The harvest of God’s love

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Looking over the Comayagua valley from the road leaving El Horno.

An Advent reflection on Philippians 1:3-11, written for San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Pastor Juan Rodas, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras, loves to tell the story of how two remote congregations, El Horno and El Sute, joined the denomination. The communities of these churches are at the top of a mountain in the department of Comayagua, Honduras. They are so remote, so small, and so economically poor that the utilities that built electric transmission lines overhead, crossing the mountaintop, didn’t bother to connect the communities to the lines. Most residents are of indigenous Lenca descent and are farmers, of coffee, mostly, and of corn, beans, and other staples. There are roads, but not good ones, so most people walk, or if they’re well-off, ride mules or horses. It’s a five-hour walk to the nearest paved road.

When Pastor Juan began visiting, the churches had already been established, but they were hoping for more connection and were seeking to join a larger denomination. Pastor Juan and his colleagues had visited several times to assess the viability of the tiny communities joining the Presbyterian denomination. At a meeting of the denomination’s board, they had decided that the communities were, sadly, too remote and would stretch the small denomination too thinly. At the time there were only about 20 congregations nationwide. The denomination’s leaders couldn’t imagine committing to the pastoral presence needed in such a remote place.

Pastor Juan and his father-in-law, Pastor Edin Samayoa, arrived in El Horno after walking five or six hours, with the intention of informing the congregations’ leadership of the decision. Some church elders sat and had coffee with the pastors and related the story of how their churches came to be. The missionaries who came to evangelize years prior had been from a larger denomination. They had spent the time they needed to preach the gospel in the towns, but when it came time for the churches to become independent, the missionaries left, saying they couldn’t join the larger denomination because the communities “no son rentables.” In English: The communities weren’t profitable. They wouldn’t be worth the investment of time and effort of a larger denomination. El Horno and El Sute were drains on the resources of the missionaries.

When Pastor Juan tells this story, he nearly always has tears in his eyes. He says that he changed his mind on the spot and couldn’t see his way to telling the dedicated Christians of El Sute and El Horno that they weren’t worth his time. Pastors Edin and Juan returned to the leadership of the denomination with the news that they had two new congregations. “What? I thought we decided the opposite!” they protested.

God’s call to us is not one of economy or feasibility, Pastor Juan says. God’s call to us is one of abundant and merciful love. We are called not to the places in the world that are profitable, but to the places in the world where there is need of love.

I love the affection that Paul shows for the church in Philippi; it reminds me of Pastor Juan’s affection for El Horno and El Sute. “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight…having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” How telling that the harvest he speaks of is not of financial or demographic increase but of righteousness, glory, and praise.

After 10 or 15 years, the churches of El Sute and El Horno are shining examples of community cooperation and unity. They are represented in the denomination’s leadership. They have collaborated with U.S. Presbyterians and local Roman Catholic families to install solar panels and water purification systems in their communities. The students they send to the denomination’s theological education programs are the most dedicated and studious. The presence of the churches has helped encourage investment in coffee and food production rather than in illegal drugs. Family unity and cohesion has increased.

El Horno and El Sute are examples of the transformative power of God’s love.

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PC-USA: Stated Clerk urges U.S. leaders to take new approach with migrants

We, as a body of faith, know that our ancestors both chose to and had to leave their lands because of genocide, family ties, and to answer the call of the Lord. This administration’s plans for those on their way goes against this nation’s global agreements and asylum laws, and our call, as followers of Christ, to welcome the newcomer and love our neighbor. This plan will make our nation smaller. This plan will keep us from being a blessing and from being blessed.

http://www.pcusa.org/news/2018/11/2/stated-clerk-urges-us-leaders-take-new-approach-mi/

On the caravan and those left behind

In last half of the month of October, I passed not a day without hearing conversations about “la caravana” that is making its way from Honduras towards the United States. Sometimes I was part of the conversation; friends and acquaintances would ask me, the only U.S. citizen in the room, what I thought about the caravan, whether I voted for Donald Trump in 2016, how I would change migration laws in the United States if I could. Many in Honduras are divided about the caravan. Mothers express heartbreak and judgment about parents who are carrying toddlers and babies on the dangerous journey, or the same about parents who left their toddlers and babies behind. Young people debate whether they would have gone, given the chance, or express either relief or regret that they didn’t take the chance.

