U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ignorance ends where relationship begins


You know, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by my own ignorance. As an American, if you had asked me to describe Pakistan to you before my visit here, about all I could have come up with would have been a vague impression that it is a very dangerous place that is a breeding ground for terrorism.

Four short days later, I have friendships here. I’ve gotten to know pastors and seminary students. I’ve visited schools and met with leaders of the church and clinics and outreach ministries. I’ve learned about the incredible compassion and generosity that Pakistanis have shown one another in the wake of the earthquake. I’ve hung out with some of our long-term mission workers here, and played with their kids.

I’m embarrassed. This culture is so rich, and as one person sadly put it, “Pakistanis have been known around the world for the way they have defined the word “hospitality, but all we can think about in the U.S. is terrorism.”

Ignorance ends where relationship begins.


To learn more about our work in each region, including the Central, South and Southeast Asia region that includes both India and Pakistan, go to http://www.pcusa.org/worldwide/

There's an amazing resource of letters from our Mission Workers around the world that can help make people in other countries more real to you. Check it out at http://www.pcusa.org/missionconnections/

Youth Rally in Pakistan

This one is short.

On Saturday the 21rst, I was invited to spend the day at a Youth Rally organized by the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan (PCP) and the PCP Education Board that manages dozens of schools across the country. The even was held in Lahore, on the campus of Foreman Christian College, and the theme was “Challenges facing the Christian Youth of Pakistan.” Their focus was on what it means to be a minority church, how to live harmoniously in a multicultural society, living peacefully together, responding to natural disasters, and educating themselves.

Once again, there was a huge tent of brightly colored fabrics set up on the campus, with chairs for at least three hundred people. Once again, there was the obligatory ceremony of being garlanded. This time, however, dozens of young people had prepared a program for our delegation that lasted more than three hours.

A young pastor preached from a text in First Timothy, exhorting the young people to recognize that they must work hard to honor the gift of education that they are receiving, and reminding them that as a Christian minority their conduct must be above reproach. “In a country where Christians make up roughly three percent of the population,” Philip said, “people are watching their behavior and whether they live what they believe.”

Several students at Foreman made speeches as well, and then there were a series of skits put on by different classes from several of the Education Board’s Girls Schools (some Boys schools were represented as well, but they weren’t active participants). One school did a series of dances, in costume, from different regions around the country. It made me think of similar “baile folklorico” events I’ve seen from the different states of Mexico.

The skit that moved me the most was one in which a group of older girls acted the what took place with the recent earthquake, and then worked together to provide medical care to the victims and to reconstruct the houses, all to the tune of the song, in English, “Make the World a Better Place,” that was so popular a couple of years ago. It made me think of my visit to the seminary at Gujranwala a couple of days before, where we learned that the students of the seminary had disrupted their studies throughout the semester to travel with material aid to a village in the mountains that was wiped out in the disaster. Many of them stayed for days at a time in order to act as translators for the relief organizations that were working there, and I was told that one student was so moved by the tragedy that he took a one-year leave of absence to live and work in that village.

As the event began to wind down, we could smell food cooking over open fires just on the other side of the tent wall. Hospitality in Pakistan appears to begin with garlands and end with food, every single time. However, before I could eat, I posed with dozens of classes to have our picture taken together. Being the moderator, on that day, was a great joy. For our Pakistani partners, it means more than we in the U.S. can understand to have a visible expression of our solidarity with them.

These kids care about making a difference in the world, and our support of the PCP and it’s related schools is preparing them to be able to do so. I felt both gratified and challenged by this visible expression of the importance of that partnership.

By the way, Presbyterians reading this should know that Foreman Christian College (FCC), where the event was held, was nationalized in 1973 and operated for thirty-one years by the Pakistani Government. By all accounts, it was a disaster that drove the school into the ground. However, in 2003 the Government agreed to de-nationalize the school, and it is now being operated by an independent FCCBoard of Trustees. Out of 3,000 students, close to three hundred are Christian. Out of 180 faculty, roughly one third are now Christian. The “Islamic Studies” department has been replaced by “Religious Studies,” and all students are required to learn about both Islam and Christianity. The government, US AID, and many Presbyterians in the U.S. are re-investing millions of dollars to bring the physical plant back up to high standards, and the mood among students, faculty and administrators is one of excitement and enthusiasm.

Supporting Foreman, and supporting the PCP as it works to denationalize and rehabilitate other schools that were founded by our missionaries, is one clear way to support the next generation of both Christians and Muslims who will be tasked with building a society of tolerance and opportunity.

From Lahore,


On Presbyterian-Muslim relationships in Sangla Hill, Pakistan

I had never heard of Sangla Hill until I arrived in Pakistan. As is true in the rest of the country, Muslims make up the vast majority of the population in the town of Sangla Hill, but there are also strong Presbyterian and Catholic Churches there, and on the outskirts of town the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan (PCP) has a large girl’s school founded many years ago by missionaries.

Two months ago an altercation broke out between a couple of teenaged boys. There are different stories of exactly what took place, but the bottom line is that one of the boys was Muslim and the other was Christian. Most versions of the story agree that the argument eventually led to the partial burning of a Koran, and the incident escalated into a mob action by a group of Muslims. By the end of the afternoon, the Presbyterian Church and the pastor’s home had been completely destroyed by deliberate acts of arson, and much of the Catholic property in Sangla Hill was damaged as well. Through an act of God’s grace that no one can fully explain, the Presbyterian school where over one hundred girls were staying escaped all damage, though some of the angry demonstrators actually made it onto the property. All of that is important backdrop, but it isn’t the point of the story.

I visited Sangla Hill on Friday the 20th of January. The context for my visit was complicated by the U.S. attack in the Darjour Agency on the border with Afghanistan, in which eighteen people were killed, most of them women and children who appear to have no connection whatsoever to the person who was the stated object of the U.S. attack. For the Christians who are a tiny minority in this country, attacks like this one can make life very difficult, since many Pakistani’s associate the U.S. government with the Christian faith proclaimed by our President and the overwhelming majority of Americans who profess the Christian faith as well.

As a result of the Darjour missile attack, the Government of Pakistan (which the U.S. considers an ally in the war on terror) was reluctant to allow me, as the Moderator of the PC(USA), to visit Darfour. The last thing they wanted was the possibility of another blow-up at such a sensitive time. However, about mid-morning on Friday we were given permission to make the visit. The conditions for that permission became obvious to me as we stopped on the outskirts of town and received a police escort that accompanied us throughout our time in Sangla Hill.

After visiting the school, which is well run and would make the missionaries who founded it quite proud, we drove back into town. The crowd of Christians in the streets to greet us was huge, so we had to get out of the van we were traveling in and walk the last block to the church. People threw rose petals at our feet as we walked (except for the kids, who had huge grins on their faces as they pelted us with them instead), and there was a huge sign on the front of the church that welcomed us to the community. As we walked through the street, I neither saw nor perceived any animosity from the Muslims who lined the streets just beyond the crowd that was welcoming us. There were smiles on people’s faces, and many waved as we walked by.

The church is a large, adobe brick structure, perhaps thirty feet across and more than sixty feet long. Though the walls are still standing and the metal roof is intact, all of the windows and their frames were entirely burned, and all of the contents of the church were lost. The walls were black with soot, and I’m told that the building will have to be razed due to the serious structural damage it sustained.

