Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Central Presbyterian delegation commissioning

The message below was written by Jim Wallace, the pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa. It was composed for the delegation of 7 people at his church that are coming to El Salvador this Friday. Jim gave both Kathy and I permission to share his words in our blogs. It is a beautiful message about the purpose of the Our Sister Parish mission.

Commissioning Message/Service for El Salvador Mission Trip 2011
One of the great impulses of the Church is to go out into the world. There’s a kind of restlessness about the faith that just doesn’t allow Christian people to stay home. Christians go out into the world.

You hear that, of course, in the Great Commission. And Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28). Heaven and earth belong to Jesus and so off to the nations disciples go.

Christ’s great ambassador, St. Paul, saw the Christian faith as something to share and spread. He would go and start churches, then drop by and check with the faithful to see how they were getting along and encourage them. St. Paul never stayed home. He was constantly on the go.

You might remember the maps on your Sunday school room of Paul’s missionary journeys. Going here and there, doubling back, crossing over and under, the lines and connections of his travels looked like a pile of spaghetti.

Well, on Friday of next week seven members of Central Presbyterian church will get up and go by boarding a plane and heading to El Salvador. For a couple of us it will be a return visit from 2008. Over the last three years a number of other Central members have spent time in El Salvador on their own or with another group.

Our Presbytery, the Presbytery of Des Moines, has had a relationship with a small faith community in Berlin, El Salvador for 20 years. Many of our churches in the Presbytery have made trips to El Salvador, some churches numerous times, forming partnerships with the cantons or villages in the area.

Since the trip in 2008 our church has helped support the Pastoral House in Berlin, El Salvador. This is the place where people in the community come for help and where delegations stay as they visit and establish relationships with various cantons. The pastoral team is also in touch with the leaders in the villages surrounding Berlin. And so, it is an important, even crucial, component of ministry in that community and region.

Part of our trip will be to spend time with the Salvadorans who staff the Pastoral House, so as to strengthen our relationship with them. The little bit of money that we send each month to the Pastoral House helps pay for water and electricity and simple upkeep so they don’t have to struggle as hard to meet those expenses. In turn they can concentrate on doing ministry in the community and villages that surround Berlin. Besides spending time at the Pastoral House, we have been invited into their homes—a great honor.

We will go and see some of the important places from El Salvador’ horrific and heroic past. We will go to the place where the six Jesuit priests were murdered at the University of Central America, a turning point in their bloody civil war and U.S. support of the brutal Salvadoran army that waged a war against its own people.

We will see the humble home of martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero, who began his career in a church structure that was closely aligned with the powerful and the wealthy, all in the name of stability and order. Romero was picked because it was thought he would not rock the boat. But he had a conversion of sorts and began to side with the poor instead of the powerful and began to preach about social justice and liberation. And for that he was killed, as he stood behind the altar, breaking bread during Mass.

We will spend time in villages and at various projects supported by other churches. There will be a dedication mass to celebrate a new cooperative that was the project of the Pastoral Team, a small village, the University of Central America, and the government of El Salvador.

We will visit some marginalized schools. We will see where the coffee you purchase is produced and processed.

We are taking some things that will be helpful. We have a bag full of school supplies, a couple bags of used eye glasses, a kit donated by an optometrist to test eyes, some basic medicines—all to be donated and left with the Pastoral House.

Now less you think this is a luxury sightseeing trip, let me assure you it is not. There will be no air-conditioning. This is a country in poverty. Accommodations include flushing a toilet and taking a shower by taking a bucket of water and pouring it down the stool or over your head.

When groups go to El Salvador they don’t go there with a “top down” model of wealthy North Americans doing something for the poor Salvadorans. As much as is possible, delegations go to El Salvador with the intent to “be with” instead of “do for.” Delegations go to understand the country’s troubled and sometimes horrific history, the social and economic forces that have contributed to systemic poverty, and, as much as is possible (for people who will return to warm showers, soft beds and an abundance of food), to live day to day and to share life with the poor.

Now this idea of “being with” instead of “doing for,” of relationship building instead of building something is a difficult concept for North Americans because out of our abundance of resources and power we are accustomed to taking on the role of superior fixer, the knight in shining armor.

As a writer on short term missions (somewhat) jokingly suggests, “having an engineer on your mission team can be a mixed blessing. Engineers are trained to diagnose and repair problems; it is part of their professional DNA. They will typically go to a service site and immediately begin to calculate the most efficient approach to the tasks at hand… [but that] won’t always work in another culture, and it may even be offensive.” [1]

One enterprising pastor in another setting got around this problem by having a wall that people could work whenever they would come on a mission trip. He has no idea what the wall is for or if it will ever be done, but it takes care of the problem of visiting teams needing to do something tangible. Then, once they get that out of their system, he says the real mission takes place—meeting and building relationships with the men in the community who need long-term training and social services in order to survive. [2]

And delegations don’t go with the idea they are taking God to these people; God is already there, among the people. Dean Brackley, an American born Jesuit priest, who moved to El Salvador after the six priests were killed, writes about the importance of not going with the idea of taking God to people, but discovering that God is already there, among the people. He says:

If we allow them to share their suffering with us, they communicate some of their hope to us as well. The smile that seems to have no foundation in the facts is not phony; the spirit of fiesta is not an escape but a recognition that something else is going on in the world besides injustice and destruction. The poor smile because they suspect that this something is more powerful than the injustice. When insist on sharing their tortilla with a visiting gringo, we recognize there is something going on in the world that is more wonderful than we dared to imagine. [3]

So, we go, but not with a “top down” model. We don’t go to fix or bring God. We go to “be with,” strengthen relationships, discover what God is doing.

In one of the great passages of the New Testament, St. Paul writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross...”

“Let the same mind be in you,” Paul says. Don’t grasp power. Don’t cling to position. Be like Christ who emptied himself in order to be with us, to share in our experience, our pain our, sorrow, our joy, our humanity. He could have hung on to his position and power as Lord of all, but he didn’t. Literally in every sense of the word, Christ set that asides in order to be with us, to be one of us.

And by implication that’s how Christians go into the world. That’s how Christians do their mission work. Not from a place of superiority, but humility. Not from the mindset that we have the money, we have the power, we have what you need and we are here to give it to you. Our attitude should be like Christ who set all claim to privilege aside and emptied himself in order to be with us, to share with us, to enter our experience and our humanity. And so we go, as best we can, following that example, not to “do for” but “to be with” and to “share in.”

When you approach such a trip as this in that way, you open the possibility of learning, experiencing, sharing, growing. I have already mentioned Bishop Romero. In the midst of the struggle against poverty and threat and violence and death, he is reported to have said these inspiring words:

“It helps now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”

I hope our delegation from Central comes back with at least a little bit more faith like that, faith that sees the kingdom of God not as some far off ideal, some utopian someday. But the kingdom that we are called to work for and live for and strive for, not just in our hearts, but a kingdom of justice for all God’s children. Amen.

[1] Misguided Missions: Ten Worst Practices, by Mark Wm. Radecke in Christian Century May 18, 2010.
[2] Ibid. Adapted.
[3] As quoted in Misguided Missions: Ten Worst Practices, by Mark Wm. Radecke in Christian Century May 18, 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful description and explanation of the purpose of the mission trips. This was a really powerful read and makes me want to go back very soon.