What most everyone agrees is that back here in Honduras, there is very little opportunity for jobs, education, improvement. Two-thirds of people are underemployed. Two-thirds of people live under the poverty line.

The most heartbreaking part of this “caravan” of migrants for me is to see the level to which politicians, governments, media and the powerful are using the “plight” of migrants to amplify their own interests and messaging. The timing of the caravan is no accident, but it is not the first, nor is it a sudden trend or surge. Migration between Central America and the U.S. has been a steady trend since the 1980s, and actually in recent years has decreased, for various reasons.

The media in Honduras, all of which is quite politically biased, is playing the caravan of migrants to either right- or left-wing advantage. The left-wing media is following the caravan daily and blaming the current government for the economic hardship and violence that the migrants are “fleeing.” The right-wing media, in support of the current government, is playing up the difficulty of the journey and the U.S. government’s opposition and threats to cut off U.S. AID and military funding, on which Honduras is dependent. They’re attempting to guilt and shame migrants by saying their choice is harming Honduras. They have arrested at least one caravan organizer, accusing him of being a “coyote” and making false promises to migrants.

Meanwhile, the congresses in both countries are using the caravan as a red herring to divert attention from their activities. In Honduras’s congress last month, a motion was passed to protect the identities of arrested suspects, supposedly in order to protect the suspects’ human rights, but which journalists believe will allow officials to avoid reporting the identities of the targets of corruption investigations. In the United States, several states have passed voter suppression laws while those in office rail against the threats of illegal immigrants attempting to vote.

Immigrants are easy targets. They are exercising their human rights to move in order to improve their opportunities and safety. They are making a gigantic sacrifice—leaving citizenship behind—in the hopes of a brighter future for their families.

What makes me the saddest is the characterization of Honduras as a bleak, hopeless place, the vulnerability of communities and families who lose parents and leaders to the ambition of arriving in the north, and the indifference of church communities who don’t use their prophetic voice to speak truth to power despite the danger of sounding “too political.” There are many problems and difficulties in Honduras, but it is also a beautiful, hospitable, resourceful place to live. Many communities, some of which include Presbyterian churches, are harmed by the exodus of migrants. In Puerto Grande on the southern coast, for example, there is really not a single household that doesn’t have someone “in the north,” usually a parent or both parents, leaving children to be raised by grandparents. The person might send back $200 or $300 a month to support their family, an amount that can buy a lot in Puerto Grande, but it also creates a sense of dependence and idleness. Young people who stay behind have few job prospects, little incentive for education, and lots of opportunity to become involved in delinquent activity.

The trends of violence and economic dependence are exports from the United States. Before mass deportations of imprisoned gang members in the 1980s and 1990s, gangs existed in Honduras, but not nearly to the organized and terrifying level that they exist today. Agricultural subsidies, free trade agreements, and neo-colonial economic policies of the United States have made entrepreneurship and development driven by Hondurans virtually impossible. Unbridled corruption in the government of Honduras rewards connections to the U.S. and compliance with U.S. policies over justice and self-development of the people. It’s said, “When Heidi Fulton says ‘frog,’ Honduran officials say ‘jump.’” (Fulton is the U.S. charge d’affaires at the embassy in Tegucigalpa.)

As for the caravan itself, what few people in the U.S. understand is that there is no “line” for migrants to get into. It is next-to-impossible for Central Americans to get an immigrant visa, and the wait is upwards of 15 years long. Tourist visas are denied more often than not, and they cost $160 per application, whether they are denied or not. In order to apply for asylum, a person legally has to be physically in the country they are asking for asylum, and to apply for refugee status, they must not be physically in their home country.

The “irregular” migration road to the United States is extremely dangerous. I have met people who have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, robbed, beaten, wounded, and maimed on the road. I have met the families of those who died. The caravan is partly timed as a political demonstration aimed at politicians in both Honduras and in the U.S., and we think that most Hondurans who joined the caravan did it not as a political statement but as an attempt at more visibility and therefore more security—safety in numbers and in media interest.

I am glad that the Presbyterian Church-USA has spoken about the question of irregular migration and the inhumane policies and rhetoric of the United States government. I am glad that Presbyterians in the United States are responding to the current caravan. I hope and pray that in the election Tuesday, the values of hospitality, compassion, and global citizenship are reflected.

