Seeking justice in the conscience of community

From my latest newsletter:

“I’m used to my rugged individualism as a white North American, the ability to make decisions for myself. But I won’t be able to reason my way into the value of the community conscience. I will have to humble myself before the community. One duty the missionary certainly has, my students agreed, is to make the decision in concert with the most vulnerable people in the scenario: the Honduran church partners and students of the missionary’s classes, and any unvaccinated person the missionary comes in contact with, as well as the Honduran health care workers who have been the most at risk of infection and death. ‘Un caso menos,’ one student said. ‘One case less.'”

The reign of God is near

From my latest newsletter:

“After the hurricanes, the Presbyterian Church of Honduras expected to serve one community with maybe 100 food bags and a medical clinic. Instead, thanks to the collaboration and commitment of more than 50 volunteers and several U.S. donors, including the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency, the church has distributed more than 1,500 bags of food, held two clinics, and is planning on holding two more clinics in the coming two months. It is the first time that an all-Honduran Presbyterian volunteer team has mounted an effort like this. The effort is transforming the church’s idea of what mission is. It can seem that because we have needs and scarce economic resources, that we have nothing to give anyone else. But the truth is, we create abundance by bravely participating in God’s work and saying ‘yes’ to the call.”

The call by the lakeshore: Be brave

The following was adapted from a sermon I preached to the Presbytery of Santa Fe on Jan. 24, 2021, based on Mark 1:14-20.

I like the Gospel of Mark. It is short and fast-moving, like a newspaper story. There’s no miraculous birth, no shepherds, no magi. It starts with Jesus’ baptism and the calling of the disciples.

On this reading I am especially drawn to the first verse of this passage. It contains so much promise and hope: After John was arrested, Jesus proclaimed…the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near

What complexity is contained in one sentence. The kingdom of God is come near, the great hope of all living under the oppression of an empire. Yet in the same breath, John is arrested as an insurrectionist. The kingdom of God is come near, yet not all is just and righteous. The kingdom of God is come near, and there is work to be done.

Remembering that John had just been arrested changes for me the tone of Jesus’ call, then, to Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee. The writer doesn’t really give us any indication of what the fishermen were thinking as Jesus called them to follow. But I cannot imagine that John the Baptist’s recent arrest wouldn’t have crossed their mind. The guy that just baptized this Nazarene has been hauled up for insurrection, and now he’s calling us to act?

Insurrection. Since the start of the year 2021, that word has new meaning in the United States. I absolutely do not mean to equate John the Baptist to the violent and vandalizing mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol earlier this month. But I do believe there is something we can glean from considering the first-century context of an oppressed people, a tyrannical empire, the mixing of politics and power with religion and greed with justice and discipleship.

Whom do we follow and why? Where is our guiding star?

I’m a mission co-worker in Honduras, and I partner with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras to work on theological education and leadership development. My main supervisor in Honduras is the moderator of the presbytery, Juan Rodas, a longtime pastor, father of three and grandfather of five. Juan’s greatest joy is to walk the mountainsides of Presbyterian communities, talking with pastors and lay leaders, learning about the crops they farm, praying with them, breaking bread with them. Baptizing church members in the nearest creek or lagoon.

In December, as the church was mounting a response to communities affected by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, Juan and I and other Presbyterians in Honduras were thanking God that our communities and churches, situated farther south than the severest damage, were not terribly affected by the disaster. And we were also watching with horror the television images of families trapped on roofs, houses swept away or covered in floodwaters, and the death and destruction. Anyone who was alive in 1998 recalled the trauma of the devastating Hurricane Mitch, from which the country has still not fully recovered.

Thank God we survived, the church prayed. And also…who is our neighbor? Where must we help?

It is a question the church here has been wrestling with all year, and it marks a milestone in the continual growth and transformation of the Presbyterian community here. It is young, a little over 60 years old, and it is small, only 30 tiny, rural congregations. This church has nearly always been the recipient of what we might call mission. This year they have felt called to drive the mission outside the four walls of the church. They started with massive food distributions when lockdown and the pandemic uncertainty was at its most severe. And they ended the year with a medical brigade and food distribution in a non-Presbyterian community severely affected by Hurricanes Eta and Iota.

In November, I sat down with Juan to reflect on what the church has learned. The pandemic has been a lesson in transformation, Juan said. It has been awful, we all acknowledge. But we are saved. We have been saved by Jesus Christ, and this pandemic has taught us that Jesus’ salvation, Jesus’ call, does not keep us from suffering. The virus, the hurricane, all the injustices of the world, don’t care who is Christian and who is not, who is Presbyterian and who is not. Jesus’ call, Jesus’ salvation does not keep us from suffering.

