Waiting, groaning for the world to turn

Adapted from a reflection written for San Francisco Theological Seminary during Advent 2017.

A response to Romans 8:22-27, and the hymn Canticle of the Turning.

Over the past ten years in Honduras, Berta Cáceres successfully organized her indigenous Lenca people’s community against a World Bank- and private business-funded dam project that was implemented with little or no input from local inhabitants of the Guadalcarque River. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, as the dam project was stalled, and investors fled. In 2016, Cáceres was shot to death in her home, in a town called La Esperanza, which cooincidentally in Spanish means “hope.” Eight men have been arrested, but the murderers have not been brought to justice. Many murderers in Honduras are not.

I imagine that Berta’s heart cries out. But with joy? With hope? Hope for what? She hopes for what she never will see.

The violence menaces still. Honduras is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, for environmental and political activists, for community organizers, for women. Dozens of activists are killed each year, hundreds of women, with impunity. In three weeks leading up to the national election on Nov. 26, at least four political activists, from various parties, were attacked and killed. At least one protester, a 19-year-old woman, has been killed in the weeks since the election.

I work for the church, a U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker, partnering with the Honduran Presbyterian church. I do not know what I ought to pray for. Is it enough, surrounded by such menace, to say that we care for our congregants’ souls, and we leave “politics” out on the church steps?

As She—Mary, Berta, Spirit—intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, we do not know what we ought to pray for. We hope against hope, though we die. The world is about to turn, the hymn says. Until the world turns, creation groans, the earth groans, our very bodies groan, and the body of Christ groans for the redemption that has been promised today, not tomorrow, not after death, but now, in the turning of the world.

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A narrative introduction

I am a new mission co-worker, ordained by the Presbytery of Santa Fe and called by World Mission to serve with Iglesia Presbiteriana de Honduras (Presbyterian Church of Honduras) in theological education and leadership development. I plan to move to Honduras in January 2018.

I first became interested in Central America when I was 13 years old and my parents took me and my sister to visit my aunt, who was a mission co-worker in El Salvador during that country’s civil war. During this trip to El Salvador, I learned the refrain to a song that was part of a mass commissioned by the late Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero: “Vamos todos al banquete, a la mesa de la creación. Cada cual con su taburete tiene un puesto y una misión.” Translated, it is “Let’s all go to the banquet, to the table of creation. Each of us has a seat and a mission.” This song was filled with peace and hope for equality.

I had this song in mind as my family visited places such as El Mozote, the site of a massacre of peasants by the U.S.-supported Salvadoran military. Where was the place at the table for these men, women and children who were slain? I saw mansions surrounded by 20-foot walls with razor wire and broken glass at the top, practically next door to cardboard- and newspaper-insulated homes with dirt floors and mothers my age in hammocks with their babies. At my young age, this was the first time I recognized the depth of divides between rich and poor, and I saw the contrast between the lived reality of Salvadorans and the song that was so hopeful and idyllic. So often the hope we proclaim in Jesus Christ feels so far away from the world.

After I returned to the United States, I became a journalist, and I learned in part the power of narrative and stories. As a journalist I listened to stories with compassion, yes, and with a heart for the truth, but also with an agenda. Would the story sell in the paper? Was it “newsworthy”?

During my first year in seminary, a theology professor told my class, “People think of their lives as narratives. Religious people think of their lives as narratives connected to a larger narrative, with a bigger meaning.” Aha, I thought. Narrative is something I know about. The ministry I envisioned for myself started to become one of storytelling and narrative.

When I became a chaplain, I worked first with patients in a hospital burn unit, then with patients in hospice care. In both cases, my work was hard to describe in concrete terms. As a chaplain, I could not “do” much to help my patients. I sat with them, I listened to them, sometimes even as they could not speak or communicate for themselves. When I met patients for the first time, they often looked at me with suspicion. “What are you going to do for me?” was their question, or, “How are you going to try to ‘fix’ me or convert me or change me?” Hospital and hospice patients rarely need more people telling them what to do, giving advice, or judging their choices. Their bodies have become not their own, taken over by disease, and handed over to medical professionals for physical healing, so most patients are naturally reluctant to then hand over their spiritual and mental space to a strange chaplain standing in the doorway.

I had to learn to embody humility, conveying that I have no agenda but to support the patient’s agenda, to hear and value the patient’s narrative, and that I will wait to be invited in. Everyone has a place, a mission, even the patient, even the poor. A chaplain’s work is often one of empowerment, of narrative, and this work cannot be done with telling or advising. Most often it can be done only by listening, and accompanying.

