An Unforgettable Visit

We spent five hours driving from the capital to the state where she lives. The next morning we drove another hour on roads that wound through the steep green hills. When I stepped into the concrete building, Maria jumped up from next to her mother and hugged me tightly as only an eight-year-old can. That was the first time I choked up that day, but certainly not the last. Maria is the girl I sponsor through Compassion International, and I was meeting her in her hometown in Guatemala, a quaint, peaceful town in the hills in the middle of nowhere.
Maria took my hand and led me through the hilly town, crowded because it was market day. Soon we turned onto a narrow path and continued our climb, winding up the lush hillside to Maria’s home. It’s a simple concrete block structure, but full of love.
Many gifts were exchanged, and Maria’s grandmother served everyone chicken and squash.
Then Maria showed me all the most important things in their home: a bulletin board covered with photos of relatives and loved ones; a long, smooth, wooden table in the kitchen, obviously a place of many shared meals and memories; a metate, the grinding stone where Maria’s mother grinds the maize by hand to make tortillas; the hammock/slings where the babies were sleeping, suspended from the ceiling; the bed Maria shares with her mother; the cat, the goose, the dogs, and the duck (the chickens were all washed away in a heavy rain); and the new toilet in the otherwise rustic bathroom!
Maria’s mother and grandmother both make their living—such as it is—weaving traditional clothing and housewares with backstrap looms. They proudly showed me their beautiful work, and even made an attempt at teaching me. Their work is exquisite and backbreaking and would drive me blind. I sat on a small stool with the loom in front of me, tied to a post that supported the corrugated metal roof. They showed me how to lean back into the leather strap attached around my back. It was comfortable for about two minutes, to have something to lean against. After five minutes I could tell that it would be backbreaking work. Maria’s relatives were very patient trying to teach me how to put everything in order and then make the stitches. I made about five stitches, all of which I’m sure they promptly removed, possibly even before I left their home. The tablecloth Maria’s mother is working on will sell for about $7 for four FULL days of work.
Around noon we walked back down the windy path and through the town to the Compassion center. Often a sponsor will treat the child to lunch at a fancy restaurant, but there isn’t anything in Maria’s town, so the Compassion staff prepared lunch just for us and Maria’s family, putting out their fanciest tablecloths. There was plenty of delicious food to go around, and the family got to take some home, too.
After school, around 2:00, many neighborhood children arrived at the center. This particular Compassion center serves 348 children, but they don’t all come at the same time. Most children come one, two, or three days per week, after school. I got to visit the three classrooms, play games with the children, hear them sing, and take silly photos. I also saw the center’s industrial baking oven, which they use with qualified instructors to teach older children how to bake. It’s valuable training in a community where there are few job prospects.
Finally, we went to the park. Maria and I shot baskets in our dress-up clothes while neighborhood children played soccer on the same court. The soccer goals were set up beneath the basketball hoops, and the neighborhood boys occasionally shot our basketball. It was a crazy, fun time of dodging balls and children and shooting goals in two different sports.
At the end of the afternoon, the Compassion cooks sent us off with several chuchitos—the Guatemalan version of tamalesto go. Their care for us was beautiful.
Maria seems tall and healthy and strong and loved and well cared for. Her mother is a strong, determined, committed woman, and her grandparents are delightful and loving. It was an incredible experience to meet Maria and her family, to see how and where they live, and to visit the town. Now the whole family, the Compassion center, and the town are so much more real to me.
It was a wonderful, blessed day, one I don’t think I will ever forget.
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Guatemala Reflections

My mind has been whirling since I returned from Guatemala. It was an intense trip to a complicated place.

We met many people: young and not-so-young, indigenous and not, in urban and rural settings. All are passionate about and committed to doing holistic ministry within their own contexts, caring for the entirety of people, body and soul. We learned about how the church can and should be (and often is not) relevant within its community.

We witnessed the interconnectedness of creation care, racism, lack of educational and employment opportunities especially for young people, migration to cities, gang involvement, poverty, human trafficking, violence, small enterprise, politics, immigration north, broken families, role of the church, relationships, proximity to the poor and vulnerable, presence, process, vulnerability, and people’s need to be heard. In Guatemala, these things are all interrelated; each of these things affects each of the others.

