Jim Burchell, Presente!

It is difficult to write of a friend in the past tense; to say, “He was a good man”, or “He was a funny guy.” “Was” seems to final. But then death is final and I suppose we need to find ways to accept the passing of friends; putting them in the past is one way we do this. But today, at least for today, I want our friend Jim Burchell to be present.

In solidarity circles we have a ceremonial litany of names of people who have died, each name followed by a collective statement, “presente” – you are here with us. Jim, you are here with us – in our hearts, in our minds, in our memories.

Jim Burchell, Presente!

Jim was recently profiled by an alumni magazine for the University of New Hampshire where he received his bachelor degree in 1980. As a student, Jim was also a state legislator in New Hampshire, and for a time, a member of the Rochester City Council. When Jim moved to Michigan to get a Masters degree in public policy he organized a referendum of opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Nicaragua, and also to establish a sister-city relationship with Juigalpa, Nicaragua. The vote was successful. During this time, Jim also worked as a regional organizer for the Quixote Center’s Quest for Peace program, opposing Reagan’s proxy war and sending cargo containers of material aid destined for those most affected by the war.

Later, moving to New Jersey, Jim continued working with the Quixote Center as shipping coordinator. He launched his own organization, PeaceWorks, to send humanitarian assistance to community groups in Nicaragua, work he has done for over 30 years now. Jim’s life has been an exercise in effective community service and activism. More recently, he served on the Center’s Board of Directors.

Jim you are here with us. Presente!

In that same University of New Hampshire alumni profile Jim said, “We’ve made these personal and professional relationships that help to put a human face on global warming, promote fair trade, and focus on the plight of street children. On a micro level we’re able to help people, and on a macro level we inform even more people. It’s not a one-way street when you do this kind of work. It’s not selfless. You gain a lot.”

Jim you are here with us. Presente!

I knew Jim through his work with the Quixote Center, PeaceWorks, and his passion for gardening. He coordinated our cargo container shipments until 2009 when we stopped them. During my tenure at the Quixote Center from 2001-2008 and again from 2011 to this past January, Jim was a valued advisor and strategist, creative thinker and political analyst. Jim was a brilliant guy, but you had to spend time with him to discover just how brilliant he was. His soft and intentional way of speaking did not hint at the fire burning inside. At least, not at first. But man, get him talking politics from Managua to Jersey City and you’f find out how much he knew, and how deeply he felt it.

Jim you are here with us. Presente!

My relationship with Jim has mainly been through our work together. That work is serious in many ways, and so to keep going, it is best done with a healthy dose of humor. Jim’s smile and eyes, crinkling a little deeper at the corners each year, were always a welcome part of the discussion, and his jokes, well sometimes weren’t sure it was a joke or where he’s going at first, but once you caught up with him you realized how funny he was.

Jim you are here with us. Presente!

Jim struck me as a bit of a contradiction at times. He committed his life to others and engaged in many public campaigns, organizing people to get things done. Though living in this very public way, he was a private guy. He didn’t give away much, at least not easily, of his person, in conversation. He didn’t like being the focus of attention (sorry Jim!). Though he helped many, he was reluctant to ask for any help for himself. On the last score, I am much the same way, and know the stubborn refusal to reach out can wear on a person’s heart.

Jim you are here with us. Presente!

Jim, like many friends, fell in love with Nicaragua, and with the people he worked with there: The glue-sniffing kids and their care givers at Inhijambia; the women at the Masaya Women’s Collective who are pushing back against sexual violence and striving for the economic independence that will allow them to leave abusive relationships; the members of the Federation of Campesinos and the El Porvenir Organic Coffee Cooperative, each struggling to carve out a sustainable future for rural communities.

Jim often quoted Thelma Fernandez Solis when talking about this work, “We work shoulder-to-shoulder in the consciousness-raising of our people, so that each day new compañeros become involved in this task of human dignity that unites men and women from far-away lands, of distinct colors and races, of different histories, but with a common denominator– to give true meaning to our lives.”

Jim you are here with us. Presente!

Jim also liked to quote Joan Dye Gussow, “As long as you have a garden you have hope.” Jim planted many gardens, working shoulder to shoulder with friends and family to create new spaces of liberation and sometimes simply understanding. Jim’s work is the work of hope, work that is so desperately needed in these times. It is the work that will continue, and with it the life that inspired it.

Jim you are here with us. Presente!

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