As we were led into what remains of the Sanctuary, we paused to remove our shoes outside church, as is the custom in many of the churches in India and Pakistan. Inside, old carpets covered the floor and there was a makeshift, carpet-covered stage at the front of the room. It was difficult to get there though, because the room was jam-packed with people sitting on the floor. Men, women, and dozens of children; I bet there were at least five hundred people crammed into that little building. As I stepped up onto the stage, I pulled my Bible out of my backpack, along with a small, wooden, hand-painted cross from Central America that I have carried in my bag for at least ten years.

The service was what I had come to expect. There was the singing of the Psalms, accompanied by a choir with an old fashioned, accordion-bellows, style piano and an instrument that looked like a musical recorder with a small keyboard. The pastor welcomed our delegation from the United States as well as the church officials who were accompanying us from the PCP. Of course, we all had to be garlanded, and then Edwin, Raafat and I were each given the gift of a beautiful, handmade, Pakistani rug. As the speeches were translated, I learned that Christian and Muslim leaders in the community had moved quickly to enter into a formal reconciliation and to restore a sense of peace in the community. The government has agreed to pay the expenses to rebuild the church and the parsonage, though replacing the contents of the buildings will be the responsibility of the church. The small podium we used as a pulpit was a gift from the Catholic church.

When it was my turn to speak, I unrolled my carpet on the stage and stepped onto it in my stocking feet. I reflected that even if the church had burned entirely, we would still be worshiping on Holy Ground. I promised that I would share their story in the United States, as a witness both to the resilience of the members of that church and as a testimony to the power of love and care for one another among the great majority of Sangla Hill as they rebuild and repair their relationships in the wake of the violence and destruction of a relatively small handful of individuals.

I also asked the Pastor, a tall, thin man wearing a somewhat threadbare, pinstripe suit, to step forward. I showed my Central American cross to the congregation and explained that those Salvadoran crosses - with their simple, hand-painted scenes of hope painted on them - have come to represent the power of God to overcome even the hatred and violence that killed hundreds of thousands of people in their countries in the 1980’s. I applauded the efforts of that church to do the same, and then placed the cross, with its worn silk cord, around the Pastor’s neck. There was great applause as the pastor and I embraced.

After the service, we were hosted for a meal in the home of a Muslim who is a great friend of one of the elders in the church. We were also were joined by a Muslim representative to the regional government. Every conversation we had was an expression of solidarity and commitment to one another, and for me it was a great sign of the fundamental goodness that exists in the vast majority of the people everywhere I’ve been. Events of violence, like the one that took place at Sanla Hill, offer an opportunity to live Jesus’ absurd conviction that we should love even our enemies. Perhaps his wisdom was that in doing so we rediscover that we weren’t enemies in the first place.

Please pray with me for the Christians and Muslims of Sangla Hill.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

On practicing hospitality in India and Pakistan

Kohlapur, India

Although Kohlapur is a small city, the streets were still crowded as we drove toward the city from the airport. I was expecting to go directly to the offices of the Diocese of the Church of North India (CNI) in order to receive a briefing on the visits we would make during the day. Instead, our driver stopped the car on the busy street and we were invited to get out and join throng of people who clearly had been waiting for us for some time. As we stepped into line, a band began to play in front of us, and there was a group of pastors who were all wearing their robes (men and women) just behind us. The crowd surged forward and fashioned itself into a long line, five people abreast and several hundred yards long, and I realized that we had just joined a parade, complete with our own police officer to attempt to manage the traffic.

After walking about a kilometer with folks waving at us from the side of the street, the parade turned to the left into a dusty lot about the size of a football field. There were old buildings scattered on the back of the property, and off to the left there was a large tent made with billowing red, yellow, purple, and pink fabrics. Leading into the tent was a red carpet (I’m not making this up), and inside there were several hundred chairs facing a large, elevated stage that was also covered with carpet. Edwin, Raafat and I were led to the stage and seated where we looked out over a crowd that was standing room only.

There were the obligatory speeches of welcome, and a ceremonious presentation as red turbans were placed on each of our heads, we were each given a ring, and then we were invited forward to be garlanded. As we stood at the front of the stage, three women stepped forward and each placed a beautiful garland of freshly cut flowers around one of our necks. As I started to turn and return to my chair, however, I realized that others were lining up with their own garlands. One by one, three people from every church and ministry came forward and placed another garland around our necks. Eventually, we were wearing dozens of them, and they were piled up so high around my neck that I could no long see. I have a marvelous picture in which only my clapping hands are visible; my head has disappeared behind the flowers.

Just when I thought that I couldn’t take any more, all of the flowers were removed and I thought we were finished. However, there were still dozens of people lined up with more flowers, and we proceeded to load us up once again until we could no longer see the crowd, all of whom had broad smiles and were laughing as we struggled with the weight and the bulk of the flowers.

Ludhiana, India:

Shazia was a vivacious, articulate young woman in her early twenties who came with the delegation that met us at the train station as we in the city of Ludhiana in the Punjab region of northern India. There was a sparkle in her eyes as she educated us about the food we were being served in the restaurant where they took us for dinner, and she teased us about our inability to handle the spicy food of the Punjab. As we learned about our agenda for the following two days, she and her father Unys, who works for the Diocese, insisted that we must come to their home for tea on Sunday evening.

Tea is an event in India and Pakistan. It feels as if most of my itinerary for our nine days in the two countries involved being offered tea by everyone we met. I guess I expected something similar when I arrived at Shazia’s house – an hour of conversation in the living room as we sipped cups of tea together.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Shazia, her father and mother, and her younger brother who is studying at the university. (I must apologize because I’ve misplaced my notes from this part of my trip and therefore I don’t have all their names.) There was also a second family, a younger man who also worked for the Diocese, his wife, and their two young daughters. It was a little uncomfortable at first as we made small talk over soda and cookies. Then, however, the two families decided to sing. The Christians in this part of the world have a wonderful tradition of singing the psalms. Shazia’s younger brother set up an electric keyboard, and then Shazia and her mother led everyone in singing. After several songs, we began to try to think of songs that we all knew, and I eventually discovered that Shazia’s mother and I had in common a great many of the songs I learned back in vacation Bible School. All of us began to smile as we dredged up songs like “Father Abraham,” “I’ve got the Love of Jesus down in my heart,” and we were laughing together when we got to the version of “Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia, Praise ye the Lord” where we assigned the parts and each group had to stand only while they were singing.

After well over half an hour of singing, we slipped back into conversation as we sipped tea together. Each of us shared about our families, and I was fascinated to hear Shazia’s mother and father speak of meeting one another for the first time on the day they were married. The love that they have for one another is obvious, and I found yet another of my preconceptions slipping out of my grasp as I though about the ways in which my wife Kitty and I really knew so little about one another or what our married life would be like before the wedding. Perhaps arranged marriages, still very common in India, aren’t the forced, oppressive arrangements that I must admit I’ve always imagined them to be. Stereotypes die where friendships and relationships begin.

Finally, Shazia insisted that we must dance. She turned on the computer in the corner and first selected Indian music, and we watched her as she danced. Then, confirming my worst fears, she insisted that the rest of us dance as well. I was the one at the high school dances who stood in the background and tried to disappear. Since I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve never quite been able to find that mental state in which it doesn’t really matter what other people are thinking. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a little more graceful about my discomfort, but my insecurity persists. The only dancing I feel confident about are the jitterbug moves I learned from a girl who took pity on me in the seventh grade.

That’s right, we found the closest thing to rock and roll that we could, and I tried to teach Shazia to jitterbug while everyone else looked on with great amusement. I suppose it would have been no less embarrassing trying to waltz in the tiny living room, had I ever learned to do so. What was even more embarrassing was that Edwin, my colleague from the GAC who comes from Puerto Rico and who also insisted he couldn’t dance, finally was talked into some of the best salsa I’ve seen in a long while.

