One evening in January 1988, nine Denison students and several professors sat on cane rocking chairs on a screened porch in Managua, Nicaragua, at the home of Gustavo Parajón ’59 and his wife Joan Morgan Parajón ’58. The students, visiting Nicaragua for January Term, were talking with the Parajóns and other invited guests about the long and deadly conflict between the country’s Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels. (The United States’ role in the conflict resulted in the Iran-Contra Affair, an international political scandal involving the covert sale of weapons by the U.S. to Iran, the proceeds of which were diverted secretly to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.)
The students’ visit to Nicaragua came at a historic time. The Esquipulas II Accord among Central American countries, which laid out a framework for economic cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution, had been signed the previous August. Each country was to create a National Reconciliation Commission to develop a grassroots, on-the-ground plan for peace. Four people—the archbishop, a member of the ruling party, a member of the opposition party, and a distinguished private citizen—would comprise each commission. In Nicaragua, that distinguished citizen was Gustavo Parajón, a physician and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Managua.
Parajón, who died in March this year at the age of 75, was an extraordinary figure—and not only for his role in those peace negotiations. In 1972 when an earthquake killed thousands of Nicaraguans and collapsed most of the buildings in Managua, the Nicaraguan government, then under the repressive Somoza family dictatorship, was unwilling or unable to do what was necessary to help its citizens. So Parajón, who earned his medical doctorate from Case Western Reserve and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard, founded the Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua (CEPAD) within four days of the disaster to provide emergency relief. CEPAD quickly became the largest Nicaraguan disaster relief organization and later broadened its mission to include development programs, including training in agricultural practices for farmers and the development of water and sanitation facilities.
When the Somoza regime toppled in 1979, and the Sandinista government came to power, Parajón’s significance skyrocketed, says George Williamson, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granville. Nicaragua was nearly 50 percent illiterate. The new government made national literacy one of its first priorities, launching the national literacy campaign with the support of organizational structures already in place through CEPAD as well as PROVADENIC (the Project of Vaccinations and Community Development of Nicaragua), which Parajón also founded to train village leaders to become health care providers and manage small rural clinics. In what has been called a “country-wide miracle,” more than 50,000 volunteer teachers, mostly high school students, were mobilized to teach reading throughout the country. In just five months, 400,000 Nicaraguans were taught to read and write, bringing the illiteracy rate down to 12 percent. “Gus’ commitment to the work of the Gospel, that is, to help the poor, the sick, and the disinherited, was exemplary,” says Ron Santoni, emeritus professor of philosphy, who was part of the Denison group that met with Parajón in Managua.
In 1985, CEPAD was tapped to help form local peace commissions in the villages most affected by the war. The members of these groups—pastors, priests, local citizens, members of the opposition, even ex-Contras—were carefully chosen so that rebel soldiers could literally lay down their arms, receive amnesty, and be integrated into their villages without having to fear for their personal security.
But troubled times were not yet behind the country. Contra forces, seeking to destabilize the new government, specifically targeted the villages where health and development programs like CEPAD and PROVADENIC had a presence. They sent Parajón death threats by phone and through public radio.
But that didn’t stop Parajón and his team from going into war zones to assist in the peace commissions. They traveled without bodyguards, and Parajón carried only a notebook and a Bible. Once his team was stoned by an angry mob. Another time his vehicle was hit by bullets, but miraculously, nobody was injured.
While he was gone, his family and members of his congregation would hold their breath. In the evening, they would keep lookout for Parajón and his entourage. The villages were remote, the mountain roads rough and challenging, making for long hard days for the travelers. Often it was quite late when they pulled into sight. But always, when they finally returned, there was first the sigh of relief, and then great jubilation—everyone singing and dancing and hugging.
You could get a sense of Parajón’s leadership style that January evening as he sat on his porch with those Denison students. He could have lectured at great length about the war and the enormous changes now taking place in Nicaragua. Instead, he engaged the students in conversation and called on the people from CEPAD there that night to tell their stories.
“What astounded me,” remembers Jack Kirby, professor emeritus of history, “was that this guy was enormously modest and had that real capacity to reach out to other people. Gus was a doctor and minister. Those things guided his policies. He worked to connect with everybody.”
That, in a way, was the point of the trip. The Denison group would go on to visit places where they could see the effects of war. They went to a child-care center that had been bombed and into hospitals that were “horribly ill-equipped,” according to Bill Nichols, professor emeritus of English. “We met a woman who had just come with her 3-year-old girl because her village had been attacked and her husband and other children had been killed.” Nichols still chokes up when he talks about it. “Our January term in Nicaragua was life-changing for many-—students and faculty alike,” says Santoni.
What they would take away form their trip was the humanity that Parajón embodied and the recognition of how the organizations he founded, and the people he touched, worked to bring a divided country back together again.