Friday, May 20, 2011

Our Final Day in El Salvador

Pilgrimages are not vacations. They are not the usual sight-seeing excursions. Our Global Mission Pilgrimages are journeys to connect with places and people and accompany them in our partnership so that they become part of our story.Tuesday afternoon we flew to El Salvador where Nick Green, our Global Ministries Volunteer from the South Idaho Region (and Montana State Bobcat!), and Irving, our driver and Lutheran Synod/ACT staff person, met us. As we drove from the airport into San Salvador, it appeared to me that we had entered a country that was better off economically with less violence. The war seemed to be in the memories of the past when they pointed out the route was the same one the four U.S. nuns were taking when the Salvadoran Army seized them, raped them, and murdered them. After we checked in at the hotel, we discovered a few changes in our schedule. (Flexibility is a key word on pilgrimages.) I was hoping for a less intense day after saying good-bye to our Nicaraguan friends in Mision Cristiana. Our original plan was to meet with leaders from the Lutheran Synod of El Salvador and I was expecting a pleasant exchange of greetings and information before dinner. Instead we went to the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980. We heard the details of his story that is so fresh for many of us. We toured his home, a simple house with his personal belongings as it was the day he left to celebrate a funeral mass of a friend’s mother. In my prayer journal, I noted that I felt a deep reverence in that place of a martyr, reading Monsignor Romero’s words, feeling his spirit. Then we rode the short distance to the university where 6 Jesuits and their gardener’s wife were massacred by the Salvadoran Army Death Squads in 1989. A wonderful young woman gave us a tour of the place that they refuse to call a museum, but instead a place of remembering all the martyrs from the war. We were so intent on listening to this guide that we didn’t catch her name. I’ll call her “Brittney” because she learned English so she could sing like Brittney Spears—picking up the language from U.S. TV shows, since English classes were too expensive. Brittney told us she tries to learn at least one new word from each group. We taught Brittney several English words—including “disclaimer” because she wasn’t afraid to offer her opinions and interpretations that weren’t the official position of the University. She showed us the timelines of 227 massacres that left 9,967 dead in the civil war—with innumerable people who just ended up “missing”, the “disappeared.” [Over 50,000 Salvadorans overall died in their armed conflict—supported by U.S. funds, weapons, and training]. We saw the clothes the Jesuits were wearing when they were executed. We heard that the gun violence was so normal that the gardener sleeping less than 20 yards away thought the noise was the usual street fighting and he didn’t discover the bodies until the next morning. His wife was shot because she was staying in a room closer to the Jesuits where they thought she would be safer after receiving threats. I asked Brittney where she went to church, since she didn’t hold anything back in describing the Catholic Church’s different positions to the violence in El Salvador at that time—captured in a powerful painting we viewed at the entrance. Brittney is a Catholic—but she told me her priest is more like Romero. She doesn’t think that this martyr of the faith will be declared a saint in her lifetime. As we left with the whole story echoing in our heads and hearts, we heard the parrots screeching in the trees overhead. Sounded like a protest to us. Even after those two powerful visits on our Pilgrimage, I was OK. The violence against the church leaders felt like current events, but they were in the past. Then we went to dinner at an open air Salvadoran restaurant along with Pastor Rafael, the representative from the Lutheran Synod who was our main guide over the two days. Teresa asked him a follow-up question about the current situation and we heard how bad it was: Two gangs in the country that make it unsafe for everyone—people can’t even worship at his wife’s church where she is a pastor because they can’t cross gang territory. The restaurant we were in had to pay “protection money” to gangs or they would be shut down or burned out. Pastor Rafael leads weekly youth programs to give the youth hope in the midst of their extreme poverty. He said it’s always different for U.S. pastors who visit El Salvador, because they have a different ambition. Pastor Rafael told us, “Here ministry is not a profession, it is a commitment.” He always encourages pastors from any country to find their vocation for their own context. Then after that day of feeling the heaviness of hopelessness, we found hope…hope in the country and in the city. Pastor Santiago accompanied us to “Fe y Esperanza” [Faith and Hope], a food security project he directs as part of his synodical responsibilities for the Stewardship of Creation program. He works with a whole community, including his sister, Pastora Gloria, and his brother, Pastor Joel: organic gardening, creating compost to renew the earth, tilapia tanks, incubation set-ups for chicks, artisan folk crafts—and more. We could see why Lutheran Bishop Gomez was ordained there. It was a place of life…holy ground of faith and hope. Even in the violence that killed the police officer husband of one of their church members just last week, they live the faith they preach and teach in the church there. The police chief of the community joined us for a delicious lunch prepared with everything from the farm (blessed by singing!)—and he was the first police officer or security personnel I’d seen in the whole country without a visible weapon. We drove back into the city where we visited the Church of the Resurrection. The army came looking for Bishop Gomez and when they couldn’t find him, they confiscated a cross a congregational small group had written on as an educational exercise, because it was “subversive.” The U.S. Ambassador pressured the Salvadoran president to return the “Subversive Cross” to this Lutheran church—where it now hangs proudly on the wall of their sanctuary as a reminder of their witness. Casa de la Esperanza, “House of Hope”, is in that poor neighborhood. A German couple have been serving there as missionaries since 2003. What began as a weekly breakfast for the poor of the community has evolved into daily breakfast and lunch for people—as well as an AA group. They have learned to do ministry with the people, not for them. I hope we’re learning the same thing in our missional churches in the U.S. Pilgrimages aren’t like normal mission work trips, either. We didn’t travel to El Salvador this time to help build something in one of their projects. On this pilgrimage, we were trying to build up the church—the Lutheran Synod of El Salvador and our Church in the U.S. The experience helped me in my ministry of re-building the church, which is the work of congregational transformation. In our closing dinner, we found out again that our mission partners in El Salvador face the same challenges we do. Pastor Rafael and Pastor Santiago met with us, along with Pastor Efrain and Pastora Marina. Pastora Marina is typical of these faithful ministers, who serves two congregations as a volunteer (with perhaps a small stipend) in addition to her low-paid work as coordinator of the Synod’s program on health. In addition to their greater economic challenges than what we complain about in our context, they also deal with the distractions of consumerism, individualism, meaningful youth ministry, maintaining physical facilities, competition with the mega-churches. We weren’t done yet. As we arrived at the hotel to pack up for our 4 am departure, Bishop Gomez drove up after his long flight from San Francisco—direct from the airport. What a privilege it was for us to be blessed at the end of our pilgrimage by this saint who has risked his life for his courageous witness. He made an effort to meet with us because of his special relationship with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—through David Vargas, Bill Nottingham, and countless others, including Disciples missionary Wayne Steinert who accompanied the Bishop personally during the most difficult times. Unfortunately, no one could save Wayne’s life, when he was murdered in South Africa for his opposition to apartheid. As Bishop Gomez told us this story, he also affirmed once again that Disciples of Christ in El Salvador are called “Lutherans.”
With Faith and Hope—Peace, Ron Greene