Jesus’ call is to walk into suffering and reach out our hand to those who are vulnerable.

That’s why I wonder how Peter, James, John and Andrew decided to follow Jesus that day by the Sea of Galilee. I wonder if they knew the transformation they were in for. After John the Baptist had been arrested, when a whisper of rebellion or insurrection mean death by crucifixion and destruction of the Temple, how radical must their vision of suffering in the world have been? Are we ready to follow them? To follow Jesus into the utterly unknown transformation? Where are our guiding stars alongside our modern-day sea of Galilee?

After the hurricanes in November, the young people of the Presbyterian Church started looking outward for their guiding stars. My friend and Pastor Juan’s son, Alex Rodas, called me one day in despair after watching 24-hour news coverage of crisis and suffering, and also watching other Hondurans reach out with helping hands. “I want to do something,” he said. “I need to do something.” I didn’t see what could be done. The church has few financial resources in the best of years, and this has not been the best of years. None of us is a professional disaster responder. I told Alex, “We have to believe prayer is enough.”

Presbyterians in Honduras go where no one else wants to go, Alex reminded me. The young people of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras have taken that lesson to heart over the decades of mission efforts and evangelism by their parents and grandparents, and partnerships with U.S. volunteers. The Honduras church had never mounted a medical clinic and food distribution of the scale we started to envision, but many church members had assisted with ones led by U.S. teams, and many church members had been the recipient of medical care and food provided by others. Many of our young members are now professionals such as doctors, pharmacists, and psychologists put through school by Presbyterian scholarships. They know they have skills to share, and most important, love to share, even if the financial resources are thin.

The young people of the church pointed us. They were met with some resistance. You can imagine all the questions, because we in the United States hear them too. “What if we can’t raise enough money?” “Wouldn’t that money be better spent on a Presbyterian community?” “We need to attract more members to our church first, or look into founding a church in that other community.” “It’s not raining any more, the emergency is over.” At the root of all the questions was one: “Whom are we following, and why?”

In the end, a community in need was identified, a medical clinic was mounted, and a thousand household bags of food staples were gathered and packed by hand. Forty-four Honduran volunteers spent 24 hours in a non-Presbyterian community that had experienced a flash flood and lost dozens of homes and at least seven people, including children.

Before the mission day, during our preparation and orientation, Alex was a prophetic voice. “We are under no illusions that this one-day trip is any kind of long-term solution for this town. We are going as much to listen and witness as we are to help. And we are going because it is part of our own transformation as Christians and as Presbyterians.”

The getting up and following Jesus’ call is not the end. It is the middle of a messy life and a messy transformation. Through that transformation we must keep our eyes open and our ears tuned to the guiding stars and the voices in the wilderness telling us where to go. Do we follow the many paths of self-interest and fear? Do we listen to the voices sowing doubt and division?

Or do we step into the unknown, risky, mess, because we hear that voice of love and justice?

What was going through the minds of Peter and James, John and Andrew?

As I watched the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, I took seriously the clear call to unity and mutual love. I recalled the horrible images of violence and insurrection over the previous weeks, and also the many insurmountable divisions and polarizations that I have witnessed over the past decades, and as Biden and Harris took their oaths, I felt a sense of hope for the future. And I also had in the back of my mind, “The kingdom of God is near, yet John the Baptist has been arrested.”

What can we do with that complicated reality?

The poet Amanda Gorman closed her inaugural recitation this way: The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Following Jesus, leaving the lakeshore is no easy thing. Yet we must do it.

God is in the six feet of social distance

This was written as a letter for the Presbyterian World Mission agency.

It has been difficult over the past six months for me to see where God is working. I have been, along with the majority of Hondurans, under orders to stay home, sometimes leaving only once a month for essential business, and doing all my work over a computer screen. This experience runs counter to every cultural norm in Latin America, where warm greetings, handshakes, hugs, and kisses are all but mandatory, especially among church members and where long church services happen multiple times a week, with live preaching, extended singing, and children running every which way.

Where is God in all this? We are not encountering God in the ways we normally do, so how can we realign our vision? These are the questions we asked in mid-September, at the six-month mark of near-total shutdown in Honduras. I invited several colleagues from across Central America to ponder the question: “How has God appeared to you during these six months.” Two of my colleagues had had personal experiences with COVID-19. Santiago Flores, a pastor in El Salvador, had survived a severe case of the illness and had been near death. Several members of his church family have died after contracting the virus. Betzabé Reyes of Honduras had been quarantined with 15 members of her family. She was the first in their small town to test positive for the disease. Her mother was hospitalized for days before recovering.

