U-C: What I See

Monday, October 17, 2005

On Disaster Fatigue and our friends to the south


I imagine that you, like I, are feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the natural disasters of the last few months. Katrina, Rita, Stan, earthquakes in Peru and Pakistan: the need appears to be never-ending.

This reflection was written by my good friend and mission co-worker colleague, Mark Adams, who has just returned from leading a delegation to Chiapas, Mexico during Hurricane Stan. Thousands have lost their lives in Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and hundreds of thousands have lost their homes. Here also, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is responding.

Mark has been working for many years as the Co-Director of Frontera de Cristo, a wonderful ministry that is part of the Binational Border Ministry project of the Mexican and US churches. You can check out those programs at http://www.binationalministry.org/. Also, please go to www.justcoffee.org to learn how to support this marvelous project as well.

Thanks to Mark for his powerful reflections.


From September 30-October 10, 2005, Rosendo Sichler and I facilitated the Frontera de Cristo annual Border to Border Delegation: Coffee, Migration and Faith. After spending the weekend in the desert on the northern border, where lack of water combined with an economic crisis in the south and a broken immigration policy has led to the deaths of thousands of persons migrating to the US, we arrived in Tapachula, Chiapas, about an hour before Hurricane Stan. We and our hosts in the Just Coffee community of Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, near Tapachula, lived through more than 96 hours of non-stop rain.

The resulting floods and mudslides led to tens of thousands of families in Chiapas losing their homes and hundreds losing their lives. In Tapachula, whole communities and an estimated 8,000 homes have been completely destroyed. And most of the folk in Mexico felt as if the government estimates were too low.

As you look out over the Obrera community that is beside the river Cuatan, now that the river has gone down, you see that about a quarter of the community closest to the main part of Tapachula is still standing, while three-quarters is literally in rubble. The homes that remain standing are filled with mud almost to the ceiling.

A major problem was that all of the bridges in and out of Tapachula were washed out and no air traffic could get into the Tapachula airport because of the weather--Tapachula became an island. Salvador Urbina, is about 45 minutes up the mountain from Tapachula by car and did not experience flooding. However, the community was cut off from all other towns because of mudslides, one home in Urbina was washed away, and several families in Urbina have family members whose homes were washed away in Tapachula.

La Boquilla, a community above Salvador Urbina, had 20 homes washed away. The Just Coffee Cooperative is already providing assistance to them. I am afraid that Guatemala and El Salvador have been hit even worse than Chiapas.

On Thursday, I had to walk into Tapachula from Salvador Urbina to change our group’s airline tickets. I actually got a ride from some Jehovah’s Witnesses for part of the way after helping them extract their four-wheel drive vehicle from knee-deep mud. While in Tapachula, I was wandering literally lost after having been in the mud and rain for five hours. Several folks went out of their way to let me know where I could find shelter, food and dry, clean clothes.

I ended up near a shelter and a 10-year-old little boy named Manuel came up and asked me if I was from the United States. I asked him if he thought I was from the United States and he responded “yes.” I asked him, “why?” and he said: “Primero, Ud, es altotote y nosotros chaparitos. (You are really tall and we are short.)” “Segundo, Ud. es guero y nosotros morenos. (You are white and we are dark).”

We ended up talking for a long time and he told me that his house was (past tense) pink. He pointed toward the river and said that that was where he had lived and now he and his family were all in the shelter. He introduced me to his whole family and we talked for a good while. He asked me who my favorite soccer team was and I let him know that of course the Jaguares, the Chiapanecan team. As I was about to leave, he told me to wait and he went to the room in the shelter where his family was staying with about 20 others. He brought back an orange Jaguares jersey, just his size. I looked at it and smiled and handed it back. “No,” the little boy, whose house had disappeared along with almost all of his material belongings, said, “I want you to have it.”

To get back from Tapachula on Thursday I had to walk over three huge mudslides in the dark and driving rain-- led by two folks who were drunk, but insisted on not letting me go alone-- strange to encounter drunk angels of God. After maybe 7 to 10 miles of walking some folks from the Salvador Urbina community were able to pick me up in a car. They actually had to walk several miles to meet me after a mudslide cut their path off coming down the mountain.

The community of Salvador Urbina took care of all our physical needs while we were there. It reminds me of the Scripture where Jesus told the disciples not to take a lot with them into the villages and rely on the community’s hospitality. Needless to say, this was a difficult thing for our group of North Americans who are used to paying for their hospitality. So often, we US Christians do not think we can be in mission unless we take something material to share with those we are going to be with or unless we build something; and yet, in the Scripture Jesus and the disciples modeled a different kind of mission.

It was amazing to see how we were taken care of by families who had families in the flood areas and had no way of hearing from them, some knowing that their families had lost all their material belongings, including their houses, that were washed away into the Pacific.

The other amazing piece was to hear how our presence was a calming presence for the members of the community that gave them strength and hope in the midst of the despair. We were able to hold prayer services in homes that were housing folks who had lost their homes, and make pastoral visits to a family whose loved one was washed away in the current and to families separated from their loved ones in the affected areas without communication with them.

It is bitter-sweet to be back here on the border after such a profound spiritual/physical/emotional experience in Chiapas at the time of the flooding and destruction. To experience such generosity, joy and hope in the midst of such deep suffering is truly one of the mysterious Christian paradoxes.

