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.
August 2, 2013
When you think of starting a business, what comes to mind? I suspect you think about things like legal fees, incorporating, patents, copyrights, and start-up funding. Many small businesses in the US begin with $50,000 or $100,000 from an IRA cash-out, the depletion of a personal savings account, or a home equity loan/line of credit. Some manage to get started with less, and many need significantly more. (Most of us have probably heard the stories about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting Apple Computers in a garage. Likewise, though, I suspect few have heard about the $250,000 initial investment they received from a millionaire investor. … but I digress …)
I was recently in Sylvia, a mountain community that is home to a large indigenous population (the Misak), located about 3 hours outside of Cali, one of Colombia’s larger cities and the rival location for the country’s capital at its founding. Sylvia has been isolated for many years as it was known as a hotspot for the FARC, a militant guerilla group. While FARC activity has quieted significantly since the start of peace talks in Cuba, we encountered a significant number of military road blocks and outposts during our journey.
In Sylvia and the surrounding region, we met with various groups to discuss their programs, current needs, and future interests. It was clear that their primary interest was in seed funding (micro-loans and project grants). We were shown cross stitch projects such as tablecloths. When asked, the women indicated that with a $25 investment in supplies, they could produce several table clothes and/or placemats that would sell in total for about $200 in Cali’s markets. In short, they could turn a $25 micro-loan investment into a $175 profit. What’s more, they were quick with their responses. They knew what they spent on supplies, how long it took to make a tablecloth, and what it would mean to accept a loan to build their business … all important business skills.
Even more impressive was the cheese production of one of the group’s members. Her family has built a small addition to their home in which they produce what’s locally referred to as “queso campesino,” a basic, slightly salty cheese. Jennifer was excited to tell us that her cheese is organic. She also indicated that she would like to expand her business, but needs some additional funding. Banks in Colombia are unlikely to give her a loan as she has little she can use as collateral. Sitting in her humble farm kitchen, in a typical country home of 4 rooms, we asked what she thought she needed to expand her business. Much to our surprise, she pulled out drawings of a small factory layout, and contractor quotes for construction estimated at $2,500. We then asked if she would also need additional equipment in response to which she pulled out a list with pricing estimated at $2,000. Finally, I asked some market and distribution questions to which she had immediate answers. She indicated she had already talked with her distributors about expansion, and had done some market analysis as well. Jennifer is confident that she can expand her market, selling her cheese as far away as Cali, enabling her to also provide more jobs in the community.
I confess I’m not one of those people who treat micro-finance as a panacea. It isn’t. Often, behind these programs is a (capitalist) assumption that everyone wants to start a business, and that they have the skills to do so. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I’ve met with people who have made it clear that even if they are inclined to start a small business, they often lack basic business skills and don’t know where to acquire them. Clearly, this is not the case among the folks in Sylvia. Not only do many of them have good business skills, but I had the sense that their business support groups were a way of sharing their knowledge. (FYI … Five Talents USA is one of few programs of which I’m aware that links business training with micro-credit programming.)
In my mind, a micro-loan for someone prepared to take advantage of it, or a small investment in a business poised for growth, is what a “helping hand,” as opposed to a handout, is all about. People like Jennifer have demonstrated they have the ability to succeed. All they need is a little assistance. Part of my work is to help identify these types of programs and businesses, prepare those who aren’t quite ready but show promise, and with a little persistence, come up with some funding. It sure doesn’t seem like much to ask if we can expand a business in Sylvia for $4,500 that will provide additional jobs and economic stability to the community.
July 4, 2013
Yesterday I read about St. Thomas in my daily reflections on the Saints. Thinking about the Apostle Thomas I started reflecting on the things we believe, because we’ve seen them … and the things we don’t believe, because we haven’t seen them.
I look out my apartment windows in the morning and see nice apartment buildings and well maintained gardens. Living in Chapinero, a middle class neighborhood in Bogotá, it would be easy to think that living in Colombia isn’t much different from living in the U.S. I have a comfortable 2-bedroom apartment that I’ve done a reasonable job of furnishing and decorating. I live within walking distance of a variety of stores, including major grocers. Up the street is a military hospital. Down the block in any direction is a university. My office is only two blocks from my apartment. Most of my neighbors can afford to slip away from the city on a holiday weekend either to a family country home or to visit friends or relatives in the countryside. In short, it would be easy for me to spend my time here in Colombia never seeing those who live in poverty … never experiencing the face of poverty … never having a clear sense of the realities of Colombia.
[Incidentally, this can also be a part of life in a major U.S. city. We can choose to see the poor, homeless, and hungry in our cities or live in relative isolation and pretend that the problem doesn't exist.]
