La virgen de las calles

Street ministry in “El Centavo” district of Tegucigalpa, Honduras

There is a prostitute in this photo. She’s the girl in a short skirt and sneakers with a pink barrette in her hair. She’s getting talking-to by her pimp, who is also her mother, who called her over when she started talking to a woman instead of a man who might be convinced to pay for sex. The girl is 12. You can’t see in the photo that the mother/pimp is also toting the 12-year-old’s infant daughter.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

Zephaniah 3:14-15 (NRSV)

Surrounding the pair are other folks who spend nights on the streets as well as ministers and members of the ministry Manos Extendidas. Once a week or so, the ministry serves soup and friendship on the streets at night, attempting to affirm the dignity and humanity of children, youth, addicts, and other abandoned people in some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods of Comayaguela and Tegucigalpa, the twin-city capital of Honduras.

I was there to witness and observe the ministry. I was there to participate in affirmations and the serving of soup. I was told to expect to see what I saw, but I wasn’t prepared. I can’t stop thinking about this girl.

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

Zephaniah 3:16-18 (NRSV)

I was there to witness, and that’s all I could do in that moment. In the following week, I have had trouble sleeping and focusing on my work. I feel worry and guilt. I can’t stop imagining the girl’s life each night.

I am searching for a prayer for this girl. Where is God? Where is the life and justice and grace that we have been promised? 

I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Zephaniah 3:19-20 (NRSV)

Holy God, I turn over this girl to you. I turn over her baby to you. I turn over her mother to you. Lifting them up in prayer and bearing witness to their lives is all I can do. I beg for your grace and tender mercy. Help me forgive, help me to let go. Help me to learn to practice gratitude in the waiting and waiting and waiting for your presence. Help me to see you at work, O God. Help me to see you coming.

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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.

The colt returns: El potro regresa

A reflection on Mark 11:1-11, on Palm Sunday, for San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Lenten devotionals series. Leerlo en español después de la pausa..

I don’t know what Hosanna means. They said it was a blessing, as I was chosen from obscurity. I don’t know what blessing means. Hosanna, we are saved! The crowd shouted, waved, clamored. I couldn’t see him, of course, really just his hem and feet if I looked back. I curled my long ears back, straining to hear, to know something of this burden I bore. He didn’t say anything then, or if he did, I couldn’t hear for the Hosanna. I heard he had said, come, follow me. I heard he said, blessed are the poor, the obscure, the persecuted. I don’t know what persecuted means.

His followers, the ones to whom I owe this great supposed honor, told me then that I would be returned. That all would be returned. That the kingdom would return. I don’t know what kingdom means. I know that my hooves slipped on the palms and mantles that lined the streets. I did my best not to stumble, to bear up under the unfamiliar weight. He clutched my mane, digging in his fingers, and gripped my sides with his heels. That helped.

After the parade, I was indeed returned. Instead of a man, the next day, I carried firewood, and the day after, a hundred flat loaves of bread. I know what burden means, now. I heard later that the man said, “Remember me.” I was returned to normal, but not normal, and I don’t know how to remember. The tether chafes, now that I know the feeling of his heels, his hands. Which is the blessing? I smelled the iron, the blood, the smoke – heard the clamor and crowds, farther away. Whenever I hear the rustle of a palm, now, I also strain for his voice. Though I never actually heard it, I listen, through the clamor, trying to remember.

Continue reading “The colt returns: El potro regresa”

Pussyhats and rabbit poses

Originally written as a Lenten devotional for San Francisco Theological Seminary, a reflection on Ephesians 3:14-21:

Right away I cringe at this text. “I bow my knees before the Father,” the writer says, and my third-wave feminist mind conjures images of submission, passivity, and docility. This is not the posture of a woman who makes sure she always has a seat at the conference table during meetings, who changes the lyrics of hymns to call God “mother,” who crochets pussyhats for the Women’s March on Washington. My image of serving Christ is usually more like standing up and shouting before “She-Who-Is.” This is an image I’ve worked hard to integrate into my being, working against societal norms of polite silence for women.

