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!
I didn’t know at the time that “slum tourism” was what I was doing, but my first experience of this phenomenon was in 1993, at age 13, visiting various kinds of neighborhoods around San Miguel, El Salvador, with my uncle, who is Salvadoran. He wanted to impress upon me and my younger sister the vast disparities in lifestyles experienced by rich and poor in that country; we were very sheltered, relatively wealthy white kids. Our experience in El Salvador was life changing, and one of the reasons that I am an avid traveler, unafraid of going almost anywhere or meeting anyone, a former journalist, a seminarian, and a border dweller.
Some question the very premise of slum tourism, calling out the ethics of privileged people paying to witness others’ misfortune and suffering. Experts, however, point out that slum tourism, for better or worse, is almost certainly here to stay. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
One of the highest migrant death rates in the nation is in rural Brooks County, Texas, 70 miles north of the border. All Texas Christians should listen to this story and pray about how Christ would have us respond to this catastrophe.
I moved to El Paso, Texas, about a week ago to start an internship at two churches, a requirement for graduation from San Francisco Theological Seminary but also a fulfillment of a dream of mine to return to the Southwest and minister to bilingual/multicultural populations. So far I am not disappointed. Nearly every conversation I have had here, no matter which part of town I am in, has happened in English and Spanish. I am serving two tiny Presbyterian churches, one English-speaking and one mostly Spanish-speaking. And I am living in an apartment building where the manager doesn’t speak English and where most of the tenants seem to be recent immigrants.
Which brings me to the conversation that has been most thought-provoking for me in the past two weeks. It happened with my 9-year-old neighbor, who has adopted me as his amiga. His father is gringo and is attempting to move his wife and other children to El Paso from Ciudad Juárez across the border. For the moment my friend is not in school, so he has a lot of time on his hands and waits for me to arrive home from work so we can play board games or ride our bikes to the library. Oh, and he doesn’t speak English.
So here is the conversation, translated:
Him: “How long have you been a gringa?”
Me: “What do you mean how long? For my whole life. I was born a gringa, I will die a gringa. I can’t change.”
“Yes, you can change.”
“How could I change? I can’t become morena (brown-skinned).”
“Well gringos have jobs, they have money, they have lots of things, they don’t rob you. Morenos don’t work, they are poor.”
“Some gringos are poor. Some morenos are rich.”
“Yes, some morenos have become gringos. Haven’t you ever seen morenos-gringos?”
This is from a kid my dad paid $10 to help tote up three flights of stairs the contents of my 14-foot UHaul trailer, all that stuff for one person and a cat, when the kid and his father and sister live in the same size apartment without a single chair to sit on. (They now possess one of mine that I confess actually did not fit into my tiny new living room. I burn with shame as I type this.)
The thing about this conversation is that I have no good response. I have witnessed morenos-gringos, and I have watched in two short weeks as people in both churches where I work distinguish themselves with logical gymnastics from recent immigrants and attempt to fit in to a whiter and whiter world. I was advised, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, to look for an apartment north of Interstate 10 because those neighborhoods closer to the border were more dangerous, less desirable, more slummy. One north-of-10 apartment manager, who was trying to sell me on her own place, advised me and dad to drive through neighborhoods at 10 p.m. and imagine whether I would feel safe, and whether my dad would feel I was safe, coming home from work late at night.
My dad and I marveled at this advice as we drove through a neighborhood surrounding one of my churches, the Spanish-speaking one. We saw grandmas gardening in yards, brightly painted and cared-for houses, cars parked on streets, kids walking home from schools. I didn’t feel unsafe, and my danger radar usually pretty accurate. The only substantive difference, really, between this neighborhood and one north of I-10 was that we heard a lot of Spanish being spoken and saw a lot of moreno faces. It’s possible that the crime rate is different here than it is in points north, but when it’s all said and done, El Paso claims to be one of the safest cities in the country, though that claim is questionable.
So when we get down to it, what is really the difference between gringos and morenos and how we meet the world? And can we change, as my 9-year-old friend says we can? This week I have also turned to Luke 16:19-30, the lectionary Gospel reading for next week. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a tough one to consider for two tiny churches, neither of which is rolling in dough, and neither of which has members who are rolling in dough. Where is the grace here, as the rich man, after death, begs Abraham to give him comfort when he didn’t bother to see poor Lazarus in life? This is a message directed at the rich, not at the poor, or in the parlance of my friend, at gringos, not morenos.
Or is it? Where is our hope in this world? Where do we long to be? Did Lazarus in life possibly long to be at the table of the rich man, with no longer a care for the material needs of the world, able to become blind to the poor? My young neighbor friend seems to think so, as he defines people in categories of those who will steal to get ahead or are too lazy to work, and those who are not criminal, who want to work, and who may be poor materially but are not poor in spirit. This is a far more complex distinction than one of skin color. But it is not complex enough. We cannot divide people so simply into the categories of the parable. It is fiction meant to illustrate a truth; it isn’t mestizo like real life. None of us is all moreno or all gringo. None of us is all the rich man or all Lazarus.
Perhaps the key word in this story is comfort. We gringos might tell ourselves that we see the poor, that we give to causes, that we understand injustice. But how far are we willing to go? Are we willing to move into a neighborhood full of people who are different from us and learn that different doesn’t mean dangerous? Are we willing to give up certain comforts, such as the proximity of a full grocery store, and the absence of roaches and mice, in order to learn how to live in solidarity? Are we willing to turn away from ourselves and towards Christ, and realize that Christ is, in fact, Lazarus, or a 9-year-old who lives across the hall?