After close to three hours of “tea,” it was finally time to leave. As we hugged, it felt like the distance between India and the U.S. had almost entirely disappeared and the cultural distance had melted away as well. I long for this kind of experience for everyone I know in the United States, for when we build those kind of boundary crossing friendships, nothing can remain the same.

Gujranwalla, Pakistan:

The Presbyterian Church of Pakistan has a seminary in Gujranwalla, a city located about an hour’s drive away from Lahore. On our first day in Pakistan there was a great celebration at the seminary that was attended by pastors, lay leaders, and the directors of the ten different institutions and ministries (many founded by Presbyterian Missionaries from the U.S.) that are related to the church.

Each time I’ve thought that no experience of welcome could surpass the ones I’ve already experienced, someone manages to do it again. This time, Edwin, Raafat and I were offered a ride up the long driveway to the seminary in a horse drawn carriage. There were two white horses pulling a high, fancy carriage that was a throwback to England circa the mid 1800’s. Shade was provided by two large umbrellas made of Pakistani cloth of brilliant colors. Ribbons and brightly colored ropes decorated the carriage, where I was offered the high, cloth covered seat from whence I could wave at all the kids who ran along beside the carriage.

As we came around the last corner and faced the seminary chapel on one side and another of those bright, cloth tents on the other, the carriage was brought to a stop and everyone smiled and clapped as the three of us climbed down and were in led into tent. Like our experience in Kohlapur, we walked up a long red carpet to the stage at the front of the tent, and were offered the seats of honor.

Once again, we were turbaned and offered garlands (though I was grateful when we stopped at one garland each. Once again, there were words of welcome and appreciation. Once again, I promised to do my best to share with my sisters and brothers back home the richness and the depth of emotion we felt as we received such a warm welcome. Once again, I greeted them in the name of Presbyterians across the United States who are connected to them across the miles by our common faith, and by a legacy created by the first missionaries who came here to partner with these people one hundred and seventy-two years ago.

My wife will tell you that I’ve never liked pomp and circumstance. It’s always made me uncomfortable to be treated differently than others. On this trip, as on others that I’ve made outside our country, I’ve learned about the importance of receiving gracious and abundant hospitality. I suppose I needn’t worry about getting used to it, for my family keeps insisting that when I get home I’ll be back to washing dishes and cleaning the bathroom and telling jokes with the kids who live in our small, intentional community.

On this day, however, I know that I receive these welcomes on behalf of all of those in the United States who believe, with me, that we are one body, one community of faith that supersedes all the borders that have been placed between us. That seems like a particularly important recognition from a place like Pakistan, a country about which our preconceptions in the United States tend to be unbelievably negative.

Friends, we have a lot to learn about hospitality and community from our sisters and brothers in this part of the world.

Peace to you,


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mission is messy business


(This is a long reflection on the challenges and opportunities in creating mission partnerships around the world. If you’re not into such things, feel free to skip it. I’ll post again tomorrow with a description of hospitality in India and Pakistan.)

Arriving in Mumbay (used to be Bombay), which is the largest city and the financial center of India, I found myself back in the kind of chaos that comes with a country that has great poverty as well as great wealth, and serious challenges to match the richness of its history and culture. India isn’t the sleek, modern airports or the fancy hotels of Korea and Taiwan, nor is it the relatively good manners on super highways that I Edwin and I noticed as we traveled in Seoul and Taiwan.

This is different. Traffic is pandemonium, the noise never stops, the streets are both dirty and full of life, and one cannot escape the press of people, more people and even more people – all the time. We arrived at our hotel after 10 p.m., after flying all day from Taipei through Hong Kong and Bangkok. When we arrived at the hotel we were greeted by a delegation of a dozen or so people from our partner church, the Church of North India (CNI). After quickly putting our luggage in our rooms, we moved to the basement of the hotel for our welcoming reception. A little before one a.m., we rolled into bed.

By eight, we checked out of the hotel and headed back to the airport. This time, we headed several hundred kilometers south to visit the diocese of Kolhapur. The CNI is a united church that was founded around 1970, with heavy involvement from Presbyterians and Anglicans, among many others. Like the Catholics, they are organized into dioceses with presiding bishops, though the bishops are elected by a representative council rather than by a Pope. Kohlapur is an area that was largely Presbyeterian before the merger took place. Pastors are called Presbyters, and they often have responsibility for more than one congregation, which is an attempt to cover the small, rural congregations that proliferate. The CNI has roughly 1.5 million members and it is a growing church.

Presbyterian missionaries came to India more than one hundred and seventy years ago. Just as I experienced when I visited our partner churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, here the missionaries founded dozens of churches, hospitals and schools. At one point fifty or more years ago, there were more than two hundred missionaries here. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was a move to hand over responsibility for the various ministries to the churches that we had planted. As I’ve traveled, I’ve learned that most leaders of our partner churches were grateful for our missionaries’ attempt to recognize their maturity and help them to become independent, but they remain bewildered, and often angry, by the almost complete disappearance of their sisters and brothers in the United States in the years that followed.

In India, and also in Pakistan, the pulling back of our missionaries meant that our local churches back home largely lost contact with (and interest in) the churches and ministries of the church that they had created. Here in India, that put huge responsibility on the churches, because we left behind large institutions – and buildings - that have to be maintained. Further complicating things, we typically continued to hold the property in our names (often for good reasons that included complex tax and property ownership laws), so that the bottom line was that our partners were not free to carry out their own decisions when they had to deal with the increasingly valuable land that they were sitting on.

In the last thirty years or so, there has been another problem as well. Many of the hospitals and schools initially founded in conjunction with local congregations have now become largely independent of the church. Given their history and their obvious need, they’ve often been able to develop their own support systems in the United States, and so there has been a false division that has sometimes grown up between the institutions and the church. Further, some institutions have been more effective at telling their story and fundraising than others have been, and there is wide disparity of resources among the institutions that I was able to visit. Though we began in India, I learned that these problems are equally serious with our partner, the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, and its related institutions and ministries as well. In both countries, leaders of the churches and the institutions have spent recent years working proactively to seek common ground and to reconnect with one another, and our staff and mission workers have attempted to support their efforts.

Even while those leaders are trying to renew their commitment to one another in their own countries, our understanding of mission has grown far more complex back in the United States. Presbyterians, their local congregations and many presbyteries have rediscovered their own vitality as they have become directly involved in mission themselves, forming partnerships and designing exchanges and delegation opportunities, and seeking joint projects to work on with their partners. Though we have far fewer long-term missionaries in the field today, it’s also true that there are thousands more of our members who have had a direct experience with our partners around the world. Although this creates all kinds of opportunity for difficulty, it is exciting to see the ways that it can transform individuals lives on both sides of the relationship.

The possible difficulties are obvious:

What if the majority of our potential partners in the U.S. all want to go to countries that are close by and easy to get to?

What happens when partners tend to bunch up around a particularly compelling pastor in the partner church because he or she (mostly he) is fluent in English and quite charismatic, or even just because that person’s church is closer to a paved road?

Further, given that we have mission partnerships in roughly eighty countries around the world, and in some of those countries we have more than one partner institution, what do we do with the fact that there are quite likely to be far more partnership opportunities out there than we have the energy to sustain?

Mission partnerships are complex and, like a good marriage, they take years to develop. Who provides the glue that holds everything together as lay leaders and pastors in the two partners change and as there are serious challenges in coping with the cultural differences that both enrich and challenge us?

Finally, what happens when Rick’s first rule of mission – “mission is messy business” – takes over and there are misunderstandings and conflicts that can become quite serious?

