Friday, July 29, 2011

Final Honduras Reflections: Partnership through Photography

It is hard to believe that after nearly 16 months of planning and preparation that I am writing a final post on the airplane just before we descend back home in Philadelphia. We went into the week hoping and praying for opportunities to build a partnership with Honduran youth through local church connections...I believe we witnessed far more than that.

I have written much over the past week about our hopes and dreams, conversations and reflections. However, nothing can really do justice to all that took place in these last seven days in Tegucigalpa. Our students especially noticed, each night as we debriefed together in the retreat center owned by Tim and Gloria Wheeler of Heifer International, that although we may not speak the same language, we do share a vision and dream that transcends geographical setting. The words partnership, collaboration, and cooperation dripped from the lips of students within both Imago Dei Youth Ministry and Pena de Horeb. We were speaking the same language.

This was affirmed on Tuesday night as we gathered for a prayer service. Pastor Juan of Pena de Horeb gathered together Karen Gadson, a member of our volunteer team and PCUSA World Mission, and Mark Wright, PCUSA Mission Co-Worker, and among other things, he said the following, "We have never seen this before. This is partnership." I believe that our group would agree.

I would love to write more, yet I believe that no blog post can encompass how much God was at work in the week that was. Therefore, as a final post I have inserted a variety of photos from our pilgrimage made alongside fellow travelers from Central America. My prayer is that this is only the beginning of a beautiful and lasting partnership with our new family and friends of the faith.

Dios te bendiga...

a view of Tegucigalpa

Confucius monument in the foreground and the back of the Christ monument in the background

Micah Project:  

Basilica de Suyapa


a day at Parque Obrero with new friends from Pena de Horeb

our means of transportation from Puerto Grande to La Playa Negra

two youth leaders from Pena de Horeb

an eco-stove installed by PCUSA World Mission

Pena de Horeb operates a medical clinic out of their basement

This is partnership

youth ministry leadership

Pastor Juan of Pena de Horeb

youth-to-youth partnership conversation at Pena de Horeb

new friend and brother, Alex, who drove us around all week

La Tigra, a rainforest/cloud forest...quite the hike, note level of difficulty

Be sure to check out posts from Imago Dei Youth on the Westminster blog: Work of the People

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Honduras Missional Reflections: Fried Fish and Youth to Youth Partnerships

July 24
It is difficult to put into words all that took place today. In short, we experienced some of the most authentic and captivating Honduran culture.
We woke up bright and early and traveled with youth from Peña de Horeb to Puerta Grande, a small village on the Southwestern coast of Honduras. Located there is Sea of Galilee Evangelical Presbyterian Church. These congregations collectiveley planned for us an incredible lunch adventure and an all-day fellowship at La Playa Negra. The surprise... we had to take small motorized fishing boats 20km to an island not far from El Salvador. I cannot even begin to describe the beauty that enveloped the experience, along with the occasional nausea, as we cruised the Gulf and Pacific waters. Lunch was fried fish...whole fried fish...and it was delicious. A service of worship also took place under a canopy, as each church contributed some element and the local pastor's son spoke about utilizing one's gifts in the church. All in all the day was a great opportunity to further fellowship with our new friends and continue to develop relationships with Honduran Youth.

Another element of the day was the opportunity to learn of the eco-stoves that the PCUSA World Mission has begun to construct in homes. Many in the villages have continued to cook over open fires, which causes bronchial difficulties, heat exhaustion, high cooking expenses (for wood), and significant deforestation. However, these eco-stoves are able to reduce the amount of wood used by 60%, save families money, and eliminate health and heat hazards. This may sound like a minor change, but the results are significant. Each stove only costs $60.

July 25
Our group of 19 and Peña de Horeb's group of 12 (or more?) painted their entire sanctuary, which had not been done for years. It was a lot of work, yet the best part was the opportunity to be together, work together, and swap stories together.
After we finished our first coat of painting, we set up the room in a circle of chairs and entered into an intentional dialogue with the youth. Mark Wright posed two questions to be discussed in small groups made up of Honduran and American youth:
What do you value most about your church?
What would you like to see your church do differently?