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Giving and Receiving the Gifts of God

Morning is always a good time for me to reflect on what has happened recently during our trip. Fruit that drops from the trees in the courtyard of our hotel reminds of the blessings that God has dropped upon us on this pilgrimage. Many times it is easier to notice if we are hit on the head! But the blessings are there whether we notice them or not. Friends are everywhere, if we only take the time to pay attention to the people who attend to us. They care for us more than we realize and we often take them for granted... the waiter who brings us coffee, the cook in the kitchen, the person who cleans the table and dishes, the driver of our bus. God is always taking care of our needs, but we sometimes need to be struck on the head to see it. Does God expect a tip for His service? Perhaps we should all answer that for ourselves. We must say good-by to people we may never meet on earth again. We have much to learn from these people, if only we keep our minds open. Now the hard part will start for me. I must find ways to share what I have learned with the people back home. I will have to put into words what is in my heart. We exchange small gifts with the people of Mision Cristiana who have accompanied us here in Nicaragua. We listen to the dreams they have for the future and we promise to pray for one another. As Rolando, the President of the church, explains how he is going to put into place at the church's next board meeting a structure for praying for us and our country's context, he says: "Silver and gold we don't have, but you can be assured that our faith and solidarity will uphold you." I know that God will keep them in our hearts until we meet again. They have taught me so much and although this is not my first trip to Nicaragua, I still have much to learn from them. We catch our flight at the airport, and head to our next destination... El Salvador. We have not really left these people, they will always be with us.

