U-C: What I See

Thursday, September 30, 2004

there's good dialoge happening

There is a good sized group in dialogue with one another on the listserve. If you haven't checked it out, I recommend it.


Wednesday, September 29, 2004

New Immigrant Fellowships

Last weekend I had the opportunity to spend time with a gathering of the leaders of New Immigrant Fellowships from across the country. I confess that six months ago, I couldn’t have told you what a new immigrant fellowship was (although I probably could have guessed if someone had asked me). However, I’ve been learning that this is one of the most exciting things happening in our denomination.

There are hundreds of groups of Presbyterians from other countries who have banded together in their new communities here in the U.S. to begin bible studies and worship groups. Often, they begin with just a handful of people, and within a year or two they’ve grown to include dozens – sometimes hundreds – more members. This is, to my way of thinking, a pretty close approximation to the way the early church would have looked.

Often, as they grow, these fellowships are seeking homes in well-established Presbyterian churches. Where it works best, there has been lots of interaction between the two worshiping bodies, and the older, more established churches are finding new life.

I could sure see that life when I arrived at the conference in Atlanta last Friday night. As I arrived, the Africans had just finished dancing, the Pakistanis were dancing and singing up on stage, and the Brazilians had us all up – and pumped up – by the end of the night. These brothers and sisters from around the world are a new wind blowing in the Presbyterian Church.

If you haven’t already done so, find out if there’s one near you and ask if you could visit. I guarantee you’ll be welcomed with open arms, and this is one border that it is well worth crossing.

With dreams of a vibrant, multi-cultural church,

Dr. James Forbes - the next Great Awakening!

Last night I had the good fortune to hear the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church in New York, preach at the Peacemaking Conference at the Presbyterian Conference center at Stony Point, NY. I’ve known of Dr. Forbes’ work for many years, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting him for many weeks. For the past six months or so, he has been spending half of his time traveling and preaching on the “Prophetic Justice Principles” tour. I wasn’t disappointed. I wish you could have been there as well.

Here are some of the high points. (consider these a mix of direct quote, what I managed to scribble down as he spoke, and what I was feeling as he spoke.)

The topic was “How do we challenge the culture of fear?”

Dr. Forbes described the moments after the disaster at the World Trade Center on 9/11. As he gathered with other religious leaders in the wreckage that was ground zero, he looked up and saw a traffic light hanging in the tangled debris. It occurred to him then, that the first task after the disaster, even in the midst of caring for the victims, was to fix the metaphorical traffic light of our country – that we were in need of help in determining what activities our country should stop, where the yellow lights of caution were appearing, and discerning when we should move ahead.

Instead, he suggested, we didn’t wait for the traffic light to be fixed, for some amount of discernment to take place, before we moved immediately to revenge.

Dr. Forbes expressed regret that the African American community didn’t move immediately to go to Washington to offer their counsel. “Wait,” they might have said. “We have some experience on how one deals with a population that has been the object of scorn. Be careful how you swagger in front of those who have nothing left. The kind of anger directed at us on September 11 seeks to be understood. We know that you can’t “John Wayne” these people,” Dr. Forbes said.

Since then, as a nation, we’ve been dealing with the long-term, psychological impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In many ways, we have been a people that wants to be deceived. We want to believe that someone other than God can make us safe.

“In the end,” Dr. Forbes suggested, “our biggest problem is that we don’t believe in our own God’s transcendence, in God’s ability or interest to do something with us. We are simply unsure that God has a compelling influence in our time.”

Dr. Forbes suggested that what the nation needs is another Great Awakening! Our theological task is to restore a sense of the reliability of God to provide for us. What is needed from religious leaders right now is “courage education.” By that he means that our religious leadership must be willing to speak out in a nation that has abandoned its mission and its fundamental principles and substituted the mission of pursuing terrorists in the world. Because we have done so, we have become a nation at risk.

But Dr. Forbes reminded us that the bible is full of story after story where the people of God or told, “fear not.” He went on to reflect on the story of Esther the Queen as a study in courage. He talked about Jesus of Nazareth as a model for courageous behavior for our time.

Dr. Forbes reminded us of the courage that it takes to live as Christians in this time when our country is at risk and is driven by fear.

May God be with us as we struggle to be a faithful people.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A primer on the the denomination - aaack! :)

Sisters and brothers,

I've been learning a lot about how the church works. If you're interested in organizational stuff - as I am - read on. If not, consider this a bureacracy alert and bug out now! If you're only a little interested, read on. I bet this is the shortest description of each of these organizations that you'll ever see.

There are six church entities that function relatively independently of one another:

They are:

General Assembly Council - carries out all the mission/program stuff of the church www.pcusa.org/gac

Office of the General Assembly - handles all of our church constitution stuff (The Book of Order and the Book of Confessions), puts on the general assembly, etc. www.pcusa.org/oga

The Presbyterian Foundation - manages all the financial assets of the church and provides a vehicle through which individuals, churches and organizations can give to support the future of the church www.presbyterianfoundation.org

The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation - does all the book publishing for the church (Westminster/John Knox Press and Geneva Press) www.ppcbooks.com

The Board of Pensions - handles all the benefits programs that the denomination offers it's workers (like healthcare, pension, insurances, etc.) www.pensions.org

Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program - like a bank to help the denomination make loans to fund building new churches www.pcusa.org/pilp

This week, I'm in the meeting of the General Assembly Council, which I get to serve on for the next four years. Their work is broken down into four areas:

the worldwide ministries division (mission and relationships with partner agencies - this is the part of the church I've volunteered and worked for since January, 1986) www.pcusa.org/wmd

The national ministries division (cool justice stuff like the Washington office, multicultural church work, Racial Ethnic ministries, the National Network of Presbyterian College Women, etc.) www.pcusa.org/nmd

Congregational Ministries Division (which is the youthministry and young adult programs, spiritual formation, and Peacemaking Programs and a lot more) www.pcusa.org/cmd

finally, there's another sub-committee of the General Assembly Committee called Mission Support Services - that covers all the administration of all this activity (somebody has to make sure the bills actually get paid and that people have a place to do their work.