To feel impotent in the face of such tragedy and yet to discover the importance and power of presence. . . In the midst of feeling powerless, I discovered the power of incarnational ministry.

It was a truly transformative experience.

peace, mark

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Responding to torture, a different way of being church

Sisters and Brothers,

There is now clear and compelling evidence that the U.S. government has routinely turned to torture as an appropriate tool in the “War on Terror.” As I have traveled this year, I have asked Presbyterians to think carefully about the growing level of violence (torture, militarized borders, security checkpoints, and the War against Iraq) that our government has employed on our behalf in its earnest quest for security in a time of violence. I have insisted, and continue to insist, that this is a deeply theological challenge. As Christians, we know that genuine security is found only in Jesus Christ, whom we discover as we read and re-read scripture while we seek to live Christ’s example in the world around us.

Each week, sometimes every day, Presbyterians pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The question is, do we believe that we are tasked with creating that beloved community – the authentic reign of God that God so desires for us – here on earth, or do we just mouth the words?

Last week, Ed Brogan, the Director of the Association of Presbyterian Military Chaplains, and I issued a joint invitation to all Presbyterians to study, pray and act to respond to our government’s growing dependence on torture in the “War on Terror.” You can find that invitation, along with a Biblically grounded study guide from the reformed perspective, online at www.no2torture.org. We’ve issued a particular call to those churches that have signed the Presbyterian Commitment to Peacemaking, and you can find that letter, and many related resources, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/torturestatement.

We hope that concerned Presbyterians will form study groups to reflect on the use of torture, where our security comes from, and how we who profess the Christian faith might act to help our country live up to its highest ideals as we respond to the legitimate and growing crisis of security that exists around the world today.

On Epiphany, January 6 and 7, 2006, we are inviting concerned people of faith to gather with me in Miami for a time of spiritual renewal in an age of violence, a public witness and worship on the beach that will call on our leaders to live up to the most noble of our country’s ideals, and a strategy session about how we might encourage a grass-roots movement of Presbyterians to stand unequivocally against the use of torture by our government and to name the ideals that might lead us to authentic security.

To me, the way in which this effort developed is almost as important as the call to stop torture itself.

Last summer, Rev. Carol Wickersham approached me during the Peacemaking conference at Ghost Ranch to express her grave concern about our government’s use of torture, and to ask whether I thought our denomination could respond. I answered, as I am wont to do, with an invitation. “If you can begin to create a genuinely grass-roots response,” I suggested, “I will do all I can to lend the weight of the office of the Moderator to that effort.”

We decided to extend an invitation to all conferees who were concerned about this matter to have breakfast together, and two mornings later, thirty people showed up. Everyone present agreed that they wanted “the church” to do something to stop torture.

Here’s a rough summary of my challenge to the group.

It is true that the General Assembly has affirmed its strong opposition to the use of torture by our government. Technically, as Moderator of the General Assembly, I would be on solid ground if I chose to make a public statement on this matter, and my judgment is that our national staff would be on equally solid ground if they chose to create programmatic responses to torture and encourage the use of those resources in churches throughout the denomination.

Here’s the problem. My sixteen months as moderator have left me deeply dissatisfied with that way of doing business. Many, many Presbyterians are extremely mistrustful of anything that the General Assembly does “in their name.” When we do choose to speak out on issues like this in this way, there is little confidence that we have the support of a genuine plurality of our members.

Further, too many Presbyterians who care deeply about difficult matters (we’ll continue to use the issue of torture, though there are many others we could discuss) have become complacent. Instead of doing the difficult work of building a solid, scripturally and prayerfully grounded consensus in our own churches and among our own friends, we sit back to wait for our national staff to do the work for us. Over several generations, we’ve come to believe that the most effective way to organize in the church around matters of conscience is to write an overture seeking an action by our General Assembly. Instead, I believe we should be doing the hard work of educating ourselves to create a grassroots consensus across the church, and then organizing the church as a movement to take action on what we say we believe.

I’m not suggesting that there is no role for a General Assembly that seeks to understand God’s will for the church and proclaim Christ’s Good News to the world on behalf of all of us. However, that cannot replace the work that we must do to build a genuine consensus across the church and to encourage our members to take action on the things that matter to us the most.

So back to the question of how to respond to torture.

At Ghost Ranch, I suggested that if the group assembled were willing to do the hard work of crafting a strong consensus throughout our churches on this issue, they would have my strong support. This does, in fact, seem to me to be one of those areas where there is strong agreement across a diverse spectrum of theology and political opinion. As I’ve traveled this year, I’ve heard concern about the use of torture as a tool in the “War on Terror” from several military chaplains and from Presbyterian military leaders who are now retired. I’ve spoken with diplomats retired from our State Department who are gravely concerned. I’ve heard from long-time peace activists in the church that this issue is of paramount importance to them. Presbyterians in large and small churches have approached me on this issue, and many who have spoken with me have led with the words, “I’m a Republican, but . . .”.

Here’s what has happened since we had that conversation on the porch at Ghost Ranch last summer.

