Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Reform or Revolution?

An 80-year-old Nicaraguan told us this was her first 
opportunity to vote for the candidate of her choice. 
Her red-inked thumb shows she has been to the polls.

Pat Hoffman, a spiritual guide for me, turned to me during a particularly dry presbytery meeting in the 80’s and asked, “Chris, would you like to go to Nicaragua?” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Sure! Can we go now?!” Anything to escape an ecclesiastical wilderness.

A word about Pat. We wrote our first books together, mine being Uncommon Calling, about LGBT efforts to reform the Presbyterian Church, and hers being Ministry of the Dispossessed, about ministry among the farmworkers of California. We met for lunch every couple of weeks, exchanging and reviewing each other’s books, chapter by chapter. Sometimes we met for tea at Trump’s (yeah, really!) in Beverly Hills; we couldn’t afford their formal tea, but we found we could share a pot of tea and two scones in its stylish bar for a total of $10.

Pat was helping organize a group of twenty Presbyterians, Disciples, and United Methodists under the auspices of Church World Service to witness Nicaragua’s first free and fair election after deposing the despot Somoza, occurring the same week as Reagan was seeking re-election while illegally funding the contras—the counter-revolutionaries who opposed the Sandinista government. A U.S. warship sailed menacingly off Nicaragua’s coast while we were there, and we heard two sonic booms each day as U.S. spy planes flew low overhead.

A Maryknoll sister (left) briefed us on what 
was happening. Pat Hoffman is in yellow.

There are many stories to be told about that trip, including the one when we decided to “crash” the American election party at the U.S. Embassy, where we had earlier met with a diplomat explaining what we considered misguided U.S. policy—after which Pat, with a mischievous smile, asked me, “Is he one of yours?” I laughed, realizing her “gaydar” was as astute as mine.

Anyway, about ten of us crammed into two tiny taxis and showed up election night outside the gate of the highly fortressed U.S. Embassy.  The taxi I was in arrived first, so I jumped out of the car and ran up to the gate. As quickly, I was met with bayonetted rifles of several soldiers running out of the waterless moat that surrounded the embassy! To the soldier at the gate, I explained why we were there. He put me on the phone to his commander inside, who politely explained that the party was not at the embassy itself, rather at a hotel, and that it was “by invitation only.”

A few days before we had been welcomed at the Nicaraguan election festivities, which required no such invitation. There we joined hundreds of Nicaraguans in an open soccer field listening to American music as election results began to trickle in—but only after walking through unlighted downtown areas of Managua destroyed by a devastating earthquake years before, never restored because Somoza drained the economic aid that came from other countries. In the darkness, we had to avoid manholes missing their covers.

Me, sitting beneath Che Guevara.

The reason I bring this up is all the talk about “revolution” in this current election. A history professor with us explained that Nicaragua had experienced a true revolution, but by contrast, she shared many historians’ view that the so-called “American Revolution,” was actually a rebellion, because it did not turn upside down the class system, putting “lower” classes, however defined, in charge. It was still largely governed by wealthy, educated, propertied white men.

I was a little peeved at her for disillusioning me about our seminal American event, but I saw her point. Still, our Founding Fathers and Mothers did set in place a system potentially “of the people” that would radically transform the government, society, and culture. Yet we are a representative democracy, not an absolute democracy.

So it gives me pause whenever the word “revolution” is tossed about so loosely as it has been this year. I had felt uncomfortable when activists in my own LGBT movement claimed ours was a “revolution.”  I thought it was too audacious and unrealistic to believe our activities could turn things upside down, as it was said of the first Christians (see Acts 17:6).

Others of us viewed our efforts more modestly and humbly as reformers. The system, both church and government, provided opportunities for reform, and look what the LGBT movement has accomplished in a generation!

Of course, self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” get the lion’s share of press, but in so many cases, the reformers deliberately sculpting our institutions accomplish more in the long run. Self-proclaimed “messiahs” lead to disillusionment because too many followers don’t have the patience to do the hard work—including voting in midterm elections, campaigning for down-ballot candidates and issues, paying attention to so-called “lowly” offices like school boards and town councils, networking with other movements.

Even revolutions require reformers, as we have witnessed in Nicaragua since that election day in 1984. In my journal on the trip, I wrote: 
Election Day
Sunday, Nov. 4 
It’s like watching the birth of a child, the blossoming of a fruit tree, the first green after winter. It’s one of the most exciting experiences I’ve witnessed. Not just history. Not mere accomplishment. It is hope in action—not a fait accompli, not an ultimate answer, not the promised land—but a signpost along the way. And that’s just it—along the way. Nicaragua is moving—its people are moving. I am grateful to watch from along the way, instead of being in the way or far away.
 Where people are on the way, God’s Spirit is at work.

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Copyright © 2016 and photos Copyright © 1984 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, photographer, and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  


  1. Good to read your recollections of that significant journey to witness the first Nicaraguan free election. I loved sharing the trip with you.

    Pat Hoffman

  2. I enjoyed this Chris. One of my many Nicaragua trips was with Bill Coffin and your beloved mentor Henri. Was the ambassador Tony Quainton? He eventually became embarrassed with our policy. I wish you could have been at our church last week when one of my elders, a former Sandinista, hosted leaders of the Movement to Renew Sandinismo. Times remain hard for Nicaraguans. Your point re the lgbtq movement and revolution is well taken. As I have gotten to know young queer activists, both connected to Black Lives Matter and on their own, their critique is quite articulate. I hear them saying that for many in the older generation, a seat at the empire table was enough. (The heterosexist cis world never realized just how straight many gays were!...) The deconstruction of a system of privilege and dominance is yet another project altogether..Thanks for your reminder and witness....

    1. Thanks, Bob, for your response. It's good to hear from you! We did not meet with the ambassador, but someone two notches down (we were told). I agree much needs to be done--especially when wealthy, educated, propertied white men are still largely in charge. I am so grateful for our increasingly multicultural population, and hope to God we join hands to bring a fresh understanding of what our country should be about! (Congrats on the your son's wedding, too!)

  3. I enjoyed learning a bit of your history with Pat and Nicaragua that I did not know. My Nicaragua experience did not come until the ten year anniversary of the revolution on an SFTS/Synod sponsored tour led by Ross Kinsler. A more comparable experience was my trip to Mexico City with an El Rescate delegation for the signing of the El Salvador Peace Accords at the invitation of the FMLN. (I have a picture or two I can share too, but Pat wasn't along.) I too have been sobered up a bit and disillusioned by some of the revolutionaries of the past. My current leanings are more toward incremental progress coupled with persistance and hard work. I remain skeptical of slogans promising monumental change solely on the strength of populist enthusiasm. I guess my Presbyterian colleague in Nicaragua and a few Bernie bros have given up on me.

    1. Thanks, Don! I'm sorry for the delay publishing your comment. My AOL has been unavailable all day, and so I went through Chrome. I'm with you on all you wrote! When we went to Nicaragua, we had a stop in El Salvador, and all I could think of were the nuns killed there and all the locals who died.