Here's the last thing:

The General Assembly Committee (GAC) has done all kinds of work on defining what it is that we as a denomination are about. It's called the Mission Work Plan, and I think they did a good job. Here's how this committee of elected Presbyterians from across the country has defined what they think our mission is:

Evangelism and Witness

Justice and Compassion

Spirituality and Discipleship

Leadership and Vocation

What I like most about this description of our mission is that it's something I think we can all get behind: younger, older, racial/ethnic person, european american, evangelical or progressive. This is about as well-defined a message about our job as a denomination as we could ask for.

In the end, remember that this is all just a way of organizing ourselves nationally. the real work happens in congregations, mission sites around the world and around our country, presbyteries, synods, and in all the places that Presbyterians feel called to be at work in the world. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

O.k. - That's it for now. Let me know if you want to know more about this and you can't figure out where to find it. We've got great colleagues on the national staff, and somebody will be able to help you.

I'm learning every day. Hope you are too.

Praying for our church,


Wheres Rick webpage launched

Hi everybody,

If you're interested in my upcoming schedule, or in checking out some links to some of my favorite pcusa programs, check out the new webpage called "wheres Rick" on the PCUSA site.

You can find it at http://www.pcusa.org/wheresrick

Special thanks to Erin Keane, who's the designer at the center here in Louisville who brainstormed it and did a lot of the work - and also to the unsung heroes who helped but who I haven't met yet. Also, thanks to Diana Otts for doing all she can to make the PCUSA tech savvy.



interfaith listening project


I'm in Louisville this week for the General Assembly Council meeting. (I'll do another entry about that tonight or tomorrow if you're interested.) We spent quite a bit of time today with the Interfaith Listening Teams. If you don't know about this program, you should. I think it's one of the coolest things that we do, and it's a great partnership between the program staff here in Louisville and participating Presbyteries across the country. Check out their website at http://www.pcusa.org/listeningproject/

The basic idea is that this is a way to get to the heart of Peacemaking. Our staff here in Louisville seek out a Muslim and a Christian who are working in some kind of Interfaith project in their own countries and invite them to travel as a team to interested presbyteries here in the U.S. for the next two weeks. There are ten participating countries (I can't remember them all but they include the Philippines, Egypt, Lebanon, S. Africa, India Pakistan and Niger.) After two days of orientation and preparation here in Louisville, the teams will leave tomorrow morning to be hosted in people's homes, and in churches and presbyteries.

These are smart, faithful, folks who have a great sense of humor and who are doing great work in conflict resolution and peacemaking, working with people with aids, children, women suffering domestic violence. The list of their involvements is impressive and long.

This afternoon, as they discussed the odds against us as we try to be in meaningful, respectful dialogue between Christians and Muslims in a post 9/11 world, one man shared a great saying in Arabic that I want to share with you. He said (something like) this, "If it is the end of all time, the last moment, and you have a seedling - go ahead and plant it.

Find out if your Presbytery is hosting one of the teams, and if they are, don't miss the opportunity to meet this wonderful folks.
I hope this note finds you well, and doing meaningful work for and with our God.


Tuesday, September 21, 2004

From Prison in Colombia to Prison in the U.S.

This is a time for the kind of support that comes from being the community of Christ for one another.

This evening someone sent me a reflection written by a long-time friend of mine. His name is Don Beiswenger. He is a retired faculty member from Vanderbilt Theological Seminary who was widowed a little more than a year ago. Last fall, Don went to the Demonstration to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Colombus, GA. Don, like more than one hundred people before him, chose to defy the order not to enter the military base and he was arrested for his protest He is currently serving a six month sentence in a Federal Prison in Manchester, KY.

This is clearly an expression of his faith for him.

For those who don't know about it, the SOA (School of the Americas) is charged with training Latin American soldiers and officers in. Over the years as the protests have grown, the SOA has added classes on democracy and human rights to their curriculum, but the basis for the curriculum has always been courses in counter-insurgency - that is - how to control and pacify one's own people.

Many of the graduates of the SOA have been in the Colombian military. As I ponder my experiences in Colombia last week, I find Don's witness to be a powerful reminder of the connections between Mauricio, a human right's worker in a prison in Barranquilla - Don, a prisoner of conscience here in the U.S., and myself, a follower of Christ paying the taxes that undergird both those realities.

Here are Don's words:

A REFLECTION: August 23, 2004

CONFINEMENT AS GIFT Manchester, KY Federal Prison

I have been incarcerated over four months now. I await October 1 when I will be released and free to roam beyond the camp where I am now confined. I cannot leave the camp without serious consequences. They keep track of me with midnight counts, stand-up counts, give your number counts, etc. I am confined in every sense of the word. Confinement, separation, enclosure, withdrawal to a desert have all been disciplines in the life of faith. Confinement in prison adds another dimension.

Flannery OConnor had lupus, a debilitating disease that sapped her energy, confining her to the farm in Georgia. Her affliction and confinement was permanent. It would not change. She named it passive diminishment. From what I have to give out, she said, I observe more clearly. I can, with an eye squinted, take it all in as a blessing. Confinement led her to use her energy attending to life at the farm and to the people about her.

I have wondered about a lot about being more present to the time, the present time. What I pay attention to sharpens my life. If I pay attention to whats in the future, I may miss something right before me. What about this day? This time? Much of the energy of inmates is focused outside the camp either on their appeals, family matters, girlfriends. Mostly, the energy focuses on wanting to get out. Life is seen in the future. Often, this characterizes me also. For most, they also find ways to pass the time. Distractions become central.&! nbsp; Playing cards, playing at sports, lifting weights become life giving. Religious faith becomes central for some.