A group of volunteers went to work on a curriculum to help Presbyterians study the question of torture from a scriptural, spiritual, reformed perspective. They sent it to several theological professors who made improvements. The entire curriculum was created by Presbyterians who care desperately about this matter – not by staff for the denomination. However, when asked for feedback and support, our staff in Louisville was responsive, effective, and helpful in encouraging this grassroots effort (pay attention, because I’m pretty sure this is a model for the future.)

Another group of volunteers created a yahoo group and a simple website to nurture this grassroots effort. You can sign up for the yahoo group on the website at www.no2torture.org.

As part of the overall effort, several of us began working on the statement on torture that was eventually released this week by Ed Brogan and myself. I can’t express enough appreciation to Ed for his willingness to work on this. Conventional wisdom would have it that Ed, (who has devoted much of his life to supporting our members who serve in the Armed Forces), and I (who have spent twenty years as a devotee of peacemaking and nonviolent response to conflict) would be unable to find common ground. However, it is my conviction that we are both deeply committed to seeking peace, and to encouraging our country to live up to the best of its convictions and ideals. While there are many ways in which we respectfully disagree, we have found significant areas of common ground. I am grateful for his willingness to take risks to seek common ground, and I would suggest that this, also, is a hopeful sign of the future church.

My own role has been to be as responsive as possible to the efforts being made by Presbyterians out there in the pews. I would ask you to do the same. If you have thought about this issue and you are disturbed, as I am, by the way in which the use of torture undercuts the most fundamental principles of our faith, then I would ask you to join us in educating others. Let’s insist that being followers of Jesus Christ means something real.

If you haven’t thought much about this issue, please take a look at this curriculum created by your sisters and brothers in this wonderful, connectional church. Ask for the opportunity to create an adult ed or youth program at your church, or invite your closest friends in your church and community to come to your home for a few weeks of study together. (If they’re not in the church – that’s called “evangelism.”)

And consider coming to Miami. Ask your community to help you buy a ticket. We’ll keep expenses as low as possible on our end. There is no budget for this project, but there is huge, untapped energy and an overwhelming desire to make a difference in the world. That’s where the power of the community of believers lies. We can change the world.

Believe it! The people of God, with God’s help, can change the world.

See you in Miami.


Friday, October 14, 2005

From a migrant shelter in Altar, Mexico


June 26th, 2002 was the last time I spent the night here at the shelter for migrants in Altar, Sonora, Mexico. It seems hard to believe that it’s been almost three and a half years. That night, I was with a group of seminarians from Chicago, and a dozen or so migrants from southern Mexico and Central America. We North Americans heard their stories, and then after they had drifted off to the dormitory, the rest of us quietly opened our bedrolls, spread our sheets and blankets, and carried their stories to bed with us.

We had heard about their families and their harrowing tales of hiking in the desert. Their desperation became real to us as they shared that the two gallons of water each had carried with him had disappeared all too quickly – finally becoming a few precious swallows that nothing short of a miracle could make last through the miles that still lay ahead. They had stories of hiking hard for three and four days, getting picked up by a car arranged by their smuggler, and being apprehended by the Border Patrol a few miles short of the safe house in Tucson where they were headed. Their stories evidenced a grim determination, a resolve that nothing would stop them from trying again and again to reach for a steady wage to send money home to their families.

And then, everyone else slept that night while I sat on the floor in the dark and wondered what God would have me do. That was the night I first discerned a call to stand for the position of Moderator. I felt called to lift up these stories, and to implore Christ’s church to respond.

Now, forty months later and after serving the church as Moderator of the General Assembly for almost sixteen months, here I am again. This time I’m accompanied by a different group of people.

There’s Ben, a twelve-year old from Oak Ridge who has a heart for mission and who, I fully expect, will change the world. I met Ben last February when I spoke at Maryville College, and he agreed to give up television (that’s right – entirely give it up) if I worked a deal with his folks for him to come on a mission trip. He’s brought his parents with him. Peggy and Dan are my favorite kind of Presbyterians – the kind who are prepared to question everything in their lives and take real risks to live into what they believe and whom they believe God is calling them to be.

Jean Morris is the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. She’s accompanied by her husband Matthew, a physiotherapist with a thriving practice in Calgary. They have chosen to sleep on the floor of a migrant shelter in Altar, and to spend time trying to learn about the reality for migrants here in the borderlands, because they are trying to discern just how God might be speaking to people of faith, and to the Presbyterian Church in Canada. They will be remembered by everyone in the group for their gentle, wry senses of humor.

Carlos is a Catholic from the Los Angeles area. He has a huge heart and a quick smile, and he insists that he is here because God wouldn’t leave him alone. Migrants, and their difficult journey and lives here in the U.S., weigh heavily on him. He’s trying to learn more about how God might be calling him to respond.

Laura is a young, Mennonite from Chicago who works as a paralegal in an immigration attorney’s office. Her deep appreciation for the struggles that migrants confront is readily apparent, and she carries an open spirit.

Dave is a second or third career person whom God surprised with a call to become the Executive Director of a migrant ministry called “Bethel” near Sarasota, FL that I visited last spring. Dave has come to learn more about what his folks have experienced before they arrive in Florida. He is a large man with a big smile, and his spirit is infectious.

Mike is a retired government diplomat who worked for the State Department as well as the Commerce Department. He’s worked on difficult problems all over the world, and he is clearly here because he’s anxious to get a different perspective. His sensitivity and inquisitiveness have impressed the group from the start.

