March 13, 2014
When was the last time you heard anyone mention Rutilio Grande? … or maybe you’ve never even heard of Rutilio Grande. In case this is the first you’ve heard of him, Fr. Grande was a Jesuit priest in El Salvador. In time, he came to understand his vocational call and God’s expectation of him to be one of self-sacrifice and loving service. As the seminary director of social action projects in San Salvador, he encouraged his students to spend time living among the poor in the countryside learning to understand their struggles and their faith. By empowering the poor to understand their own sense of dignity and their rights as children of God, he became known as a “radical” priest and a troublemaker. Since his ministry was active in the 1960 and 1970s, a picture might be forming in your mind if you have any knowledge of what was happening in Central America at that time. He regularly preached on social justice issues and named the hypocrisy of those who called themselves Christians yet stood by silently while their brothers and sisters were being oppressed. After a particularly feisty sermon in which he denounced the sham of democracy in regard to a Colombian priest who was deported from El Salvador without a hearing he was machine-gunned down in his van that afternoon.
When was the last time you heard anyone mention Sister Katherine Drexel? … or, again, maybe you’ve never heard of her. Sr. Katherine was the daughter of Francis Drexel, an extremely successful banker who died in 1885 leaving Katherine and her two sisters a trust of $14,000,000. Katherine was a generous philanthropist, but was also concerned for those on the margins of the church and U.S. society … specifically the black and indigenous communities. In 1891 she founded a new religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People and used her $400,000 a year from her father’s estate to support projects and programs in the black and indigenous communities throughout the U.S.
While I’m assuming neither of these people are on the tip of your tongue, arguably they both had a significant social justice impact. Fr. Grande was a close friend of Bishop Oscar Romero, and his death proved to be the catalyst to move Bp. Romero to become a staunch advocate for the poor (Bp. Romero was assassinated celebrating mass in 1980). Katherine, as mother superior of her order, provided a significant witness in serving the under-served, bringing awareness of the marginalized black and indigenous communities to the fore up until her death in 1955, the same year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama.
Fr Grande and Sr. Katherine both worked for the greater good, and both died not knowing whether or not their work had had any impact. I think all missioners have to wonder, at times, if what they are doing matters. When we’re in the field, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we have days when we wake up and wonder if anything we’re doing really matters. We hear stories of people who worked for years in a given community only to learn after they returned home that the community in which they worked digressed. Hospitals deteriorate and are abandoned. Housing deteriorates and is abandoned. Schools deteriorate and are closed. Projects lose their funding. We return to a community after building the foundation for a school only to discover years later that the school is still just the foundation we built. We learn through contacts that Diocesan priorities have changed and the program we and so many were convinced would be the catalyst for significant change in that particular Diocese … is no longer in operation.
While I hope and pray that the work I’m doing, and the approach to development I’ve started, one that does not rely on me, but rather empowers others with tools and training, will continue long after I’m gone, I have no way of knowing what will happen in the future. And the reality is that none of us knows what will happen. We don’t know God’s plan. We may never see the fruits of our labor. We do not know if we’ll one day be called upon by God to do something other than what we’re currently doing. We may never be called by God to lead a social justice movement. Our work may not become the foundation for an internationally recognized organization. But, we do what we do anyway, because what we can do is continue to discern and be the person God calls us to be.
I can relate to people like Fr. Rutilio and Sr. Katherine. They didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize (though Sr. Katherine was eventually canonized by the Roman Catholic Church). Their names didn’t become internationally recognized. They didn’t set the world on fire by their actions. But they did make a difference. They both lived in to who they were called to be, and both did their part in working toward the Kingdom of God. I hope and pray that’s what we’re all doing, whether it’s around the globe, around our home country, or around the corner from our home.
February 25, 2014
Many of us have seen the movie Sister Act. After Whoopi Goldberg turns a San Francisco monastery upside down with her ideas, Maggie Smith, the Mother Superior, tells her she has requested a transfer. Her comment to Whoopi explaining why she is leaving is something like, “You’ve got the sisters thinking life in this community is some kind of ongoing bake sale.” The point she makes is that life is hard, can be unsafe in their neighborhood, and as such there will be bad days. And when Whoopi tries to convince her she can still be a part of the changes happening in the monastery, Maggie states, “I’m sorry, but I’ve misplaced my tambourine.”
In some ways, I think missioners and people back home have that same kind of vision of mission work … an ongoing bake sale. Somehow responding to the call to serve in mission is some kind of spiritual elation or exotic vacation. Everyone seems to understand that the electricity might go out, the internet might go down, you might live in or regularly visit houses without floors, there might be insects around you that carry disease, and so on. But there is this sense of the “noble savage,” the idealized poor person who somehow has this perfect and meritorious life. And when we live among them, what could be perceived as challenging somehow gets glorified as part of an “adventure” or “exotic vacation” with the implication of it being always positive. The reality is that life is life … no matter where you live. We’re all human. There are good days, and there are bad days. Along with the highs of successes and accomplishments come the lows of frustration and disappointment. There are days when you want to celebrate life and God’s many blessings, and there are days when you don’t want to get out of bed. It doesn’t matter where you are, what you’re doing, or what in particular is going on your life. Most of us just go through a normal rhythm of life that includes the highs and the lows.
To be completely honest, lately I’ve experienced the lows; I’ve been in what you might call an emotional slump (which, by the way, is a real thing and completely normal). I couldn’t tell you why. There isn’t anything in particular you could contribute it to. I’m not someone prone to depression (so don’t panic), and as a rule I think I’m typically an optimist and see the rainbow behind most clouds. As a business guy, I tend to see an opportunity when others see a problem. But a part of my humanity is I occasionally get into a slump … or what we call at home becoming “Mr. Attitude.”
