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 year spent learning how to give

“We are learning what we’re capable of,” said Selenia Ordóñez. She and I share an anniversary: Ordóñez and her Presbyterian Women’s team began running a retreat center ministry the same week I was installed as a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. For the past year, we have both been learning what we’re capable of.

My job description is “facilitator for theological education and leadership development” within the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. The focus of my first year, although not explicit, has been education and development of the concept of partnership. I see my work as empowering and highlighting the capabilities of the Honduran church and sub-groups, such as the Presbyterian Women, youth groups, lay pastors, and theological students.

During a recent visit, the Presbytery of Carlisle and the Honduran church took a day out of their schedule of home construction to receive training from a local organization on intercultural and international partnership, and to start a process to assess and renew their bilateral relationship. I confess that some of our participants started out skeptical that this training was of any practical value — admittedly, its value was less tangible than building a home from cinderblocks.

A mixed group of Honduran and North American volunteers worked on a home construction project in Puente Jalan, near Guaimaca, Honduras.

Inspired by the training in partnership and mutual concern, the week ended with a Honduran-led initiative that has never happened before: A leader in one of the Honduran congregations gathered volunteers and workmen to join in partnership with the North American volunteer construction crew in building the home of a member of a different congregation. Local presbytery leaders are now encouraged to practice this demonstration of mutuality and partnership more intentionally in their own communities.

Women’s retreat leaders washed the feet of participants at Centro de Retiros Villa de Gracia in January.

In March, the Presbyterian Women of Honduras learned that the U.S.-Honduras partnership has met its goal of raising $189,500 to complete the purchase of the retreat center property that they have been running. The Presbyterian Women of the PC(USA) gave $100,000 from one of their grant programs. The Presbyterian Women of Honduras contributed $520.77 to date. This discrepancy brings to mind the story of the widow’s mite in the gospel of Luke. “As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others.’” But I don’t believe this story in Luke is really about money and economic class. It comes at the end of a lengthy critique of the Temple system that creates inequality, and a warning from Jesus against the traditions of the scribes and other Temple leaders.

Our old ways of worshiping, of maintaining our connection to God, of supporting the activities of the Temple, are not truly just and good. We must examine our traditions and live into a new way of connecting to God that is not entirely financial and unequal. It is telling, I think, that Jesus does not call us all to be like the widow, but he does warn us all against being like the scribes. This story calls us all, rich and poor, to live into a new way of relating to God, to the church, and to ourselves.

This is what the Presbyterian Women of Honduras are doing as they manage a ministry of the church. They are doing so without the direct oversight of a male pastor. They are making decisions for the retreat center based on their understanding of hospitality, mission and ministry. They are seeing and valuing the gifts of ministry that they can contribute, rather than seeing only what they lack. We are transforming our concept of partnership from one of “giver and receiver” to one of mutual work and mutual contribution. Together, we are learning what we’re capable of.

An invitation to join in ministry

New relationships, new life at retreat center

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The Presbyterian women’s council met in April to fast, pray and consecrate the grounds of Villa Gracia in Tegucigalpa.

This year the tapestry of partnerships between U.S. and Honduran Presbyterians became more intricate. The women’s ministry of the Honduran Presbyterian Church received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Presbyterian Women organization — about two-thirds of what is needed to purchase and refurbish a retreat center called Villa Gracia. The center will become a place where all 26 congregations in Honduras may gather for spiritual formation, conferences, camps and education. In two months, the women’s ministry has hosted a day-long retreat titled “The Power of the Wise Woman,” a three-day pastoral education encounter, a lunch-time presentation of scholarships to 95 youth, and a church plenary meeting. The chair of the women’s committee, Selenia Ordóñez, says that the job was so big, she worried it couldn’t be done. “I was stressed out and anxious,” she said, as the women cleaned and repaired rooms, sewed bedclothes and curtains, and planned menus. “But after a successful first event, I started to think it might be possible.” The women say that they trust in God’s help that they will make Villa Gracia into a life-giving and sustainable retreat and conference center.

More help is needed. The Honduras Mission Network of the (PC)USA is making efforts to raise the remaining $70,000. As I write this, about one-third of the needed funds have been raised. For more about the Presbyterian Women grant, go to https://www.presbyterianwomen.org/what_we_do/support-mission/birthday-offering/

See more on the development of the retreat center, called Villa Gracia, or Village of Grace, at http://villagracia.org/

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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