Call me ‘hermana’

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” ~Acts 9:17

So many new names I’ve heard directed my way in the past year. The professional ones: Reverend. Pastor. Missionary. Compañera.

Then there are the not-so-professional ones, mostly tossed at me by strangers: Mami. Sweetie. Honey. Gringa. Amor. Joven.

There are the friendly ones: My friend and colleague calls me Doriña. Her four-year-old nephew calls me Doyi. Nearly everyone else adds an S on my name: Doris. Something about the Hispanic tongue does that.

Names are important. They are nearly always the first thing established in a new relationship. They set the tone.

This summer, I attended the Presbyterian Women’s Churchwide Gathering in Louisville, and there I met several international partners from other Spanish-speaking countries. Like women across cultures and languages always seem to do, they quizzed me about why I am single and debated whether my 38-year-old body still has time to have children. One Dominican Presbyterian elder and Christian educator gave me a particularly hearty ribbing about how I’m never going to attract a partner if I don’t wear skirts that show my knees. Then, the other Spanish-speaking attendees and I sat for interviews with the group Mujeres Hispanas Latinas Presbiterianas (the Hispanic-Latina Presbyterian Women). The interviewer called me reverenda, which of course I am, but which isn’t normally how I introduce myself to new friends. My Dominican friend was horrified. She had been teasing a reverend for days about showing her knees to catch a husband! Why hadn’t I told her? Why hadn’t anyone else told her? She had been treating me just like any other sister of the church.

That’s the thing, I told her. I want to be treated like any other sister of the church. Sister has become my favorite new name. Hermana is the name that more than any other has caused me to settle into a new way of being.

It is how every church member addresses every other church member in settings formal and informal. Hermana Dori, I’m called, and I call others hermano and hermana, whether they are pastors or children. It strikes me as so warm and friendly, not only because it is a term of equality — that is, it describes a lateral relationship, not a hierarchical one — but also it is distinctly familial.

There are many differences between me and the Hondurans I work with in the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras. Skin color doesn’t even break the surface. But every time I call a pastor I disagree with brother, I am reminding both of us that we are each a child of God and part of a family that is the body of Christ. Every time I hug and kiss each member of the classes that I teach, I call them brother or sister, and I remind myself and them that I have as much to learn as they do.

Ananias knew the power of the word brother. When he called Saul by this name, he transformed their relationship. Before Saul’s experience of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul had been threatening to imprison and kill people just like Ananias. Laying hands on Saul, Ananias was laying hands on his enemy. And he called Saul brother. I wonder if this was not the cement in the conversion experience. Of course, the lightning bolt, divine voice, and sudden blindness had shocked Saul into submission. But the name brother: I believe that perhaps this was the true foundation of his new relationship, partnership, and mission.

By grace, through faith, we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. I continually thank God for you all who listen and follow this mission, and for all who contribute to the precious work God does in Honduras. If you haven’t already, please consider making a financial contribution to help continue our partnership.

Your sister in Christ,

Dori

P.S. I want to update you on several projects that the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras has undertaken in partnership with the Presbyterian Church (USA) this year:

Villa Gracia: The retreat center just outside of the capital Tegucigalpa has successfully come under the direction of the Presbyterian Women of Honduras, and we are less than $4,000 from our fundraising goal. The center was purchased in part with a grant from the Birthday Offering of the Presbyterian Women of the PC(USA). I accompanied Honduran PW Vice-Moderator to the Churchwide Gathering in Louisville, as well as to Northwest Arkansas and to Tampa Bay, Florida, to network and learn about ministry partnerships and other camp and conference centers in those places. What a whirlwind trip, and so fruitful! Nora and I returned feeling inspired and energized about the possibilities at Villa Gracia. Since March, the retreat center has hosted more than two dozen groups, about a third from the PC(USA), about a third from other denominations in Honduras, and about a third from inside the Honduras Presbyterian church. It has become a center of gathering, of learning, and of women’s leadership. The Honduras Mission Network continues to raise funds to complete the purchase of the property and make needed renovations and upgrades, such as plumbing and furniture. If you would like to support this effort, please contact David Gill of Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas: ferncliff@gmail.com

Heart surgery for a pastor’s son: Eduar López is the 12-year-old son of rural lay pastor Fidel López. Eduar suffers from a congenital heart defect that developed into a life-threatening condition and required surgery. After a fundraising effort by U.S. and Honduran Presbyterian churches, Eduar’s surgery was completed successfully on Oct. 4. The operation was performed by the only pediatric cardiac surgeon currently working in Honduras. His team has been operating for only two years, he told us after the surgery. Eduar’s parents and friends are overjoyed, relieved, and singing God’s praises. Eduar is a bright and sweet boy who loves to draw, help his family serve the church, and play soccer. Now he will be able to sing in church and play with his little sister without becoming short of breath and risking heart failure.