As I reflect upon the time here, I have paid attention to my relationships with inmates, and to finding space for others in my heart. I have paid attention to me, to dispositions, tiredness, confusion. I cherish the support and give thanks to my friends, colleagues, family, especially grateful now for the women in my life. I ponder those in the Living Room, those caring for Penuel Ridge, and those working for the people in Nashville. I continue my thoughts about the graduates of the School of the Americas and how they affect the children, women, men and communities in Latin America, and how the investigation into the SOA was rejected. I see how the atrocities by! the US military took shape in Iraq and how this investigation is avoided, rejected and ignored, and I praise the people of God who gather in praise and service in their love and hope. I consider the beauty of flowers, the sky, running water and eating peaches for breakfast.

Confinement has provided me with an unwanted isolation, but confinement has also brought me the deeper meanings that lay quietly within each of those areas already mentioned. I listen better, let events be my teacher.

And amidst all, I have found holy presence in my life, filling the space with life and sacredness. Such a gift! Van Gogh said, I think that everything comes from God. Even here in awareness this thought presents itself especially in the morning and at night when I retire .I realize that I am glad-grateful to be able to reflect theologically on the incredible life given to me, even here. There is a majesty in all of this.

Flannery OConnor says that she embraced life from the standpoints of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for. Such a wondrous way to see!

And Paul, a prisoner, wrote to the people of God in Philippi and said,I rejoice in the Lord greatly..I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him that strengthens me. In any case it was kind of you to share my distress. (Philippians 4:10-14 selected)

Thank you as well,

Don Beisswenger

Please join me in surrounding both Don Beisswenger and Mauricio Avilez in constant prayer.


Saturday, September 18, 2004

A Day in Colombia

Thursday, 5 p.m. – I’m in four-wheel drive truck with Herman, Moises, and three women from the communities (Judith, Sarai, and Leida). We’re driving south of Barranquilla to visit a community of the “displaced.” There are somewhere between 2 and 3 million folks like them in this country, people who have been forced off there land and out of their homes by the violence between the various armed actors – guerrilla, paramilitary, and military forces who often appear to be equally indiscriminate in the violence they carry out against the civilian population as they fight with one another.

The women and I are joking in the backseat of the truck as we drive through the rain toward “kilometer 7,” the piece of land that the city government has offered the desplazados. They’re teaching me Colombian slang, and joking with me about my Mexican/Gringo Spanish. As we get close to the community, the mud gets deep and the truck begins sliding around on the road. Eventually, we come to a stop on the edge of the community. Sitting in the truck, I listen to the rain pound the roof as the women describe how they came here, how the government moved them out to this piece of land, and how they built “temporary” houses out of tarps, plywood and cardboard more than two years ago.

As we drive on, our conversation takes on a strange character – shifting between the joking that I find so comfortable as a way of connecting with people in this culture, and the stories of the women themselves in the midst of the violence. Leida describes the family members lost to the violence, and weeps as she speaks of her father’s assassination by the paramilitary a little more than a month ago. A thirty-two year old mother of six, she herself has been targeted by the military – detained a few months ago for her work with a human rights organization that the displaced have formed to document the disappearances and to demand their basic rights. After three months, the government no longer identifies someone as a displaced person – kind of similar to the way we in the U.S. don’t count someone as unemployed if they’ve been looking for work more than six months. Here, the distinction is a matter of survival, because there are no government services for these folks who are on the extreme margins of the economy in this society.

The violence here doesn’t respect political opinion or affiliation.

Friday – 7:30 a.m. I’m in an ecumenical gathering of local church representatives at the Presbyterian Reformed University here in Barranquilla. The gathering is significant, because it includes Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal and Catholic participants who have been coming together regularly to discuss what it means to be church in the midst of the violence.

I’ve been asked to give a brief reflection, and I choose the text from the 2nd Chapter of Acts in which Peter preaches his sermon immediately following the Pentecost, and three thousand step forward to be baptized. What happened in the midst of the Pentecost that gave Peter the courage to step forward and preach openly about this new thing that was happening? What happened that moved the moment from 120 people hiding in a room to preaching openly in the streets and shifting to a movement of thousands? Pentecost happened – the movement of the spirit that offered the radical Good News of Jesus in a way that united people across all kinds of religious, cultural and even national boundaries? What are the lessons that we can learn today as work across those same boundaries to respond to the crisis here in Colombia and around the world?

In this context, it is an act of courage even to gather as Christians to discuss such things.

Friday – 11:00 a.m. Milton Mejia and I are meeting with the Commander of the Second Military Brigade and two of his top advisors. They assure us that their role is simply to carry out the wishes of the attorney general’s office by picking up potential “rebels and terrorists,” words that I’ve noticed this week are often linked to human rights workers like my young friend Mauricio who I visited in jail yesterday.

The justice system works, they assure us. If Mauricio is innocent, it will be discovered and he’ll be released. They may be right, but he’s been detained and jailed for three months on the word of an ex-guerrilla who has come forward and is quite likely to be working as a paid informant of the government in their “re-insertion project” in which guerrilla are offered the chance to re-integrate in society. All fine and good, we suggest to the commanders, but the bottom line is that a young man with a six-year history of working to secure the legal rights of the displaced has been jailed on nothing more than the word of an ex-guerrilla. Whether he is found guilty in the end or not, his detention will be enough to mark him as a subversive in the eyes of the paramilitary “self defense forces.”

In this country, that’s a death sentence.

Friday, 2:30 p.m. Now we’re meeting with the woman who is the regional head of the government prosecutor’s office. This is the office that is charged with determining whether there is enough evidence to go ahead and charge someone like Mauricio, and then prosecuting the case as it unfolds. She is sympathetic as we tell the story and shares our concern both for Mauricio and for the church in this climate where anyone working on behalf of the poor is suspect. I try to explain one more time – as I have in every official visit for the last four days, that the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. is gravely concerned with how the members of our sister church in Colombia will be protected as they try to do the work of ministering to the poorest of the poor – the displaced who have suffered so much of the violence here.