Luis is a former reporter turned – for my money – the best kind of Professor of Political Science. He insists that good teachers must be grounded in the world for their message to have meaning.

Then there’s Teo, my ten-year old son. He’s here, he says, because he wanted to have time with me during a year when there has been precious little time for us together. Like most ten-year olds, he drifts in and out of the conversation and often surprises me with his insight. His fluency in Spanish makes it easy for me to have him around, and fun for the kids in the neighborhoods we visit.

And of course, we’re accompanied by Lindsey, a new young adult volunteer with the PC(USA) who is working at BorderLinks this year, and who just completed a year in Guatemala as a YAV. And there is Madre Irene, one of the wonderful Catholic Sisters who works as a trip leader on our Mexican Staff.

And here we all are – sharing dinner with a group of men from all over Mexico and one from Honduras. One by one they stand to share a rough outline of their stories:

Gabino – painfully shy, he must be coaxed to tell us that he is from the state of Guerrero.

Carlos – from Colina

Antonio and Vicente – who came north with Gabino, hiked through the desert, got picked up by the Border Patrol, and who intend to try again. They appear to have only the vaguest idea of where they were hiking or how far they got before they were picked up.

Julio – The one I would call the “sleeper” in the group. He started out shy but then confessed that he is fluent in English. He’s from Tapachula, where he says the most he can make as a chauffer is about $25 per week (I know this to be true, and no exaggeration at all). He tells us he has worked as a cook for three years in Richmond, VA, where he made $400 per week plus room and board. He was able to send $1400 per month home to his wife and child.

Rudolfo says that he’s tried to cross four times, but he’s ready to give up because the risk is too great and he can’t bear the thought that something might happen to him and he would be prevented from seeing his family again.

Jorge – who was a month away from receiving Asylum in Canada when his father died and he felt compelled to go home. Now he’s trying to figure out how to get back to Canada without their knowing that he left (which would jeapordize his asylum claim.)

And finally, Juan Antonio is a tall, handsome Honduran with a narrow, distinguished face and a full head of wavy gray hair. There’s one in every group who touches my heart – and this time he is it. He is a father of three (24, 18 and 15 years old). He tells us there was no work in Tegucigalpa’s sinking economy. He has no idea where he is headed, though his resolve to find work in the U.S. is unshakable. He took a bus (two days) to the Guatemalan border, crossed the river into Mexico and walked for 27 hours in a driving rain as far as Tapachula. Then he caught a freight train (riding on top) and managed to hold on for seventeen days to arrive in Northern Mexico.

When Luis asks him where that kind of courage comes from, he answers by asking how many in our group have children. “If you have kids,” he says, “you know what gives you strength, and even after this journey I know I’ve still got the strength to cross this border. My family needs me to get a job – they don’t need me jobless and back home.”

This afternoon we were having lunch at a restaurant called “Pollo Feliz” (The Happy Chicken) in Sasabe, a dusty, little town on the border in the desert that looks like something out of an old John Wayne movie. This is the town where most people will begin their walk into the desert. As we finished our lunch, I spied a man with an infant strapped on his back who was carrying two plastic, one-gallon water jugs. A woman whom I assumed was his wife carried another infant with her. A second man, whom I took to be a relative, or perhaps their guide, was walking with them. I only saw them from behind as they walked down the street – most likely headed for a trip into the desert.

NO ONE should have to face these kinds of choices, or have to make this kind of journey.

You know, I typically tell stories and let folks draw their own conclusions. Generally, I try hard to understand the perspective of those with whom I disagree on matters of theology or public policy. But from a migrant shelter in Altar, here’s what I’m feeling tonight:

I am enraged by a world in which the vast majority of the population can’t fed itself, and I’m certain that Jesus would be equally enraged.

I’m out of patience with those who were born, by coincidence beyond their control, on the right side of the border – who insist that this is “just the way it is” and that nothing can be done about it.

I find it very difficult to constructively engage with “good Christians” who maintain that our first alliance is to “our own,” or to our nation state. Last time I checked, the Bible was crystal clear that we owe our allegiance only to our God, and that to love God means that we must love all of God’s people as well.

Finally, I’m worn out by those who insist that we who have all of the privileges of the “first world” can find our security by building bigger walls, or with higher paychecks, or at the point of a gun (whether that gun is employed in the “War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia or right here where that family is trying to hike through the desert tonight).

As Christians, our security comes in one place only – and that is through the Jesus who compels us to give up everything and to take risks continuously as we share and live his Good News in the world.

It was good enough for Jesus’ Disciples. It should be good enough for us.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll go back to gentle stories with deep meaning and my conviction that God can move us to become a new thing whenever our hearts are opened. My friend, Pancho, the former mayor of Altar who now directs the work of the human rights office here at the shelter, says that when we can no longer be touched by the people we meet, we lose our sensitivity. We lose our faith in other human beings to be who God calls them to be. That’s why God keeps touching us in personal encounters – so that we don’t lose faith, and we keep on working.

Keep the faith,


A letter from Jean Marie in New Orleans

Brothers and Sisters,

Many of you have gotten to know my close friend and colleague, Jean Marie Peacock. She is the associate pastor at Lakeview Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, and has served as the Vice-Moderator of the 216th General Assembly since June of last year. Jean Marie sends the following update on her experience of returning to New Orleans.