The trick, of course, is being able to deal with it and get beyond it. My approach is through spiritual discipline. A friend once asked me about my discipline. I told him that in some ways a great deal of my spiritual discipline is practice for when I really needed it. My spiritual discipline includes reading and reflecting with books like All Saints which I’ve referenced in a number of my blog entries. I also like to use both my small Episcopal Prayer Book (The Book of Common Prayer) and Praying Our Days by Frank Griswold, the 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
While it might be considered a little inappropriate, one of the things I noted recently in my reading that I took some comfort in was that the saints also had bad days. In particular, I guess you could say that martyrdom in the form of a beheading, being shot, or being burned at the stake probably reflected a bad day. Although we often read about the martyrs experiencing an epiphany, praying with great joy, or experiencing some kind of spiritual glory, which I have no doubt in my mind they do and did, I also have to believe that in their humanity, at some point prior to their executions, they had their “slump.” Even Christ is quoted as having said on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Again, it may not be the most appropriate message to take away from the lives of the saints, but I find it reassuring that I don’t have to be perfect and that it’s okay to feel a little cranky once in a while … aka, be “Mr. Attitude.”
Another thing that my spiritual discipline tends to do for me is point me back to the many blessings in my life. It’s easy to see only the negative if you allow yourself to wallow in your slump. I find that when I talk and listen to God, I begin to assess my blessings. An email from a friend, a visit in the office from someone I haven’t seen in a while, a positive response to a grant application, a sunny day, the preparing and delivering of an interesting sermon, a mother with a cute baby in the market, a special meal or specific dessert, and more, all serve to remind me of the many blessings in life … in my life. And as of January, another of my blessings includes my new companion, Wilson, a Springer Spaniel puppy. Many of us know of the blessings and joy a pet can bring into our lives. While it’s a good deal of work to raise a puppy, I give thanks for the blessing of Wilson and the joy he brings into my life and home.
I think the most important part of my spiritual discipline is listening and reflecting. Ultimately, I think I’d be sunk if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to talk with God. It’s during this time that I’m reminded of what matters to me … reminded of my vocational call … reminded of the many blessings in my life … and, when needed, find myself coming out of a slump.
February 6, 2014
Last week I gave an online presentation to a group of sociologists at Boston College about Colombia and the work of the Diocese. We had a great conversation about Colombia’s history and its current challenges. We talked about positive change such as a growing economy, the reduction in paramilitary violence thanks to the peace talks, and the fact that Bogota is considered the Silicon Valley of South America. We also talked about ongoing problems such as the fact that violence against women (specifically the throwing of acid in the face to disfigure) is up 25% in the past 5 years, the ongoing human rights challenges related to land reform, the humanitarian crisis of displaced persons (5.2 million), one of the highest rates of income inequality in the Americas, and the fact that Colombia has joined the list of the top 25 countries for persecution of Christians (primarily due to Christians taking a stand in support of human rights).
In my presentation, I shared the ongoing work of the Diocese and the work I do in support of Diocesan priorities. We talked about the diocesan focus on youth leadership programs, addressing the needs of the displaced in our communities, addressing the needs of the elderly, and support and empowerment programs for single mothers. We talked about the micro-loan program in Cali, the women’s program in Soacha, and the elder housing program in San Rafael. I shared some of the projects currently being developed for low-income housing for single-parent families in Cartagena, church construction projects (where the church will double as a community center), and the farming project in Facatativa.
Inevitably, in a conversation with sociologists the discussion will move from social programs to systemic justice. It’s one thing to offer food for the poor. It’s another to provide them with training and skills, and to work toward addressing the social structures and political systems that have contributed to their poverty. It’s one thing to build low-income housing. It’s another to address the political and social challenges behind the fact that single-parent households find themselves poor and homeless. It’s addressing those structures and systems that contribute to social problems that most of us mean when we talk about systemic justice. Yes, there is an immediate need to feed and house someone. But there is another longer term need to ensure that the systems that create situations of hunger and homelessness be addressed. In Boston, I cooked in a soup kitchen for 13 years. I served on boards that addressed the needs of the homeless and the hungry. I also participated in programs and made donations to political organizations that were working to address the underlying issues that created the need for soup kitchens and shelters.
As we talked about these issues in the context of Colombia, we discussed addressing systemic issues. As a missioner working in another country, I struggle with two specific challenges in the context of systemic injustice. While I’m not one to be afraid to speak out, there is a very real danger in speaking out. The fact that Colombia is on the top 25 list of countries for Christian persecution is precisely because those who have spoken out against systemic injustices and sided with the poor have been silenced in some way. (That’s not to imply, by the way, that the problem is with the government, because I don’t believe that’s the case.) The problem is that there are always individuals who benefit from broken systems and structures, and understandably, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and dislike it when someone rocks the boat.
But beyond any practical concern, as a missioner I question whether or not it’s my place to address systemic issues. A quick review of the history of mission demonstrates the ways in which previous missionaries went into countries and “thought” they were addressing systemic issues and promoting what they considered needed change. While well-meaning, their ideas created systems of dependency, supported the efforts and misadventures of colonial powers, and established “their” version of right and wrong based on their predominantly Western perspective. I won’t go into great detail to explain what I mean by the following statement, but many scholars/people familiar with colonialism and the church’s history of mission would say that a great deal of the international problems we’re experiencing today have their roots in colonial history … and the church shares that blame.