Jim Piper

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Vive la Musica!

Today was a day for singing! It began at the Center for Interreligious Studies where we met with students, faculty and school administrators. We introduced ourselves and then passed the peace of Christ with each other as we sang, “How beautiful are the feet of those who share good news! Peace, peace--that is good news!” The theological school has teachers from 30 faith traditions and 800 students representing over 90 denominations. Our missionary, Laura Jean, teaches there. In return for her services, the school gives scholarships to students from Mision Cristiana. For thirty years, the school has not only trained ministers on their beautiful campus, they have taken the school into the countryside. Concerned about issues such as hunger, domestic violence and the pollution of the earth, they have conducted Popular Education classes for about 500 families in rural communities. The classes combine scripture study with practical teaching designed for those who have not had a lot of formal education.
It was those campesinos Carlos Mejia Godoy had in mind when he wrote the songs we sang on the bus. They are songs about struggle and liberation. “You are a God of the Poor Ones” we sang. They are songs about people who see a need in their community and take action. Quincho Barrilete was one of those people Carlos remembers from his childhood. Quincho worked selling sandwiches to commuters so his brothers and sisters could go to school. “He was a small child who was a hero of my city,” we sang.
In the afternoon, we visited First Church (where I preached last night.) They had taken down the chairs and now the sanctuary served as a school for 182 children. When we arrived, the children were singing a song about colors, each child taking a turn at leading. The school tries to address the educational, physical, spiritual and social-emotional needs of the children they serve. Nine volunteers from the congregation teach the students.
At the end of the day, we arrived back at the mission office for dinner. To bless our meal we sang (to the tune of “For Health and Strength”), “Por estas prevas de tu amor, tenemos gracias hoy.“ For these fruits of your love, we give you thanks today. Thanks be to God for the many fruits of God’s love shown through the ministry of Mision Cristiana.
There is a saying here, “You may crush my guitar, but you can’t take away my song.” These Nicaraguans who lost 50,000 citizens in the civil war that took place during the 1970s, who suffered under a US Embargo, who continue to battle poverty and unemployment are still singing! They are finding ways to make their voice heard, to share the good news of Jesus Christ in this time and in this place.
Hasta la Vista,
Ruth Fletcher

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sharing the Light of Mision Cristiana

Today, started out with our hosts taking us sightseeing. On the way, we heard about the Pentecostal movement. One of our hosts, Carlos, is a PhD candidate and his dissertation is on “conversion in the Pentecostal traditions.” It was a dynamic conversation---Holy Spirit conversation usually is. We visited the Masaya District which is home to Nicaragua’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, Santa Anna (c 1600). The same town, Noquinohomo, is also the sight of General Sandino’s house. It is now a museum and library. We were able to have a tour. General Sandino stood up for his country’s right to self-governance free of foreign intervention; specifically, U. S. intervention during the 1930’s. He was betrayed by the Somoza regime. Which led to . . . more war and . . . you get the vicious cycle picture.
We went from there to see the most beautiful lake, Lago de la Apoyo (sp). It is an example of the combination of volcanic activity and water. We did a little shopping, too. At lunch one of our hosts, Sonia, shared her story. She spoke about being young and wanting so much for her country to change. She placed her hope in the Sandinista revolution. In her participation, she was wounded. Ultimately, she was disillusioned by the movement she thought would bring justice and peace to her people. Years later, as her baby daughter Sonia Patricia was very ill and dying, she was invited by her neighbor to attend Mision Cristiana . The church gave her support and affirmation through that unbearable time. She found faith in Jesus and strength in the church and its mission. She has found her new movement and is studying for the ministry. She is passionate about the need for justice for the poor and peace for her people through the work of the church.