Betzabé Reyes in 2018, assisting students in a Presbyterian theological education program.

Betzabé, confined to her home with 15 family members, said she felt like a pariah in the community. Although they were taking all possible safety measures, keeping their distance and wearing masks, they heard gossip and jokes and saw neighbors avoid the street in front of their house. Her mother resisted going to the hospital when her symptoms became more severe; she was afraid of becoming infected at the large public hospital, not receiving treatment because of discrimination or lack of resources, and being far from her family. Some religious leaders blamed the victims of COVID-19 for their weakness or lack of faith.

A few days into the family’s isolation, God appeared to Betzabé. (Ella comparte su historia en español aquí.) At the wall around the family’s garden, there appeared a box of food. A young neighbor had taken up a collection. The next day, more donations appeared on the “blessed wall,” along with messages and notes of solidarity, compassion, and encouragement. “You’re not alone; we are with you,” one note read. Betzabé realized that the community was praying and fasting for her and her family and taking up collections to ensure they didn’t go hungry.

God is on the wall, Betzabé told our conference attendees on Sept. 15. God is on the wall. God is in the six feet of social distance. God is among the mourners, among the infected, among the caregivers.

It has helped to realize that, although this global crisis feels unprecedented, it is not. The Rev. Dr. Karla Koll, my colleague from the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica, also shared with our conference. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and early church leaders in Rome also asked the same questions. Where is God? What is the responsibility of Christians? Is our faith stronger or weaker because of this experience?

In 1527, Martin Luther wrote, “Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid persons and places where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” A Christian does not fear death, the Reformers believed, but a Christian does everything possible to avoid causing it.

John Calvin wrote that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means more than not intentionally killing. “I hold that it moreover means that we are to aid our neighbor’s life by every means in our power.”

Karla also pointed to scripture, noting that Christians responded differently to epidemics during the second and third centuries than others did. When the wisdom of the day advised abandoning the sick, Christians walked among the sick, not fearing death. Paul wrote in Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So, where is God in this pandemic? God is where God has always been in every time of suffering: among the sick, among the caregivers, in the six feet of social distance, under the mask, and on the blessed wall.

Feeding a Beleaguered People | Presbyterian Mission Agency

On Palm Sunday, two pairs of church members with two trucks drove out to deliver 250 bags of basic necessities to families across the 27 congregations of the presbytery. They plan to do it all again as soon as possible. … Meanwhile, despite border closings and the threat of spreading the coronavirus between our two countries, deportation flights from the United States continued to land in Honduras. U.S. citizens, seeking virus-related evacuation, were sold seats on the returning ICE-chartered planes.

A good cry, new connections with old friends, staying put are my best medicine

A whole lot has changed for me in a week. One week ago, I was sharing my last Girl Scout cookies with a group of fellow North American women who live in Tegucigalpa. We listened to this poetry reading and reflected on what we can praise in this expatriate life that is rather difficult. Later that evening, life suddenly got more difficult as Honduras closed its borders and mandated a curfew/quarantine for three cities, including Tegucigalpa, in order to try to contain the COVID 19 coronavirus.

Since late last Sunday, Ceiba, Choluteca and Tegucigalpa have been under police-enforced curfew, all businesses closed, and travel in and out of those cities is prohibited. Travel within the cities is limited to private cars, and two people per car. All public transport is prohibited. All schools are closed. All meetings or events of more than 50 people are canceled, but the business closures mean that even many smaller meetings and events are canceled. Police and military are on the streets enforcing curfews and travel bans.

Friday night, the government of Honduras announced the immediate expansion of quarantine/curfew measures to the entire country, beyond the four cities with coronavirus cases. All businesses are ordered closed, with the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets making home deliveries, and small neighborhood groceries (pulperías). Travel is prohibited without documented permission from the government, and police and military posts are enforcing cordons. The borders—air, land, and sea—remain closed to entries and departures. There are provisions for foreigners leaving, supposedly arranged through the foreigners’ embassies, but there is little reliable information about travel. The only thing we know for sure is that we are to stay in place to protect the health of ourselves and others.

I have been home all week. I’m in daily phone and Internet contact with my Honduras mission partners, as well as with my family in the United States. Last night I was on the best three-hour Zoom conference of my life, a 20-year reunion of the University of Missouri McDavid Hall FARC Spotlight open mike. I’m trading memes and tips with my Honduran and North American friends and colleagues who are stuck here. I’ve had movie nights and games with my neighbor bestie, and yesterday a lovely walk through our deserted neighborhood.