Dear Friends,

Greetings from the New Orleans area. We wanted to give you an update on our situation, since you have been so supportive of us with your expressions of care and concern.

Peter and I drove back to the New Orleans area the first weekend of October. We are staying across Lake Ponchatrain in Mandeville with the family of Peter's boss.

We went into our house for the first time on Tuesday, Oct 4th and met with our insurance adjuster. The house is a total loss and will have to be demolished. We arrived at the house to find that we could open neither front nor back doors. We pried open a window and entered a steamy, hot, dark house. It took some hours to uncover and open the rest of the windows, and we finally got the sliding-glass door open.

We have been salvaging anything we can at the house, which is mostly some dishes and pottery. We enter the house wearing disposable coveralls, safety glasses, a respirator and rubber boots. Fortunately, after the first few days, the weather has been much cooler.

Nearly everything inside is destroyed. I had never imaged how much damage could be done when things are in water for three weeks and in a humid environment for two more. The water level in the house was at least 7 feet. Even solid wood furniture turns to a pile of moldy boards when moved. What is left is piles of rubble throughout each room, with a layer of mud and slime over everything. It was still very wet, and the stench is terrible. We have opened windows and are letting it air out and dry out.

We have not been able to find housing yet. It is hard to find anything available. We called about one apartment, and they were showing it at one time to over 50 people. Last Thursday, we applied for a FEMA trailer or RV, but there is not much information at this point about when they will be available or where the trailer parks will be set up.

The company where Peter works (a small company that employs 5 people) took a hard hit. They had not been allowed back into the building where the lab and offices are located until Friday. When we arrived, the building management gave them a lease termination notice that all tenants were receiving. We had only 4 hours to get out of the lab everything they will need to set up temporary laboratory space. The elevators did not work, nor did we have air conditioning. The office and lab is on the 14th floor - so we had to lug everything down six long flights of stairs to the 8th floor of the parking garage. The building was closed up and stifling hot. We got our exercise! With space so tight these days, it is not clear where they will find a place to rent to set up the lab. We will wait and see.

Our congregation (Lakeview Presbyterian Church, 335 members) gathered for the first time for worship on Sunday in Baton Rouge in the afternoon, using space at another Presbyterian church. It was an emotional worship service, followed by dinner together at a local restaurant. It was wonderful to see people. Thirty-two people attended, including five children. Of the 14 households represented by those attending, only four homes did not flood. We are estimating that about 75% - 80% of the congregation has lost their homes and belongings inside. It will be a long road ahead. We are planning to continue with weekly worship, sharing space in Presbyterian churches in the New Orleans area that were not flooded. It is so important that we gather together for support and worship. On Sunday, we gathered for worship at 4pm, and it was not until 9pm that we cleared out of the restaurant. Everyone was so excited to be together, to share stories, and to hear news of church members. We also had a chance to mourn together the loss of one member of our congregation, Al Sindibaldi, who died in his home during Hurricane Katrina.

We have not yet started any clean up or salvage at the church building. The insurance adjusters finished there last Friday. We have not been able to get inside our offices yet, because the doors are swelled shut. The church building had at least 7 feet of water inside. Last night (Oct. 13) a group of members of the church gathered for a meeting of the “Recovery Team” to begin to make plans for the recovery and rebuilding of the congregation. We set priorities, discussed the fact that the Day School (preschool program for 80 children, ages 2-5) will have to be demolished. With the ceilings of the Day School now caving in, we do not feel it is safe for people to go in to salvage anything. There was wind damage to the church building, in addition to the flooding. Finding a licensed contractor for our area, a roofer, and others at this time – with the demands so great in the region – will be a challenge. We are not sure how much of the clean up work can be done by volunteer work crews. The mold, stench, sharp edges and nails protruding, etc cause health and safety concerns. Pews will have to be chain sawed apart to be carried out, because they are so heavily laden with water that they absorbed. The Christian education building has a second floor, and we hope to get generators to start dehumidification so that it can be cleaned and made ready for temporary office space.

Many churches have been asking if they can partner with us to help with the recovery and rebuilding of our congregation. Churches throughout the Gulf Coast are in need of assistance. If you would like to help, please be in touch through the presbyteries. In the Presbytery of South Louisiana, we have many churches that have been damaged and a good number that have been completely destroyed. Funds have been set up to help with the rebuilding of congregations and to assist with church staff salaries for those congregations so devastated that they will be unable to be self-supporting for some time. Contributions to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (you can make donations through the website at www.pcusa.org/pda) are greatly appreciated and of great assistance.

I guess that's the update for now. We're taking things a day at a time and relying on God's help, which is being made manifest in all the offers of care and concern that our congregation and presbytery have been receiving from churches and people around the country. There are many signs of God¹s presence all around us. When Peter and I went into our home for the first time, I was struck by the needlepoint that hung in our kitchen. Everything in the kitchen is a pile of rubble, with furniture broken in pieces, the refrigerator fallen in, with rust covering the stove, and mold growing everywhere, with cupboards broken and things strewn in the mud and dirt on the floor. Mold covers the walls, as well. Yet in the middle of the wall, in the middle of this mess ­ the needlepoint still hangs. It is untouched, a pristine white in the midst of the mold. It says, “God bless this home.”