Tonight three of us were invited to preach at First Mision Cristiana, Second Mision Cristiana, and Seventh Mision Cristiana. I was given the opportunity to preach at Seventh.
Each Mision is deliberately serving in the poorest of neighborhoods. Seventh was amazing. The front rows were filled with children; lots of children in little kid-sized plastic lawn chairs. The service included fabulous praise music led by a young woman worship leader/singer who should have a recording contract; and the littlest children were singing right along with her. Each person who helped lead the service prayed, read scripture, sang as if it was the most important thing they could ever do. I wasn’t bad either. My translator was Tim, one of our Global Missionaries. In the nine months that he and Laura Jean have been in Nicaragua they have learned Spanish and the streets of Managua; been introduced to the many congregations of Mission Cristiana; taught theology (Laura Jean); and done practical applications of environmental science (Tim). Oh, by the way, they have a three year old named Quinn who is learning Spanish, and a baby on the way. Not bad for nine months. (Of course, they are graduates of the University of Chicago.)
Back to Seventh Mision Cristiana, they have an afterschool children’s program that they started in 2006 with 150 children. Now, 350 children are part of this ministry. The ministry includes a meal, and physical, spiritual, emotional, and cognitive components. The only limit on their service is space.
My sermon tonight was on “who lights a lamp and then hides it?” Through Global Ministries, we have been sharing light with our partners in Nicaragua during the dark times of war. In this 21st century, when many of our U.S. congregations struggle with transformation for mission, I told them, it is their light that will help us.
Teresa Dulyea-Parker

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Our First Day in Nicaragua with Mision Cristiana

We arrived blurry-eyed in the hotel lobby at 3:30 in the morning to begin our journey to a new country. Now we are in our room in Nicaragua listening to the birds chattering and the rain drumming on the tin roof punctuated by an occasional thud of a mango falling from an overhanging tree. A gecko skitters across the wall above the window. Our missionaries, Timothy and Laura Jean and our global partners, Sonja, Rolando and Enrique met us at the airport and loaded us into the van that would take us through the honking horns over the busy brick streets of Managua. Palm trees towered overhead and the air was thick with humidity and exhaust. By the time we turned into the tree-lined neighborhood that is home to Mision Cristiana, we were sticky with sweat. As we parked, a horse-drawn cart, an SUV and a man pushing an ice cream truck passed by. Once inside, breakfast was served on the patio: plantains, French toast and fried fresh cheese. Around the table, we got acquainted with Jose Adan Varga. Where I am the Regional Minister in Montana, Jose is the Regional Minister (Presbyter) in the Northeast Zone of Nicaragua. Where it took me an hour and a half by plane to travel to Managua; it took Jose two days to get to our meeting. Where I travel among the churches I serve by Subaru; Jose uses the public bus. Where I use the remote to open the garage door and drive right in when I get home; Jose walks an hour to get to his house after the bus drops him off.
Yet Jose and I hold in common a love of scripture and a heart for strengthening the church. As he talked about the new dairy cow project designed to address issues of malnutrition in his Zone, I thought about our efforts in Montana to raise money for the Foods Resource Bank through our own cow project. As the other pastors in the delegation talked about making seeds available to 250 families, I thought about our Montana congregations who serve meals each week to those who are hungry. As they shared about how they had been intimidated and imprisoned by the US-backed military guerrillas known as the Contras during the 1980s, I took some small comfort remembering being part of church demonstrations in Seattle designed to get the US government to change its policies in Nicaragua. Even though Jose and I live in two difference places, our lives are bound together by a common humanity, a common history, a common church, a common faith in Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, we joined hands and prayed that we might continue to grow in our awareness of the unity that we share.