Presbyterian pastors in Honduras are not paid a salary. They nearly all support their families with non-church jobs. Economic need is one of the major stressors on pastors and one of the main reasons many consider leaving their ministries. The López family’s medical bills were paid by a pastoral emergency fund set up to help alleviate some of these economic stressors and enable pastors to stay in the ministry. If you would like to have more information about Eduar’s progress, or to know about continuing needs and concerns for the family and community, please contact me: dori.hjalmarson@pcusa.org.

Movers, shakers, law-breakers

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Meditations on Matthew 2, adapted from a sermon preached at First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, July 29, 2018.


I became an immigrant this year. I have moved to Honduras, for my work, and I have applied for permanent residency in that country. Of course I did this by choice. I sought a job, was called by the Presbyterian Church, and I accepted the call.

In Matthew chapter 2, there is much migration. Magi from Persia to Judea. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Judea to Egypt. The magi back to Persia, by some other route. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Egypt to Galilee. There is much migration. But very little choice.

The only person who doesn’t move in this story is King Herod, a puppet king, a cacique or a maharaja, if you will, of the Roman Empire. King Herod stays still. He wields enormous power here, and holds it so tightly and so fearfully that he is willing to slaughter hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of infants. Simply because he was afraid of losing or sharing power.

Herod’s word was law, and these astrologers traveling from Baghdad or from who knows from where would have known this. The text says all of Jerusalem, or that is, all of the privileged courts paying homage to Rome, displayed their fear of this newly rumored “king of the Jews.” Even for the foreign astrologers, to disobey Herod was to disobey Caesar. To disobey Caesar was to disobey God.

So what are we to make of their decision to protect the holy child by going home on a different route? They certainly made a choice, and a risky choice. They could have been hauled in, arrested, tortured, forced to tell, forced to stay.

By grace, yes, but also by the civilly disobedient choice of the wise ones from the east, the Christ child’s life was spared. They made a radical, law-breaking decision. They could have taken the legal route—finding God where the powers of the day told them to find God: in the empire, in the law, in the king. But where did they find God?

And what does this teach us about where we should be looking for God? Certainly today we have many choices…where to seek god?

Do we think the magi had a choice?

I can tell you that in Honduras, choice or desire is rarely a factor in a person’s moving across borders, deciding where to live or whether to stay.

A springboard for my ministry in Honduras was time spent in 2014 on the border in El Paso, Texas. I volunteered with an organization that housed and helped hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant children and mothers who were seeking asylum, mostly from Central America. This summer, the same organization started helping thousands more, mostly parents reunited with children after cruel separation.

And now I see these mothers and children from another perspective. Since moving to Honduras six months ago, I have not gone a week without meeting a family who has someone in the states, either documented or “mojado” or undocumented. I have met a couple who work as coyotes, smuggling people across borders for a fee. Every family in Honduras is touched by migration.

Remittances, or money sent back into Honduras from other countries, make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Central Bank of Honduras and the World Bank, and that number has increased faster than the country’s overall GDP in the past year. The economy has no momentum of its own. Honduras is hugely dependent on the United States, on the International Monetary Fund, on the World Bank.

What does this mean to us today, when we in reading this text in Matthew? When you read in the scripture “Galilee,” think of Honduras, the “developing” neighbor of Judea. When you read “Jerusalem,” think of Tegucigalpa, and remember its iron-clad connection to Rome, that is, Washington D.C., the seat of political and economic power. When you read “Egypt” think of the Texas-Mexico border, where the refugees flee. The dynamics of dependence and power are strikingly similar.

Of course, the gospel writer likely chose to emphasize these details in order to concretize Jesus’ claim to divinity, as outlined in the Hebrew scriptures as well as within the Roman political structure. This text is subversive in both directions. And the infant Jesus, making no choice of his own, becomes a refugee, confounding all expectations of where divinity should be found—that is, not in Jerusalem, but on the highways and byways and the in-between places.