You might also ask, “Who am I to think I know what’s best for others in another country?” You might ask what kind of credibility I have as a missioner, given the legacy of those who came before me. Some would say that any attempt on the part of someone like me to name and address systemic issues is simply a form of “neo-colonialism,” a repeat of a Westerner thinking he knows better than his hosts what’s best for them.
Beyond the previous points, there is yet another issue. Who am I to tell someone else about their problems when my own country is a mess? What kind of credibility can I possibly have when CEOs in the US have massively disproportionate salaries from their employees contributing to an income inequality that rivals those we consider “developing countries,” there is widespread technological displacement in the labor market, there are rapidly escalating poverty rates, the college-educated middle class finds itself surviving on food stamps, and our federal government is completely ineffective and dysfunctional. I seem to recall a scriptural lesson where Christ states, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” … How apt!
So, then the question becomes, “Since it’s not really appropriate to engage in work toward systemic change, is there anything I can do other than treat the symptoms?” I think the answer is a definite, “yes.” In fact, I’d like to think that’s actually central to my work, and also to the work of most missioners today. Missioners are typically engaged in what we call “empowerment” and “accompaniment.” Though those words get tossed around a great deal and are often misunderstood, at their core they point to our desire to enable others to stand up for themselves and to address systemic injustices in their own social context. For example, instead of fighting for women’s rights, we empower and support women to stand up for their own rights. Instead of addressing the underlying problems behind displacement, we support the displaced by providing the tools and encouragement to stand up for their rights. This is accompaniment … this is empowerment … this is mission.
January 18, 2014
I was in the States over the holidays and met many new people. The standard conversation would start with something like, “So what do you do?” I would respond, “I serve as an Episcopal missionary in Colombia.” The responses varied, but many were of the kind that I call “awe looks.” In some ways, it’s nice to be respected and to have people appreciate what you’re doing. In others, it feels a little strange as I’m still me, and my work in Colombia, or elsewhere, is just a part of my spiritual journey.
I remember the days when I was a doctoral student. As a PhD student there is a sense that you’ve “made it.” You’ve climbed the student ladder to the top. You were accepted into a program. You may have received a really nice financial package. And if you’re teaching, as most PhD students do, at some point you are treated like the professors. Students who don’t know the difference between doctoral students and faculty often refer to you as “Dr. ____” or “Prof. ____.” We often feel like “we’ve arrived.” When we complete our doctoral programs, though, we realize that the PhD wasn’t an end, but rather a beginning … a start of a career … a new opportunity to apply all of that knowledge we spent so many years nurturing.
Similarly, some people think of baptism as an end. It’s kind of like “you’ve made it” as a Christian by virtue of getting baptized. As I said in my homily last week, I think this is an incorrect way of thinking about baptism. Baptism is a fresh start. Paul said we emerge from baptism to walk “in newness of life.” Baptism transforms our lives leading us to think, speak, live, and act in ways that represent to the world the image of Christ. It transforms our behaviors, changing weakness into strength, greed into generosity, and hated into kindness. But all that doesn’t magically happen when we’re baptized. It happens throughout our lives as we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out, and live into, what baptism means. The transformation happens throughout our lives as we continue to be open to what our baptism means to each of us as a member of the body of Christ. I think the Christian life, at its best, is an ongoing transformation in which we continue to be shaped by the presence of Christ within us.
This week we remember Martin Niemoeller (yes, I’m still reading, and reflecting on, the All Saints book I’ve referenced in previous posts), a Confessing Pastor in Germany who became famous for many of us because of the following quote:
When the Nazis came to get the Communists, I was silent, because I was not a Communist. When they came to get the Socialists, I was silent. When they came to get the Catholics, I was silent. When they came to get the Jews, I was silent. And when they came to get me, there was no one left to speak.
While many of us appreciate the quote and understand its sentiment, I suspect few of us fully appreciate Pastor Niemoeller’s spiritual journey behind it. Niemoeller began his career as an officer in the German military in WWI. He later became a Lutheran pastor following in the footsteps of his father. As a discontented German after the treaty of Versailles, he was an early supporter of the National Socialist movement (the Nazis). Also, like other Christians at that the time, he espoused Anti-Semitic sentiment “believing the Jewish people were to be condemned for their rejection of Christ” (All Saints, 1998). It was only after the Nazis began their rise to power, and Christian tradition was being twisted to support a brand of hatred espoused by Nazi leaders, that he began to grow uneasy with what was happening in Germany. And while he was growing concerned, he didn’t appreciate the terrible danger behind the Nazi position both to those who the Nazis treated as “others” and to the church until it was too late. It was only later that he realized how much he had failed to speak out about the wrongs being perpetrated in Nazi Germany, a failure that he journeyed with for the rest of his life.
Given the popular quote and the spiritual journey, in many ways I think Martin Niemoeller reflects the baptismal journey I’m trying to highlight. It’s the journey all of us baptized Christians are on, or ought to be on. My mission work in Colombia is just another part of that journey for me … another part of my living in to my baptismal call. It isn’t better or worse than any other journey. It doesn’t give me a special place in line at the Pearly Gates. It just is what it is. It’s not worthy of the “awe look” any more than all of the things the rest of us do … serving the poor at a soup kitchen … helping an elderly neighbor with basic chores … leading a short term domestic or international mission … working as an elementary school teacher … serving as a lay leader in a church … being an attentive parent … or??? … it’s just how I feel called to live out my baptismal call.