The hope was to engage in intentional dialogue that can begin to provide a working framework for a potential partnership. The responses varied tremendousl, yet the cnversation was a first for the youth of Honduras and the Imago Dei Youth of Westminster. I am eager to further process this conversation and look forward to how we can take another step in the direction of a missional, youth-to-youth partnership.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Further Reflections from Tegus: AJS, Globalization, and Missional Partnerships

Further reflections from July 22
As mentioned, one of our destinations was Association for a More Just Society. This organization works to engage the various levels of social and political injustices in Tegucigalpa. Their mission, paraphrased, is to exist as brave Christian leaders who seek to advocate for justice, peace, and reform in Honduras, especially on behalf of the most vulnerable of society. Their director of communications, Abe, explained to the team the broad spectrum of concern and advocacy, which includes victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, government corruption, distribution of resources, and reform of a very dysfunctional education system. It is reported that the average Honduran does not receive an education beyond fifth grade, teacher's strikes occur at least every year, and political biases allow for the hiring of less-than-mediocre educators. The stories shared moved all of us us, especially those of youth who, through the networks, staff, and programs of AJS, have overcome sexual abuse and gang violence.

However, the most profound statement made by Abe was that despite Honduras seeing an influx of Christian communities, 40% of the population in 2010 compared to 8% in 1988, violence and poverty has continued to rise throughout the country. It was mentioned that the murder rate has tripled in the last 7 years. In other words, why is it that although more short-term missions and long-term missionaries have entered other country, the social and political climate has worsened? In short, Abe suggested that this is due to a disengaged evangelical influence that sees salvation in terms of the individual and not in regards to the social, political, and economic systems that oppresses individuals and communities. It was at that moment that Alex, son of the pastor and member of Peña de Horeb Presbyterian Church, asked Abe in eagerness, "How can we partner with you? If the local church leaders will not, I know that at least the youth will?" Again, a witness that the youth are eager to begin transforming their future...I look forward to these possibilities as we contemplate further partnerships.
Finally, we ended the day with a visit to...Wal-Mart. We needed to purchase a variety of supplies for some of the upcoming paint projects and this was the most effective means for us to do so (I have not been a Wall-Mart in over four years, and do not miss it). Later that night as we debriefed, I learned that one of the students was deeply grieved by this, especially as she noticed that Wal-Mart was an upscale experience in Tegus. It is incredible how much globalization continues to infringe on the developing world. Nonetheless, as Mark Wight mentioned, it does provide good jobs in the city. This is a tension that I am not sure I will ever overcome.

July 23
Today marked the first opportunity for our youth and the youth of Peña de Horeb to begin real face to face interactions. The day began with an initial encounter that impressed me a great deal. Most of the youth from both churches were eager to meet face-to-face those whom we have only heard about over the past year plus. The language barrier was a sure difficulty for some, surprisingly mine has been sufficient (better than I expected), yet students pressed on and enjoyed a day of fellowship, worship, Bible Study, and play at Parque Obrero, nearby Valle de los Angeles. I was invited to preach (I will post the text soon), and we also heard from their youth director, Erika. However, the highlights involved games of soccer or fútbol, an introduction to wiffle ball (my team won dramatic comeback fashion), and on-the-side conversations. The hope is to be able to share in more intentional conversations with the local youth in regards to their hopes and dreams for their churches, our potential partnership, and the issues in their community that they long to transform and engage. This may come on Monday or Tuesday.
As an aside, I have thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with Alex from Peña de Horeb. He has helped me to understand why the local Presbyterian Churches often resist engagement with social and political issues. He mentioned that most of the congregations in Tegus do not have sufficient resources to sustain their own churches and pastors and so all the funds they have must be put into sustaining their ecclesial community. It is true that piety also may play a role, as socio-political issues may be considered "secular work"; however, volunteer youth leaders like Alex and the youth he serves want to see something different. Their hopes are for partnerships like ours to make feasible, through the sharing of resources, not only internal church programs, but also and especially external involvement that seeks to improve their communities, cities, and country. Our prayers are or this to become a potential reality.

More to come...