This week, Peter and I celebrated our anniversary. Eight years ago, we never imagined that we would lose our house, with everything we own now able to fit in our car. Our home, however, is not the building - ­ it is who we are together and how we live in God’s grace and love. Our home in God’s arms is a blessed place. We'll make it through, and our spirits are good. God is with us and providing the strength and grace necessary to move forward with a positive outlook.

Hope you are well.

In Christ's peace,

Jean Marie PeacockVice Moderator, 216th General Assembly
Associate Pastor, Lakeview Presbyterian Church, New Orleans

P.S. If you are interested, we have posted some pictures of the damage inside our house, which you can find at: www.msnusers.com/Peacock-Kulakoskyfamily. At that website, you will see in the corner a place where it says "view pictures". When you click on that, you can then click on the first photo to view it, and "next" after that to see each enlarged photo. Members of our church and persons throughout the area have similar pictures of the damage to their homes. This is typical of the damage caused by the flooding in areas where homes were submerged in water.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


This week my friend Steve Young, who works with Living Waters for the World in the Synod of the Living Waters, sent me this reflection by Laura Lee. Laura is a junior at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She is double-majoring in American Studies with a Race and Ethnicity concentration, and Biology. She is a member of Steve’s Church, Historic Franklin Presbyterian Church in Franklin, TN. She spent seven weeks in Mexico City this past summer on the Global Urban Trek, a project run by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

I was very moved by Laura’s words, and she gave me permission to share it with all of you. Here are her words:

Today I have the honor of sharing just a little bit about my mission trip toMexico City earlier this summer.Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the world, housing between25 & 30 million people. Flying in on the plane, my jaw dropped to see thecity stretch from mountain to mountain, apparently endless. With such sizecome many problems. I spent a month working with a Mexican civilorganization in a squatter colony called Lomas de San Isidro. Crawling upthe sides of an abandoned government quarry, rickety homes shelter roughly6,000 people, none of whom are guaranteed political rights or recognition.

From my journal after 2 days there:

"I think this could be overwhelming, but I'm not overwhelmed - at least not yet. Dogs roam in packs. Children look out of dust-encrusted faces. Tin sides of a shack lean together, and as long as they stay put, it is good. People don't even own the land they live on. Sure, there are buyers and sellers and money changes hands, but if the "real" owner decided to do so, he could bulldoze the whole village. Lomas de San Isidro. You look up the hillside and it really is prehistoric. Just with sheet metal added. Oh, and we were doing construction/deconstruction without tools. We borrowed a machete with no blade. Found a screwdriver. Also borrowed a hammer. Used plastic bags as gloves, put the trash in old feed sacks. Tore apart a rabbit cage, put together a chair, cut down a tree, peed in a hole in a shed. And I'm almost used to it."

So, there's no such thing as "utilities" or sanitation. Ironically, Isidro is the Saint of water. All we offered at our community center were free medical services and classes for mothers and children. We weren't about to"fix" the problems in Lomas, our only hope is to encourage and enable community members to fight for themselves, to give them some hope in a dismal situation. After some more time there, I wrote this entry:

"Before today, I don't think it occurred to me that there are no options inLomas. I sort of kept some American paradigm in the back of my head that promises a way out, somewhere to go, something to do. In the U. S. we're always looking to the next big thing, making plans, dreaming. In Lomas de San Isidro, there are dreams aplenty - maybe water will come to the hill, maybe roads won't slide away, maybe my kid will learn English. But the dreams won't leave the choking dust of the abandoned quarry. And that is not cultural; it is not some kind of Mexican near-sightedness. It is the oppression of intractable poverty. Those are big words, but what I really see is a system that denies justice."

It was HARD to be surrounded by the smells and hardships day in and day out, it's hard knowing that the Mexican and U. S. governments allow these situations to develop just to fuel an economy. And yet, over and over again, God gave me abundance. I don't know what other word could describe the deep peace, happiness, and joy that I found in Mexico City. When an old, old woman came over just to sweep our floor, or the neighborhood kids came by to play - hours before our English class - I learned that service/mission is a great gift. Another entry:

"That doesn't mean that service always 'feels good' (breathing dust to the point of black snot does NOT), but in the hardest, toughest, darkest places on earth, we find that God's strength is doing a whole lot. I expected to be devastated by Mexico City, and instead learned what it means to allow God to be powerful. It's the most fun I've had in a while."

Honestly, that's the biggest thing I want to leave with you - a reminder of God's power. He absolutely equips you to do whatever crazy things are in His will. God had no intention of using me to "fix" the lives of His people in Lomas. But He did want His children to know that I care. He wanted them to have a pale gringa to tug on, leap at, and give gifts to. He wanted them to be loved.

Laura’s experience is an invitation to all of us, the same invitation that Jesus Christ has extended to the people of God for the last 2000 years. There are countless ways to move to the margins, and countless ways we encounter Jesus there when we do.

Thanks for the reminder, Laura.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Brothers and Sisters,

Temperatures are still in the high nineties here in Arizona as the fiscal year (as counted by the Government) comes to a close.