If I pay attention on my way to the store, 4 blocks from my apartment, I’ll see several homeless people. Some will be asleep on a park bench. Others will be scrounging for food anywhere they can find something. Occasionally, someone will be sitting on the street corner with a cup in hand, jingling their change in hopes that passersby will get the message and drop in another coin. It’s estimated that the number of homeless in Bogotá is 13,000, roughly 6,000 of which are children. Most organizations estimate that although the para-military fighting has been reduced recently by the peace talks (many of the homeless have been displaced by the ongoing war), the number of homeless continues to rise. Children can be seen in the center of the city trying to sell anything of value, stealing, or doing whatever they can to survive. But, their numbers are only the surface of bigger problem. Most homeless children live in the city gutters and only come out at night. In daylight they are subjected to violence, forced to sell drugs, or forced into prostitution. (For the record, thousands of children endure a life of hunger, harassment, sexual abuse and death on the streets of Colombia’s cities.)
There are people who have a place they call home, but live in poor conditions and do the best they can to survive. Throughout the day in my neighborhood, women carrying baskets of avocados, bananas, mangoes, or flowers can be seen trying to make a sale. They shout out their presence announcing what they have in their baskets. While it can seem quaint and picturesque to see women carrying baskets of goods, the reality behind their basket is that they are typically unemployed and have used what little money they have to buy a basket of fruit, vegetables, or flowers in hopes of making back a little more than what they invested. In addition, carts drawn by men or horses can be seen in the streets throughout the day, usually collecting scrap metal or other discarded items that could be recycled somehow to produce a small profit. All live in poor neighborhoods around the city and are simply doing whatever they can to survive and care for their family.
Most of the people around the neighborhood on a daily basis look like average middle class folk. They have jobs, homes, and families. But if you take a good look, you’ll discover that the U.S. and Colombian sense of middle class is significantly different. According to my friends, a typical salary is around $10,000 – $15,000 a year (or $850 – $1,250/month). You might say to yourself, “That sounds fine since it costs less to live in South America.” Yes, there is some truth to that statement, but it’s worth a closer inspection. Food, for example, in Colombia is comparable in price to food in the States. I’m reasonably frugal, and don’t eat much processed food because I have allergies and am happy to cook my own food, and yet my food and general household items expense is about $350 – $400 per month. An average apartment rents for $250 – $300 per month plus occasional building administration fees. Other monthly expenses include cable and internet ($65), water ($20), electricity ($35 – $60), propane ($10), and cell phone ($40). Oops! There goes that $850, before any savings or anything extra … and those figures are based on an individual (me), not a family of 3 or 4.
Here are just a few statistics … which, of course, will vary depending on who is doing the reporting (these are from a variety of sources):
- Roughly 50% of the population lives below the poverty line
- Colombia is the third most unequal county, in terms of income inequality, in the Americas after Bolivia and Haiti (while Latin America is the most unequal region in the world)
- Poverty and inequality affect women, children, Afro-Colombians, Indigenous groups and displaced persons disproportionately
- 32% of those who have work don’t have any formal work contract, nor access to the healthcare system
- 48% of the Colombian work force derives its income from the small-scale “informal economy” such as street vendors (like the women I mentioned above) and garbage recyclers (again, as referenced above)
- 15% of children under six suffer from malnutrition
- 11% of the population is displaced (second largest displaced population in the world … second only to the Sudan, and often described by major social service organizations as an unidentified “humanitarian crisis” in the Americas)
While it’s nice to look out on a sunny morning and see the gardens in the neighborhood, it’s also good to have the opportunity to reflect on Thomas, and Christ’s words to him.
Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20: 27-29)
June 16, 2013
As noted in previous posts, I’m often asked why I’m doing what I’m doing. Why am I in Colombia? Why would someone with an MBA (aka, someone with a high income, or potential for one) transition to life as a missioner (aka, someone with a limited income, and/or dependent on donations)? I guess those are reasonable questions. And, as it turns out, good ones for reflection this weekend, as June 14 is the day that used to be the feast day of St. Basil, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (~330-379) [Yes, I’m back to reading Ellsberg’s All Saints.]
Basil came from a devout family; you might say extremely devout as his grandmother, parents, brothers and sister all came to be canonized. But he also, admittedly, came from wealth and privilege. He had the benefit of a classical education, and lived the life of a wealthy young man in his twenties. Approaching 30, however, he awoke “from a profound sleep,” as he described it. His eyes were opened and he immediately abandoned worldly ambitions and devoted himself to God. He spent his first years in monastic communities, but eventually agreed to be ordained so that he could better serve the church. After ordination, he divided his time between monastic and priestly duties.