She’s been polite, and even helpful in explaining the process and what we can expect to happen. Then, Milton receives a phone call on his cell phone. I watch as his face turns ashen. “It can’t be,” he says. “No, no, no.” He looks at us and tells us that a friend and colleague in the work with the displaced has just been assassinated in broad daylight a few blocks from where we’re sitting. As he hangs up, he stares at the ceiling. “NO, NO, NO, it just can’t be,” he says. Slowly, I watch his face break apart and he begins to sob – tears rolling down his cheeks. The regional director moves immediately to her phone to confirm the news – she also is badly shaken.

Alredo Correa de Andreis was a sociologist professor in his mid-forties. He’s been known and loved in this community for his work on preserving the city’s heritage by helping to organize cultural events. Two months ago, he was accused of guerilla activity – and jailed in the same room as Mauricio for a little over a month. Last month, he was released on his own recognizance as his case was investigated. He might as well have been convicted, and he might have been safer in jail.

As we had argued a few hours earlier with the Brigade Commander, in the eyes of the paramilitary, he was guilty as charged and the sentence was death.

Friday – 6 p.m. I’m doing a pastoral visit with Mauricio’s mother, sister and brother in their home – a small, second floor apartment in a poor neighborhood in Barranquilla. Mauricio’s mother can’t stop crying, and the talk revolves around Alfredo, as it does on talk radio, the television, and everywhere else in the city. The family is worried sick, and they have good reason to be. The cases are extremely similar and the implications for Mauricio – twenty-four years old and in his last year in law school, are serious and frightening.

The phone rings and his brother answers. It’s Mauricio, calling from a pay phone in the prison. “That’s the third-time today he’s called,” says his sister. “He never calls more than once unless he’s depressed or worried.” When I visited him yesterday, one of the things he made clear was that he’s no safer in jail than he is out. The arm of the paramilitaries is long.

What does it mean to speak of safety in this environment?

Friday – 7:30 p.m. I’m at a Presbyterian Church for a special worship service in which I’ve been invited to preach. Although it’s raining again, every seat in the sanctuary is filled with more than two-hundred Presbyterians in attendance from across the Presbytery. As I listen to the teenagers from the choir at the Presbyterian run Colegio sing, I realize how much I’ve needed to be in worship.

Then, two teenagers carry out a short skit in which the young woman is symbolically beaten down as others came forward and tape signs to her cloak reading: death, violence, humiliation, intolerance, hunger and misery. Slowly, she falls to the floor.

Then, another teenager enters with his face painted. He yells, “where’s Jesus”, and then begins looking for the woman. When he finds her, silently, he removes the placards one by one, and the woman – the Christ – stands. They hug in silence, and then walk to the back of the sanctuary hand-in-hand.

The text comes from John 10 – the same one that grounded our work as a General Assembly this year. “I have come that you might have life in Fullness.” Matched with that text are the words of Jeremiah in Chapter 20: “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “violence and destruction!” for the word of the Lord has become a reproach and derision all day long.”

In my sermon, I tell our brothers and sisters that we in the U.S. are a church that cares, and that we will do our best to accompany them through this dark time of violence in which they are at risk for the simple act of acting like church. As I make the commitment, I pray that we as a church in the U.S. will find the courage to stand with these people.

As the service comes to an end, we open for prayers of intercession. One person after another asks God to intercede for justice, for an end to the impunity for government officials and paramilitaries, and for a future of hope for the people of Colombia.

As we finish with clapping and singing and joy, I’m struck one more time, as I’ve been struck so often in my life and during this week, with the relationship between joy and sorrow – fear and hope.

It’s been a long day.

Grace and Peace to each of you.


Friday, September 17, 2004

check-in from Colombia


This is a very quick note from Colombia, South America. I've spent the last three days here working with leaders in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia in their efforts to secure the release of a young man named Mauricio, who has been doing human rights protection work with the church here for the last six or seven years. The human rights office where he worked, with a special emphasis on supporting Colombians who have been displaced by the war, is located on the property of the seminary and the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church here in Barranquilla (a city on the Atlantic coast way in the north).

Mauricio was picked up by one of the military brigades here three months ago. He's been in jail ever since, accused of ¨terrorist and rebellious activities.¨ He is a young Catholic (24 years old) who was finishing his last year in Law School. He was picked up without an arrest warrant (one was created after the fact) and he is accused of being involved in activities that took place on day when he was with church leaders for a seminar on human rights work.

I was ushered into a small room with two beds in the outer hallway of the prison. Mauricio's family is paying for him to share that room with someone (actually, at first he was sharing it with five people) instead of being with the general population in a cell. His mother, Elly, wept as she held my hand through the visit. He's a sweet guy who wears a cross and has a ready smile - and looks about seventeen years old.

To learn more about his story, go to the pcusa website and check out the stories about him in the Presbyterian News Service by Alexa Smith.

The purpose of my visit here is to begin a program of accompaniment with the Presbyterian Church, with a special focus on protecting them in their work defending human rights. In this climate of fear and suspicion, where armed actors are everywhere (including guerrila, paramilitary and military forces, working to defend the rights of the poor is often considered an act of rebellion. It takes great courage for the church here to be church, where several church leaders and many of their colleagues have been targeted by the government and the paramilitary, and the guerrilla. There doesn't appear to be a lot of logic in who is targeted or by whom.

This week, we've been visiting high government officials in Bogota and local officials here in Barranquilla to let them know that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is paying a lot of attention to what is happening to our sister church and her leaders here in Colombia. Over the next few weeks, I'll be working with our staff in the Worldwide Ministries Division to design a response for long-term accompaniment with our sister church. Stay-tuned for more information.