At a yoga class during this Lent, I tried a pose that was new to me. The teacher called it “rabbit” pose or sasakasana. I was on my knees, with my head to the floor, and my hands reaching behind me to grab my heels. This passage from Ephesians flashed through my mind, and it occurred to me that there is no more possible bowing my body could do. I was completely doubled over. The instructor encouraged us to breathe in and out, and as we breathed, to deepen our bends, and to feel the grounding of our bodies. “Thank your body for getting out of your own way,” she said.

I’m not so sure my chubby body was really doing such a good job of getting out of my way as I lay there with my knees pressing my bosom and my sweaty face stuck to my yoga mat. Nevertheless, I thanked my body, my imperfect female body, for bowing its knees, for taking in breath, for helping me to be me.

I thought of all the other kinds of bowing I have done during this Lent: kneeling on the floor to play with a coworker’s 5-year-old son, bending to whisper prayers for a hospice patient who is journeying towards death, kneeling beside the bereaved during a funeral rosary. This rabbit pose and numerous others during my yoga class.

All of this bowing, letting my body get out of my own way, helped me realize that in Christ, and in my bowing, I can also be “rooted and grounded in love.”

 

A song of ascents by the migrant laborer

an Advent devotion based on Psalm 126

When we had the good fortune to cross safely into this land, O God, we became dreamers. We laughed with relief, with optimism, and ironically with fear, knowing that the wrong word upon our tongues could end in deportation and undoing.

Those in other nations looked upon us with envy, believing us to be saved, but suddenly we knew in our flesh that it was not yet true. Some of us are still missing. We dream of our grandmothers, sons, nephews, sisters, husbands, grandbabies, back in the land where we were born but don’t belong.

We rejoice because we may now remit and save and feed the flesh of our torn flesh, the bone of our broken bones.  We praise God for our safety. And we plead for theirs.

Restore us, O God. Make us a whole family. Be like the waters of the Rio Grande, so long absent, suddenly bursting forth, washing away the sins and the hurts and the fences, and soaking the soil and renewing life.

May we who sow their fields with our tears then reap with shouts of joy.

May all families who go out weeping, bearing the seeds of dreams, return home with shouts of joy, carrying their own babies, feeding their own families, kissing their own lovers, embracing their own flesh.

Relieved hostess

Renting my body
Shall I be joyfully debilitated?
I am the house, not the guest
The faith is in joy

Shall I be joyfully debilitated?
Each has been sent as a guide from beyond
The faith is in joy
Turning away my depression

Each has been sent as a guide from beyond
I am the house, not the guest
Turning away my depression
Renting my body

Written at a Companions on the Inner Way retreat, this is a response to Rumi’s “The Guest House” using French pantoum technique from “The Artist’s Rule” by Christine Valters Paintner.

I’m usually goo-goo for Gaga, but …

I’m mulling these lyrics from Lady Gaga’s new album, Artpop, and trying to decide how upset I should be. I usually appreciate the Lady’s message about ownership of our identity and our bodies, and her own love-hate relationship with fame. This song, Do What U Want, opens with an indictment of the press for its attitude of ownership of stars.

And in the chorus, Gaga sings:

“You can’t have my heart
And you won’t use my mind but
Do what you want (with my body)
Do what you want with my body
You can’t stop my voice cause
You don’t own my life but
Do what you want (with my body)
Do what you want (with my body)”

I appreciate the ownership of mind, heart and voice that Gaga is celebrating, but I disagree that our bodies, women’s bodies, can be sacrificed with no consequences to psyche or emotional well-being. I think women must claim as much ownership of our bodies as we do of our minds and hearts. The one is as valuable as the others.

Will the message of the song be received in the “F-U” spirit is is given, or will the chorus be sung over and over with no sense of irony and attitude that is usually evident in Gaga offerings? I’m not sure. If her performance on Saturday Night Live with duet partner R. Kelly is any indication, Gaga is morphing the line between public and private life, and public and private bodily behavior. That conversation is one that needs to happen more often. I hope that women are encouraged to strive for harmony and not damaging disconnection between body and psyche.