As bishop, Basil became known for his emphasis on the social aspects of the gospel. He organized soup kitchens in response to famines and served the hungry personally. He also established a hospital that became famous. His theological and scriptural emphasis was consistently on Christ’s teachings regarding serving the poor and loving one’s neighbor. In his own teachings, Basil called for the church and world to move beyond charity, calling for social justice and the basic redistribution of wealth.
While I wouldn’t equate myself with Basil, I find it useful to reflect on his experiences and teachings. As I think about my own transformation leading up to my current work in Colombia, there are things about Basil’s experience to which I can relate. For example, my own struggles with privilege, my relationship with Christ, and my response to God’s call. Although in a very different time and cultural context, I think Basil’s spiritual journey is a great example, and still has much to teach us about transformation and letting go.
In many ways, I believe that all of our spiritual journeys are journeys of transformation. We may not experience an epiphany and radically change our lives, as Basil did. We may not sell all that we have and live in poverty like St. Francis. We may not change our employment or respond to a call to serve as a missioner. But if we’re engaged in a spiritual journey, over the course of our life what I suspect we will do is experience changes in the ways in which we think and behave. It’s not that we all have to be like St. Basil, but rather that we need to be willing to embrace our own spiritual journey, no matter where it leads us.
May 21, 2013
I’ve been thinking about my next blog post for some time. I have had many ideas. For example, I read about Kathe Kollwitz in late April. Kathe was a peace activist in Germany during both the first and second world wars. She died in 1945, just a few days before the Armistice. I thought of reflecting on how we work for the “kingdom,” often having no knowledge of the fruits of our labor. Similarly, we remember Oskar Schindler on his birthday, April 28, the man known for being both a scoundrel industrialist in Nazi Germany, and the one whose efforts saved the lives of hundreds of Jews. I found myself reflecting on his life and on the notion of redemption. I’ve also participated in two major events recently, both of which provide a great deal for reflection and sharing … the GEMN/Province IX mission conference which I organized and managed, and diocesan convention. But what I find myself interested in sharing is something a bit more mundane and a little more personal.
Last week I joined my bishop, The Rt. Rev. Francisco Duque, who was a law professor before his election to the episcopate, in attending a very interesting academic lecture series on social conflict in Colombia and the role of religion in social and cultural change. There were three speakers, a sociologist, a religious philosopher, and a political scientist. The lecture was at La Universidad de Los Andes, one of the premier institutions in Colombia (their Harvard), and the auditorium was filled with university faculty, students, and various professional visitors like us. I also found it interesting to note that many of the people with whom I’ve become friends in the ecumenical community in Bogota were present … maybe that says something about “like minds.” There were no vacant seats, and there were several students standing around the perimeter of the room.
There was no microphone, making it difficult for me to hear. And, of course, I also struggled with some of the language, especially since my limited Spanish was taxed by academic jargon. But I found myself paying close attention, understanding more than I expected, hanging on points I fully understood, and fascinated by the presentations along with the post-presentation dialog with the audience. I was in academia and it felt great!
I have always enjoyed the intellectually engaging part of academic life. My favorite professors were those who led intellectually provocative and engaging classroom discussions. In school, I was the geeky student who loved to attend extra-curricular academic lectures on interesting and controversial topics. I was the guy who would go to openings of new exhibits in the university museum. I would spend hours in the stacks in the library with books piled all around me; I was like a dog with a bone when an issue intrigued me and I wanted to know more. Visiting other cities, I always seem to find the local used book store, getting lost for hours digging through references particular to the region. I was the guy who picked up tickets for the art films, or attended a film followed by a lecture/discussion with the director. I used to buy season tickets to attend the series of international art films at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Sitting in that auditorium I found myself experiencing feelings I hadn’t felt for quite some time. There was an excitement and an energy. I felt engaged and alive. I started thinking back to the classroom. I could picture myself giving one of the presentations. As I left the auditorium, looking around the library at all of the students, I wanted to ask if I could sit down and join a discussion. I kept thinking how nice it would be to go out for coffee with a couple of the students and hear them reflect on their impressions of the lectures we had just heard.
I think I was a bit surprised by my feelings. It’s not that I don’t like my work in the church or that somehow I feel unfulfilled by it. I’m completely happy leading worship and working in the church, and am energized by the possibility that my work might be making a difference for the diocese and in the lives of the poor who we serve. But that doesn’t mean I’ve completely abandoned the other parts of my life. While I may be a missioner, I’m still all of those other things I carry with me from past experiences.
I hope I will always have a love for learning. I’m confident I will always be a museum junky. As I shift into the world of digital literature, I suspect I will also always enjoy a library or a used book store. And I hope I will never lose that feeling of entering a university lecture hall and experiencing the awe of a college freshman attending his or her first university class.
