STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/29/2008

FEATURE | Nest of Wires

Story Mark Sargent
Photos Michael Hevesy

Just southeast of Belmopan, the inland capital of Belize, the Hummingbird Highway leaves the savannas and weaves through the Maya Mountains on the way to the Caribbean. All along the route there are citrus orchards--long threads near the roadway or patches climbing up the hills, clutching the soil that has been cleared of rain forest. Virtually all the orchards are now owned by Canadians and Americans, most of them aligned with distant conglomerates. Native Belizeans, many dislocated by the orchards, find seasonal work in the fields or in fruit processing plants located along the highway. Fruit trucks bounce constantly on the road, losing some of their cargo over their wooden rails. They slow, but just slightly, for the many single-lane bridges that span the tropical streams.

About half an hour out of Belmopan, a short dash off the highway in a jungle crevice is Jaguar Creek, the home of a Christian educational center and a retreat haven. In April 2005 a small team of Gordon faculty--Dorothy Boorse, Dick Stout, Cliff Hersey and I--spent time there to explore potential sites for off-campus study.

After a couple days on airplanes, in Mayan temples and on dirt roads, the jungle shelter at Jaguar Creek seemed like an idyll. The new cabins at the center are sparse but spacious and inviting, with just mosquito netting for walls, corrugated tin roofs and a long boardwalk, essential in the rainy seasons. There are boars, parrots, monkeys and reportedly a jaguar or two in the canyon, but the jungle is nocturnal, and the afternoon was quiet with merely the steady hum of insects and the scurrying of birds in the low-lying brush. In those still moments I found a book of poems on the cabin table, a collection by the American Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize winner. One poem, "Acid" kept me from rest:

In Jakarta,
among the vendors
of flowers and soft drinks,
I saw a child
with a hideous mouth,
and I knew the wound was made
for a way to stay alive.
What I gave him
wouldn't keep a dog alive.
What he gave me
from the brown coin
of his sweating face
was a look of cunning.
I carry it
like a bead of acid
to remember how,
once in a while,
you can creep out of your own life
and become someone else--
an explosion
in that nest of wires
we call the imagination.
I will never see him
again, I suppose.
But what of this rag,
this shadow
flung like a boy's body
into the walls
of my mind, bleeding
their sour taste--
insult and anger,
the great movers?
--Mary Oliver

This was not, at least at that moment, a distant image. Though spared most of the violence that ravaged nearby Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador during years of civil strife, Belize has widespread indigence and ecological stains, along with less obvious scars such as high rates of domestic violence and villages displaced for foreign profits. We had seen considerable beauty--cohune palms, broadleaf forests and scarlet macaws--but also sewage and urban debris in the stagnant mouth of the river in Belize City. More than 40 percent of the rural residents fall under the nation's relatively low poverty line, and this former British colony recently dropped below the median on the United Nations development list.

As I rested in the Belizean jungle, I felt that the dagger of Oliver's poem was not just its searing reminder of human poverty and our own meek charity. It was also the intimation that human dignity and restoration depend upon the imagination, that "nest of wires" that some scientists consider merely a biological accident.

Oliver's lines stopped me in part because I had been thinking a great deal about the elusive notion of a "moral imagination." On a few occasions I have suggested this expression might convey something about the distinctive DNA of Gordon College--or, perhaps more importantly, our future vision. There is risk here, of course. Among evangelicals, it is tough to link morality with creativity, especially since no one can translate the imagination into code. At times it is hard to accept the notion that truth and justice might draw upon creative epiphanies--those neurological "explosions" in our brains.

First used by British philosopher Edmund Burke, the concept of a moral imagination has a long history, with heirs on the right and the left. Some contemporary writers, such as Harvard's Robert Coles, stress the need to recover an imaginative life that fosters moral growth, personal discovery and empathy. They contend our imaginations can be nourished by the difficult journeys through the world's bravest books. They challenge us to nourish those imaginations with more tales about human relationships and responsibilities, and fewer films and parables about libertine joys.

Other writers emphasize that the imagination is increasingly necessary for social justice, responsible citizenship and the creative resolution of human conflict. Weary of logjams in government, these scholars have seized the concept of moral imagination as an appeal to overcome the ideological loyalties that too often pass for thought. Many of us--in the academy, the legislature and the Church--were so caught in our polemical allegiances that we were slow to accept the tragic proportions of the AIDS pandemic or the scourge of alcoholism and abuse in broken homes. We still struggle to own up to the ethical repercussions of overconsumption, massive incarceration, state violence and the most lucrative biotechnology, in part because we can imagine few remedies.

