The harvest of God’s love

20181110_164140
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.

Advertisements

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 ‘visible sign of invisible grace’

Reflections from weekend of teaching, learning, and my installation as mission co-worker with Iglesia Presbiteriana de Honduras:

Part of my job is to assist with a pastoral education program offered by the Instituto Bíblico Pastoral from Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana. The professors and facilitators asked me to teach a workshop on the sacraments from a Presbyterian/Reformed perspective. So I and my regional liaison, Tracey King-Ortega, prepared a two-hour lesson and activities.

I knew beforehand that the sacraments can be a delicate subject between Honduran and U.S. Presbyterians, because most U.S. Presbyterians baptize infants and children, and the Honduran church believes in a “believer’s baptism,” that is, a person must be of age and able to choose baptism for themselves. There are valid arguments in the Reformed tradition for both, so my goal was to present the varied arguments and discuss the reasons that the Honduran church believes one way and the U.S. church believes differently.

I wasn’t getting very far and had the feeling that most of the pastors/lay leaders in the room were somewhat unthinkingly entrenched. Finally I said, “For example, I was baptized as a baby. By my grandfather, who was a pastor.” I went on to explain that I was confirmed as a teenager in my church, and that was my own conscious decision, and I was not rebaptized. Later, I was ordained, first as a deacon and then as a pastor in my church, and in both cases was following a call by my community and by God, and in each case “remembered” and invoked my baptism but was not rebaptized. “Now not all North Americans feel this way. My mother, for example, was baptized as an infant, and then again as an adult, because she felt that it was important for her to make that decision for herself. But I don’t feel that way. In my heart, I feel baptized, even though I don’t technically remember it.

“Now, in your church, where I am now called to serve, do you think I can participate fully, without being rebaptized? For example, may I take communion, for which baptism is a prerequisite?”

Wide eyes and silence for a few seconds. I knew that at least some in the room were thinking to themselves that, yes, I probably ought to be baptized again, but how could they say that to a new pastor/teacher/missionary that they just met?

Discussion opened up again. The room was still split, but we were somehow no longer unthinkingly entrenched. We talked about the importance and meaning of baptism in our tradition, and we talked about the importance of inclusion as well as personal independence and liberty. We didn’t come to a consensus, but that didn’t matter. We started thinking about the reasons why we do what we do, and not only about how to convince others to think as we do.

Near the end of the discussion, a lay pastor, a 65-year-old farmer with no formal education outside this pastoral education program, shared his own story of personal conversion and baptism. And he said directly to me, “What matters most is your own conscience. If in your heart you are baptized, then you are baptized.”

What a pastor. I felt so affirmed by his response. I felt he was telling me, “I trust you and welcome you, even though we’re different.”

What I learned in teaching this workshop is that formal education, intellectualism, systematic theology, critical thinking are all important tools. It helps if you have them and use them. But they are not what make a pastor. A pastor is someone who touches your heart, who helps you feel seen and trusted and welcomed. And by feeling seen and trusted and welcomed, then we are able to see and trust and welcome others. Personal connection, tenderheartedness, vulnerability, and story sharing: Those are the most important tools of a pastor.

How appropriate, then, that we were discussing the sacraments, of which John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion said: “The seals which are affixed to diplomas, and other public deeds, are nothing considered in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment, and yet this does not prevent them from sealing and confirming when they are appended to writings. …  sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture.”