In the year ending September 30, 2004, there were 231 migrants who died trying to get across the border here in Arizona. This year, in spite of huge effort by both church workers and the efforts of the Search and Rescue team of the Border Patrol, 261 people lost their lives here in Arizona. 460 paid with their lives for crossing all along the U.S./Mexico border. That makes this the tenth year in a row that the number of border related deaths has climbed in Arizona. This system is broken - deeply broken.

Please hold the family members of these folks in your hearts. Please pray for, and demand, attention regarding this broken system from our public officials, many of whom (both Republican and Democrat) are in agreement that our immigration and border policies are deeply flawed.

There has been a trial date set for Daniel strauss and Shanti Sellz, the two young adults working with the faith-based NO MORE DEATHS campaign who were arrested this summer for transporting three folks who were in desperate trouble out of the desert. Their trial date is December 20, and you can keep up on their case and on this growing movement in support of the most marginalized among us at www.nomoredeaths.org.

Finally, there is a moving story in the L.A. Times regarding the deaths in the desert and all along the border. You can find it at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-deaths1oct01,0,1913222.story

I'm headed to Mexico with a BorderLinks group for the next four days. We'll be staying for a night at the migrant shelter in Altar, Sonora, and then spend two nights in folks homes in a poor colonia called Flores Magon in Nogales. I would ask you hold our group in the light (as the Quakers would say.)

Blessings on all who are on the move in search of a future for their families.


Monday, October 03, 2005

Presbyterian Report on Peace, Unity and Purity


(For those who aren't up on Presbyterian lingo, this is the Task Force that has been dealing with hot topics like the ordination of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgendered folks. This topic involves a lot of nuance about church governance. If that kind of thing doesn’t turn you on, I recommend you skip it. If this topic really interests you, please go to www.pcusa.org/peaceunitypurity to download and read the final report of the Task Force. My reflections cannot be substituted for reading the report yourself and forming your own opinions.)

My summer reading list was kind of a “cliff notes” version of some of the classes I would have taken had I completed my Seminary education twenty-years ago. As moderator I have had many conversations with Presbyterians who are deeply concerned that we are loosing our theological center, and those conversations have pushed me to further explore and better articulate my own understanding of Presbyterian Reformed theology. As a result, my summer reading list included a new book, called “Conversations with the Confessions” edited by Joe Small, who heads up our Office of Theology and Worship. (You can find it at www.ppcbooks.com/index1.asp.) As I read through the thoughtful and thought provoking essays in the book, I took the opportunity to re-read our book of Confessions, and to think intentionally about what I believe about God and why I believe it.

Later in the summer, I picked up Beau Weston’s books on Presbyterian History and read about some of the major conflicts (and how they were resolved) at critical moments in the history of our church. (If this interests you, you might start with Weston’s short “Leading from the Center,” which also can be found at www.ppcbooks.com/index1.asp.) By the end of the summer, I had gained a far deeper understanding of the debates in the early 1700’s over ordination standards and the “Adopting Act” of 1729 that crafted a uniquely Presbyterian response to those difficult disagreements. I read about “Old School” and “New School” divisions in the next century, and the ways in which our church was wrenched apart during the turbulent years surrounding the Civil War. I became fascinated by the heresy trials of the late 1800’s and the thirty-year struggle for power that defined the northern church in the early 1900’s.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of that reading was great preparation for the arrival of the report from the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force. Many of you know that the Task Force was intentionally made up of a group that was extremely diverse in its theology and the ways that theology informed each person’s own ministry and witness. Their task was to help our Denomination think about how to talk with one another more appropriately in the midst of the difficult and divisive debates we’ve been having about hard theological issues – like whether or not Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgendered (GLBT) folks should be ordained, or how we talk about the sovereignty of God and the Lordship or Jesus Christ, or how we understand scripture, or how power is used for good and ill in the church.

I confess that I was among the many who could see no way that this diverse group could say anything clear and unequivocal about our life together. I was wrong. The members of the Task Force have offered a report in which all of their recommendations have been made with unanimity. This is not to say that they agree about everything they talked about. In fact, I believe most of them would say that they have not changed their own understanding of scripture or their own bedrock theological values. However, they have presented a report with full consensus on their understandings of our most important theological values, the ways in which we should talk with one another about important matters of difference between us, and suggestions on how to understand our Book of Order to move us to a genuinely new way to deal with our differences with one another.

I have read the report twice. (It’s about fifty pages long and makes a good airplane read.) I’ve spoken with many Presbyterians about what they understand the report to say and how they feel about its recommendations. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with can find something positive to say about this report, though most people also take exception to some of its specific recommendations.

My gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, while appreciative of the hard work that the committee has done, are deeply concerned about the specific recommendations of the Task Force regarding standards for ordination in the Book of Order. Among many other recommendations, the members of the Task Force have suggested that the Assembly in 2006 should take no action on the controversial provisions of G.6.0106b. As long as those standards continue to target them because of their sexual orientation, as long as it is remains impossible for GLBT folks to come to the table for a conversation in a way that allows them to be open about who they are in a place of genuine safety, I expect that our GLBT members and their straight allies will remain deeply skeptical about the report.