Here are some of the principles of what makes a good partnership that have become clear as more and more partnerships have been created:

First, Presbyterians do mission in partnership. That means that there should be a local partner, whether it is a church or an institution or a faith based non-governmental organization or an emerging ministry. A good partner church or ministry can provide long-term stability, outlast individuals as they come and go on both sides, and provide the checks and balances necessary to counter the concentration of power in the hands of one individual.

Second, our efforts must be coordinated on our end. One of the most exciting things to happen in the Worldwide Ministries Division of the PC(USA) has been the formation of “voluntary networks” of the churches, presbyteries and synods that are all working in partnership in a particular country. There are now close to thirty of those networks, and they tend to meet yearly in an effort to share stories, challenges, and best practices with one another. (Learn more about this at http://www.pcusa.org/partnerships/mission-networks.htm).

Third, we have learned that partnerships tend to work best when they are negotiated between a Presbytery or Synod or the General Assembly in our church and the most appropriate judicatory body in our partner church. Again, the reason is coordination. When we approach the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan to ask them where a partnership is most needed, they can provide the direction that spreads our efforts out appropriately. This can help in avoiding creating divisions due to jealousies about one church that has an active partner, while another has one that is inactive or doesn´t have a partner at all.

Fourth, experience has taught us that it is most healthy to develop a clear Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) about the expectations and responsibilities of each party in the partnership. The need for this is obvious, though it’s amazing how often I’ve seen partnerships that began on the strength of a warm, fuzzy feeling and were quickly destroyed as the honeymoon ended and misunderstandings arose.

Fifth, in my experience the mission personnel of our Worldwide Ministries Division are becoming far more important. Increasingly, we’re going to need people who know each of the cultures well and who are skilled at facilitating relationships and building cross-cultural relationships. Further, the simple truth is that some kinds of mission demand a steady, long-term presence. That means that even as we get excited about sending delegations for short-term experiences and taking on new projects with our partners, we must renew our commitment to the mission program of the larger church. The reason that we’re still doing mission in many places that other churches in the U.S. long ago abandoned is because of the mission workers who have made long-term commitments to our partners. That also means that we need to foster a renewed interest in long-term mission service back home. (If this entices you, go to www.pcusa.org/onedoor and check out some of the possibilities that are out there right now.

Finally, my experience has continuously reconfirmed a simple truth. The best mission efforts aren´t about money. In fact, when financial support is introduced too quickly into the relationship, it often corrupts the development of the long-term partnership. This is a tough one, because the need is great, and we are compassionate people. We’re also folks who want to fix things right now, and our partners are often desperate for that support. Still, I encourage new partners to agree (in their written MOU) that they will invest first in building relationships for three to four years. I could write pages about why this is important, but you get the idea.

I´ve now had the opportunity to travel all over the world to meet with our partners, and it is clear to me that God is leading us into a new moment in mission. The good news is that some of our churches, middle governing bodies and partners around the world have been doing this for awhile, and they have a great deal to teach us.

In the end, mission must be driven by God’s clear call to us to follow Christ into the world and to share his good news with all whom we encounter. My own conviction is that as we do so, we will discover the renewal of our own churches back here at home.

From Kohlapur – and in awe of the legacy created by 170 years of mission in this place,


If you made it all the way to the end of this long entry, you might actually be interested in checking out the PC(USA)´s document on how we do mission.
You can find it at http://www.pcusa.org/wmd/gathering.htm

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Thoughts on Vocation

Sisters and brothers,

As I’ve traveled this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own sense of vocation. By the time I finish my term as moderator, we will have fully completed a transition to the new Executive Director of BorderLinks, the organization that I co-founded and have coordinated and directed for almost nineteen years. This is great news on a lot of levels. I’ve watched too many good leaders fall victim to “founder’s syndrome,” which is the term used to describe what happens to an organization when it grows too dependent on its founder and doesn’t effectively make the transition to new leadership. I’m excited that our Board of Directors was visionary enough to support me in transitioning out of the organization, and I’m so grateful to Delle McCormick, our incoming E.D., and the staff of BorderLinks, for stepping up to make this a healthy transition.

For the first time in almost twenty years, I find myself in the strange position of trying to figure out where God might next call me. It’s not that I’ve never had to think before about my vocation, or what we in the church would describe as a “sense of call.” One of the best parts of my work on the border as a mission worker for the PC(USA) has been that I have constantly felt the freedom to re-imagine what God has in mind for me, and I’ve often been encouraged by my colleagues and friends to grow in a new direction as the reality and demands of trying to “be church” in the borderlands has shifted.

The opportunity to serve the PC(USA) as moderator has been a wonderful gift from God that came at just the right moment in my life. I’ve seen profound attempts at faithfulness as I’ve traveled across the U.S., and I’ve grown immensely through my interactions and friendships with the partners I’ve met as I’ve traveled around the world in our own country as well as in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Almost everywhere I’ve been, I’ve found it easy to make an emotional investment in the congregation, ministries and organizations I’ve visited. I could imagine myself in many of those places, working with local folks to build a faith community that clearly reflects Christ’s values of love and compassion and goodness and nonviolence.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve found that my world has grown both larger and smaller through the personal relationship-building that goes hand-in-glove with being the Moderator. Each time I meet someone new, I find that my notion of church is expanded, and along with it my own sense of call. Along with my connection to the Latin American culture and the concerns of migrants and undocumented folks that I brought with me to this position, I’ve learned to care a great deal about campus ministry, peacemaking, creating multi-cultural congregations, seminary education, new immigrants, transforming dying churches, emerging worship styles for the next generation, and ministry in small, rural communities. Actually, the list of things that I find myself excited about seems to grow with each passing day and with every new friendship.

So how do I think about my vocation as a child of God? How do I figure out where I fit in? I have lots of questions as I think about how God calls me to be faithful in the world. Will I choose to be with communities of people made poor or in communities of privilege? Will I work within the institution of the church or put my efforts into building a movement on the fringes of the church? Will I adopt a prophetic role, or push in the direction of pragmatism in building coalitions? Will I focus on academia, or on the hands-on application of theory? The list could go on and on, but you get the idea.

In many ways, what I have loved most about our work with BorderLinks has been the possibility that we’ve had to be bridge-builders, and to stand with a foot in each of those worlds and try to bring them together. What I’ve learned in the messy, ambiguous world of the borderlands is that we rarely choose one end or the other of those scales. Life is all about trying to juggle competing commitments and priorities. Still, it seems like the folks I most admire are the ones who lived their convictions without compromise: Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Jim Corbett.

Here’s what I’m clear about. Genuine change in our world comes through the possibilities modeled by Jesus, and imperfect though it always seems to be, through the building of a healthy church that makes a genuine effort to reflect those values. That is to say, the work of creating political change in the secular world is extremely important, but it’s probably not for me. My commitment is most likely to be to continue to nurture the community of faith that will work to create the kind of world that is God’s deepest desire for us.

What started me thinking about all of this was a visit I made this week to the Gandhi Museum in Delhi. We spent three hours reading the sayings of Gandhi, learning his life story, and looking at photos. For me, as a peacemaker who is committed to nonviolence, I confess that it was something akin to a religious pilgrimage. Here’s the quote that has haunted me all week. Gandhi called it his Talisman:

A Talisman

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Remember the face of the poorest and the weakest man you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate will be of any use to him? Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions. Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

Mahatma Mohandis Gandhi

And then I think about Jesus clear conviction about what will matter most on the day of judgement:

I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. And when you did it to one of the poorest of the poor, you did it to me.