Ruth Fletcher

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Today, Friday the 13th, we met with the Board of Directors of the Concejo Ecumenico Cristiano de Guatemala (ECG). It was humorous and delightful to see that Boards are the same everywhere; review the minutes, discuss and take action. And, then it became apparent that Boards are not the same everywhere in terms of the urgency of their mission. We witnessed a Press Conference in which the Council called for the Guatemalan electoral process to be free from violence. They also called upon the people to express their desire for candidates who have the interest of the people at heart, as opposed to their own self advancement.
Afterward, we listened as they considered a proposal to enter into partnership with the Southeastern Region of the German Lutheran faith. (Something our representatives are considering; what would it mean to partner/accompany one another on the journey.) The purpose of the German proposal is to lend support to ECG and to Pastors, particularly Lutheran Pastors who are standing with the indigenous people---the Maya---in their desire to protect the natural resources and heritage of Guatemala from exploitation. One of those Pastors was with us this day, Pastor Jose Pilar Alvarez. His witness was powerful. He talked about the people standing together to protect a forest entrance to a mountain area. The non-violent gathering went on for 25 days. Families shared food with each other and whatever else was needed. He was with the people in their desire. He was arrested.
What happened next isn’t so much about the court system, but about the people seeking justice, and it taught us the meaning of “accompaniment.” The people went with him. They stood by him. He said the first call he made was to the Ecumenical Council Office. They sent word and member Bishops, Pastors and leaders from across Guatemala came to support him. With the accompaniment of the people and the witness of these other leaders, the charges against him were dismissed.
He told another story of being in the hospital, and 400 of the people came to the hospital to make sure that he was safe from harm. The hospital Doctors and nurses were so amazed by the response, they encouraged the people to stay and excused any bill.
He continues to be harassed for supporting the people. His life (as are other Pastors) is in danger because he supports the people as they seek justice, stand up for dignity, believing that God cares what happens to them and to all of creation.
Our response to the stories we heard was amazement at the courage. Their response to us was “it is not courage alone. It is conviction to do what is right for the people of God, with the support of a community that accompanies us when we do.”
Which leaves me to wonder North American church----who has “our backs” when we step out and take risks for the sake of the gospel? When we call each other to account for the biblical prescription to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?”
Could we not learn from the ECG what it means to seek justice, stand up for truth, and most importantly what it means to be a community that will accompany others when we are needed? If we knew that community was there---what truth would we be willing to tell, what press conference might we call, what risk would we be willing to take for the sake of the God’s Kin(g)dom.
How might we accompany our partners in Guatemala? I imagine when the call goes out from ECG---we can be witnesses, too.
Teresa Dulyea-Parker

Friday, May 13, 2011

Witnessing a Sustainable Project of A.C.G.

At 6:00am we met with met with our Global Ministries missionary to Guatemala and her family to travel to the town of Santa Cruz del Quiche where Gloria and her famil work on our behalf. After stopping along the way for breakfast, we passed by a village called Aldea Chuwipol. We were told by Santos (Gloria's husband) of how the Guatemalan Army during the armed conflict of the 80s had destroyed the people and the city. We also passed by many places along the way where mud slides had destroyed sections of the road two years ago. The road is still being repaired at this time and it appeared that it will be worked on for much longer before it is completed. We arrived at the offices of A.C. G. (Guatemalan Cultural Action) in Santa Cruz del Quiche at 11:00am. In a meeting with the representatives of A.C.G. we learned of some of the projects that are managed by them and their challenges to sustain these projects because of decline in funding sources. In the area of "sustainability" we learned about a very interesting project they call micro credit. A.C.G. awards small loans to groups of indigenous women of the surrounding areas. They use a system where the women must work with a small group of other women to apply for, receive and pay back the loans. We were impressed by the spirit of community and cooperation in this type of endeavor. The loans are used for starting a small business, or to help the women raise animals which can be sold for a profit so that the women earn income and also have the possibility of paying back their loan with interest after a year. A.C.G uses the interest earned to pay the women's salaries who facilitate the program and for the administrative costs. It's a great lesson in sustainable development for us to learn from. After enjoying lunch with the A.C.G. board and staff, we traveled to some nearby Mayan ruines where we learned of how the Spanish overtook the capitol city of the area, killed many of the Mayan leaders and destroyed their holy place. We had a chance to witness some Mayan rituals that were taking place on the ancient ruines of the city. The government is also undertaking a project to rebuild some of the ancient structures on the property. Our Mission Funds channeled through Global Ministries are used to support some of the projects of A.C.G. which help repair some of the in equalities and injustices in this region. This also gives us access to the stories of a part of God's people in this part of the world and enables us to grow in our understanding of God's mission today. It also enabled us to learn more about how our missionaries accompany our partners, but don't do the work for them. Gloria has worked with Justina, the project coordinator of A.C.G., in building her capacity to plan, implement and help find funding for the various projects of A.C.G.

Jim Piper