I think the ultimate question for all of us is, “How are we called to live out our baptismal call?” I also believe that as we answer that question for ourselves, we discover that we’re on a spiritual journey … one that helps us learn, grow, and transform into the person God wants and needs us to be.
December 20, 2013
I recently read an article in The Economist that referenced a study produced in the US about trust. It implied that trust of others was at an all-time low. It seems North Americans don’t trust their neighbors, businesses, and especially not their politicians. The congressional approval rate is at an all-time low … in the single digits … and fewer than ever trust their representatives to do what’s best for the country. In the political discussions about an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, repeatedly political pundits have said “Iran can’t be trusted” to keep its agreements. In the little I’ve read about congressional support for the accords, or lack thereof, and comments by others, the issue of trust comes up repeatedly.
In local news here in Colombia you hear the same kinds of things. As many are aware, the government and the FARC have been in peace talks for over a year. A recent revelation regarding a supposed FARC plot against the life of ex-president, Alvaro Uribe Velez has led to a call from some that the FARC can’t be trusted to negotiate in good faith. Recently, there was news in Bogota that the Attorney General had removed the Mayor of Bogota, which in Colombia is within his legal rights, for suspending garbage collection contracts that created a huge problem for the city (health hazard, among others). While it’s within his legal rights and obligations to do so, it’s also widely held that people don’t trust his motives, feeling they were more politically driven than with regard for the residents of the city.
I have to admit that I’m among those who don’t trust. I recently wrote a blog post about vestments. The story behind the post was about my causing a little of a scandal, unbeknownst to me, by celebrating the Eucharist at the youth retreat without an alb (just a stole). I wrote a lengthy post on vestments reflecting on the role, or lack thereof, of vestments in spiritual authority. And before you ask, “No,” I didn’t post it. After writing it, I decided I should run it by some friends to see if I had said anything that might upset someone. Although neither friend saw an issue with anything I wrote, I decided that having to send it to two friends for comment probably meant that I wasn’t comfortable posting it … so I didn’t. I guess you could say I didn’t trust you, my readers, enough to accept what I had to say and, if you felt the need to do so, to respectfully disagree with me.
As I pondered the article in The Economist, considered the post I didn’t publish, and thought about trust/distrust in society, I started to reflect on the fact that we’re in Advent. Isn’t Advent about trust? Aren’t we, as people of faith … those who trust … awaiting the second coming, which we acknowledge in Advent? (In case we’re not all on the same page, Advent is about both the remembrance of Christ’s birth as well as our preparation for His return, which is why many of our scriptures in Advent reflect penance and judgment as well as stories related to the nativity.) If we say, through an expression of our faith, that we “trust” God and “trust” that “Christ will come again” as we proclaim in the Eucharistic prayer, are we being dishonest or disingenuous when we also say we don’t trust our neighbor? Isn’t our theology and Christology a little out of whack if we hold both to be true … as in, many of us express that we experience God and Christ in community?
I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity to reflect on the issue of trust during this Advent season. As I continue my reflection, I ponder the words of Yentl’s father from the 1983 Barbra Streisand movie in which she asked her father to teach her scripture (which women at the time were not allowed to do), “I trust that God will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.” I suspect that’s the position of many Christians, whether or not we admit it. My prayer for 2014 is that we begin to recognize and appreciate that there IS a relationship between our trust of each other and our trust in God, as I’m not so sure we can truly trust God when we can’t trust our neighbor.
November 26, 2013
I was having a conversation with my mother recently about my trip to Quibdo in which I used the expression, “Afro-Colombian.” She quickly responded, “What do you mean by that? I don’t usually think about people of African descent living in Colombia.” That response led to a very interesting conversation about Quibdo, which I’ll say more about later.
Before I speak about “Afro-Colombians,” I can’t pass up the chance to share a few coincidences. Today happens to be the 130th anniversary of the death of Sojourner Truth, a run-away slave (from New York), slavery abolitionist, and leader for women’s rights. Sojourner was not her given name, but the name she gave herself when she discerned that God was calling her to be a preacher and prophet. If you don’t know Sojourner Truth’s story, I encourage you to look her up. Another coincidence is that my mother’s name is Grace, and Amazing Grace has always been one of her favorite hymns. What some may not know is that Amazing Grace is a kind of spiritual autobiography of John Newton, a man who became an Anglican cleric after a later-in-life conversion, seeking mercy and grace in repentance for his years as a slave trader.
Now as for slavery in the Spanish Americas … The Spanish were the first to use African slaves in the so called, “New World,” beginning in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Cuba and Hispanola. In other words, African slavery was firmly ensconced in Latin culture long before the first English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607 or the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Initially, local natives were used as forced labor, but many died due to European diseases such as smallpox causing a labor shortage. Africans were considered stronger and more disease resistant, many Europeans didn’t perceive Africans as humans, and warring African tribes were more than willing to be complicit by selling defeated neighboring tribes into bondage, all of which led to the growth of the Atlantic slave trade.
For all of you critics of capitalism who aptly highlight political decisions dressed up as something like international charity, when in reality a decision or action is about economic power and financial gain, you may appreciate taking note that at many times slavery was outlawed in European countries, but remained legal in their colonies. Why? Because people in high places were making lots of money! While their religious sensibilities led them to not want to experience slavery in their backyard, it didn’t prevent them from increasing their wealth by subjecting people overseas to cruel and inhumane treatment. … How often do we still not pay attention to human trafficking, child abuse, industrial bondage, and so on, because we choose not to see it?
