God is in the six feet of social distance

This was written as a letter for the Presbyterian World Mission agency.

It has been difficult over the past six months for me to see where God is working. I have been, along with the majority of Hondurans, under orders to stay home, sometimes leaving only once a month for essential business, and doing all my work over a computer screen. This experience runs counter to every cultural norm in Latin America, where warm greetings, handshakes, hugs, and kisses are all but mandatory, especially among church members and where long church services happen multiple times a week, with live preaching, extended singing, and children running every which way.

Where is God in all this? We are not encountering God in the ways we normally do, so how can we realign our vision? These are the questions we asked in mid-September, at the six-month mark of near-total shutdown in Honduras. I invited several colleagues from across Central America to ponder the question: “How has God appeared to you during these six months.” Two of my colleagues had had personal experiences with COVID-19. Santiago Flores, a pastor in El Salvador, had survived a severe case of the illness and had been near death. Several members of his church family have died after contracting the virus. Betzabé Reyes of Honduras had been quarantined with 15 members of her family. She was the first in their small town to test positive for the disease. Her mother was hospitalized for days before recovering.

Betzabé Reyes in 2018, assisting students in a Presbyterian theological education program.

Betzabé, confined to her home with 15 family members, said she felt like a pariah in the community. Although they were taking all possible safety measures, keeping their distance and wearing masks, they heard gossip and jokes and saw neighbors avoid the street in front of their house. Her mother resisted going to the hospital when her symptoms became more severe; she was afraid of becoming infected at the large public hospital, not receiving treatment because of discrimination or lack of resources, and being far from her family. Some religious leaders blamed the victims of COVID-19 for their weakness or lack of faith.

A few days into the family’s isolation, God appeared to Betzabé. (Ella comparte su historia en español aquí.) At the wall around the family’s garden, there appeared a box of food. A young neighbor had taken up a collection. The next day, more donations appeared on the “blessed wall,” along with messages and notes of solidarity, compassion, and encouragement. “You’re not alone; we are with you,” one note read. Betzabé realized that the community was praying and fasting for her and her family and taking up collections to ensure they didn’t go hungry.

God is on the wall, Betzabé told our conference attendees on Sept. 15. God is on the wall. God is in the six feet of social distance. God is among the mourners, among the infected, among the caregivers.

It has helped to realize that, although this global crisis feels unprecedented, it is not. The Rev. Dr. Karla Koll, my colleague from the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica, also shared with our conference. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and early church leaders in Rome also asked the same questions. Where is God? What is the responsibility of Christians? Is our faith stronger or weaker because of this experience?

In 1527, Martin Luther wrote, “Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid persons and places where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” A Christian does not fear death, the Reformers believed, but a Christian does everything possible to avoid causing it.

John Calvin wrote that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means more than not intentionally killing. “I hold that it moreover means that we are to aid our neighbor’s life by every means in our power.”

Karla also pointed to scripture, noting that Christians responded differently to epidemics during the second and third centuries than others did. When the wisdom of the day advised abandoning the sick, Christians walked among the sick, not fearing death. Paul wrote in Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So, where is God in this pandemic? God is where God has always been in every time of suffering: among the sick, among the caregivers, in the six feet of social distance, under the mask, and on the blessed wall.

Feeding a Beleaguered People | Presbyterian Mission Agency

On Palm Sunday, two pairs of church members with two trucks drove out to deliver 250 bags of basic necessities to families across the 27 congregations of the presbytery. They plan to do it all again as soon as possible. … Meanwhile, despite border closings and the threat of spreading the coronavirus between our two countries, deportation flights from the United States continued to land in Honduras. U.S. citizens, seeking virus-related evacuation, were sold seats on the returning ICE-chartered planes.

https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/missionconnections/letter/feeding-a-beleaguered-people/

A good cry, new connections with old friends, staying put are my best medicine

A whole lot has changed for me in a week. One week ago, I was sharing my last Girl Scout cookies with a group of fellow North American women who live in Tegucigalpa. We listened to this poetry reading and reflected on what we can praise in this expatriate life that is rather difficult. Later that evening, life suddenly got more difficult as Honduras closed its borders and mandated a curfew/quarantine for three cities, including Tegucigalpa, in order to try to contain the COVID 19 coronavirus.

Since late last Sunday, Ceiba, Choluteca and Tegucigalpa have been under police-enforced curfew, all businesses closed, and travel in and out of those cities is prohibited. Travel within the cities is limited to private cars, and two people per car. All public transport is prohibited. All schools are closed. All meetings or events of more than 50 people are canceled, but the business closures mean that even many smaller meetings and events are canceled. Police and military are on the streets enforcing curfews and travel bans.