Yesterday morning, I had a meeting with about a eighteen people who have been targeted, or whose organizations have been targeted, for their human rights work here in Barranquilla. Their stories are compelling. As we opened the meeting, Milton Mejia (the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church here in Colombia) read from 2 Corinthians 6, finishing with theses words: We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see - we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

I´ll never read that text the same way again.



Friday, September 10, 2004

On life on the border


Lots of people have been asking about our work here on the U.S./Mexico border. There's nothing I love to talk about more, but I thought you might appreciate a reflection written by a friend of mine named Tim Doherty - from Albany.

Tim came down just before Christmas to volunteer with BorderLinks for a couple of weeks, and he ended up staying through the end of July. This is a letter he wrote to friends and family to give them a sense of what he found so compelling here.

If you're interested in more info., check out www.borderlinks.org and www.nomoredeaths.org.

So here's Tim's letter:

What I Did While I Was Away
Tim Doherty

For the past year I have been working and living in a part of the US where people are seriously questioning many things people in other parts of the country take for granted. These experiences took place in the border region between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico where the notion of “border” itself is a daily, multi-faceted and deep concern. I have no fear of exaggeration when I talk about the problems that exist here. Likewise, I have no fear of irrelevance. The US/Mexican border, especially in the Tucson area, contains all the same cultural, economic and social issues and conflicts at work across the globe. The difference is that here they are most obvious and stark and it is here that the organization known as “BorderLinks” does its work.

I first heard about BL 10 years ago but didn’t get directly involved with them until 5 years ago when I joined two of their delegation groups as a volunteer and participant. In brief, what BL does is educate northerners about how their ways of life affect those of others. Emphasis is placed on the effects that economic policies, e.g., NAFTA, have on life in the border region.

The BL delegations are, on average, groups of a dozen people, usually from a college or church in the US. They arrive in Tucson, are introduced to staff and their itinerary, and soon set off to Nogales, Mexico. In Nogales they visit the Casa Misericordia Community Center, in Colonia Bellavista, where the Mexican BL staff and programs are based. It is here that the real learning of a trip begins. It is here that the northerners have their first concrete contact with Mexican folks, their plight and, hopefully, some of their own attitudes and perceptions. It becomes clear that policies, like NAFTA, are as much an expression of certain biases as they are a cause of them.

My work with BL this past year too began at the Casa Mis. I arrived a few days before Christmas in time for the annual party and local celebrations. After this I had about three weeks to myself to read, write and draw since during the holidays many people return to their hometowns in the south. In the middle of January I began helping with various projects at the Casa, the new ecological toilets particularly. The last two weeks of the month were dedicated to improving my Spanish in a BL language program which included home-stays with a local family and was organized along the lines of delegation trips.

After completing the language “camp”, and for the next three months, I helped to get the garbage to the landfill, maintain the organization’s vehicles and water filtration system, construct a daycare center, improve security of the property, develop a community ecological awareness program, repair basketball hoops, organize painting projects with volunteer groups, bring supplies and donations from across the border and whatever I could to assist the overall running of the facilities and programs at the Casa. I lived and worked at the Casa, so it was very easy to find ways to be useful and involved. The more I did and understood, the more I realized needed to be done and understood. But this is the story of border itself.

During this time I had also been working with a coalition of groups, churches and people concerned with deaths in the desert of migrants trying to relieve the poverty of Mexico by working in the US. This coalition calls itself “No More Deaths” and meets Thursdays at the Southside Presbyterian church in Tucson. Our most pressing concern was with addressing the coming hot weather months, when most of the deaths occur. But the whole migration picture was addressed, from supplying migrant centers in Mexico to proposing new legislative economic, migration and border patrol policies to Congress. All of which fit perfectly with what I was learning and doing with BL at the Casa.

At the end of May, with the understanding of everyone at BL, I shifted my attention to the activities of NMDs beginning with a 75 mile walk from Sasabe, Mexico to Tucson in the first week of June, part of a series of kick-off events for the NMDs summer that occurred in several locations along the US/Mex border in AZ. For the rest of the summer my main job was to help locate migrant centers in Mexico in towns along the border and to transport donations of food, clothes and whatever else they needed. However I also became involved with the activities at the “desert camps” which were established in several places in the AZ deserts to give humanitarian and medical assistance to distressed migrants. Needless to say, the US Border Patrol was not warm to this activity, although it was not illegal, and it was at this point that I became truly aware of what it means to stand up for other people.

Still, I was by no means uninvolved with BL during this time. Since my Spanish had improved sufficiently and I had by this point a fair understanding of the situation, I was able to assist with leading delegations. I also continued to help maintain the vehicles and made a lot of people happy by keeping the swamp coolers running at the office. Then there was the relocation of the BL operation in Tucson, to a recently purchased building on the south side of town, with which I was able to participate and which continues to this day. This has required a tremendous amount of thought, organization and heavy lifting but will bring many benefits to the BL’s work and mission.

There are countless other aspects of my experiences over the past year that I have not mentioned but have great significance. Among them, BL founder and International Director Rick Ufford-Chase’s campaign and election as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church was and is an ongoing, serious and exciting factor. BL’s Semester on the Border program also has an important and hopeful place in the organization’s future as do the developments of educational and community programs at the Casa Mis. On a more personal note, the “Christian Peacemakers Teams”, who were part of the NMD coalition and who have projects in several places around the world, including one in Colombia, have given me an even greater understanding of how the factors and dynamics at work on the US/Mexico border are part and parcel of problems everywhere and, moreover, that something can be done about them. This has also given me an idea for work and travel in the future.

