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.

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Pentecost in a parking lot

A reflection on Acts 2:1-21.

On a recent Saturday, I spent time with women of the Presbyterian church of Honduras, as they fasted, prayed, and consecrated a retreat center that they are newly managing as a ministry of the church.

In pairs we walked through the property, blessing the major buildings and grounds: the dormitories, the chapels, the trees and grass, the entrance, the kitchen. We touched doorposts and tree trunks with hands carrying olive oil, and we prayed prayers of blessing. I was chosen with my partner to bless a large partially outdoor structure that previously had been a parking shed. New concrete floors have been laid, and a wall has been newly painted. Since the retreat center has been under new ownership, it has housed several large gatherings, including my installation as mission co-worker in Honduras.

My partner María Elena and I moved from one end of the room to the other, on opposite walls, placing our hands on the walls, and the bits of furniture, and the floor, and we prayed individually for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room. María Elena prayed her prayer in Spanish, as did I, and then I sang a song in English, and then she sang in Spanish.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,” I sang. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”

I haven’t sung this song in years; the last time I remember singing it was in my childhood church in New Mexico. I don’t know what made it pop into my head, except for the movement of the Holy Spirit, during this intimate Pentecost moment. María Elena said later that she felt “transported,” and I felt the same. The parking lot had been transformed into a sanctuary, and a bilingual one at that, she said.

Whenever we invoke the Holy Spirit, speaking the language too deep for words, knowing that transformation and renewal is taking place, we are experiencing Pentecost.

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/

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.