As I’ve traveled for the church I’ve had the opportunity to meet many thoughtful conservatives. Some of them have continued to stay in touch with me, and to share their concerns about how our denomination is handling these difficult issues. While many have been pleased at the theological affirmations on the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of scripture with which the Task Force begins, they are very troubled by the specific recommendations that the Task Force makes regarding the freedom of conscience clause in G.6.0108 in our Book of Order. Anything that looks to them like it might create permissiveness about the ordination of gay and lesbian folk is deeply disturbing, and they also have serious reservations about the report.

For the record, I am cautiously optimistic about the report and the future it lifts up for our denomination. Whether or not we can agree on all of the recommendations made in the report, it is indisputable that this group of committed Presbyterians is trying to lead us into a new way to have the conversation.

Here are the things I appreciate the most about the Task Force’s work.

First, they are insisting that this is a disagreement among family members. We are all followers of Jesus Christ who are seeking to be faithful. We all share one baptism. We are one church. This is not a battle between those who are the true, scripturally-founded Christians on the one hand, and those who don’t read the Bible at all or who willfully misinterpret it on the other (an argument I regularly hear from both ends of the theological spectrum in our church). This is a disagreement between Christians who are trying very hard to be faithful.

Second, The Task Force has made concrete suggestions about how to develop new processes that will move us from a win/lose debate to a genuine process of seeking discernment with one another.

Third, the Task Force’s specific recommendations regarding our standards for ordination and the Books of Order and Confession are classically Presbyterian. They return us to the path toward reconciliation that we have turned to numerous times throughout our history, beginning with the debate over the Westminster Standards in the early 1700’s.

For those of you who need my cliff notes version of the cliff notes of that historical debate, here we go. The debate that divided the church right down the middle three hundred years ago was over whether a candidate for ordination had to affirm all of the tenets of the Westminster Standards (including the Confession and the Shorter and Longer Catechisms – a series of questions and answers about the faith) in order to become ordained. Half the church said “absolutely,” your faith wasn’t genuinely reformed if you couldn’t affirm those Standards. The other half said “absolutely not,” you couldn’t put anything in between the believer and the scripture if you truly believed in the wisdom of the reformation. It looked as if this was a genuinely irreconcilable difference.

However, the Adopting Act of the General Assembly of 1729 set the standard for dealing with such a difficult dilemma. They said that every candidate for ordination absolutely did have to affirm the essential tenets of the Westminster Standards, and then they refused to define the word “essential.” They said that it was the responsibility of each ordinand to name his “scruples” or differences with the tenets of the Westminster Standard, and it was the responsibility of each Presbytery to discern whether the candidate’s scruple was over an “essential.”

Some may say that this sounds like doublespeak, but I don’t think so. Their resolution recognized that no one is capable of fully knowing the mind of God, and that it is always the job of Christian community to try to discern God’s will together. The Adopting Act put the responsibility right where it should have been, with the Assembly (that set the standard), the Candidate for Ordination (who honestly sought to wrestle with the standard and name his scruple) and the Presbytery (that was tasked with interpreting the standard in light of the candidate’s soul-searching and faithful reflection.

As I understand it, our Task Force is asking us to return to this classic understanding in with our differences today. They are asking the General Assembly to adopt an “Authoritative Interpretation” of G.6.0108. Though it may seem tedious, I believe it’s worthwhile to see the language.

“It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve in it as officers shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in ‘The Book of Confession’ and the Form of Government. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the consititutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained.”

The following paragraph then goes on to state: “It is to be recognized, however, that in becoming a candidate or officer of the Presbyterian Church (USA) one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body. The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves.”

No one who has had a high level of investment in the protracted debate about standards for ordination in our denomination - and whether GLBT folks who affirm their sexual orientation as a gift from God should be allowed to serve – will be fully satisfied by this set of recommendations. For my GLBT sisters and brothers who deeply desire to serve the church, I understand and respect the fact that nothing short of the removal of G.6.0106b from the Book of Order will be a genuine affirmation that our church welcomes their gifts. For other sisters and brothers who are genuinely trying to be faithful to their reading of scripture, nothing short of a clear, clean, bold statement of the standards of purity required for leadership in the church is likely to be satisfactory.

To each, I would say, “God isn’t finished with us yet. We’re family, and we must look for new ways to have this painful and difficult conversation.” I hope that all Presbyterians will take a careful look at the report of the Task Force. I hope that all of us will affirm the difficult work that our sisters and brothers on the Task Force have done. I hope that all of us will take up their challenge to have the conversation in new ways. And I hope that all of our deliberations will continue to be based in prayer and study of scripture and discernment with one another.

To that end, I know that this blog entry is likely to touch off a new round of debate out there. In the spirit of the Task Force’s recommendation that we find a new way to talk about this, I’m not going to post entries to "it's your turn" that fall into the old patterns of ideological or theological insistence that one side is correct and the other isn’t. If you want to write on this topic, please write about your own struggles with this issue. Please write about your own doubts, and how prayer and scriptural study and experiences of community and the Holy Spirit have helped you to think in new ways, even if you haven’t changed your mind and don’t expect to.

And PLEASE – Do not write to respond to my own reflection until you have read the entire report from the Task Force yourself. (www.pcusa.org/peaceunitypurity)

Blessings on all of us as we continue to try to be the Church of Jesus Christ - like Jesus’ earliest disciples - in the midst of confusing and difficult times.