by Ryan Bemis

This article first was published in Medicinal Roots Magazine Summer 2020 Issue and has been republished here with permission from the author and publisher.

In February 2020, on the eve of the Coronavirus outbreak in the Americas, I’m sitting in a circle of volunteers from base Christian community groups, down at the end of a dusty road that cuts off the Pan-American Highway past the rural villages in a place in southern Nicaragua that the people call ‘Panama,’ finding myself at a remote farm, way out among tens of thousands of coffee trees in Carazo that no longer produce much anymore due to climate change, but where they’re experimenting with crops like turmeric, and therapies like acupuncture.

Under a corrugated metal shelter next to a blackboard scribbled with ideas of drought-resistant seeding, the breeze bristles the banana trees to the tune of birdsong and monkey howls, and huddled into a corner of one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, we went around the circle to a question:

How does solidarity show up in your world?

One by one the stories pour out of each community worker and acupuncturist, all participants in our Solidarity Immersion Program. Then it comes to Juan Carlos, a young, tall, lanky, timid campesiño, or small farmer. I first met Juan Carlos when he took our NADA ear acupuncture training last summer, and I’ve since learned that he is much more than just a campesiño: he is a revered community leader who teaches other farmers how to stop slashing and burning and how to quit using chemicals on their crops, but had never practiced healthcare before learning NADA. I remember the intensity of his indelible gaze, unfailingly locked in, eyes peeled and bulging toward whoever is speaking, though he himself rarely speaks up. Then all of a sudden, enclosed among his peers and my peers as the mid-day sun beats all of our shoulders, he opens up.

“I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before in my life,” announces Juan Carlos as he perks up from under his curved baby blue brim baseball hat.

“When I was 10, I lost my best friend. My brother was drafted into the civil war. Months later my father passed away. Then my mother left to work in a factory and live in the city, leaving my grandmother to raise me. I saw my mom every two months. And it took me five years to get the courage to confront her and ask, ‘Why did you abandon me? I need you in my life’.”

He said this was the first time in his life that he was able to stand up and ask for what he wanted. And she listened, beginning with more regular visits thereafter. At age 15, Juan Carlos knew his calling:

“At that moment I made a decision that I was going to find a way to change the world.”

He shared with us that for the past year he’s been going from village to village, from one family farm, one church, to another, setting up mini clinics, inviting people into circles, putting a few needles in their ears as they sit in silence together.

Then came March 2020 and Coronavirus. As an acupuncturist living in the United States, it really became far too easy to get caught up in a host of what I call first world problems: being confined to home, floundering impatiently through the process of applying for small business loans; worrying the possibility of my business dying and sinking into that seductive self-pity spiral. How is this going to impact me?

In early April Juan Carlos calls me up. He says a friend is in the hospital with Coronavirus wanting acupuncture and he wants to know if it’s okay to treat him. As hard as it was, I told him I…don’t think he should.

“You gotta think about your kids at home, Juan Carlos.”

I had shut my clinic down, not having personal protective equipment, and I knew he certainly didn’t either. Although he knew some protocols that would have helped alleviate his friend’s suffering, the point was much broader than that.

You see, people like Juan Carlos can’t just stay at home and watch Netflix and do Zoom calls and live off of savings, waiting for the pandemic to pass.

Like many other places in Latin America, the new epicenter of COVID-19, they simply don’t have the luxury to remain socially distant.

What kind of role can acupuncture play as part of the response to this global crisis? The differences between myself and Juan Carlos has me diving into this question more deeply than ever.

You may be thinking “Great! Help me develop a business plan for my clinic!†I honestly have no answers to questions about how to run a business in such an uncertain climate or for the long haul, for that matter, and I have no idea how the future economy can support your acupuncture practice.

Neither do I have anything to arm your arguments for why acupuncture is or isn’t essential or how to stand up for your constitutional rights to put needles in people, or how superior acupuncture could be right now.

No, I’m thinking about people like Juan Carlos, out there on the fringes where few doctors and no acupuncturists and everyday people are determined to change the world with whatever resources come to hand. While I have relatively more education and experience in acupuncture than Juan Carlos, in the community that he leads, he is the one to help his people with acupuncture.

How many others are out there that, like him, with a few new skills, the right equipment, and solid training could bring more dignity to life and death? What needs to happen in ourselves, as acupuncturists in the privilege of our North American lives, to become their allies?

When we own up to our own privilege as educated, predominantly white North American acupuncturists, we can more clearly see ways that can truly be of use, and we, of service in these changing times. When we are clear about serving the underserved, we can zero in on models of acupuncture care that are the most accessible to those who need it most.

When we free ourselves from being the saviors of the disadvantaged and the gatekeepers of ancient healing secrets, harnessing the magical enigma of East Asian Medicine, we can reframe our role as agents of social liberation. Then we can look clear-eyed into the unfiltered real-world lens on acupuncture in the Americas: mostly unavailable to underserved communities, the poor, the disenfranchised, and people of color. By taking the blinders off and daring to move beyond hash-tagging #blacklivesmatter, we can look at the truth: that we have, as acupuncturists, failed communities of color. We can take responsibility for the systemic inequities that our profession is a part of. Only then can we see the suffering individual in the context of social and systemic problems. We can then work to get to the root of illness: community disempowerment and a capitalist model of healthcare that leaves more behind than it serves.

Conscious that our private practices, even our community acupuncture clinics, and even our well-intentioned medical mission relief projects are part of the same crumbling profit-driven model at the root of problems like those in Juan Carlos’ community, we can better employ acupuncture as a capacity building tool for community powered health. Going to the root of illness, we can reinforce the strengths of local groups, using needles to help build grassroots resilience.

There are established models within our tradition that exemplify liberation acupuncture, like the barefoot doctor movement, pioneers like Miriam Lee in California and the Young Lords and Black Panthers in New York, the refugees of Guatemala, of Kenya, of Burma, and the needling nuns of Mexico, all rising out of the disasters of their times, turning towards the needs of the people, taking a risk on something new. Their courage offers us possibilities for acupuncture as an agent of social liberation and models that can communities of color can use for their own healing.

All it requires from us, as acupuncturists, is that first micro-shift in our souls, a shift that can liberate our hearts from conventional models that have frankly not been enough. Resetting and rethinking our role as acupuncturists is required if we want to aid in the recovery ahead.

Today as I write, news of a friend, an evangelical pastor who died of COVID-19, shocks our NADA Nicaragua community. Through March his church offered NADA just a few meters off the same highway that transverses the continent and runs through my home in New Mexico. Each week we hear news of more friends in Juan Carlos’ corner of Nicaragua passing away from this pandemic.

Each week we hear of violence escalating across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where neighbors of our volunteers knock on their doors and ask for help. Each week communities of color continue to stand up for themselves, and ask for what they need, echoing the generations before determined to change the world. Like Juan Carlos’ mom, we can listen, we can discern consciously how to be in solidarity with them, as allies, holding space for them to take control of their own healthcare, we can join the struggle and stumble and get back up through this sobering, pivotal, crucial 2020.

About the Author

Ryan Bemis, DOM, RT, is co-founder of Crossroads Acupuncture and serves as Executive Director, teacher and acupuncturist for the non-profit organization. He has over 20 years of experience working in community health and outreach. Ryan learned about acupuncture while working in the addictions recovery field. In 2011, he moved from Portland to start the first ever community acupuncture clinic in Las Cruces. In 2013, he turned Crossroads into a non-profit organization, and donated the clinic to the newly formed Crossroads Community Supported Healthcare. Learn more.