The Horsemen of El Cedro and the Westernization of the World.

19th century dogsledding explorer, the first to climb Mount McKinley, Episcopal Missionary, and a hero of mine, Hudson Stuck once wrote:
“The time threatens when all the world will speak two or three great languages, when all the little tongues will be extinct and all the little peoples swallowed up, when all costume will be reduced to a dead level of blue jeans and shoddy and all strange customs abolished. The world will be a much less interesting world then… The advance of civilization would be a great thing to work for if we were quite sure what we meant by it and what its goal is.”
He wrote these words 120 years ago…
How prophetic were his words!? How prophetic, and how sad!
If only other missionaries of his time were so attuned as he to respecting local peoples and indigenous cultures- if they had all understood that the world must not be westernized to be Christianized!
I came to a great illumination concerning this while on a medical missions trip to Nicaragua that I’d like to share with you.
Since I had gone through a great sifting in my life- a great faith crisis- I had done little in the way of ministering to the needs of others. I had bought into the notion that a sick physician was little use in healing others. And I was spiritually sick; spiritually tired. I was asked to accompany a medical missions group to Nicaragua. I did not know why I was going, but I felt it was time I tried to reengage; to take my mind off of my personal struggles and focus on the needs of others.
This was to be the first missions trip I had ever participated in, although I had spent years doing inner city ministry. I had developed a rather cynical view of most missions trips like this- and even a bit of cynicism toward most missionaries. For the most part, I felt it much better to equip natives to do the work, than for westerners to go and do it. “Missio-Tourism” was my phrase for the throngs of Christians pouring in and out of third world countries for a couple week glorified vacation.
Our first few days there served to reaffirm my initial feelings. Each of our teammates had invested roughly $2,100 to be on this team. “What could the local pastors have accomplished, if we had sent them the $16,000?” I mused. And everyone in our group made a concerted effort to be unassuming and unpretentious. But wasn’t our coming to them to bring light to their darkness in itself a presumption that our American society was somehow better, lighter, than theirs?
As we worked through the capital of Managua and saw the poverty there, and then flew to the Miskito Coast and served in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas, and there witnessed even greater poverty, another question began to nag at me. “Why are the countries of the northern latitudes so prosperous, when the equatorial countries of the world are, by and large so poor and sickly? Why, do they fight to feed themselves in a land where food literally fell from the trees, while countries in the far north of the planet have fared so well in such inhospitable climates- where the Earth begrudgingly offers up sustenance?” The answer to my question was to come to me on the second half of our mission- deep in the interior of Nicaragua.
Nicaragua school
Traveling out as far as we could from the capital of Nicaragua, by landrover, we then switched to horseback to reach the most remote homesteads and farms dotting the countryside. Our home base was a little village that is not to be found before or since on any map I have studied. It was the Village of El Cedro.
I know of no other surviving true horse culture, as what I experienced in El Cedro. With no permanent roads, no electricity, no gasoline, no cars, these people lived and died by their horses and their cattle.
My epiphany began during the journey, before we even reached the remote village. As one who had lived the homestead life off grid in Maine for a few years, I told my fellow travelers with a great degree of certainty, “I bet you the people we are about to meet will be the healthiest and happiest we have yet met in Nicaragua.”
My words proved true. These were, compared to the urban dwellers of Nicaragua, a very happy and healthy people. They were a people with no identity crisis. They were a people with a culture.
They smiled and laughed a lot. At first I thought they may be laughing at our peculiarities, but soon learned through observation, that this was their true nature. The men were affectionate to one another in a way western culture would find awkward. They would touch hands, lean on one another, and even put their arms around one another as they stood about and talkedto show their solidarity.
men of el cedro
Since I had arrived with my Tennessee cowboy hat and boots on, they assumed the American cowboy would know how to ride and paired me with the most spirited horse of our group. While I have grown up riding horses recreationally, I knew that, compared to these people that had grown up in the saddle, I knew nothing. They did seem pleased, however, that I rode hard with them, without fear, unlike many of the gringos they’d guided before.