As John Paul Lederach observes in his study The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, all the varying notions of a moral imagination dwell on "the quality of transcendence"--the patience, ethical fervor and intellectual agility to escape "what appear to be narrow, short-sighted or structurally determined dead-ends." This is at least in part what theologian Richard Hays urges us to do when he urges Christians to live in "imaginative obedience" to the "moral vision" of the gospel. Our challenge is to approach the imaginative life--as well as the liberty in the liberal arts--not as open flight toward personal independence, but as the rich soil for moral development and restorative justice. A moral imagination can be a lens that enables us to see the world more frankly and fully. It is the acid of hope.

Just before we drove to Jaguar Creek, we spent a night in Hopkins, a small bicycle town with its own dialect--mostly a two-mile string of wooden homes and red-dust lots near a ribbon of beach. The next morning was warm; the humidity would rise, but early on at least we had the advantage of the ocean breezes. Before heading into the hills, we drove north through the peninsular city of Dangriga, the center for the Garífuna, or people of mixed African and Caribbean descent. We needed gas and a quick stop at a bank or ATM. Dangriga recently scrapped its former English name for a Garífuna label; once a center of Caribbean slavery, it is now a place of great cultural resurgence, a port city with inventive reggae, pop and dance.

It is also, according to the guidebooks, a risky place to linger at night. Banks and shops had iron grills. There were bars and pawn shops all along the "sweet waters," or the heavily littered Stann Creek that split the town. The street merchandise was faded, much of it secondhand (Dorothy did find one offbeat Red Sox cap, but Cliff came up empty at the banks). While they were absorbed, I allowed myself a brisk, one-block dash to see the bridge over the river, apparently a lure for the foot traffic and idlers. Not surprisingly, this was a tourist corner, and in the relative quiet of April I was an easy magnet. Although able to avoid one combative broker near a tobacco stand, I hustled by a young boy with facial sores, shoeless, hand up for cash. Ignoring him took a quick, hard swallow--but we had a schedule to keep. A few hours later, while reading in that quiet cabin at Jaguar Creek, the acid suddenly hit.

It is such a familiar dilemma. Street charity may be shortsighted and even counterproductive, too often a lifeline for drugs and alcohol. At best it is a momentary balm for deep, cancerous wounds. I thought about the many mission teams from well-meaning colleges that have rushed naively into poor neighborhoods to distribute soup or Bibles without the discipline to learn anything about the macroeconomic, cultural or community development issues in the region. I was certainly guilty myself of going to Belize on minimal homework.

On the other hand, as I have since discovered, there are some imaginative projects attempting to address human needs in Belize, many under the radar screen of most political or media reports. These include projects to improve the education and safety of women; projects to connect indigent urban youth and small rural business to the opportunities of the expanding ecotourism and agricultural diversity; and churches devoted to rural literacy and shelter for the abused. Several partnerships between NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and educators strengthen local and urban democratic practices, providing an antidote to the authoritarian tendencies that are often apparent after the end of colonial rule.

Months later, though, I am still left with that image of a hungry child, one without any "look of cunning." Now it seems like nothing more than moral leisure on my part to stride by a poor child in the name of some larger educational vision. Jesus, an itinerant, ministered to and healed those he encountered at the fringes. Part of the revolutionary power of Christ's ministry was that he walked outside the major social corridors of education, worship and economy. But he also prompted us to engage these social engines in order to build social hope. In fact, one of the great imaginative challenges in the New Testament is precisely this effort to bridge from the immediacy, the Parousia, the highly personal appeal of the gospel to the culture building evident in the epistles.

We are in a very real sense still engaged with that challenge. Taking students to places like Dangriga--or Boston, for that matter--where want takes a human face, seems ever more essential to the goal of being a liberally educated citizen in a global community. But how does a college with global hopes balance compassion and critique? How does one walk, either alone or with students, into these streets with their palpable suffering and their intricate and seemingly intractable problems, and not leave with the impression that the destitute have served merely as part of our pedagogical landscape? Then again, how do we ensure that we are prompting not just the reflex of compassion but also the resolve of the imagination?

I left Belize realizing that I must imagine new ways of being obedient to my vocation as a Christian academic--and to the moral vision of the gospel.

Mark L. Sargent, Ph.D., has been the provost of Gordon College since 1996. He has a particular interest in international education and travels frequently with his wife, Arlyne, and three children. Of his role at Gordon Sargent says "Most of all, my task is to interpret the mission of Christian higher education as one of empathy and hope."


Nest of Wires
Creating the nest of wires