I returned to Albany a week ago after driving a scenic route along the west coast and northern US border. On this trip I visited places and met people in parts of the country I had never seen before, logging about 6000 miles on my poor truck. Since I even dipped into Canada for a few hundred miles, to avoid the traffic of the Chicago area, this last leg of my travels has made my past year a true North American experience. As you can imagine though, I had a heck of a time selectively explaining to Customs on the Canadian border what I had been doing the past year, in response to their questions. Now I’m back. Not to where I started exactly since the world looks a bit different to me now. For one thing, I’ve come to realize more fully that I am, indeed all of us are, in no small way, migrant-workers. All of us are on journeys, individually and as a community. We’re all struggling to find happiness and meaning in our lives. What’s different is that, now, after this past year, I’m much more able to acknowledge who and what it is for which I am working and to relinquish privileges that keep others from doing likewise. These have been hard but wise lessons about faith and love, God and humanity and I have my friends at BorderLinks to thank for it.

So let us know if you want to get your church involved in border work. A BorderLinks trip really is designed to help folks see their own communities in new ways.

In Peace,


On writing blogs

It occurs to me that my tastes, and my reflections, are somewhat eclectic. Further, I'm already realizing that publishing a blog can be somewhat dangerous, because I write off the top of my head or share something that strikes me as meaningful, and it's published almost before I blink.

Just so I'm clear - this is what I intend with these reflections.

I'm hoping that I can share stories about my travels and the people I meet for those of you who are interested.

I do not see this as the place to try to nail down the "official position of the PCUSA". For that, I recommend the website at www.pcusa.org.

I do hope to ruminate on issues that captivate me or that trouble me. In that capacity, I'll try to be clear that these are simply my own positions and that I invite genuine, respectful reflection and dialogue from others. If you agree and have a story to tell, I'd invite your response. If you disagree and have a story to tell, that would be fine, too.

I have chosen to ask Heather, my friend and admin. assistant for the next two years, to preview your comments to the Yahoo group before they are posted. I would ask you to strive, as I do, to be positive and open to new ideas. I've asked Heather not to post anything that uses inappropriate language, that makes personal attacks against me or anyone else, or that stresses the negative over the positive. It's a fine line, but I do believe that its possible to disagree with one another in positive ways.

When i come across something like the letter from Jonathan Scanlon that impresses me, I'll ask for permission before sharing it. There too, I invite readers to see it as a way to open ourselves up to new ideas.

Anyway, so far it feels good. About forty people have already signed up for the Yahoo group "your turn to talk", and it's only been a couple of days.

Dave Hackett, one of the Associate Directors of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, is responsible for making all this happen, and we'll continue to turn to him for ideas about how to improve our conversation as we go along.


In honor of a Presbyterian Superwoman

At the General Assembly, I developed a joking relationship with the commissioners that seemed to revolve around my incessant use of the word "incredible" (they were right), and my constant stress on reaching out to young people.

As we went along, I was rightfully reminded by commissioners of the importance of the elders in our church as well, and I went out of my way to express my appreciation for elders in the faith who have mentored me over the years.

One of the people I certainly could have mentioned was Betty Mae Seel. Betty Mae and her husband Bob, both now in their mid-seventies, have lived the kind of life I aspire to.

Last week, Betty Mae preached (as she did many Sundays in our Presbytery), and kicked off a new Bible study in the church where she was Parish associate. A day later, she received test results from her doctor that made it clear she had very little time to live, and - unbelievably - she died last Friday night. I just came from her funeral.

Betty Mae went to seminary in the fifties, pastored in several churches in Colorado, and then married Bob. Together, they made a commitment to become missionaries in Venezuela, and then spent years developing a leadership development program for the church there. When they left, it was because they new they had to get out of the way of the generation of leaders they had discipled.

Returning to the U.S. about 1978, Betty Mae returned to seminary to do the hard work of studying greek and hebrew in order to pass her ordination exams and become a minister of the word and sacrement, a goal she achieved in December of 1982 after a great deal of hard work. There is a generation of women who are now retired or who have died who have covered pretty much every leadership position we've got to offer in this denomination, and Betty Mae was one of them. After Bob became the Presbytery Exec. in de Cristo Presbytery in the early eightees, Betty Mae dedicated her life to ministry. She has provided critical leadership in a number of our smaller churches over the years, has been the primary support system for the camp we share with Grand Canyon Presbytery (Montlure), was pivotal in her support for the Presbyterian Border Ministries in Arizona, and she has worked tirelessly, right up until the moment she died, to mentor those who are preparing for ministry through her efforts with the Committee on Ministry. Since retirement, she has continued to serve as a parish associate.

You know what I liked most about Betty Mae? She was as plainspoken as anyone I know. She was fearless in her commitment to fairness and to justice in our Presbytery. She knew her own mind, trusted God as she worked out her sense of call, and spoke boldly even when she knew a position she was taking might be unpopular.

Sounds like somebody I've been trying to emulate, que no?

Just for the record, I have more mentors - people who truly have guided me through their own example, than I can easily count. I'll miss Betty Mae, but who she has been in my life, and in the life of so many others, will live on.


Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Reflections from someone who is living his faith

One of the highlights of my summer was the opportunity to attend the Presbyterian Peace and Justice Conference in Tacoma in early August. There, as in each conference I visited this summer, I asked for a late-night bull-session with any interested young adults. We had a particularly rich conversation that night - about living our faith and struggling to be the kind of faith community God calls us to be.

One of the people I met that night was Jonathan Scanlon. He is a third-year student at Princeton Seminary, and I was struck by his thoughtful questions and comments.

I want to share a letter (with his permission) that I just received from Jonathan in the past week. It strikes me as just of the kind of seeking we ought to be striving for as "first-world Christians."