Social distance walking at sunset through my Tegucigalpa neighborhood.

This morning as I joined a U.S. colleague’s Facebook Live worship service, my friend during the pastoral prayer said “Lord, we are frightened…” and tears welled in my eyes. I realized that during this past week of absorbing information, counting bags of beans and bottles of water, deciding to stay or to go, and escaping via Netflix, I had not admitted to myself or anyone else that I feel frightened. I worry about my parents’ and grandmother’s health. I worry about how our world is changing and in crisis, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Some of the restrictions and measures (military on the streets) seem extreme and kind of scary to me. This is a country with a long and recent history of military coup and violence done to citizens in the name of national security. I have ministry colleagues in Choluteca, for example, who are monitoring police posts to attempt to keep police accountable in protecting human rights. But weighing all the factors, I think it was probably the right move to slow the spread of this virus in our country. Our infrastructure absolutely could not cope with this contagion unfettered.

Also Friday, the Presbyterian Mission Agency recalled all U.S.-based employees, and my employer World Mission gave non-U.S.-based folks the option of staying or returning. I have decided it is best for me to shelter in place in Honduras for the time being. I believe my risks are lower staying in Tegucigalpa than they are traveling and sheltering with my family in Salt Lake City, Utah. I believe I’ll be able to do the same amount of work from “home” in Tegucigalpa as from “home” in Salt Lake City, and I will have less chance of being shut out of Honduras after the borders start to open up again. The Honduras government has actually been equal to or ahead of the various U.S. governments in restricting movement and mandating “social distancing.”

This crisis has helped me assess my missionary life here in Honduras for the past two years. The truth is, my chosen community is here. I feel safe here. I feel cared for here. I feel committed to the Honduran people. My daily support network, colleagues and friends, whether Honduran or foreign, is local and is staying put. I feel safer in fact than I would feel traveling to the United States for an indefinite amount of time. I feel called to be here.

I am supplied with drinking water and food for the time being, and I expect to be able to resupply as needed. I canceled my birthday party I’d planned for next Sunday. I am privileged to be able to access medical care if needed, in a city with good quality hospitals that I can afford. Furthermore, I am not at high risk of needing medical care related to coronavirus, as I am under the age of 50, and I have no underlying medical conditions.

(I’m not alone. Some of my colleagues in Central America and the Caribbean are returning to the U.S., but I know of colleagues in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Costa Rica who are remaining in-country. Everyone’s situation is different.)

My mission partners of the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras are in the same boat as everyone around the world, with fewer economic resources to cope. They also are not working, their employers, businesses, churches and organizations are closed. Some of our church leaders have had family worship daily, occasionally using Zoom to connect family members across three continents. Technology for that is more limited here than in other places.

The economic situation in this country is going to be very difficult over the next few months. Two-thirds of Hondurans already live below the poverty line, with one third in “extreme” poverty. Even those who are employed are likely to be under-employed or “under the table” employed, and therefore sometimes not eligible for certain government relief actions. It remains to be seen how this will directly affect the church. It certainly already is affecting the church families that many of my Presbyterian friends know. Some NGOs are already expecting donations and grants to be affected, so even charitable efforts will be cut, and organizations are deciding whether to lay people off now or later.

This is also a country whose health care system is in a shambles to begin with, and which could not cope with the numbers of patients that, say, Italy had to cope with last week. And, finally, this is a country whose economy is generally quite precarious, dependent on foreign remittances from families abroad, on foreign aid, and on external multi-national corporations. Local employees and business owners alike are bound to be in dire straits by the end of a country-wide closure.

So, this is a big deal, and the final results are unknown, and living day-to-day in that unknown is quite challenging. I’m a girl who likes to have a plan, and that just isn’t possible. I feel glad to be connected to you all through this. I know all of your lives and routines are being affected, too. Know that you remain in the hearts and prayers of your Honduran brothers and sisters, and we hope that we remain in yours.

An Advent resurrection

The bus driven by a church elder and presbytery treasurer picked me up at 6 p.m. What should have been an hour-long drive took nearly three, fighting the traffic past three shopping malls during Christmas shopping season. (Black Friday sales have been one unfortunate export from the United States to Central America.) We picked up pastors and church elders along the two-lane highway out of town, where capital city hillsides blanketed with adobe and block houses stacked three high gave way to cattle grazing and pine-forest sawmills. We were on our way to Guaimaca, home of the first Presbyterian church of Honduras, named Bethel, to a velorio, or wake, for the wife of the pastor. She had died earlier that afternoon.