In the Viceroyalty of New Granada, a part of which eventually became Colombia, Africans were forced to work in gold mines, on sugar cane plantations, and on cattle ranches. When we think of gold mining, many of us image someone standing in water and using a screened instrument of some type to sift out gold nuggets using the water to assist. Given the lack of available water in the Spanish Americas, a batea was used. Bateas are typically made from a single piece of wood and look like a cross between a wooden bowl and a cutting board. Today, bateas are still used by some to pan for gold, but mostly they are used as table centerpieces for fruit and display items or for making bread.
What spurred this discussion about slavery was sharing with my mother the details of my recent experience in Quibdo, Choco. Life in Quibdo, founded in 1654, has centered around the Atrato River, making boats and river-based activities prominent in the economy and community. I learned that “Mama … u” and “Hay mama … u” are river-based greetings which are extremely helpful on foggy days to note that someone else is nearby on the river, and to give some indication of their location based on their voice. Today, the population of Quibdo consists of 80% Afro-Colombians, 10% indigenous populations, and 10% mixed through interracial marriage.
During my visit, I spent time with youth groups, visited and met with folks in the community, gave a history lesson to an English class at one of the local universities, and was interviewed for a bilingual radio program on a university radio station. I was asked about my experience learning Spanish, to make some comments on cultural differences between the US and Colombia, and to comment on scholarships and academic study in the US. As I was leaving the studio, my colleague’s wife met me at the door, as agreed, but unexpectedly headed into another building. We entered an office where a number of women were sitting around a conference table. It turned out they had heard my interview and wanted to talk with me.
The purpose of my visit was the same as my other recent travel in Colombia, to provide consultation and assistance in developing mission projects. I stayed in the home of my colleague, Padre Edison, and he shared his pastoral work and activities in the community. I was reminded of the life of a small town preacher, though Quibdo isn’t that small (100,000), as everywhere we went someone stopped to talk or shouted out, “Hola Padre!”
Something I found interesting, and worthy of further reflection, was the fact that it didn’t occur to me until I was in the airport waiting to fly home to Bogota that I had only seen 2 other white faces in the course of my 3-day visit. I don’t know if that says something about me, the community, or both … but I was glad to have visited Quibdo, spending time with my colleague, Edison, as well as the opportunity to reflect on the experience.
October 18, 2013
I recently read an article about an increase in violence against women. Some of the most dangerous countries for women were identified as Latin. And, although four Latin countries have female Presidents … Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina … their visibility and leadership don’t appear to have improved the situation for women in Latin America. The article noted that, for example, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries for women, and in Colombia the practice of throwing acid in a woman’s face for the purposes of disfiguring her has quadrupled in the last few years. Some claim that part of the problem is that crimes against women are rarely reported. But the reality is that even when they are, few are investigated by police, and even fewer lead to any kind of justice.
That was a long foreword to this post. You may recall my referencing a youth leadership retreat for which the Cathedral Church of St. Paul received a grant (and a subsequent additional donation). Last weekend, twenty youth between the ages of 13 and 17, and nine adults, went to a retreat center in a community outside of Bogota (Cachipay). The youth and leaders came from different cities and towns throughout the Diocese.
The retreat program was filled with discussions, small group exercises, and educational games (the same kind we’re all familiar with from our own retreat experiences). Part of the program was to discuss the characteristics of a leader, mindful of being a person of faith and being a leader both in the church as well as in the community. The youth discussed characteristics of a leader in small groups, shared them with the entire group, and then invited some of the adults to share what they thought their leadership characteristics were. Later in the day, the youth broke into two groups. Their task was to develop a skit that demonstrated characteristics of leadership.
Much to my surprise, one of the groups chose women’s issues as their theme. In the opening of the skit, a young man was completely inappropriate with a female colleague. Then, another aggressively solicited a woman working as a vendor on the street. The leadership characteristics were demonstrated by yet another young man who challenged his friends, and got into a fight with one of them, regarding the behavior toward the women.
As I watched, I was reminded of a time in the classroom when young men no longer snickered when the words gay, lesbian, or homosexual were used by a classmate. I was reminded of an occasion when young men in a class presentation on the technology of birth control, and welcomed the way in which it empowered women and changed the social dynamics of dating. I was reminded of when President Obama won the primary in 2008, and noted that the political discussions on campus had little to do with the candidate’s race. I used to comment to my friends how it gave me hope for the future to see how much had changed, and was changing, among young adults (while still appreciating that I was on a private college campus).
The reality is that many young men grew up with professional parents and watched their mothers and aunts encounter a glass ceiling at work. They learned about sexism and its implications at a young age, through first-hand experience. Many of today’s young adults grew up in integrated schools and classrooms, developing close friendships across what were once racial divides. They have seen the ugly face of racism through the eyes of their friends. They couldn’t and still can’t understand it, given their friends are just like them … wanting the same things out of life. They grew up with gay and lesbian friends, aunts, uncles, parents, or parents of classmates, never quite understanding why their friends and relatives were treated differently and didn’t have the same legal rights as everyone else.
In my darker hours, when I was convinced nothing would ever change, I would think about the students I’ve had in classes, and in them I would note that not only have things changed, but they continue to change. I saw in those young adults a very different and changing world. Last weekend on retreat, I had the same experience. As I thought about the violence against women in Latin America, and then watched the skit performed by that group of teenagers, specifically identifying the challenge to sexist and inappropriate behavior toward women as a characteristic of leadership, again, I saw hope. Hope for the women of Latin America … hope for the church … hope for the world … hope for a better tomorrow for us all.