“What is my horse’s name?” I asked the locals through the interpreter. They laughed. “Bestias.” came the reply. Beasts, in English; for they do not name or anthropomorphize their animals as we do.
El Cedro horse
They did, however, give me a nickname. And I was the only one of my group they gave a nickname too. “Chilé Pelón.” Roughly translated, Whitie. I was not sure whether or not to take offence but the guide assured me that it was a compliment- that they felt close enough to me to give me the name and not be so formal. The camaraderie became more apparent as the days went by, so I accepted the nickname with pride.
Chile Pelon
Because I was the only member of our group that had been a preacher, I was asked to speak on three occasions, in the local church. I refused at first, but I was becoming more aware of the reason God had brought me here. See, I had lived by the opinion that I had to somehow be whole again, before I could help others. What God was showing me in El Cedro, was that my healing was coming as I helped others. It was this, more than anything else that made me repent of my negativity about missions trips. Were we helping to fill a need? Yes. Were we encouraging the local believers by our presence? Absolutely. But a great truth, known to those who serve on these trips, is that the lives changed the most, are often not those in the third world countries, but the lives of the westerners going there to serve. And for me, God seemed to be saying, “You thought you needed to be well to serve, but it is through service that I will heal you.”
The other great truth that El Cedro taught me is that it is not for a lack of intellect, or ambition, or favor, that these cultures falter. It is because they have forsaken their way of life in an attempt to be like the Americans. Through our movies and our disposable goods, we have exported our western ways into cultures that thought themselves happy and rich before, and now have entered the race for the “latest and greatest” clothes and cell phones and technology.
Do not misinterpret my motives. I am not speaking against the western way of life, or capitalism, or any other earthly political or economic model. I am thankful for the structure we hold dear as Americans. What I am speaking against is the presumptuous naivety with which we have exported our way as the only way, to the rest of the world.
Many well meaning westerners (even missionaries) have unwittingly propagated the idea that “our way is better.” Not realizing that Christianization and westernization is not the same thing. Did we not see this with the Native Americans? Has Canada not seen it with the Inuit and First Nations peoples? A once proud and bold people, now, often struggling with an identity crisis?
Here is the seed thought Of Hudson Stuck, and what came to fruition in my spirit while living with the horsemen of El Cedro: The real beauty of the teachings of Jesus is its’ universality. Unlike other religions of the world, Christianity does not assign a certain type of dress. There are no dietary laws in Christianity. Christianity does not prescribe a certain language to be spoken in prayer and worship. Sadly, though, many missionaries of the past, missed this great truth. Preferring your neighbor over yourself, never letting them suffer want when you have excess, accepting Christ as your redeemer and loving God with all your heart, is a transcultural message.
El Cedro boy
In short, El Cedro taught me that the Kingdom is beautiful for the same reason Joseph’s coat was so illustrious- diversity.
So let us not repress diversity but celebrate it- sustain it- before, as Hudson Stuck prophesied, the whole world is reduced to two or three boring languages, blue jeans and button down shirts. Surely, as he said, the world will be a less interesting place without diversity. And surely the Kingdom of Heaven is enriched by diversity.
Our last day there, our group asked the women of the village to present their vision for the future of El Cedro. This was an intentional move to help empower the women. They were unified in their greatest desire for the village: they wanted a road that would be drivable, year-round, out of El Cedro to the major cities. It was a reasonable desire, born from the hearts of mothers- mothers with children that could die from a lack of access to emergency medical care at a well equipped hospital. In fact, we ended up evacuating the granddaughter of the village elder when we left the next day, to the nearest city, for medical care.
el cedro baby
I surely could not fault them in their desire for a road, and the road would surely come, eventually. But I knew that with that road, would come cars, electricity, entertainment, disposable goods, and ultimately, discontentment, materialism and poverty.
I prayed that night that, somehow, the people of the world would come to a place of harmony with the created world- that the women of El Cedro could have their road, without losing the El Cedro I’d fallen in love with.