Matthew 25

Holding those two things together seems like perhaps it might help during the coming months as I try to discern God´s call on my life.

So what about you? How do you think about vocation?

With a discerning spirit,


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How does one describe an Indian Market?

O.K., try to imagine.

We’re in downtown Ludhiana, in the Punjab region of Northern India, and not too far away from the border with Pakistan. The buildings are three to five stories high. The first floor of each building is tightly packed with shops selling electrical supplies, clothing, housewares, convenience items, pharmaceuticals – I even saw one sign above a store advertising Hot Wheels and Barbies. On a Sunday afternoon, all of the stores have spilled over into the streets, putting tables in front of their shops and piling their goods high like you might see in a some kind of a super-manic flea market back home. Teenaged boys and young men stand among their products on top of the tables, hovering high above the crowd and hawking their wares at the tops of their lungs.

The street is paved, though it is so narrow that it clearly was never meant for cars. On this market afternoon, the cars have been blocked from entering the area. It’s still complete pandemonium, though. People move along shoulder-to-shoulder, fighting for space with old rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, donkey carts and scooters. Most scooters carry an entire family, father and mother on the seat with a child sandwiched in between them and another standing on the little platform in front of her father and holding onto the handlebars. The record, for my afternoon, was held by the family of six, which only worked because it included an infant held in his mother’s arms as she rode “sidesaddle” on the back.

As in many other countries I’ve visited, electrical cables are strung “spaghetti” style in every direction just twelve or fifteen feet over our heads. In one short section of the street, instead of shops there was a brick wall in front of the police barracks. Creative entrepreneurs had mounted small mirrors on the wall. Their clients sat on packing crates before the mirrors – watching as they received a haircut. Others faced their barbers as they received shaves with old-fashioned, straight-edged, razors that the men paused to sharpen every once in a while.

At the end of every block the food vendors ruled. They stood behind old, dirty, wooden and metal carts, frying all kinds of foods I couldn’t identify in boiling oil. (Rick’s rule number one for international travel; be adventuresome but not stupid – never, ever eat from a street vendor!)

The noise is deafening. Hawkers of knock-off, designer jeans are yelling their prices and haggling with their customers. Everywhere I’ve been in this country there is the sound of cars, the ever-present, three-wheeled motorcycle “rickshaws” used as taxicabs, bicycles and traditional rickshaws, buses and trucks, scooters and motorcycles, all honking at one another as they jockey for position on the streets and roads. It’s like a high-speed game of chicken on narrow streets with the density of a parking lot at the mall on the day after Thanksgiving.

It is life lived fully and exuberantly at all times. About half an hour is enough for me. After that I begin to feel my senses closing down to protect my U.S., middle-class sensibilities. But when I spend an afternoon like this, I remember immigrants I’ve met in the United States who speak with longing of the vibrancy and excitement of life in their own cultures. Our culture seems positively antiseptic by comparison.

I can’t write fast enough, nor anywhere near well enough, to share all of the marvels of being with other people and learning of the richness of their cultures. I wish I could share this experience with everyone in the U.S. The world would be a different place if our eyes were opened to how the rest of the world lives.



Joyce McMillan - A life well-lived

Here’s a quick story.

Just down the road about fifteen kilometers from Tek Tung Presbyterian Church, there is a large campus with a sign out front that says, “Ehr-Lin Happy Christian Home.” Inside, there are several large buildings that house a state of the art facility for kids of all ages who have serious disabilities. It’s a great place doing amazing work, but it’s the story of how it came to be that really touched my heart.

On the top floor of the building there is a spacious apartment where I was taken to meet Joyce. She is originally from the United States, though she has been in Taiwan for so long that it would be reasonable to call her Taiwanese. She’s ninety-two years old now. We found her sitting in a wheel-chair watching television, connected by a tube to an oxygen tank. She isn’t very aware of her surroundings, but it is obvious that she is deeply loved by the folks at the Home, and we sat with her for a few moments and then prayed with and for her before we left.

Joyce was a member of First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. She was widowed when she was in her mid-thirties. About ten years later, at age forty-seven, she accepted an invitation to go to Taiwan to offer her services in mission, and she trained in nursing for a year before she left in order to prepare for her assignment. In 1959, she arrived in Taiwan, and she has stayed for the rest of her life. Together with a Taiwanese doctor, Joyce founded the Ehr-Lin home in 1964 (the year I was born), with the primary mission of working with kids who had polio.

Forty years later, the home that Joyce founded serves 220 children and adults at two facilities. She has received countless awards from the Taiwanese government, and I believe that she is the first person ever to become an honorary citizen of the country. The President has come to visit her personally more than once. This is a woman who has made a huge difference.

Here’s what I love about Joyce’s story. By the time Joyce was in her forties, she had experienced great loss. Though she might have coasted through the next few decades to retirement, it is now apparent that she was just getting started. She has spent the second half of her life changing the world. She went to Taiwan open to God’s spirit, and she joined her Taiwanese friends as a genuine colleague. What if all of us were unafraid to live life as courageously as Joyce has lived hers? What if all of us responded to that “still, small voice” that God plants deep within us at the moments of great opportunity that appear every now and then in our lives?

I think this is a time for dreams the size of Joyce’s dream.

On to India.


Church Transformation Work in Taiwan

Sisters and Brothers,

We arrived at Tek Tung Presbyterian Church well after one o’clock in the morning. The church is located in a small, rural community a few kilometers south of the city of Changhua, about halfway down the west coast of Taiwan. After arriving on a flight from Seoul at the modern airport south of Taipei, we were greeted by Stephen, the Ecumenical officer from the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. We got into a Toyota minivan and headed south on a six-lane highway for the two and a half hour drive to the church. Upon arriving, we were greeted by Pastor Chuang, a pastor in his mid-forties, who led us to our rooms on the third floor of the new community center and retreat building that the church recently completed.

For my money, this pastor has created the textbook example of what a church transformation project should look like. He arrived at Tek Tung eighteen years ago, fresh out of seminary. All graduating seminary students are assigned their first parish for the first three years of their ministry. That means that they go wherever the Presbytery believes that the need is greatest. (I know this is anathema in a land of choice and opportunity, but this practice would go a long way toward supporting our small congregations in the U.S. that can’t attract pastors.) After three to five years, they are permitted to seek their next call, but Pastor Chuang has consistently rededicated himself to this little congregation. He is the best of what I think a pastor should be – ambitious in the sense that he spins out ideas for how to build a strong church faster than one can record them, and committed to staying long enough to do the hard work of implementing those ideas.

When he arrived, he found twenty members, and he tells me that they had pretty much given up on themselves. Sound familiar? What isn’t similar to our situation, though, is that he is trying to pastor a Christian Church in a country that is ninety-seven percent Buddhist. His little church had a high wall built around it, fortress-like, in an attitude of protection as it confronted the larger culture. Pastor Chuang’s early moves would strike fear into the hearts of Presbyterian pastors anywhere. He tore down the walls so that people walking buy in the street could see what was going on inside. Then, he realized that the huge tree, sculpted as a cross and planted right in front of the entrance to the sanctuary, made it impossible to see the front of the church.

Now he had a problem. The tree was planted by one of the older elders who had been a member forever. He went to the elder and explained that the large tree was “in the way.” “No problem,” the elder replied, “I’ll move it.” So that’s what they did. They dug up the roots of that huge tree and replanted it thirty feet away where it allowed unobstructed access to the church.

Finally, he took all of the wooden doors off the sanctuary and replaced them with glass, and he built a concrete ramp so that there was easy access for disabled persons. Inside, he lit up the large cross on the front wall of the sanctuary, and he left it lit up all night long. Now, there was no mystery left. Anyone passing by on the street could see everything that was taking place inside.