April 10, 2013
Yesterday there was a peace rally in the center of Bogota. It reminds me that Colombia is still trying to come out from under over 50 years of armed conflict. It also reminds me of why so many people have asked me, “Why Colombia?”
Coming to Colombia was not the first time I’ve been asked the “Why?” question. I think the first time was when I was en route to Nicaragua in the 1980s during the period of the Sandinista Revolution. I have subsequently been asked that question many more times. Why East Africa? Why the West Bank? Why Haiti (before and after the earthquake)? And now the recent question, “Why Colombia?”
As part of my morning prayer and reflection, I often read from books on the saints. Recently, I’ve been using a book by Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Time, which came to me along with a number of other books through a Boston College friend and colleague. The books were part of a library owned by a Jesuit faculty member who passed away several years ago. The listing for April 9 is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you are not familiar with Bonhoeffer or his writings, I commend him, and them, to you.
Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Regime. He had many friends in the U.S. who were worried about his safety. In 1939, they arranged for him to serve as a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. To everyone’s surprise, however, he only stayed three weeks. In explanation, he wrote, “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulations of this time with my people.” Though some suspected otherwise, he did not deliberately pursue a course toward martyrdom. Although he consistently worked against the Nazis, he managed to stay alive until the final year of the war. As a member of a group that pursued an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler, he was eventually picked up by the Gestapo and found his way to Buchenwald. He was then taken to Flossenburg prison camp. On April 9 he conducted a prayer service for his fellow prisoners. The following day he was hanged with five other members of the resistance group.
What I think Bonhoeffer was raising when he told his friends he needed to go back to Germany was a recognition of his own potential privilege and sense of entitlement, and also a sense of the cost of discipleship (which he later wrote about in a book aptly entitled, The Cost of Discipleship). I think for Bonhoeffer it would be an act of privilege to think he could sit out the war in the relative security of New York City, when his relatives, friends, and colleagues were all fighting for a cause in Germany. In a sense, to even consider remaining in the U.S. would have reflected a kind of sense of entitlement, like somehow he didn’t deserve to have to go through the tribulations of war in Europe or endure the civil oppression of the Nazis.
To reflect back on the question asked of me regarding “Why Colombia?,” or, frankly, the question asked of any number of us, “Why … this or that … country?,” in light of Bonhoeffer’s work, raises a number of important questions. The first and most obvious for me is, “Why not?” While I, too, don’t court martyrdom (nor, to be clear, would I compare myself to Bonhoeffer), there is a part of me that feels that we are called through our baptism to touch, encounter, experience, and truly feel the realities of the rest of the world. I don’t find it any more appealing than anyone else to live amongst poverty, to experience the social and cultural impact of on-going military conflict, to be amongst children suffering from the devastation of HIV/AIDS, to work in locations devastated by an earthquake, to live among refugees, to lay awake at night worrying about theft, to live among malnourished children, … and the list could go on. At the same time, however, to not do so, is to somehow put myself above those things … to somehow accept/believe that I shouldn’t have to face them … shouldn’t have to smell the smoke of burning trash, hear a dying child cry, see a handicapped widow begging on the street corner for pennies that she can use to buy food for her family, shouldn’t have to experience the heartache and discomfort of knowing there is little I can do to ease a person’s burden, or face the reality that I have so much in a world where the majority have so little. I find myself asking “Why shouldn’t I experience those things?” Why should I be so privileged as to not have to touch the realities of the world, or so entitled that I think I somehow I shouldn’t have to touch those realities?
We in the church talk about accompaniment. Isn’t part of accompaniment being willing to be in the midst of another person’s reality? How can we accompany if we’re not willing to experience what others experience? And when bad things happen, like having something stolen, some people asking the “Why Colombia?” question might feel justified and might feel that I don’t “deserve” to have those things happen to me. And while that’s a nice, supportive sentiment, I still find myself asking, “Why shouldn’t those things happen to me, too?” If that’s the reality of Colombia, why shouldn’t I experience the same things as everyone else? Am I any different than anyone else?
I give thanks for people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who were, and are, willing to live into their faith. Who accept the cost of discipleship, and challenge the rest of us to struggle with our own understanding of discipleship. Their model of discipleship is inspiring, and in my case, helps me remain grounded in what really matters to me in my relationship with Christ.
Bonhoeffer was clear that our theology is nothing if it isn’t integrated into the everyday. A recognition of that perspective, understandably leads to the types of questions I’ve started to raise about our sense of discipleship, the way we live our lives, the ways in which we encounter and experience others in the world, and ultimately, our relationship with God.
I leave you with the following words by Bonhoeffer for your own reflection:
I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the midst of the village.