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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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.

The authority of love

From a sermon preached Feb. 8, 2015, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Calif.

Romans 13:1-10

A little over two weeks ago, I was having dinner in a shelter for migrants in Agua Prieta, Mexico. A man I was talking to had been deported from the United States about four months prior and was contemplating trying to cross the formidable border again, to go back to the taco cart he pushed in Salt Lake City, and the $700 he had hidden under the battery of the car he had left at a neighbor’s house. “I got here, and crossing is much more dangerous than it was the first time,” he told me. “I’m not sure I will try it.” He asked me how long I would be in Mexico. I was traveling with a group of Presbyterians, studying Central American migration issues. “We are traveling from Tucson, Arizona, south through Mexico, through Guatemala, to El Salvador,” I told my dinner partner. “We are doing the migration in reverse.”

“Ah, the difference is,” said Miguelito, “They aren’t going to try to kill you.”

We looked at each other for a few seconds, over our chicken legs and rice.

“That’s true,” I said.

My trip had started on the U.S.-Mexico border, with a visit to the desert, to the fence, with Border Patrol agents who speak of migrants they are trying to catch as “bodies” or “arrests” or “aliens” or “bad guys”—never as people—and the trip ended at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, with a presentation about the billions of dollars the U.S. has poured into El Salvador in order to make it safe for trade of U.S. goods and multi-national corporate interests, not of people.

In Arizona we heard from Presbyterian pastors whose churches were illegally infiltrated by U.S. government operatives in the 1980s, while they harbored refugees from the Cold War military enterprises in Central America. We read about just how dangerous crossing the border in the Arizona desert is: Hundreds have died, and as the border fence grows higher and longer, arrests drop, and deaths increase. In Guatemala, we learned about the dire consequences for overstaying a visa in the United States (felony charges, deportation, permanent exclusion), compared with the consequences of a U.S. passport carrier accidentally overstaying a visa in Guatemala: a fine of about $20 and fixing the paperwork. To apply for a visa to come to the United States costs $160 for every application, every time, win or lose. I didn’t even have to buy a visa to enter Guatemala, or visit a consulate. The power of a U.S. passport.

As Christians, in a country where power and privilege is becoming more and more unbalanced, and where assistance to our neighbors is based not on humanitarian needs but economic interests, how shall we understand the apostle Paul here: “Be subject to the governing authorities. … for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants.”

The strange thing is that Paul was writing to Christians in Rome shortly after Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews (and presumably Jewish Christians) from Rome. And Paul writes shortly before a time when Emperor Nero would pin the blame for Rome’s burning on Christians and have them killed and burned right and left.

Paul would not have been blind to this. I want to offer the possibility that Paul was writing this bit of Romans ironically.*

Watch how many times he subtly subverts the governmental authority to God’s law: authority rests on God, God appointed, it is God’s servant, does not bear the sword in vain, servant of God, be subject because of conscience, the authorities are God’s servants.

Owe no one anything except love. For love is the fulfilling of the law.

Love is the fulfilling of the law.

During this reverse migration, Miguelito was right, and no one tried to kill me, not at the embassies or government offices, not at the borders, not in the gang-run neighborhoods of San Salvador. We visited not only “the authorities” but also with church women, with shelters, with migrants themselves, with people who had been kidnapped and maimed on the route to the border, and with people who had returned from the U.S. in order to create more opportunities and relationships in their homeland. We met families who had been torn apart. We met families who vowed not to be torn apart again.

The issue of migration is extremely complex. Most of the people on our seminar trip started with the goal of finding a “root cause” of migration, as if migration is a problem to be solved rather than part of the human condition. We are concerned for the thousands of unaccompanied children, young mothers, babies, poor people crossing our borders and seeking asylum from violence and poverty in their homes.

Most of the “authorities” in the migration system, most of the power, most of the money, most of the voices, are on the side of the governments, particularly the U.S. government, which so far is doing little to facilitate a just and safe migration, but is doing everything to stop migration.

Where is God in this extremely complex system? Is the U.S. government, the fence, the border patrol, the embassy, the economic aid, the detention centers, the immigration courts: Are they subject to God’s authority? Where was God on this 2,300 mile journey? Where is God for the migrants who are still on the 2,300 mile journey?

God’s authority is love. I saw love on this journey. Sometimes it was more visible than others. I saw it in the face of a mother who is raising the baby who is the product of rape by kidnappers. I saw it in the face of Miguelito, a hardscrabble taco-vendor deportee who talked with me candidly about the dangers he knows he’s facing. I saw God in the faces of amputees who had been maimed by the “Beast” train that carries migrants through Mexico. I saw love in the face of a young man who founded a café, and an education center, and an art gallery for youth, so he could reconnect with the Guatemalan identity that the Mayan God of light and hope birthed him into. I saw love in the face of a pastor who was willing to become a felon in order to do the right thing and protect a Central American family.

I saw love too in the face of the Border Patrol agent who quit his job as a teacher because he thought he could save more children faster in law enforcement. I saw love in the face of the Salvadoran government agent who is trying her very best to make sure the 50,000 migrants who will be deported back to her streets know that El Salvador hasn’t forgotten them, and cares enough to help them get on their feet. I saw love in the face of the U.S. AID worker who believes in making Central America safer and more prosperous.

The systems and processes that we have built are extremely complex. Too complex even to find God in them. We had to look really hard to find the authority of love. But we found it. And that is where Paul points us to when he tells us to obey the authorities. In order to do that, we must look really hard. We must find where the love is. That is where God is.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authority. The governing authority that is love.

* Carter, Timothy L. 2004. “The irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum 46, no. 3: 209-228. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 9, 2015).

A meditation on Advent of the gospel

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7-10 (NRSV)

How beautiful is the messenger who brings the gospel. Who is the messenger in our Christian nativity story? John the son of Elizabeth, who comes before to announce the Christ. The angel Gabriel, who brings the message to Mary, blessed among women. Mary herself, the literal bearer of good news. The starlight dancing on the mountains, leading shepherds and magi to the birthplace.

In our Christmas carols, we ourselves are the bearers of the news: “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!” Later on in the Christian story, the apostle Paul will write of the gospel in ways that make me think that Christ, Immanuel, is both the message and the messenger. The news the messenger brings is not just notice of peace, but peace itself. The message has transformative, blessing power.

We know of moments like this in our own lives. Moments when knowledge touches not only our minds but our hearts and very bodies. They are moments of sickening tragedy, when we learn of the death of dozens of innocents in a senseless school shooting. They are moments of tender care, when our sister or brother comes out of the closet and the life of our family is never the same. They are moments of empowered solidarity, when a marginalized group stands up and proclaims justice and peace. They are moments of soaring joy, when the news of a baby’s birth, long awaited, changes the world, and hope enters in.