We experienced things that no tourists would. A few highlights:

  • Meeting my Compassion girl and her family, in their home, their town, and at the Compassion center.P1220958
  • Accompanying Doña Tita, the Mother Teresa of one of the largest slums in Central America (La Limonada), on her rounds. Tita has founded four child development centers within the slum, in an effort to prevent children joining the gangs.IMG_3353
  • Accompanying Jomara on her rounds in one of the largest popular (flea) markets in Central America, and its associated dump. Jomara also founded a child development center, called Puertas de Esperanza (doors of hope), focusing on prevention.IMG_3654
  • A Guatemalan history lesson in the main, central cemetery of Guatemala City. Teddy challenged us to notice the symbols and to discover what lies behind them, then to do the same thing in our own context, our own city and country.P1230055
  • Meeting pastors and young adults who are reaching out holistically to their communities with water purification, hospitals, Compassion child centers, small enterprise creation, and more.IMG_3739
  • Visiting the border bridge between Guatemala and Mexico, and witnessing families and individuals crossing the river on rafts and ziplines.P1230257

As you can see, our team has a lot to process. We will continue to meet to discern from our experiences what our next steps will be. Please continue to keep us in your prayers.

DACA Call-In Day

Have you called your representatives yet, asking them to support DACA?

ON THURSDAY: CALL CONGRESS AND THE WHITE HOUSE 
Representatives: 1-888-496-3502
Senators: 1-888-410-0619
*Please call your 1 Representative and then your 2 Senators

Sample Script to Representative/Senators: “Hi, my name is X and I’m calling from City, State and my zip code is X. I am a person of faith. I’m deeply concerned about the reports that President Trump could end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) this week. I support the program and strongly oppose any attempt to terminate or alter it. I urge the Senator/Representative to do everything in his/her power to protect 800,000 DACA-recipients from deportation and support their right to work and study in this country. There are three things I’m hoping your office will do right now. Can the Senator/Representative (1) appeal directly to the President to keep this program in place, (2) issue a public statement of support for DACA recipients, and (3) support a clean passage of S.1615/H.R.3440, the Dream Act of 2017?

ON THURSDAY: CALL PRESIDENT TRUMP: (202) 456-1111 (please leave a message)

Sample Script for President Trump: “I’m from [City, State]. I am a person of faith and I support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and strongly oppose any attempt to terminate it or phase it out. DACA has provided nearly 800,000 young people the opportunity to pursue their dreams. I urge you to defend the DACA program well beyond September 5, protect DACA recipients from deportation and detention, and work with Congress toward a permanent solution.


Please also tweet @realDonaldTrump and your Senators/Representatives: “.@[HANDLE], protect DACA! My community stands with immigrant youth! #DefendDACA #HeretoStay #Faith4DACA”


Both President Trump and Members of Congress must hear that communities of faith demand DACA remain in place until the Dream Act passes, and that there be be no gap between DACA ending and Dream passing! Also, DACA recipients should not be used a political bargaining chip to increase a deportation force and tear apart families and communities.

Thanks to Michelle Warren of CCDA and EIT for sharing these instructions!

Transitions

The weather forecast looked sketchy the entire week before. Communication is always tricky with this family, as only the mom has a cell phone, and she works full-time. She’s also still learning English.

We hosted a picnic to celebrate the self-sufficiency of our most recent refugee family. Our official commitment to helping this family has ended, but going forward we remain friends. We decided to mark the transition with a picnic in a park with a fabulous playground and an accessible lake. If only the weather would cooperate, and we could communicate our plans.

It was a success! Despite afternoon showers, the sky cleared. We found covered picnic tables near the playground. And we drove grandmother and the three girls to their first visit at this park. The girls were overwhelmed by the possibilities of the new playground, and wanted to play on the swings more than they wanted to eat. Everyone was fascinated by the water, and after confirming that there were no crocodiles in the lake, they waded in as far as we allowed them in their clothes. Even Grandmother walked down to get a better look at the fishermen.

We had more than enough food at our potluck, a good variety, and it was delicious. Grandmother and the oldest daughter were observing Ramadan, so they did not eat with us. They abstained until sunset, and then happily indulged in the picnic food, even bringing home the leftovers.

Transitions like this can be tricky. As we root for this family to integrate into their new community, we want our friendships to continue. But we also pray that the lessons we’ve taught them about life in America stick, and that they successfully navigate their new life here.

 

 

Party Time!

