‘I was in prison, and you visited me’

A Presbyterian woman serving on commissions to fight impunity and corruption in Guatemala remains imprisoned after she was accused of abusing her authority. Virginia Laparra, however, insists that her “crime” was fulfilling the duties of her job to bring charges against a judge. My aunt, the Rev. Leslie Vogel, writes here about how her pastoral visits to Virginia have transformed her during this Lenten season.

The chain of events that first introduced me to Virginia Laparra was set into motion on Ash Wednesday, March 2. What has happened since then has pushed me far outside my comfort zone.

Leslie Vogel

I am so proud to serve alongside Leslie, who has modeled missiology, courage, and faith for me my whole life.

A missionary’s call to life abundant

So often, we read these verses in Luke 14:26-27, where Jesus says his followers must be willing to leave their families and take up their cross, as a prescription for how Jesus expected his missionaries or even all his followers to be in the world, in self-abnegation, suffering, denial, asceticism. I do not believe that this is what God wants for us, any of us, including mission co-workers. Yes, we make sacrifices, but we also walk alongside many people who do not have the option to sacrifice, who have sacrifice thrust upon them. Read my latest PC-USA World Mission newsletter here.

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.