Also check out The Westminster Blog: Work of the People for a great post from one of our Imago Dei Youth

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Design Your Future: Honduras Missional Experience Reflections

July 21, 2011
Typical with most of my experiences in Latin America, when we arrived at the Tegus Airport we were greeted with extreme hospitality. Mark Wright, a PCUSA mission co-worker for the past two years, was accompanied by Alex, a son of a local Presbyterian church pastor, and several youth from the Peña de Horeb congregation. In our various commutes throughout the day I was able, in my broken Spanish, to converse with Alex about his hopes and dreams for the week ahead. Alex mentioned that the youth in his congregation, who greeted us at the airport, were eager to engage church partnerships differently. They had grown weary of experiences whereby others came and went with little to no lasting youth relationships and with the assumption that they were teachers and the Hondurans learners. They, as youth, were always being served, never invited to own and practice service and social and ecclesial change themselves. Instead, these youth want to be mutual learners, even to enter into partnerships with these congregations so to, as their t-shirts from a recent youth conference stated, begin "diseñando tu futuro bajo la voluntad de Dios." i.e. "designing your future under the will of God ." The exciting thing, the youth from Peña de Horeb want to enter into partnership with our youth. So we have set aside the duration of the upcoming weekend to enter into community, conversation, and fellowship, so to explore these possibilities. We will see what comes to be..

While we spent a good portion of the day simply getting acclimated to the retreat center where we are staying, we also made a brief field trip. We traveled back across Tegus and to a park situated around Cristo de Picacho, a large statue of Jesus with outstretched hands over the city. The statue rivals the one located in Rio, Brazil. However, this one assumes the posture of a resurrected and ascended Christ and accompanied by a passage from Luke 24. Yet this was not the only statue and monument in this park. We traveled through a garden and behind the statue of Christ was a much smaller one of Confucius, a marker of the Chinese culture and population that is apparently prominent within Honduras. I was able to stand in a spot where I could glimpse the top of Jesus with Confucius in the lower foreground. This sight, along with a Mayan temple replica, attest to the diverse cultural influences on the Honduran people and surely their witness to and understanding of the gospel. I am eager to learn more of the context that is Tegus, especially how the local Christian churches and ministries engage it for the sake of the gospel and the hopes of their communities, especially the poor there situated.

July 22nd
Todays immersion experiences began with interactions with the Micah Project, a ministry that extends love, grace, and family to the many "street kids" in Tegus. Many of these youth have been isolated from their families for a wide variety of reasons and forced to call the streets their home, whereby many of them become addicted to "yellow glue." This cheap and convenient drug provides a high that lasts all day and brings a false relief to their circumstances. Mike, their director, and his staff work to receive these youth, help them overcome their addiction, provide education, and exist as a family for the 13 boys who have never known such a basic human need. Mike said, "only God can save these boys, and God has." Mike mentioned that the Project operates under several core concerns and practices, none more important than the eternal practice of grace. As we listened to Mike talk, it was evident that what they do works. The kids have found faith, have overcome addiction (sometimes more than once), many graduated from high school and become teachers in local schools, and have a place to call home. Furthermore, some of the boys have discovered their gifts and exercise them as another form of healing. The song here posted is, "carta a mama," written to their mothers who have passed. One of the lyrics declares that only God can fill the void.

Video from Project

This missional experience has only just begun. Our team looks forward to further interactions with local ministries and youth. For now, we are on our way to Transformemos Honduras and Association for More Just Society Check out their significant work as advocates, social prophets, and people who risk it all for the sake of the most vulnerable of Honduras.

More to come...

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Who You Met Not What You Did: Honduras 2011

In April/May 2010, I charged a few of our Imago Dei Youth Ministry Leaders (students and adults) to begin to discern a call and vision together about the nature and implementation of missional experiences and ministry partnerships. I was not disappointed. We developed a Missional Experience Visioning Team and explored the biblical theme of mission, i.e. missio Dei, missional church paradigms, the pros and cons of our previous summer missional experiences, and even how our denomination (PCUSA) is already engaged in similar conversations and activities domestically and internationally (see PCUSA World Mission). We prayed. We read. We researched. We discussed. Mostly, we waited for an invitation from an already established ministry and Christian community in an international context. The result is this year's pilgrimage to Tegucigalpa, Honduras in partnership with PCUSA World Mission and the local Christian communities and youth situated in this Central American city.