One of the perks of being a cultural mentor is the parties. I’ve never before been to a ten-year-olds girl’s birthday party that was essentially a dance party, but Africans know how to celebrate!

As I’ve seen among other cultures, the gift I brought was immediately taken from me and spirited away to a back bedroom. My Bhutanese friends didn’t open gifts at their parties, either. In their culture that would give the appearance of being greedy. Gifts are opened later, privately.

When I arrived, the music was already playing and several people were dancing. The apartment was decorated with balloons, Christmas garland, and a light up Santa—very festive! Relatives and neighbors were there, many of whom I had met before, including many children and babies. The birthday girl’s sisters were there, looking beautiful in new dresses, and their mother was there too, wearing a pretty blue suit. But the birthday girl herself was nowhere to be seen.

I could hear several of the women helping Sandra prepare. Her sister whispered to me, “When you see Sandra, she is SO beautiful!”

Eventually the birthday girl appeared, dressed beautifully, including a birthday crown and an Easter hat, and blindfolded. She was led to a chair and given a jar of flowers to hold. After a minute or so the blindfold was removed. After another few minutes, Sandra was handed a lighter and proceeded to light the candles on her cake. Then she blew them all out, one by one. Next she was given a knife, and she proceeded to cut the cake. I’ve never seen such creative cake cutting before—most pieces were huge triangles or other odd shapes. Unlike at most American parties, the cake cutting did not stop when everyone was served . . . it seemed to be Sandra’s job to cut and serve the entire cake.

After we were all stuffed with enormous pieces of cake, dinner was served. The hostess invited the American guests to serve ourselves first at the buffet, typical in most cultures I’ve experienced. Thankfully, the other guests followed immediately after us, and did not watch us eat alone first.

All this time, the music continued to play and guests continued to dance. Cell phones were busy taking photos and videos. The birthday girl’s mother did not even stop dancing to eat. She ate and danced simultaneously, burning off a few calories as she consumed them.

When I eventually got up to leave, I danced a few songs with Sandra and her mother. I know I was immortalized in several cell phone videos. My African friends love it when I dance with them. I’m really not a good dancer, but I can swing my ample hips to the beat, which is sufficient to bring them joy.

One of the many lessons my refugee friends have taught me is how to celebrate. Celebrate birthdays, celebrate accomplishments, celebrate life. Despite the challenges, life is good, and worth celebrating.

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
  Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

(Proverbs 31:8-9)

All Souls Church recently voted to offer physical refuge for undocumented immigrants who need sanctuary. All Souls belongs to a coalition of other churches and individuals throughout the city, including myself, who are committed to spend our time, money, and energy to love our immigrant neighbors.

On the day between Father’s Day and World Refugee Day, we held a press conference to announce the formation of the Sanctuary Coalition. The Coalition includes four local churches, an immigrant rights group, and several individuals. A variety of brief speeches were made at the event: about the biblical call to offer sanctuary; about the fear in the immigrant community; about the importance of keeping families together; from a 10-year-old US citizen whose parents are undocumented, and from a DACA college student, both of whom just want their families to stay together and have an opportunity to pursue their dreams and contribute to America.

The point of the press conference was not to brag about our good works. On the contrary, if an individual or an organization secretly offers sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant with a final order of deportation, they can be found guilty of harboring a fugitive. It is imperative for a church or coalition of churches to go public to the press, law enforcement, and the community when declaring sanctuary.

Churches have a long history of offering sanctuary. In Numbers 35 in the Bible, God commanded Moses to establish six cities of refuge throughout the land of Israel—cities to which people could flee for safety until they were given a fair trial. “These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites, aliens, and any other people living among them” (verse 15). The instruction for cities of refuge were repeated to Joshua in Joshua 20.

Historically, sanctuary has been offered in ancient Australia, Africa, Egypt, Rome, and Greece, as well as in medieval Europe and Britain. In the US, churches offered sanctuary to escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad, as well as to organizers during the Civil Rights Movement. US churches offered sanctuary in the 1980s to Central Americans who were fleeing US-backed wars in their own countries. In Denver recently, three individuals have taken sanctuary in churches. Each case has successfully allowed the immigrants sufficient time to get their legal cases in order, and they have all been granted stays of deportation. Sanctuary works.