September 19, 2013
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson
Recently, I served as guest celebrant at Iglesia Santa Cruz in Cartagena. In a workshop a few days before the service, I heard my colleague, Padre Bladimir, telling people the service was going to be at 8 on Saturday morning. After the workshop I said, “Were you serious? … Did you really mean 8?,” to which he laughed and said, “No, for you it’s 9. I just told them 8 so that people would be there when the service begins.” Since I’m of German heritage, and Germans are known for … well, you know … we started a little joke of referring to “German time” or “Colombian time.” For the service, 8:00 became “Colombian time” and 9:00 became “German time.”
The service was part of a large festive celebration for Holy Cross Day (Santa Cruz). The church was bursting with people and activity, and one side of the sanctuary was filled with young people of all ages. During the service, as we were concluding the Sanctus an elderly woman rushed up to the altar holding a baby. She indicated that the mother was not feeling well and needed to leave, but wanted the child to receive a blessing. So, we offered a blessing for the baby, after which 3 more mothers showed up at the altar holding infants they wanted to receive a blessing. No one seemed to mind that we stopped in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer or that we were doing blessings at the altar. What’s more, when we resumed it was as if we never stopped for the blessings.
After distributing communion, I was tapped on the shoulder and handed a vile of holy oil and the children started to line up in front of me for a blessing. As the end of the line of children approached, adults started getting up and joining the line. Even a couple of elderly women who needed assistance to stand came up for a blessing.
As part of the day’s festivities, after worship we were entertained by a youth dance troupe that has become one of the church’s flagship youth programs. It provides an alternative for the children to drugs and violence in the streets, as well as provides them with an opportunity to learn about their culture and heritage. The program was started by a retiree in the congregation who wanted to do something for the children. After the dance program we were served Sancocho, a traditional Colombian soup made with many kinds of meat (most commonly pollo (chicken), gallina (hen), pescado (fish), and cola (ox tail)) along with large pieces of platano (plantain), papa (potato), yuca (cassava) and/or other vegetables such as tomato, scallion, cilantro, and mazorca (corn on the cob), topped off with a squeeze of fresh lime.
I’ve attended many services and church events throughout my life. But in many of the churches in the States there have been individuals who were, shall we say, rather particular about what they believed could and couldn’t be done before, during, and/or after a service. I’ve known priests who found themselves in a defensive position regarding something they did during a service. I’ve heard people grumble that the priest didn’t do this or do that “right,” or that someone didn’t receive communion “properly,” whatever that means. Truth be told, I find I rather enjoy the impromptu aspects of worship here in Colombia … the unplanned prayer and celebration of a birthday or anniversary, blessings like the ones we had with the babies in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, and requests during a service for blessings and prayers for healing for someone in serious need of emotional and/or physical healing. I think I’ve become so comfortable with not having a clue what might happen next, that my colleagues have jokingly begun saying that I’m now “more Colombian than German.”
As I reflect on my time in Cartagena, the impromptu aspects of worship here, and on the many places where I’ve served where a plastic table, a pile of plastic chairs, and a simple candle were the supplies for a community’s standard Sunday worship, I think about serving as a priest when I return to the US. I find myself pondering what practices will stay with me. I wonder how it will feel and how I will perceive myself as a priest, serving behind a traditional altar in the US rather than making something at hand into an altar. Will my experience serving in Colombia become my new “normal?” Will everything in the States begin to feel to me like “high church?” Will I be happy with my worship experiences in the States? What parts of my experience will I incorporate into who I am and will be, and what parts will dissipate with time?
As I reflect and ponder these and other questions, I find it interesting to note that they don’t raise concerns, but rather fill me with a sense of excitement about the future and about my life in the church when I return to the States.
August 26, 2013
I’m sure many of you are asking yourselves about the title, Living GF. Does that stand for “Good Food?” … Going Forward? … or what? In this case, it means Gluten Free. GF is easily recognizable shorthand for the millions of people world-wide with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or allergy to wheat. As you may recall from previous posts, I’m among them (allergic to wheat).
Many of you know that I’m a voracious reader. One of the ways in which I stay in touch with life in the U.S. is through online magazines, books, and sites. Besides a variety of books, I frequently read the Huffington Post, several economic, political, and financial magazines, and I access information through informative websites. Part of my reading repertoire includes GF cookbooks, the Gluten Free Living magazine, and the recently discovered Gluten Free For Men website (glutenfreeformen.com)
Dealing with a food allergy living abroad can present challenges. Though I’m sure others may argue otherwise, I happen to think a wheat allergy is among those on the top of the list of difficult allergies. Until you have to deal with it, you can’t begin to imagine how many things contain wheat, and how often you are served wheat-based products. Airline sandwiches, coffee with pastries for breakfast, soups thickened with an ingredient that contains gluten, and the list could go on. For example, most sliced ham in the grocery store is processed. A careful scan of the ingredients will illustrate my point … wheat is usually third or fourth on the list. Nearly all baked goods, tons of processed foods, things like canned beans, sliced ham, a great deal of restaurant fare, and so on.
It’s difficult to talk about a food allergy, and in particular wheat, as it’s in so many things, and people in other countries are not always as sensitized to food allergies and gluten intolerance. As such, people tend to think you’re a bit of an alarmist by making what to them is perceived as a big deal out of a little issue. Since I’m not inclined to want people to think I’m overly dramatic, my tendency is to keep my allergy to myself until it’s necessary to explain … which, of course, doesn’t help the lack of education regarding food allergies.