I have been encouraged by the 15 youth and 4 adults (to include myself) who have participated in faithful dialogue about the missional church and the significance of ministry partnerships. Students especially have recognized the need to serve alongside instead of to and for those in diverse contexts, to travel as listeners and learners versus imperialistic Christians who assume to possess all the answers, and to recognize that God speaks in and through cultural contexts beyond our own. Even more, the conversations over the past 15 months have reminded us that the church is to be in partnership with the poor, the marginalized, and those in developing nations. One of the books that has formed us along the way and given a helpful framework has been When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. They suggest that unlike typical paternalistic structures that are implemented by well-intending Christian churches, especially youth ministries [1], short-term missions and long term partnerships must function through asset-based community development:
"ABCD is consistent with the perspective that God has blessed every individual and community with a host of gifts, including such diverse things as land, social networks, knowledge, animals, savings, intelligence, schools, creativity, production equipment, etc. ABCD puts the emphasis on what the materially poor people already have and asks them to consider from the outset, 'What is right with you? What gifts has God given you that you can use to improve your life and that of your neighbors? How can the individuals and organizations in your community work together to improve your community?' Instead of looking outside the low-income individual or community for resources and solutions, ABCD starts by asking the materially poor how they can be stewards of their own gifts and resources, seeking to restore individuals and communities to being what God has created them to be from the very start of the relationship" (127).
This is not to suggest that socio-political and economic sytems and institutions are void of influence on poverty alleviation [2] strategies, or even the reality of poverty coming to be in the first place. On the contrary, missional partnerships and prophetic Christian witness must engage these empirical variables in the efforts to work towards holistic reconciliation. However, ABCD recognizes and empowers the poor and oppressed as significant players, even primary contributors, in the quest for liberation and justice. Unless we begin with their gifts, talents, resources, and ideas, our ministries and short-term experiences will be temporary relief at best, another manifestation of crippling paternalism at worst.

We have spent much of our time as a team in reflection and conversation,
students asked to do more than go but also to prepare their hearts, souls, and minds. However, we have also come to the conclusion that to be
the church in partnership with diverse Christian communities, especially in contexts of poverty, we must move beyond theory and projects and into real and lasting relationships with those in said communities. In other words, it is more than what we do, rather about who we meet. Missional experiences are opportunities to swap stories, share in fellowship, and live in community with fellow pilgrims of the Way of Jesus. This is precisely what we as a a youth ministry are about to do. I even hear that our first weekend will be spent over several picnics at local fresh-fish markets with Honduran youth from various Tegus churches.

I look forward to the days ahead. We ask that you would pray for us as we travel. May God give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear the signs and symbols of the resurrection that are already taking place in Tegucigalpa, especially through the youth who live there. And may we be forever transformed not so much but what we do while in Tegus, but more so by who we meet.

Stay tuned for more posts in country...

[1] Corbett and Fikkert define paternalism as doing things for people that they can do themselves (115).
[2] Poverty Alleviation is also defined in When Helping Hurts, as "the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation" (79).

Other Helpful Resources

Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership

Youth Ministry as an Exercise in Liberation Theology

Service Blitzes, Missional Pilgrims, and Jim Forest

Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Water Buffalo Theology: A Must Read

“Has not theology inflated my language and thought? Has this inflation kept me from real contact with people? Truly, theology is more manageable than God” (151).  These inquisitive words of Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, continue to echo throughout my heart and mind even after reading his seminal text on theology and mission, Water Buffalo Theology.  As someone who loves to engage theology and the various contributions of historical and contemporary voices, I have recognized the hazardous tendency to become overly cognitive and disengaged with real persons and human experiences.  That said, Water Buffalo Theology was a refreshing read, which I consider a vital resource for anyone who longs not only to read and teach theology, but also and especially to live and incarnate God-talk in a variety of cultural contexts.  Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009), an astute learner, teacher, and respected academic, is intentional to bridge the gap between two sacred disciplines of the Christian tradition, i.e. how we speak of God (theology) and how we live into such speech (missiology).  He writes:

“At this point theology becomes missiology, and missiology becomes theology.  Is not theology a stammering description of the sending God culminating in the word of the cross?  Is not missiology an understanding of God who is and acts in unsearchable and immeasurable strength of love culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ” (135-136)?
However, Koyama reminds the Christian theologian and practitioner that we must constantly reform our speech so to be palatable and relevant to those in our cultural contexts.  Better said, our theological reflections are in vain if they cannot be understood by and transform the lives of the farmer who plows his field by water buffalo. Koyama writes:
“I decided to subordinate great theological thoughts, like those of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, to the intellectual and spiritual needs of the farmers.  I decided that I have not really understood Summa Theologiae and Church Dogmatics until I am able to use them for the benefit of the farmers.  My theology in northern Thailand must begin with the need of the farmers and not with the great thoughts developed in Summa Theologiae and Church Dogmatics” (xvi).

Water Buffalo Theology proceeds to engage the plethora of Asian contexts and raise local questions posed by a situated gospel. What does this mean for the Buddhist in Thailand? Who is Jesus in conversation with the likes of Confucius? What does shalom look like to the Vietnamese in the wake of war, communism, and Western imperialism? Can the gospel be understood aside from Western interpretations? How does the church move beyond and guard against denominationalism and institutionalization? How can we cross the dividing wall between library Christians and street-Christians wherever we are?

Here are a few excerpts Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology; however, I encourage you to read it for yourself and allow this text to provoke fresh and contextual questions that can form all of us for relevant and faithful gospel witness in and for the whole world.

Water Buffalo Theology is quietly convinced that theology- God-talk- belongs to the realm of poetry…’God-talk’ is poetic, not scientific language” (xi).
“The mission of the church begins with the nurture of the crucified mind [v. the crusading mind], the mind of Christ in the context of theological raw situations” (18).

[The quotes to follow continue to baffle me, as this was written in the 1970’s.  Koyama suggests that the gospel’s greatest threat in the technological age of modernization is the obsession with “efficiency.”]
“Have we given thought to the coming of a universal technological civilization and its impact upon us who live in a certain locality, in certain cultural and religious traditions…The coming of the universal technological civilization compels me to grasp again the essence of the good news of God in Christ” (45).

“To ‘live in technological efficiency’ may become for many the experience of ‘salvation’…In fact, it may be said that the contrast between the ‘inefficient God’ and ‘efficient human’ is becoming more and more pronounced” (46).
“To what kind of spiritual and theological heritage am I heir?  This question is of immediate concern for me, for how can I make my witness meaningful to my neighbors if I fail to understand where they are and where I am in the continuing story of the Christian church here” (57)?

“It is wrong to say that we must produce an indigenous theology.  It is not necessary to produce one.  It is there” (60)!
“We must resort to analogy when we speak of God, but in doing so we are confronted by the God who constantly perturbs our use of analogy.  This paradoxical burden in theological thinking is not sufficiently understood by the theology that neglects history” (73).

“There is no private theology.  Our theology is a community production” (77).
“Theology can only stammer about the person and work of Jesus Christ” (134).

“Our Christian life is surrounded by institutions and establishments.  And their number is legion.  Some institutions are sacred and others are less sacred.  Some institutions are more useful tot the good of the community than others.  Institutions have their respective histories.  They tend to become rigid and inflexible.  They die hard.  Their self-denial only occurs very rarely.  The real danger of institutions must be located not in the institutions themselves, but in the ‘theology’ that surrounds them.  The penetrating analysis of the deceptive theology is summarized by Jeremiah as ‘This is the temple of the Lord!- therefore we are safe!’…On this basis, Christians can and must be critical about institutions related to the church” (138-9).
“Now how to communicate such a reality of God to our neighbors?  Neighbors who are not ‘neighborology’ but real living neighbors who are in the midst of human and historical complexities” (155)?

“The crucified mind, not the crusading mind, must be the mind of all missionaries, indeed of all Christians” (159).
“The Christian faith is a noisy faith.  Because it lives in believing in God’s decisive and irreversible attachment to people in Christ” (161).

“Participating in Christ’s work of holding all things together by being deeply discomforted- what a singular form of mission in the discomforted world today” (167)!