As I look forward to moving to Honduras, I have this image of a banquet on my mind. I am an educated, relatively wealthy Anglo North American, and I am conscious of the legacy my people have in Central America. Over the past 150 years, Honduras has been rather used by the United States for the United States’ own agenda of extractive colonialism, neo-liberal capitalism and military strategy. Like a chaplain arriving in the door of a hospital room, I will be carrying all the baggage of my people’s narrative into my relationship with the people I am meeting for the first time.

Nevertheless, the Presbyterian Church of Honduras has requested the presence, the partnership, the accompaniment, of the Presbyterian Church-USA. The leaders of the Honduran church are hungry for education and empowerment that has until recently been unavailable. I want to do what I can to change the narrative of U.S. activities in Honduras from one of colonization to one of table. I go to Honduras to join the church at the banquet, where neither I nor the U.S. church is at the head. I go to sit alongside the Honduran church leaders, to break bread with them, to feast with them, to live into the hope of justice and good, and to proclaim, “each of us has a seat, a place, a mission.”

I welcome your partnership in this mission. Please pray for me, correspond with me, visit me, and give financially. (You can do that here.) Your prayers, presence, and gifts encourage me and bring me joy and hope, and enrich our relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. Thank you for your interest and attention. Vamos todos!

One of my mentors on one of his mentors

Pastoral identity: Lessons from Janie

Our pastoral identity should be grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and obedient above all else to Jesus. We should live as whole persons — not bifurcated — saying and living what we believe the gospel requires of us. 

Agua Prieta, Mexico: The spaciousness of God

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“We look at this Son and see God who cannot be seen. … So spacious is Christ that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.”

The past day was filled with contradictions as we met people of faith who work and live on the border in Douglas and Agua Prieta (DouglaPrieta). A Border Patrol agent left his teaching job because he believes he makes a more immediate difference for children as an agent. A church pastor helped his congregation rally around a deacon facing deportation, but the church won’t become a sanctuary because migrants also do harm to property as they cross. A director of a shelter for migrants says he has faith in God, not in governments, and serving his neighbor is what gives him joy and strength.

The irony of immigration policy in the United States is that it does a better job of keeping people in than keeping people out, one U.S. church mission worker says. People already in the United States choose not to return to their homes because it is so much harder to cross a second time. The number of border agents has quadrupled and wall infrastructure has multiplied exponentially. The desert is cut to dust as agents drag roads and “cut for sign” and track footprints. The agents in Douglas more often than not are not Douglas natives and don’t live in Douglas, so there is tension between them.

In Corinthians 4:4 we read, “The God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And our group’s daily reflections ask us: What is our relationship as Christians with this particular community of the people of God?

I realize on this trip that I am part of the body of Christ with not only the migrants and the church workers who aid them but with the Border Patrol agents who say they do this job to help children and whose faith also informs them. I am one with church members who give food and water to migrants and then call immigration authorities to report them.

I am struggling to reconcile these contradictions and contrasts. There is room for all, but how is God calling me to respond to these differences?
I told a man staying at the shelter in Agua Prieta, contemplating an attempt to cross to the north, that our group is on our way south from Tucson to Chiapas, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

“Hacemos la migración al revés,” I said. “We are making the migration in reverse.”

“Ah! La diferencia es que a Uds. no quieren a asesinar.” “The difference is they aren’t going to try to kill you.”

(Quote from Colossians in The Message)

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Border and Beyond: A Seminary Journey

Reflecting on Genesis 1:26-27, today the image of God is motherhood. We have heard from a white U.S. pastor and mother who wept as she thought of the fear a Mexican mother felt when she was stopped by police, leading to a deportation order. We have heard from a woman who, at age 6, thought her mother might be dead, killed by a Guatemalan death squad, until her grandmother received a letter sending for her. We have heard a mother housed in the sanctuary of a church, pleading against deportation, describe her treatment by North Americans as amor de Dios, the love of God. She is fighting a lucha bella, a beautiful struggle.

How do mothers behave when their children and families are threatened? That is how God acts, and that is how Christ calls Christians to act toward her children.

My exploration of Central American-U.S. immigration started today. Over the next 10 days I will be spending nights in Douglas, Ariz.; Agua Prieta and Tapachula, Mexico; Quetzaltenango, Xela and other sites in Guatemala; El Limon and San Salvador in El Salvador.

I am traveling with 14 other people as part of a Presbyterian Church-USA seminar called Voices from the Border and Beyond. We are mostly white, mostly from the west coast and southwest U.S. and mostly Presbyterian. We are hearing stories of privilege and power, fear and fighting, social movements and public policy.
Today we prayed to a God “scandalously earthed, poor, unrecognized.” Please pray with us.

(Prayer by Kate Compston in Bread of Tomorrow by Janet Morley)

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