Why am I a participant in and supporter of our local sanctuary coalition? Because of God’s repeated invitations and commands throughout the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—to love my neighbor. In action. God commands over and over again to welcome the stranger, to love the foreigner, and to not oppress the alien living in your land, but rather to treat them as the native born. We’re reminded to show hospitality, which in the Greek—philoxenia—literally means love for foreigners. We’re told to love both our neighbors and our enemies, in very concrete ways. In God’s Word, love is never a sappy feeling; love is action.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (James 2)

Compassion is another word that’s never sappy in the Bible. Compassion means to suffer with. Compassion doesn’t mean merely refusing to pile on the oppression—though that’s also important. Compassionate people do not stand by and observe injustice. Compassion means to suffer with the oppressed, and to stand up for justice to be served. “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another'” (Zech 7:9). Consider the compassion that God shows to us: Jesus left his home in heaven to suffer with humanity, under Roman oppression, and ultimately to die for us. We are called to have the same kind of compassion that Jesus has on us.

In Isaiah 58 we learn that God has no patience for empty worship and religious celebrations. What God desires from God’s people is that we practice justice. (See also Micah 6:8.)

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God. …

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

To those who claim that these immigrants are here illegally and therefore we shouldn’t help them: it’s incredibly difficult for most people to come to the US legally, and for many people it is outright impossible. I remind you that immigration violations are civil, not criminal, in nature. I also give you this from James 2: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Finally, the nations will be judged on whether we give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, shelter to the stranger, clothes to the poor, and visit the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25). It is in caring for the least of these that we meet Christ.

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To directly support our sanctuary guests, please contribute to this fund:
https://www.gofundme.com/elmers-family

 

Click below for the cover story in the Colorado Springs Independent:

https://www.csindy.com/coloradosprings/progressive-churches-prepare-to-protect-immigrants-in-the-heart-of-trump-country/Content?oid=5218982

 

 

 

Guatemala

Walk with Us in Our Search

Help us discover our own riches; don’t judge us poor because we lack what you have.

Help us discover our chains; don’t judge us slaves by the type of shackles you wear.

Be patient with us as a people; don’t judge us backward simply because we don’t follow your stride.

Be patient with our pace; don’t judge us lazy simply because we can’t follow your tempo.

Be patient with our symbols; don’t judge us ignorant because we can’t read your signs.

Be with us and proclaim the richness of your life which you can share with us.

Be with us and be open to what we can give.

Be with us as a companion who walks with us—neither behind nor in front—in our search for life and ultimately for God!

These words were written by a bishop in the developing world for those who come as missionaries to Latin America. The poem is quoted in the book, ¡Gracias! A Latin American Journal, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, and it provides a relevant framework for my upcoming trip to Guatemala.

In early September I will travel to Guatemala with a team from my church. This trip will be an experience of learning together from our brothers and sisters in Guatemala about how they are reaching out and serving their own communities holistically. We’ll visit churches in the capital—Guatemala City, in rural areas, and at the border with Mexico. Some of our learning will be around the push and pull factors of migration, and how the local churches respond to those factors.

While I’m in Guatemala I hope to meet the 8-year-old girl I sponsor through Compassion International. I’m thrilled to be able to meet her and to learn more about her community and her country. One of the reasons I chose a child in Guatemala is to, in my own small way, combat the forces of poverty and violence there that compel people to leave their country.

Many of the women I interviewed in Baby Jail came from Guatemala, fleeing horrific violence.

I don’t go to Guatemala to solve any problems or to change the world. I go to observe, to learn, to share my life with people there, and to understand more of God’s big world. In preparation I’m reading several books in addition to the books my team is reading together. In Inside Central America, I’m getting a crash course in Guatemalan history. In ¡Gracias! and Love in a Fearful Land by Henri Nouwen, I’m learning that following Jesus by walking with the poor can sometimes be interpreted politically. Even though both of Nouwen’s books were written in the 1980s, they feel particularly relevant today.

“This is what the LordAlmighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” (Zech. 7:9-10)

If you want to receive email updates about my trip and what I learn, simply leave a comment to that effect. If you’d like to partner with me financially, you can use the link below. My expenses will likely be about $2,000. Contributions are tax deductible. (If I am unable to go on this trip for any unforeseen reason, your contribution is not refundable. However, it would be used solely to support the ministry that my team serves, or will be given to a ministry at the discretion of the First Pres Global Engagement Team.)

Thank you for joining me as I continue to pursue proximity and partnership!

https://first-pres.ccbchurch.com/form_response.php?id=235