As I said, I’m an immigrant by choice. I have the enormous privilege of a U.S. passport. Earlier this summer, I traveled twice, once with a Honduran Presbyterian woman and once with a youth group, because eight of the youth and one Presbyterian Women partner were barred by the U.S. Embassy from completing the trip. These teens and 20-somethings, even with letters of support from U.S. Presbyterians, could not provide enough “evidence” in a three-minute interview that they were not intending to stay permanently in the United States.

Imagine if you were denied that visa. Imagine that your family is permanently separated, that your husband or one of your children is in the United States, and that you have no resources to continue applying for tourist visas. Imagine that you have a job that pays you $15 a day. Imagine that you live with many other family members in a barrio of Tegucigalpa that is governed by a violent gang that is recruiting your younger children. Imagine that the police refuse to enter your neighborhood for fear of their own lives, or else they collude with the gang to keep residents in and non-residents in fear of entering.

What would you do? Would you flee? Would you try to reunite your family? And perhaps a more profound question: Where would you be finding God, among all these dire choices? Where would you be looking for God? In the empire, in the law?

Now imagine that Joseph and Mary had been denied permission to travel to Egypt. Or to return to Galilee. Imagine that the Crucifixion had not happened when Jesus was 33 years old but 3 years old. Where would we be expecting Joseph and Mary to find God, or to look for God?

I can tell you where I have found God. I have found God in the faces of immigrant children eating a peanut butter sandwich, their first meal in days. I have found God in the faces of the youth of Puerto Grande, Honduras, who long to make their hometown a place they don’t have to leave to survive. I have found God in the efforts of the Presbyterians of El Horno, struggling against government efforts to remove them from farmland because they don’t have ownership papers, even though they have lived there for generations—struggling to remain in the home they know and love.

I have found God in the face of the Presbyterian elder of Buenos Aires, who is doing seminary-level work even though he never attended school a day in his life and can barely read and write. He wants to better himself, to better his church, to better his community and make it a place that young people can choose to stay and make a home in.

Where do we look for God, and where do we truly find God? This story of the slaughter of innocents tells us: Not where you think you should find God, among the rulers, among the powerful, among those where conventional wisdom tells us we should find God. We find God in the innocent, the lowly, the vulnerable, the endangered. We find God among the movers and migrants. We find God among those who resist and defy. We find God among the law-breakers.

Spirit of the living God

Life in the church Honduras has helped me to both simplify and complicate my understanding of prayer, liturgy and worship, and what it means to be Presbyterian. “For God chose us in Christ,” the letter to the Ephesians reads, “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love God predestined us to be adopted as God’s children through Jesus Christ.” This chosen-ness is both eternal and immediate, having taken place before the beginning of the world, and taking place again and again with every immersion of baptism, with every anointing, with every choice we make to follow the rocky road, up a creek bed, in search of Jesus Christ.

Pentecost in a parking lot

A reflection on Acts 2:1-21.

On a recent Saturday, I spent time with women of the Presbyterian church of Honduras, as they fasted, prayed, and consecrated a retreat center that they are newly managing as a ministry of the church.

In pairs we walked through the property, blessing the major buildings and grounds: the dormitories, the chapels, the trees and grass, the entrance, the kitchen. We touched doorposts and tree trunks with hands carrying olive oil, and we prayed prayers of blessing. I was chosen with my partner to bless a large partially outdoor structure that previously had been a parking shed. New concrete floors have been laid, and a wall has been newly painted. Since the retreat center has been under new ownership, it has housed several large gatherings, including my installation as mission co-worker in Honduras.

My partner María Elena and I moved from one end of the room to the other, on opposite walls, placing our hands on the walls, and the bits of furniture, and the floor, and we prayed individually for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room. María Elena prayed her prayer in Spanish, as did I, and then I sang a song in English, and then she sang in Spanish.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,” I sang. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”

I haven’t sung this song in years; the last time I remember singing it was in my childhood church in New Mexico. I don’t know what made it pop into my head, except for the movement of the Holy Spirit, during this intimate Pentecost moment. María Elena said later that she felt “transported,” and I felt the same. The parking lot had been transformed into a sanctuary, and a bilingual one at that, she said.

Whenever we invoke the Holy Spirit, speaking the language too deep for words, knowing that transformation and renewal is taking place, we are experiencing Pentecost.