August 24, 2004

Dear Friends,

I recently returned from the 2004 Presbyterian Peace and Justice Conference in Tacoma, Washington. I was selected this year to be one of nine Theological Student Workers. I helped set up and run the conference with the other seminarians, three of which were from Columbia, two from McCormick, two from San Francisco, and one from Louisville. I made many new friends within our own denomination from across the country, and left the conference energized and ready to go out into the world bringing a message of peace. The conference was not only the highlight of my summer, but one of the most meaningful experiences I have had in seminary.

There were three speakers and many Action Group seminars discussing a wide variety of topics involving ecology and peacemaking. This year four PC (USA) organizations came together for the conference: The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Joining Hands Against Hunger, the Presbyterian Environmental Justice Program, and the Presbyterian Self Development of People. The speakers focused on issues relating to current trends in economic globalization and the negative effects it has on people and the environment. Dr. Flora Wilson-Bridges, who is a professor of systematic theology at Seattle University and pastor of Madrona Presbyterian Church, said that to combat global poverty, environmental degradation, and warfare, we as a society need to develop a common understanding of suffering. As Christians we are called to pick up the cross and that action involves suffering. Dr. Wilson-Bridges sees Christian suffering as transcending fear, unifying the world through the Holy Spirit by no longer compartmentalizing the secular from the sacred, bringing the community together, and seeking justice as reparation to give back what has been taken from others.

One issue I have been dealing with since my first meeting with my committee on preparation for ministry is how we as leaders of the church are to guide those who disagree with us. Many on my committee did not agree with my protest of the United States attacking Iraq. Throughout the conference I continued to ask every speaker his or her thoughts on this question. The overwhelming response I got was that we are to build relationships with others first before pressing our opinions on others. The next important idea to keep in mind is that, for whatever reason, those who disagree with us have come to their opinion out of faithful devotion to God and to reading the scripture. As long as we continue to acknowledge that fact, we will treat others with respect and plant the seeds of persuasion on the most important issues of Christian discipleship.

The third speaker for the week was Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly. He was already scheduled to speak at the conference before being elected moderator in June. The night before he spoke, Moderator Ufford-Chase met at ten o’clock with the young adults attending the conference. He asked the twenty or so of us to go around introducing ourselves. When he heard I was a student at Princeton, he became very interested and spent most of the rest of the night talking to me directly. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Mr. Ufford-Chase lived in Princeton when he was young while his father attended seminary. After finishing college in Colorado, Rick came to the seminary but left shortly after when he decided he was not called toward ordination. I found out he lived in the same dorm room I had my first year of seminary.

We were up until 1 a.m. discussing where the church stands on important issues and where we as Christians are called to guide others. The Moderator sees the church in a trough, where it has been for the past fifty years, building up its institution to become the organization it is today. He also believes our society is coming up upon the next wave of social movement and it is now time for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to decide whether it will take part in the social movement or sit it out. His slogan “it’s time for us to get in the boat with Jesus” is very catchy and pointed. He believes the institution of the church may only lead us so far as Christians and that we must be willing, at any moment, to abandon the structure of the denomination if it interferes with our discipleship of following God by living lives in accordance to the teachings of Christ and revelation of the scripture.

The moderator gave me some suggestions on where to take the youth group of the Community Presbyterian Church in Mountainside next year on a mission trip. Their high school youth have never attended a week long service event together and I hope to find the time to pull one off for them to experience a little of what I did in high school. Mr. Ufford-Chase plans on reaching out to youth over the next two years and encouraging them in their search for God. He has a plan to double the amount of young adult volunteers in mission while in office. I could see he truly believes that out of all the protestant denominations in the United States, the PC (USA) has the strongest and most linked and supported mission program. Our denomination has the most potential to spread the message of the gospel and work for peace and justice across the globe, but we must choose to support the effort, not only with money, but also with our time, and with our members. After returning from the conference, I have developed three steps I wish to institute in my life as a part of my personal commitment toward peacemaking and Christian discipleship. I hope you all will help me in this process.

My first step in my personal commitment to peacemaking is to officially declare myself a conscientious objector to participation in war of any kind and military service. I have thought long and hard about this decision and know that I could never take another person’s life. I have arrived to this calling with the full support of my family, including my father who was drafted and chose to serve the United States in Vietnam, though he too opposed war. I have already begun to go through with this public and official process, not out of personal concern of military service, but for the benefit of other Christian men and women who, sharing my sentiment of higher calling, desire to attain conscientious objector status and come to my counsel for assistance.

Next, I hope to encourage dialogue about peacemaking within the church. The Peacemaking Program of the Presbyterian Church, (which may be found on the web at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/), has plenty of available resources to facilitate dialogue. It is not enough for our General Assembly to pass position statements on literal life and death events in the world. Those statements need to become available for members of the congregation with their elected elders to discuss and act upon. The Peacemaking program has an official Commitment to Peacemaking which, “helps Presbyterians engage individually and collectively in peacemaking ministries by making a public commitment. Sessions, presbyteries, synods, Presbyterian Women's groups, colleges, seminaries, and other groups make a public commitment to include seeking peace and justice as part of their discipleship and mission. The Commitment suggests eight ways to engage in peacemaking.” I am going to encourage every congregation I am affiliated with to make this official and public pledge to working for peace.

Finally, I hope to continue to re-evaluate my life and how I am working for peace and social justice. I want to examine in what ways I am progressing in my service of the poor and oppressed and in what parts of my life am I holding myself back from stepping up to the challenge. We all are scared of leaving our comfortable lives. I have lived a very sheltered life in an affluent community of people very similar to myself. But Jesus Christ calls us out of our comfort level. The Christian life is a life that follows Jesus’ own suffering He endured. During my discussion with the Moderator, I asked him what are ordained ministers to do when they are afraid to preach what they believe because they are afraid of losing their job and not being able to provide for their families. He looked at me seriously and said if you are afraid of upsetting others, than you need to reconsider your call to the ministry. The church is not a corporation for upward mobility and promotion. I have always felt a strong allegiance to the Presbyterian Church. I believe the structure of the denomination provides the least likely opportunity for corruption. I respect the Reformed Tradition in both theology and practice. Though our denominational institution has served well so far, we must not forget our church is always reforming. REFORMATA ET SEMPER REFORMANDA. We must stand ready to sacrifice the institution for the sake of Christ. I hope you all will hold me accountable in this decision and endeavor. May God bless people of every nation.