Friday night, the government of Honduras announced the immediate expansion of quarantine/curfew measures to the entire country, beyond the four cities with coronavirus cases. All businesses are ordered closed, with the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets making home deliveries, and small neighborhood groceries (pulperías). Travel is prohibited without documented permission from the government, and police and military posts are enforcing cordons. The borders—air, land, and sea—remain closed to entries and departures. There are provisions for foreigners leaving, supposedly arranged through the foreigners’ embassies, but there is little reliable information about travel. The only thing we know for sure is that we are to stay in place to protect the health of ourselves and others.

I have been home all week. I’m in daily phone and Internet contact with my Honduras mission partners, as well as with my family in the United States. Last night I was on the best three-hour Zoom conference of my life, a 20-year reunion of the University of Missouri McDavid Hall FARC Spotlight open mike. I’m trading memes and tips with my Honduran and North American friends and colleagues who are stuck here. I’ve had movie nights and games with my neighbor bestie, and yesterday a lovely walk through our deserted neighborhood.

Social distance walking at sunset through my Tegucigalpa neighborhood.

This morning as I joined a U.S. colleague’s Facebook Live worship service, my friend during the pastoral prayer said “Lord, we are frightened…” and tears welled in my eyes. I realized that during this past week of absorbing information, counting bags of beans and bottles of water, deciding to stay or to go, and escaping via Netflix, I had not admitted to myself or anyone else that I feel frightened. I worry about my parents’ and grandmother’s health. I worry about how our world is changing and in crisis, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Some of the restrictions and measures (military on the streets) seem extreme and kind of scary to me. This is a country with a long and recent history of military coup and violence done to citizens in the name of national security. I have ministry colleagues in Choluteca, for example, who are monitoring police posts to attempt to keep police accountable in protecting human rights. But weighing all the factors, I think it was probably the right move to slow the spread of this virus in our country. Our infrastructure absolutely could not cope with this contagion unfettered.

Also Friday, the Presbyterian Mission Agency recalled all U.S.-based employees, and my employer World Mission gave non-U.S.-based folks the option of staying or returning. I have decided it is best for me to shelter in place in Honduras for the time being. I believe my risks are lower staying in Tegucigalpa than they are traveling and sheltering with my family in Salt Lake City, Utah. I believe I’ll be able to do the same amount of work from “home” in Tegucigalpa as from “home” in Salt Lake City, and I will have less chance of being shut out of Honduras after the borders start to open up again. The Honduras government has actually been equal to or ahead of the various U.S. governments in restricting movement and mandating “social distancing.”

This crisis has helped me assess my missionary life here in Honduras for the past two years. The truth is, my chosen community is here. I feel safe here. I feel cared for here. I feel committed to the Honduran people. My daily support network, colleagues and friends, whether Honduran or foreign, is local and is staying put. I feel safer in fact than I would feel traveling to the United States for an indefinite amount of time. I feel called to be here.

I am supplied with drinking water and food for the time being, and I expect to be able to resupply as needed. I canceled my birthday party I’d planned for next Sunday. I am privileged to be able to access medical care if needed, in a city with good quality hospitals that I can afford. Furthermore, I am not at high risk of needing medical care related to coronavirus, as I am under the age of 50, and I have no underlying medical conditions.

(I’m not alone. Some of my colleagues in Central America and the Caribbean are returning to the U.S., but I know of colleagues in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Costa Rica who are remaining in-country. Everyone’s situation is different.)

My mission partners of the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras are in the same boat as everyone around the world, with fewer economic resources to cope. They also are not working, their employers, businesses, churches and organizations are closed. Some of our church leaders have had family worship daily, occasionally using Zoom to connect family members across three continents. Technology for that is more limited here than in other places.

The economic situation in this country is going to be very difficult over the next few months. Two-thirds of Hondurans already live below the poverty line, with one third in “extreme” poverty. Even those who are employed are likely to be under-employed or “under the table” employed, and therefore sometimes not eligible for certain government relief actions. It remains to be seen how this will directly affect the church. It certainly already is affecting the church families that many of my Presbyterian friends know. Some NGOs are already expecting donations and grants to be affected, so even charitable efforts will be cut, and organizations are deciding whether to lay people off now or later.

This is also a country whose health care system is in a shambles to begin with, and which could not cope with the numbers of patients that, say, Italy had to cope with last week. And, finally, this is a country whose economy is generally quite precarious, dependent on foreign remittances from families abroad, on foreign aid, and on external multi-national corporations. Local employees and business owners alike are bound to be in dire straits by the end of a country-wide closure.

So, this is a big deal, and the final results are unknown, and living day-to-day in that unknown is quite challenging. I’m a girl who likes to have a plan, and that just isn’t possible. I feel glad to be connected to you all through this. I know all of your lives and routines are being affected, too. Know that you remain in the hearts and prayers of your Honduran brothers and sisters, and we hope that we remain in yours.

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.