The velorio for Ursula de Flores, wife of Cristobal Flores, pastor of Bethel Church in Guaimaca, Honduras

Hers was not the first funeral I had attended in Honduras. The first was on Easter Sunday of 2018. The mother of the presbytery moderator had died the day before. The family had already gathered, as holy week is a vacation holiday for most Hondurans. The Catholic sister giving the homily at the Easter mass deftly interwove the message of the Resurrection with the message of resurrection that all Christians hope for in death. Then the coffin was carried in the presbytery moderator’s pickup truck from the Catholic church to the cemetery, where the protestant family members said their piece.

The second was for the brother of a pastor. Again the family had gathered for a 24-hour vigil, with burial to take place the following day. I showed up in the last hour, joining the procession of cars from the funeral home to the cemetery, transporting a group of kids who had been up all night watching their parents mourn.

The third was also for the wife of a pastor. I traveled with several pastors from the city to the rural mountaintop town, joining the family at the church, and giving the homily, then walking the mile to the cemetery, watching from afar as the family buried their matriarch.

Now, in the first week of Advent, my fourth Honduran funeral, the second to occur during a major religious holiday. As we drove out of town, I watched all the shopping mall traffic from the bus window. I thought back to that Easter Sunday service a year-and-a-half prior.

When I was a hospice and hospital chaplain in the United States, I counseled many families and patients on how to plan for their funerals. Many times I heard the request, “I don’t want a lot of fuss. No service. No big to-do. Just put me in the ground.” I also had patients who had pre-written their own obituaries, pre-paid their funerals, kept up-to-date portraits that were just realistic enough and just flattering enough to look appropriate at the funeral. I had a Mexican-American patient once who joked that instead of paying to transport her body back to Mexico, her family should just prop her up with sunglasses and a drink in the passenger seat of their car, Weekend at Bernie’s-style.

I wonder how some of those patients might have reacted to an unplanned Easter Sunday funeral mass. I thought of some of my own family members, my grandfather, for example, whose ashes spent about five years in a box in my grandmother’s closet before he was buried. There was a funeral at the Nebraska church he pastored, I think, but I was young and don’t remember it. I was old enough to remember the trip we took to his burial in the middle of the Arizona desert. Cousins who had never known my grandfather had joined the family by then. It was during summer, when everyone was out of school, I’m sure, and it was convenient to gather the family in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Actually, I have more than one family member whose cremated remains are in boxes in their next-of-kin’s cupboards, awaiting the right time, or the right gathering, or the right feelings. This fact was rather shocking for my Honduran friends when I told them.

As we drove up to the church in Guaimaca, if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought that the church was celebrating a posada, the Catholic pageant enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for room at the inn in Bethlehem. A giant tent had been set up at the church entrance. Chairs lined the walls of the sanctuary and overflowed into the street under the tent. People came and went freely, paying their respects to various family members and friends. Seemingly out of thin air but actually from the mourning family’s next-door kitchen, small plates of chicken and rice were produced. Even though I politely declined—I had already eaten dinner—my refusal was politely declined; I ate. Trays of coffee, soda, and sweet bread were passed around. Dozens, maybe hundreds, were served that night. We ate chicken, with the open casket, the 50-year-old portrait of the church matriarch on a table surrounded by offerings of bouquets and wreaths of flowers.

This is just how it’s done in Honduras. No matter when a person dies, the family comes, the friends gather, the velorio takes 24 hours, or 48 if the family members are especially far away, or especially wealthy. Then they are buried. Easter Sunday or not. In the middle of the Christmas season or not.

In a way, this is a result of a culture that is less inclined to strict and detailed planning, complicated liturgical calendars, the written word. This culture is oral, in the moment. My U.S. culture is on one hand rather more rigid and documented, but on the other hand, rather lacking in knowing just how to do things when the time comes. At Ursula’s velorio, there were no grand speeches, no liturgy, no hymns. The simple funeral service would have been spare. Prayers, songs, a homily, and more prayer, then food.

I didn’t know Ursula well. I met her a handful of times in the past two years, and each time I prayed with her for comfort in her final days, relief from pain and suffering, and strength to go on, if that is God’s will. I never asked her about her funeral plans. She wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it, I’m sure. But then, there was nothing for her to plan. There is just what is done: A simple gathering. A simple meal. A simple message of the resurrection that comes after grief.  

“I will feel very lonely when I go home,” said Ursula’s husband, pastor Cristobal Flores. “Thank you for your prayers. I need God’s strength.”