Jonathan Scanlon

Thanks for letting me put it up on the blog, Jonathan.

blessings on each of you.


Monday, September 06, 2004

Headed for Colombia, South America

You may know that the Presbyterian Church in Colombia has asked for "accompaniment" from members of the PC(USA). I was with Milton Mejia, the General Secretary of that denomination (there are two Presbyterian denominations in Colombia, and the PC(USA) partners with both of them) at the end of August in Chicago, and he described their concerns.

Because their church has expressed concern about the human rights violations that are rampant in Colombia (on the part of the guerilla groups, paramilitaries who operate with a nod from the government, and the government military as well), church leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the possibility that they may be targetted by the government and even imprisoned for their work. They have asked Presbyterians in the U.S. to spend time with them in Colombia in order to create a higher profile for their pastors and members who may be at risk. Further, they want our help in getting their story out to our churches across the United States.

I believe that this is exactly the kind of work that we are called to as Christians in an increasingly dangerous and violent world. I'll be spending a week in Colombia during September, so stay tuned for more as I learn more myself.

With prayers for Christ's peace,


What happens when a hurricane takes your church?

On Thursday the 2nd, I visited with the Pastor Steve Mock and several of his parishioners at First Presbyterian Church in Punta Gorda. This church lost it's entire sanctuary and much of it's offices and classrooms as well. Steve was gracious as he led me on a tour of what used to be the church's worship space.

Here are a few thoughts of my own on the experience:

  • Steve reflected on the challenge of trying to think of what to do in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Five or six members of the congregation gathered in the ruins of their church on Sunday morning, the day after the storm went through. Actually, that's not true. They gathered in front of the building, but as Steve reflected as they worshipped under a tent in the parking lot the following week, it's the people who are the church - not the building.
  • The Peace River Presbytery immediately went into action even before the storm hit. They formed a committee to act as the local hands and feet of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and within a couple of days after the Hurricane they had organized Stephen's Ministers, Elders and Deacons to do a house to house canvass of more than eight hundred members of the four Presbyterian Churches most impacted by the Hurricane. Members lost their homes, their belongings, and for many - their confidence was badly shaken. The Presbytery was praised across the board for their fast action and pastoral support.
  • Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has commited $40,000 to the Presbytery and $10,000 to each of the churches most affected. This matters, because it's one more example of the way that our connectional church and our commitment to unified giving makes a real difference in people's lives.
  • Finally, I was struck in each of the churches I visited by their commitment to turn this very real disaster into an opportunity. The church in Port Charlotte has completely revamped their early childhood center into a support system for those in their community who have the greatest need. Their own space was uninhabitable after the storm, but even as they crowded into temporary quarters in the church's fellowship hall, they were redesigning their program for the coming year to include older children in before and after school care and they were reaching out to the neighborhoods around them. Chapel by the Sea, Burnt Store Presbyterian Church, First Churches in Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and Aracadia were all looking for the ways in which God is opening doors for them even in the midst of such tragedy.

Kinda makes me proud to be Presbyterian.


Welcome to U-C: What I See


Many of you have expressed interest in hearing from me about my travels over the coming two years as I travel as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I confess that I knew nothing about blogging, but I have been helped immensely by Dave Hackett, who works for the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, and who is far more savvy than I about such things.

So, I will try to post new thoughts and reflections every couple of days as I travel, and more often as the mood strikes me. There is a way that others can comment on the items I post. All I ask is that you do so in a way that is affirming and uplifting, and that you commit to use language that others will not find offensive.

Another friend is working on a "Forum" site where it will be easier for folks who are intrigued by ideas that come up as I travel can converse and brainstorm with one another. We hope to have that site up and running within a couple of weeks as well.

Finally, the PC(USA) website is also working on a section of their site called "Where's Rick" to help you keep up with my itinerary.

Let me know what you think. You can always write to me at rickpcusa@borderlinks.org.

Blessings on you.


A Hurricane Charley Reflection

Last week I spent three days visiting with churches that were most affected by Hurricane Charley on the west coast of Florida. It was particularly compelling to be there as Hurricane Frances was gathering force in the Carribean. As one pastor put it, whether or not the gale force wind and rain arrives, in most people's mind of the trauma of another hurricane on the heals of Charley has already taken it's toll.

A quick story.

In Arcadia, located about an hour northeast of Ft. Myers, I visited with the members of First Presbyterian Church. Like most of the town, the church experienced significant damage. On the morning after the hurricane, one of the members of the church, a young woman named Sandy called the church office to ask what she could do to help other victims. By late morning, she had "borrowed" the keys to the church bus and loaded it with water, food, and diapers that the church was already stockpiling for the neediest in town.

Sandy picked up her sister Tina and, together with Tina's eight month old daughter Michaela, they headed for the Mexican neighborhood across town where most of the residents pay $500 a month for homes that probably ought to be condemned and find employment in the fields and orchards in the surrounding area. Neither of the sisters speak Spanish, but all day long, as Michaela sat in her carseat on the bus, they stopped in front of homes where dispirited residents were beginning to pick through the rubble, and they jumped off the bus with a gallon of water in each hand and the word "Agua?" by way of greeting.

Over the last couple of weeks, many parishioners have joined them, and the parish hall of the church has become a central location for collecting supplies for the victims.

This seems to me to be what church is all about. Please join me in keeping the people of Florida in your prayers - especially the folks who were hit hard by Charley and then have had to contend with eight to twelve inches of rain from Frances.