Of course, my first question was, “How in the world did you convince your members to let you do this.” “It’s simple,” Pastor Chuang replied, “they were so near death that they were willing to try anything.” That would confirm my own thesis about one of the primary criteria necessary to jump-start a struggling church in our own country. It’s not enough to be a small church in need of renewal. The church must be cognizant that, without bold action, they are probably at the end of the line. Simply put, they must be willing to take risks. This pastor makes it sound deceptively simple, but I’ve seen many churches that simply refuse to come to that realization.

So, here’s a laundry list of some of the other creative projects taken on by Pastor Chuang and his congregation. Right next to the sanctuary across the small parking lot there is a tree house. It is three stories high, and it is used not only to attract kids and teenagers, but also by adults who like meeting around the table on its high platform for their own classes. There’s also a climbing wall mounted on the side of the pastor’s house to the left of the driveway – easy to see from the street and a beacon to teenagers who might walk by. Behind the sanctuary there is a brand-new, state of the art, education and retreat center. It boasts a computer lab for the community, a high-school on the first floor for more than a dozen kids who are at risk of dropping out entirely because of their behavior problems, and rooms for up to thirty adults who come to participate in programs offered by the Presbytery.

As we spoke, the pastor emphasized that part of the secret for this church has been to band together with other small, rural churches in the area and to provide support for one another. The goal of creating teams of pastors and lay folks from the small churches in the presbytery are pretty basic. They are to promote holistic mission and ministry, empower the local churches and their ministers, support one another in taking risks, share resources with each other, take on mission projects together wherever feasible, and to transform their communities.

It helps that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan requires that all elders and pastors participate in continuing education every year in order to keep their congregations vital and healthy. Pastor Chuang is clear that his task is to support the church in ministering to the broader community. “We care for our neighbors,” he said. “The goal is to show them the love of Christ, and to build relationships that will make us the place they turn for support when they face a spiritual crisis, or any other kind of crisis.”

Tek Tung Presbyterian Church is a model for transformation, but it clearly isn’t alone. Later in the day we visited with the PCT Moderator, Rev. Chen, in his church of mostly poor, aboriginal folks who have migrated to the Changhua to look for work. His congregation founded a business to offer diversified cleaning and environmental services in order to offer meaningful employment to their members and others who came from the villages looking for work. Now, the company employs three hundred people and half a dozen members of this struggling little inner-city church have found enough financial security to purchase their own homes in the church neighborhood. It may be slow and painstaking work, but this looks like a pretty creative model for church transformation work as well.

Members of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan have attended the PC(USA) Church Transformation conferences for the last several years. Their leaders were quick to offer their gratitude for what they have learned, but as I spoke with Pastor Chuang and Moderator Chen, it was obvious to me that we ought to be intentional about learning from them as well. They have been bold and unapologetic in pushing their agenda to revitalize their small congregations. Their support is backed up by a strong commitment at the level of their General Assembly to do whatever it takes to support Presbyteries and local congregations when they commit to the hard work of church transformation.

Maybe we should send a delegation from the U.S. to look at what they are doing in Taiwan.


A Day in Seoul - messages from our partners


I only spent fourteen hours in Seoul with our partners from the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) and the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea, but the day was rich and full. Here are a few quick reflections.

I had to pinch myself to convince myself I was really here as we drove into Seoul from the big airport at Inchon about an hour away. With twenty degree temperatures, I was scraping away the frost on the window of the van in order to be able to watch the sun come up over the city of fourteen million people. Our only agenda for the day was to have lunch with the Moderators, General Secretaries, and Ecumenical officers of each of our two partner denominations. Since we only had one day in the city, our hosts took us to Kaesung Restaurant, named after a mountain in North Korea, that offered us a six or seven course meal and allowed us to try to compress the entire Korean culinary experience into just one meal.

The primary concern on the minds of our partners from both churches, though the leaders of the much smaller PROK took the lead in articulating it, was to ask for our support in their efforts to promote reconciliation between North and South Korea. “We have great affection for our sisters and brothers in the United States,” Rev. Park of the PROK said, “and we were in anguish with you after the events of 9/11. But we cannot support the way that you are conducting the War against Terrorism. Why not ask what is fueling such anger against the U.S.?”

Our partners expressed their own desire for the church to lead the way in letting go of the hatred and seeking reconciliation between North and South Korea. They insisted that most Koreans – from the North and the South - are ready to do so, and that they need support from our church to convince our own leaders that this is a time to promote peace between the two nations. They insisted that the U.S. government’s current posture in naming North Korea part of the “axis of evil” is working against the possibility for a genuine reconciliation between their countries. The PROK will be hosting a Peace Consultation in early May for partner churches from throughout the region in order to create an action plan to move boldly toward reconciliation, and they have asked the PC(USA) to send a representative in order to listen and to learn how we might be supportive of their agenda.

Rev. An, the Moderator of the large and thriving PCK, added that he recently attended the ground-breaking for the construction of a new church building in N. Korea. He said that the PCK’s commitment to nurture new churches in North Korea is a visible expression of the desire they share with their brothers and sisters in the PROK to bring down the borders that have divided South and North Korea for so many years.

Having listened carefully and affirmed the agenda of the leaders from the PROK, Rev. An then named the other agenda that was on the minds of many in their churches. He also began by affirming the historic ties between our churches and the great love that Presbyterians in Korea feel for Presbyterians in the PC(USA). His message was clear: though many in the PCK feel compelled to critique some of our denomination’s positions, they do so in love and with a clear commitment to work hard at improving our partnership.

“What you need to understand,” Rev. An told me, “is that the actions you take as a church have a direct impact on our church as well. We believe that there is a natural order of things articulated in the Bible, and that order proscribes only heterosexual marriage. Is it true,” he asked, “that same sex marriages are allowed in your denomination? If so, haven’t you gone to far?”

I assured Rev. An that I was there to listen, that I would do my best to faithfully share his concerns with others in our denomination, and that we value our historic and current ties with the Presbyterian Church of Korea as they do. I explained to him that our constitution does not affirm same-sex marriage, though it is no secret that there are many questions around sexual orientation that have our church deeply divided. On this issue, as on the questions around peacebuilding and U.S. relationships with N. Korea, Presbyterians in the U.S. are not of one mind. Where I do believe we have complete unity among Presbyterians, however, is in our commitment to a strong partnership with the PCK and PROK. All of us at the table agreed that we hold that commitment in common.

Our lunch conversation ended with an invitation. Rev. Cho, the General Secretary of the PCK, explained that their church experienced a moment of great renewal in 1907. In 2007, our sister congregations in Korea will celebrate the 100th anniversary of that renewal by rededicating themselves to building up the church. That revitalization will be grounded in four areas: church growth (fueled by Bible Study, personal commitment, evangelism and prayer), a strong commitment to service and mission, people-based ministry that focuses on those who have been most marginalized in society, and pursuing a vision for peace and reconciliation.

“Your missionaries had a great impact on us during that first revival.” Rev. Park of the PROK added, making it clear that their two denominations are clearly united on this matter as well. “We would like to extend an invitation to the PC(USA) to join by committing itself to similar renewal during our own celebration one hundred years later.”

So what do you think, Presbyterians? A revival of all of our congregations in the year 2007, animated by a strong commitment to church growth, mission, the power of “people-based ministry,” and pursuing an agenda of peace and reconciliation. It sounds pretty good to me.