You may be surprised to learn that it can be an even bigger challenge when people go out of their way to address your food allergy. I was invited to a dinner one time. The cook went to extra effort to accommodate me, so I felt obliged to attend and to eat. She made me a pasta dish with gluten free pasta that she had to go out of her way to buy, and lots of fresh vegetables. Unfortunately, it’s also common in Colombia to use hotdogs as an inexpensive sausage replacement. The majority of hotdogs contain wheat. Since my pasta had hotdogs, I picked them out and ate.
I was traveling recently. My host went out of his way to navigate to a local place for coffee that had what he thought were “wheat free” pastries, bunuelos. These pastries are kind of like a fritter and are very popular in Colombia. Since I worry about cross-contamination in bakeries and have never been able to quite get a handle on the ingredients, I have avoided them. On this occasion, my colleague insisted, along with the baker, that the bunuelos in this café/bakery were made only with fine corn flour. Based on my trust in my colleague, and a strong desire to try one, I had a bunuelo with my coffee. Yum. And shortly thereafter I started to itch. Upon inspection of my arms and face, it was clear that the bunuelo had some kind of wheat flour in it too, as I was clearly having a reaction. Yet another lesson learned!
As I’m allergic to wheat, I also do not consume wheat-based wafers in the Eucharist. A friend once referred to taking communion with a traditional wafer as “swallowing shattered glass.” Since I’m a priest, and have served at the altar with many different colleagues in Colombia, many are aware of my wheat allergy. But, that still doesn’t mean that they fully “get” it. For example, it’s a common practice here to break up a piece of wafer and toss it into the wine. In addition, many people intinct, dipping their wafer into the consecrated wine, like many people do in the U.S. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked to consume the last of the wine and had to explain that I couldn’t. In addition, I use a pyx, a small round container used to carry the consecrated host to the sick, disabled, and elderly, to hold wheat-free wafers for communion. And yet there have been many times when I’ve discovered that a well-meaning colleague put my wheat-free wafer on the paten or into the ciborium with all of the other hosts.
Traveling and dealing with airlines is yet another challenge. I have a travel pack I carry in my briefcase or other carry-on. In it I have instant gluten-free oatmeal, tea bags, plastic spoons, and gluten-free granola bars. I used to carry trail mix or some general package of nuts, but out of consideration for those with severe nut allergies I no longer do so. Even if an airline indicates that it will provide a gluten-free meal, there’s no guarantee. There have been many “gluten free” meals that I discovered I couldn’t eat. (You may be wondering why my food bag includes plastic spoons. Have you ever tried making instant oatmeal with a stir stick … and, of course, that’s before you try to eat it without a spoon?) One time I received an unsolicited bump up to first class. I was excited that I might have some better options to pick from, which I did. Muffins that I couldn’t eat, and a mushroom omelet … I have an anaphylactic allergy to mushrooms … but, alas, they had great coffee!
Now, before I have you thinking that airlines are completely apathetic, I want to share some positive experiences. One time I asked for hot water and an extra cup. The cabin attendant immediately asked if I had a food allergy or issue with gluten. She was exceedingly kind, brought me some things from first class, including a real spoon, and offered whatever help she could provide. On another occasion, a cabin attendant, upon discovering my gluten issue, asked me to hold on while he finished distributing breakfast. He came back a little later with a tray from first class that included fresh fruit, yogurt and a number of other things that I could eat. So even when the company bombs, there are attendants who will go out of their way to do what they can to help.
So now you probably have another question … what’s he doing living in South America given he has to deal with these kinds of issues. First, don’t think for a minute that I wouldn’t have to deal with these issues in the U.S. I have never been to the hospital for a food allergy while traveling, but have been treated in emergency rooms on three occasions in the U.S. On one of those occasions, the doctor treated me very badly and acted like I was some little kid who didn’t want to eat his green beans. (That, fyi, is one of the classic disclaimers about food allergies … that they aren’t real, but are simply psycho-somatically induced reactions in people who don’t want to eat something.) After reading the medical information from the EMTs who had to control my breathing and give me oxygen while pumping me with epinephrine, prednisone (steroid), and antihistamine to bring down the swelling in my face, neck and throat, and emerging hives on my body, she changed her tune. The point is, don’t assume that medical care and knowledge of allergies are any better in the U.S. While there are more and more commercial products available every day in the U.S., they are also often significantly more expensive. In other countries there are aspects of diets that originate from indigenous communities that are naturally gluten free and inexpensive. For example, rellenos, a meat or cheese filled potato, fried dumpling, are popular throughout Latin America. In Colombia and Venezuela the locals eat arepas, a type of flat, unleavened bread. (There’s a bit of a rivalry between Colombia and Venezuela as to where the arepa originated.) In Colombia, the arepa has deep roots in the colonial farms and the cuisine of the indigenous people. While today some arepas are made with wheat flour or a blend of flours, arepas made with corn or yuca flour are widely available. In addition, cooking gluten free can be fun for those who enjoy history. As noted in a posting last December, I’ve learned to cook cunape, a Guarani Indian cheese bread made from yuca flour.
Living gluten-free is an issue no matter where I live. But I’ve found that with some ingenuity and an adventurous spirit, it’s possible to make GF living a little fun. So in the end, it’s just another part of my experience living abroad.
