Can you hear me now?

Mission worker speaks via Skype to New York children about pollution in Peru

July 9, 2009

PC(USA) mission worker Jed Koball talks via Skype with school kids in Brooklyn, NY

PC(USA) mission worker Jed Koball talks via Skype with school kids in Brooklyn, NY, who have become interested in the plight of kids in La Oroya, Peru, where Koball serves. —Presbyterian Hunger Program

LIMA, Peru

What do you like most about living in Peru?

Why are you wearing a sweater in June? Is it cold there?

Why is there so much pollution in La Oroya?

What can we do to help?

Are you really in Peru? It looks and sounds like you’re just next door!

The questions of children. The marvels of modern technology. In this case, Skype, a  software that enables free voice and video transmissions over the Internet.

Last month Ms. Bee Ladd’s fourth- and fifth-grade class at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn, NY, invited me to join them via a video conference call to discuss the most actively contaminated place on the face of the planet — La Oroya, Peru. It’s a place so contaminated that 97 percent of the children of La Oroya (their age and younger) have lead poisoning.

Having researched the issue of La Oroya on their own, Ms. Ladd’s students learned about the metallurgical processing plant called Doe Run Peru that is creating the pollution in La Oroya, a town of about 30,000 tucked in the Andes Mountains about three hours outside of Lima.

They also learned that the owner of Doe Run Peru is a fellow American, a New Yorker even. In fact, the owner, Ira Rennert, is a billionaire who was born and raised in the very same streets of Brooklyn where they live and play and walk to school each day.

And so if it felt like this Skype call from Lima was coming from just next door, in many ways it was!

I myself came to Peru from New York a mere five months ago. Called to serve as the companionship facilitator for Joining Hands — Peru, a ministry of the Presbyterian Hunger Program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I have been discovering and imagining the ways in which Presbyterians do mission in partnership today.

Arriving in Peru from a culture that has been radically transformed by digital media and social networking — tools that have affected everything from political campaigns to the authority of news media and the ways in which we keep up with friends and loved ones — I began to wonder how such a shift would influence how we relate with one another across cultures and across great distances. How will it affect our work in partnership?

A couple of days after sharing with the fourth and fifth graders of P.S. 58, an article about Doe Run Peru and Ira Rennert was published in the New York Times. Immediately the e-mails began flowing with requests for more video calls, hopefully this time a kid-to-kid interaction. They want to be at the heart of the issue, the heart of the solution. A movement was budding online.

What’s particularly fascinating about Ms. Ladd’s awesome group of young learners is not only are they from Brooklyn and not only are they helping shape the way in which technology is transforming education and activism, but also they themselves are considered to be disadvantaged and marginalized within their own neighborhood — some coming from impoverished backgrounds, some with family in Latin America.

To learn about the suffering of an entire generation of children in another part of the world touches upon a sensitivity that is among their greatest strengths.

This is the beauty of partnership today. This has been the heart of Joining Hands.

It was nearly 10 years ago that the cause of La Oroya began when the good folks of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery in the St. Louis area became involved and impassioned when they learned that the same billionaire, Ira Rennert, from Brooklyn, New York, who was contaminating La Oroya, Peru, was also responsible for the contamination of neighborhoods outside St. Louis.

What the digital world makes so clear and evident today is what the suffering people of the world, from St. Louis to Peru to New York, have known for ages: it’s a small world, and it’s very interconnected. How we use our connections, how we live in partnership is the mission before us.

It’s the mission we’re living out through Joining Hands.

As for those questions: What do I like best about living in Peru? New partners — and the new perspective they give me.

Is it cold in Peru? Much more so than I anticipated!

Why is there so much pollution in La Oroya? Because the voice of conscience is still but a whisper.

What can you do to help? Shout a little louder.

Am I really here? I am here just as you are there, just as the Spirit is with us wherever we are gathered, two or three in person — and even online.

For information about and letters from PC(USA) mission workers around the world, visit the Mission Connections Web site.

More information about Joining Hands work in Peru and other places around the world is available in the program’s newsletter , which is available online.

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