I’ve been hearing about the dedication of Korean Presbyterians for many years. They are famous, and rightfully so, for filling their churches two and three times over before dawn each morning as Presbyterians begin their days in prayer. It was a great pleasure to meet with these dedicated leaders of our partner churches here. Next time, I intend to stay much longer than fourteen hours.

On to Taiwan tonight.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Intro to travel in Far East, Southeast Asia, and Middle East

Sisters and Brothers,

Here comes another adventure. I have received so many gifts from God as I have served as Moderator of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church (USA) this year. Perhaps the most meaningful has been the gift of new friends among our church partners around the world. Earlier in my term I visited Colombia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Peru and Bolivia (Scroll down to find reflections on each of those trips). Now, I’m on an all-night flight to Seoul, S. Korea. After one day there, we will go on to Taiwan (two days), India, (five days), Pakistan (four and a half days), and Jordan for meetings with Church leaders from the Middle East (the last three days).

On this trip, I’m accompanied by Edwin Gonzales, a friend and colleague who is an elected member of the General Assembly Council. Edwin is from Puerto Rico. He’s studying full time in Seminary and teaching full time at a Presbyterian High School there. We’ve had a few chances to speak together at meetings of the GAC, but I am looking forward to getting to know him far better during the trip. I’ll also be joined by our Worldwide Ministries Division “Area Coordinators” for each of the three regions of the world that we’ll visit this trip. Insik Kim covers all of Eastern Asia, Raafat Zaki is the coordinator for Central/Southeast Asia, and Victor Makari covers the Middle East and Europe. (Learn more about our efforts in these areas by linking to www.pcusa.org/worldwide.) These are the folks who are responsible for maintaining positive relationships with our partners in more than seventy countries around the world, and for providing a sense of coordination with our missionaries. I love working with them because they understand so well the nuances in each of the countries in which they work.

I’ve never been to any of the countries that we are scheduled to visit this trip. As I’ve traveled this year, I’ve found that the world simultaneously gets bigger and smaller each time I visit a new place. It seems as if God makes room for our hearts to expand as we meet real people. Newspaper articles I read about relations between North and South Korea make the country seem almost supernaturally bigger than life. Then, I meet folks who live there and the macro, world-sized challenges are reduced to friendships built on the hospitality of shared meals and the commonalities of a shared faith.

I’ll try to write as I go along, though I will probably have to bunch up my entries and post them several at a time because of the difficulties with getting consistent access to the internet.

Thanks to all of you Presbyterians out there who have given offered me this wonderful opportunity to represent our church with our sisters and brothers around the world.


How do we talk about torture?


It’s Friday afternoon, January 6th - a worship celebration for Epiphany (the arrival of the three kings who came to honor the Christ Child). There are about fifty of us standing in a circle in a small, grassy park beside the bay in Miami, FL. It’s sunny, but brisk and a little windy. We’re kind of an eclectic group. Many of us came at our own expense. All of us care about the bedrock principles of democracy, freedom, and fairness that have grounded our nation. Most of us are Presbyterian, there are a few folks who have had an uneasy relationship with organized religion, and there’s one college student who is Muslim. Everyone has agreed that our weekend together will be unapologetically Presbyterian in tone and content, though we will go out of our way to welcome and value each person’s contribution. Two-thirds of us are sleeping on the floor of the Sanctuary at Riviera Presbyterian Church, which has opened its doors to us.

We include a number of pastors, but most of us are lay people who are trying to help other Presbyterians talk openly and honestly about the difficult issue of torture. There are older folks, and more than a dozen young adults, and we’re from all over the country. Perhaps most importantly, our group includes several people who have given their lives to military service, a few others like myself who have dedicated ourselves to responding nonviolently to conflict, and a whole lot of average Presbyterians who fall somewhere in between. All of us have agreed that we will “bracket” this conversation about torture, and assume that we can find common ground on this issue even as we might disagree about other important matters.

We only have thirty-six hours together to study, worship, and decide how to support one another as we work to move our Presbyterian sisters and brothers to take a definitive stand against torture. Our study is kind of elegant in its simplicity; six speakers have been asked to share for twenty minutes each on their topic. After each speech, we do a quick Q&A and then break into three small groups to talk about how each speaker’s reflections might guide us in our work with congregations, among college students and young adults, and in what we’ve been calling the “military community,” by which we mean those in the armed forces and their families. Our speakers include a theologian, a lawyer, a staffer from the Presbyterian Washington Office, a retired military chaplain, an expert on the psychological effects of torture on both the victim and the perpetrator, and a pastor. All of the presentations are made in a somewhat quiet tone, with great appreciation for the complexity of the issues surrounding torture.

And now, we’ve gathered to worship in the park. We’ve chosen this place because we like the image of standing on the shores of the United States and looking to the rest of the world in an attitude of both repentance and hope on this day when we celebrate the arrival of Jesus in our midst. It’s pretty identifiable as a Presbyterian order of worship: a call to worship, a confession and assurance of God’s forgiveness, two scripture passages, the spoken word, communion, song, and a charge and benediction.

Here’s what really moved me. There were two parts to the spoken word. The first was a series of six readings, words taken directly from those who have experienced torture at the hands of U.S. military personnel in Abu Graeb and Guantanamo Bay. I confess that I found it hard to listen to the words. I was uncomfortable, and at first I felt as if it was inappropriate to worship this way. As I listened though, I thought about the reality that my discomfort is shared by most Presbyterians I know. Talk about torture done in our name makes us squirm because “this isn’t really us.”

But as I listened, I remembered visiting the chapel on the campus of the Jesuit University in San Salvador on the 20th anniversary of Monsignor Romero’s assassination by government sanctioned death squads. The chapel is located immediately beside the house where, nine years after Romero’s death, six Jesuit Priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were brutally murdered in the middle of the night in November, 1989. We know now that they were killed by the Salvadoran military, some of whom had received training at the U.S. military’s “School of the Americas.”

On the walls of the Romero chapel are graphic, black and white paintings that portray the torture practiced by the military and its death squads as they attempted to spread a message of fear and intimidation among the Salvadoran people during the 1980’s. When I visited the chapel for the first time, I was shocked by the large, inescapable, disturbing paintings in God’s place of worship. Though I wanted to turn away, I was moved by the deepest sense of confession I had ever experienced. These atrocities were committed by people who went to church and by people who felt that they were protecting themselves and their country from subversives. In the process of trying to protect themselves, they themselves became the very worst kind of evil they thought they were trying to escape.

Back in the park in Miami, after the readings, we were led in communion by Arlene Gordon, the Executive Presbyter of Tropical Florida Presbytery, and Ed Brogan, the director of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel. As they said the words of institution, I looked out across the water, and I felt hopeful about the possibility that, with God, all things are possible. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people of faith and conscience in our country stand firmly against the practice of torture, our is the message that will be heard by our sisters and brothers around the world. As Megan Burns, a Presbyterian Young Adult volunteer, sang a beautiful and moving song accompanied by a guitar, each of us stepped forward to be served by Ed and Arlene.

And then, there were genuine words of hope - three more readings. The first was from Army Captain Ian Fishback, from the First Battalion, 504th Parachute Division, 82nd Airborne, whose grandparents go to a Presbyterian Church in Grinnell, Iowa. As I listened to his courageous call to live the best values of our country, I found myself in the wonderful position of being a pacifist and peace activist who felt proud of both my country and our military. His are the values that all of us can affirm. The second was a reading from my friend Sheila Provencher, who has been serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq ever since we trained together with CPT in the summer of 2003. The last was from Tom Fox, a Quaker CPT volunteer who was abducted in Iraq in November. There has been no word about Tom or the other three CPTers since early December. These were messages of hope, calling us to the best of who God insists that we can be.

