LA PAZ, Bolivia

Harness buckled. Chalk bag clipped. 8-knot tied. Climbing shoes squeezed on. One look up. “All right, rock, it’s you and me.” 

I have recently started to dabble in the art of rock climbing. Perhaps it was unavoidable, living in La Paz at 12,000 ft, surrounded by amazing mountains and natural formations. And it is indeed an art. I have always been a lover of the environment and outdoors, but this sport literally puts you in the heart of nature and in her hands.

In learning the technique of how to elegantly move my hands and feet in a graceful rhythm with the figures of this nature-made structure, there is a sensation of being "one with the rock." As you attempt your ascent, your mind can only think about your next movements and how to move yourself using the textures and crevices nature has left you. 

It is an individual sport — a mental and physical challenge with one’s self. But one can never forget the person who holds the other end of your rope — attentively watching your every move, should you make one wrong step.

Many people may claim that you need muscles and strength for rock climbing, but one quickly learns that the key movements are not about power or strength, but about balance and focus. I of course do not claim to be an expert rock climber, but I am learning with each route and ascent how to open my eyes and see the natural steps provided for me.

How relevant this sport is to the work and mission of Joining Hands — a work of opening eyes, taking small steps and finding balance. I became more aware of this during a recent delegation visit from my home church, East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., and students from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

They came to learn more about Bolivia, its culture, our work as UMAVIDA within this culture, and the work of its individual partner organizations. Though the altitude is always a challenge for any visitor coming from sea level, this group of seven pushed through these body-demanding obstacles and took in as much of the culture as they could during their 10-day stay, with visits varying between 9,000 and 13,300 ft.

They saw the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bolivia’s outreach for children during after-school hours, providing scriptural, spiritual and ethical education and nurture. They experienced an apthapi (Andean potluck) with members of the Lutheran Church, learning of their struggles of membership loss and lack of ordained pastors, while communally eating a greater variety of potatoes than they thought possible, immersed in the setting of the Altiplano (High plain) and the snow-capped Royal Mountain Range.

They learned of the mining issues in Potosí and the work to reduce the number of children working in the mines through the education and capacity building programs of the Center for Regional Development. They even experienced a road blockade by protesting miners, setting us back five hours in our travels but allowing us to see the reality in which Bolivians live and act to have their voices heard.

One of these voices that they heard clearly was from the Center for Ecology and Andean People (CEPA), an UMAVIDA partner organization in Oruro. Through these voices they learned about the ongoing UMAVIDA campaign calling for environmental justice and corporate responsibility for the closing of the Kori Kollo mine and leaving an accumulation of contamination of the surrounding communities from its 25+ years of operation.

This campaign has been a continual struggle, beginning with the community call for an environmental audit by the government, the carrying out of the audit by consultants, the release of the audit (a year and a half later than scheduled), the community-commenting period of 15 days to read a 600+-page technical document, and the wait for the final audit report and response of the government.

Though it seems to be a hopeless and uphill struggle, we are not alone. We may look up at the rock and think it is impossible to ascend and reach our goal, but we cannot forget the people who hold our rope. They are those who are there, not to tell us what to do or where to go, but to be with us in our movements, as only we can be the guides of our path and story — one that is always interconnected with others.

The Joining Hands program, with its emphasis on partnership between each Joining Hands global network and U.S. presbyteries and congregations in order to move forward together on a shared issue, has allowed us to continue in this campaign, connecting us with Earth Justice of San Francisco, a nonprofit environmental law firm, as well as Dr. Serrano, a professor of Environment and Occupational Health at St. Louis University.

These partners and their expertise in mining and health have helped us persevere in our campaign and have given us more knowledge about possible future steps that we would not have seen without them.

Each step of the campaign we take together may seem long and difficult. But we must remember that the goal is not about obtaining or exerting the power and strength transnational companies hold over national companies or governments in order to contaminate communities and the environment and violate so many human and environmental rights.

These slow steps, taken with grace and thoughtfulness, are about staying focused on the goal and finding a balance. We are asking that these contaminating corporations see that God’s Creation is not for individualistic progress, but for the progress of all.

We must climb together in this struggle — those who are wearing the harness and are in the thick of the movement and those who are holding the rope, moving in solidarity and giving support to that mutual movement, thereby moving toward transformation, both in one’s self and in the greater world’s policies and practices.

This mutual transformation is about being open to the newness around you. Any time newness is introduced in one’s world, one’s eyes are opened. I thank the Pittsburgh delegation for walking with us these 10 days, for listening, for allowing their eyes to be opened and for opening mine to the beautiful and endearing Bolivian culture and the UMAVIDA work that I saw anew through seven new sets of eyes.  

As I prepare for my three-month interpretation assignment in the U.S.A. to visit and share the work of UMAVIDA with churches and presbyteries, I take on the task with gratitude. I may not be wearing my harness and climbing shoes or physically be in La Paz working with UMAVIDA, but with the guidance of God’s call for justice and life abundant, I will search for those elegant words to share with you all about our movement toward solidarity of partnership, responsibility of power, and a balance of rights and justice.

And with this we will stand on the top of the rock and shout, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that live in it” (Psalm 24)!

As a Joining Hands network companionship facilitator, Chenoa Stock helps build bridges of solidarity between coalitions of churches in the United States and a network of churches, grassroots groups and non-governmental organizations in Bolivia.