "Ciudad de Dios was the result of a popular invasion on Christmas Eve 1954 ... On that Christmas night, thousands of people illegally occupied the barren land and immediately started to develop it. The government had no choice but to comply and eventually help, and now there is the City of God with countless brick houses, a large church, a school, and several medical posts," Nouwen wrote.  In fact this happened in many areas as a result of the poverty and lack of land that existed among the poor. "The Indian migrants first lived with relatives and friends; but when they became too numerous and desperate for a space and a livelihood, they organized themselves and seized the barren desert land surrounding (Lima)." 

 "It is here that we have to hunt for God's treasure," he surmised.

Because of his compassion for the poor, Nouwen sought to pray more for them and began to identify with them to a degree. He wrote:

"True prayer always includes becoming poor. When we pray we stand naked and vulnerable in front of Our Lord and show him our true condition. If one were to do this not just for oneself, but in the name of the thousands of surrounding poor people, wouldn't that be 'mission' in the true sense of being sent into the world as Jesus was sent into the world? To lift up your hands to the Lord and show him the hungry children who play on the dusty streets, the tired women who carry their babies on their backs to the market place, the men who try to forget their misery by drinking too much beer on the weekends, the jobless teenagers and the homeless squatters, together with their laughter, friendly gestures, and gentle words - wouldn't that be true service? ... I feel that in a world rushing to the abyss, the need for calling God to the task, for challenging him to make his love felt among the poor, is more urgent than ever."

Nouwen also wrote:

"Prayer is the ongoing cry of the incarnate Lord to the loving God. It is eternity in the midst of mortality, it is life among death, hope in the midst of despair, true promise surrounded by lies. Prayer brings love alive among us. So let us pray unceasingly."

The Great Latin America Debt Crisis: A Decade of Asymmetric Adjustment by Robert Devlin and Ricardo FFrench-Davis

Latin American Debt Crisis