August 15, 2013
When I was in high school, my younger brother attended a Bible summer camp at a local church. The church was affiliated with a mainline denomination, but this was at a time during the mid-1970s when there were shifts taking place in all denominations, and non-denominational churches were on the rise. That summer my younger brother received permission to attend the Bible school. Each class earned “points” if they brought in new students. Wanting to know more about the school and its summer program, my mother took the opportunity to encourage me to attend and report back. In my first (and only) class, our teacher talked about salvation. In the first few minutes he made the point that if we went out and were hit by a car riding our bikes we wouldn’t be “saved.” But if we were to join his church, and be baptized or re-baptized in that church, and then were hit by a car, we’d be “saved.” Needless to say, I didn’t stay for the entire class … and though only 14, as I exited the church I told the teacher precisely what I thought about what he was teaching.
On another occasion, as an adult, I attended a mainline (not Episcopal) service in which the minister issued an invitation to communion by saying, “If you believe ____, this is NOT your Table,” and “if you believe ____, you are NOT welcome at this Table.” He then went on to state clearly that if you believed other things, clearly, as he believed, “you were welcome at the Table,” at which point he began distributing the bread and the wine. (I made a conscious choice not to receive.)
Ever since my experience at the Bible School, I’ve struggled with the thought of someone “mediating” another person’s relationship with Christ. We all seem to believe in a personal relationship with Christ, and yet, there seems to be so many ways in which our churches put up barriers. I often find myself asking rhetorically if it isn’t a sin for us to block someone’s access to Christ? I seem to recall a reference in Mark’s Gospel that reads, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” I still believe that no matter how well-intentioned, what that Bible school teacher was teaching, and what that cleric said before communion, were both sinful … and for their sakes, and my own, I can only hope that there isn’t a collection of millstones waiting for us.
As I started leading worship in Bogota, I began to think about my responsibility as a worship leader, and the issue of who is invited to, or welcomed at, the Lord’s Table. When we say, “All who are baptized are welcome at the Lord’s Table,” I have to ask myself if we’re mediating people’s relationship with Christ, whether or not that’s our intention. This raises an important question for me as a missionary in a country that was officially Roman Catholic until 1991, and in which many parishioners were raised as Roman Catholic. In the Roman Catholic Church it’s my understanding that Eucharistic ministers are instructed to administer the sacraments only to Roman Catholic members of the Christian faith, and communicants are instructed to receive only from Roman Catholics (though, admittedly, I’ve known many Roman Catholic conscientious objectors over the years). In such an environment, I wonder if any kind of instruction by me, beyond an open table type, could be perceived as limiting the welcome to the Lord’s Table.
Some people refer to the issue I’m raising as “Open Communion,” while others use the expression, “Open Table.” As you may be aware, the Episcopal Church, among other denominations, has been discussing this issue for some time. For some denominations, the issue of Open Table is one of membership … that is, whether or not non-members in a particular worship community are welcome at the Lord’s Table in that denomination. In other cases, as I think it is in the Episcopal Church, it’s a theological question regarding baptismal and Eucharistic theology.
I believe the more common usage among Episcopalians is “Open Table,” as Open Communion can have two different connotations. As indicated by the editors of Water, Bread, & Wine: Should We Offer Communion to People Before They are Baptized? (Leader Resources, LLC, 2012), Open Communion typically means inviting the baptized, but among scholars it also includes inviting baptized Christians from other traditions to receive the Eucharist. “Those practicing open communion generally believe that the invitation to receive communion is an invitation to Christ’s Table, and that it is not the province of human beings to interfere between an individual and Christ” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_communion). The thinking behind only inviting the baptized, as indicated in church canons, varies, but in many cases is based on the fact that theologically inviting only the baptized is sound, while there is no theological basis for an Open Table.
To be clear, the canons of the Episcopal Church state that the Eucharist is open only to the baptized. In 2006, the canons were reaffirmed in General Convention, but a study was also requested. At General Convention in 2009, a resolution requesting a review of the canons was rejected in the House of Bishops. So, to date, the official polity of the Episcopal Church remains to invite only the baptized to the Lord’s Table. (http://www.anglicantheologicalreview.org/static/pdf/articles/meyers_.pdf)
I find myself on an interesting intellectual and spiritual journey with regard to the questions raised about the invitation to communion. Theologically, an invitation extended only to the baptized makes the most sense to me. But I’ve also served in parishes where I’ve experienced people on spiritual journeys who were led to baptism, in part, through their participation in the Eucharist. I have also had experiences in Colombia with individuals who felt they were not welcome at the Table, based on their understanding of who is and isn’t welcome at the Table from their Roman Catholic background.
As I noted earlier, one of the challenges for missioners is that we find ourselves thinking about a number of theological and spiritual issues in new ways and for new reasons. As we reflect, journey in our relationship with Christ, and participate in and/or lead worship, we find ourselves revisiting topics we may not have thought about for some time. While still adhering to the canons, church polity can be quite different in another country. Theological and spiritual questions that may seem clear in one place may emerge again in entirely new ways. Clerical roles and responsibilities are often different. Worship practices are almost guaranteed to be different. The congregation’s expectations of worship and of clerics are often different. For example, I’ve participated in services where the standard liturgy of the Word and the Table (~1.25 hours) were just warm ups for the next 2 hours of prayer, reading of Psalms, hymn singing, individual blessings for everyone in the congregation, and witnessing.
While it’s the responsibility of Episcopal clergy to have a working knowledge of the canons, I believe it’s also important that we all have a willingness to journey with canonical and theological issues as they arise in different contexts. I pray that I continue to have the courage to do just that.