Back at the church the next morning, while the group was strategizing about next steps, I fell into a conversation in Spanish with Daisy, the woman who does the housekeeping at Riviera Presbyterian. As I expressed our gratitude for all the ways she had helped us pull the event together, she insisted that the pleasure had been hers. She is Salvadoran, and her husband was tortured and murdered in El Salvador in the 1980’s. She fled the violence with her daughter and made her way, on her own and without documents, across Mexico and into the United States as she sought safety. There were tears in her eyes as she talked about how much she appreciated the faithful witness of so many churches in the United States in the 1980’s when they stood firmly for human rights and basic human dignity of Central American refugees.

And there you have it. A moment of God’s grace; the best of who we can be; a challenge to stand for fundamental values of decency and human rights even in this time of fear; a picture of how lives are touched when we do.

Please join us by making public and clear your unequivocal stand against torture.


By now, the quotes from our worship may be up on the NO2TORTURE website: www.no2torture.org.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

High School Students - Check out Sheldon Jackson College

Sheldon Jackson - Alaskan Education in a Christian Environment

Bet you didn’t know that Sheldon Jackson is a Presbyterian College located right on the waterfront in Sitka Alaska. Bet you didn’t know that it has what is arguably one of the top two or three fish hatchery programs among any college in the United States. Bet you didn’t know it is a ridiculously good tuition value, and that there are only about three hundred students there. Bet you didn’t know about the historical museum on the Sheldon Jackson campus, or the really cool marine biology program, or all the other degree programs that SJ offers. Bet you didn’t know that Sitka is located in a beautiful rainforest, and that there’s sea kayaking, biking, hiking, skiing (if you’re willing to hike up the mountain) and amazing mountain scenery there.

I didn’t know about any of that until I visited last fall, but I’ll tell you what – if I was going to go back to college, Sheldon Jackson would be among the top half dozen schools that I would look at.

Check it out at http://www.sheldonjackson.edu.

And if SJC doesn’t float your boat, check out the rest of our Presbyterian Colleges and Universities at www.apcu.net

Don’t choose a college without looking at these schools too.


Visit to Whitworth College

Whitworth College, in Spokane, is one of more than sixty colleges and universities that identify themselves as “Presbyterian Related.” Those colleges represent a wide variety of definitions of “Presbyterian relatedness.” Some were founded as Presbyterian institutions, but have long ago given up any real attachment to that part of their identity. A few are highly Presbyterian in their identity, with required chapel attendance, strict codes of conduct for their students and a required Christian belief and practice for their faculty. Most are somewhere along the spectrum that exists between those two extremes. I’ve now visited close to thirty of them, and I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen.

Whitworth is one of a handful that I’ve visited where there is a clear commitment to affirming their identity as a Presbyterian and Christian institution of higher education. I visited with faculty and administrators on a cold Saturday night in early November, and then had the opportunity to meet with some of their students over breakfast at eight a.m. the next morning. (That’s right, more than a dozen students were willing to get up at 7:30 on a Sunday morning to meet with the “moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Kind of boggles the mind, doesn’t it?)

Here’s what impresses me. Without asking all of our Presbyterian-related colleges to be the same, I do believe that there is an important place for those schools that nurture an atmosphere that will overtly support students as they wrestle with questions of faith and who God calls them to be in the world. At Whitworth, this is not about telling the students what they must believe. However, the students are encouraged to connect the exploration of what they believe about God with the material that they are studying. Further, the students are affirmed when they go out into the community and the broader world to experiment with ways to live out their commitments as people of faith.

If the students I met were any indication, this kind of education is nurturing a body of students who will change the world. In fact, I saw it just a few hours later on that Sunday morning, when I visited Westminster House, a program founded more than fifteen years ago by Whitworth graduates who made a commitment to live their beliefs by volunteering to live in community together in a rough neighborhood on the edge of Spokane. (Check out Evan Silverstein’s story about this program with the Presbyterian News Service at http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2005/05692.htm.)

I’ve written before that I believe one of the primary places to cultivate the renewal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is with our Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. My visit to Whitworth did a lot to confirm that belief. Check out these links:

Whitworth College www.whitworth.edu

The Presbyterian Association of Colleges and Universities: www.apcu.net


and our denominations work with Presbyterian Collegiate Ministries at: http://www.pcusa.org/collegiate/index.htm.

It is absolutely possible to get a rigorous academic education in an atmosphere that encourages the exploration of one's faith. If that's what you're looking for, this is one of a number of Presbyterian Schools you should check out.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

From the Yakama Nation Reservation

It’s a Sunday night at the Community Presbyterian Church in Wapato, Washington, on the Yakama Nation Reservation. There are about thirty kids sitting on folding chairs in the social hall. It could be any church, with any youth group, anywhere, except that the leader of this ministry, a young Commissioned Lay Pastor (CLP) named Cory Greaves, is aiming it directly at the Native American kids. The evening reminds me of the Young Life gatherings I attended twenty-five years ago in southern Pennsylvania; start with time to hang out with the teens, move on to silly games, sing a few songs, and offer a moving personal testimony.

So picture this: It’s game time and two kids go to the front of the room. Cory has a six-foot long clear plastic tube - about a half inch in diameter - that he has filled with some kind of slushy drink by taking a gulp of it, then spitting it gently into the tube while keeping both ends up in the air. The object of the game is for each of the two contestants to blow into their ends of the tube until one or the other of them manages to force the liquid into their opponent’s mouth. It is absolutely as gross as it sounds. The teenagers were delighted with the game.

One of the boys quickly established himself as the champion as he wiped out four or five opponents in a row. Inevitably, as the game came to its conclusion, the question was raised as to whether anyone could beat him. Inevitably, I raised my hand. (Can you see where this is going?)

There’s a lot to celebrate about what this church is doing. The commitment shown by the congregation, by pastor David Norwood, and by Cory himself, to reach out to this group of kids and offer to mentor them reminds me of the personal attention that made such a difference to me when I was their age. Cory tells me that one of the things he wants to offer these kids is a relationship with young adults from the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer program, or others who have come as volunteers through Inter-Varsity. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I want the kids from the Yakama Nation to know that they’re just as smart as those young adults. I want them to realize that there’s no reason they couldn’t go to college, too, or become a young adult volunteer. They have something to offer.”

But there are problems, too, of course. The church is struggling to keep this program afloat financially. Cory’s process of becoming a CLP has been arduous, though it is obvious that he has clearly been recognized as a pastor in this community for a long time. Some in the congregation wonder about the program’s value when the kids don’t show up regularly for church on Sunday morning. Besides, we’re only talking about twenty-five kids, here. What about all the rest who fall through the cracks? Throughout the evening I could here a voice in my head asking whether this program was getting to the fundamental structural injustices that make the statistics so depressingly abysmal in the Yakama Nation as with so many other Native American reservations: the highest high school drop-out rates, high incidence of alcoholism, high unemployment, way too many families below the poverty line, the list goes on and on.

And yet, it is an inescapable fact that folks like Gregg Townsley and Bob and Linda Rambo, my own youth pastor and adult volunteers in my youth group back at First Pres, York PA, changed my life when they discipled me into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. It seems like that alone is reason to keep on keeping on with ministries like this one in places like Wapato, Washington. The kids I met at Community Pres. that night are clearly as deserving of that kind of special attention as I was, and I expect some of them will lead different lives because of it, just as I have.

Just so you know, this program has received funding from the undesignated mission dollars your church sends to the General Assembly.

And by the way, you’ll be glad to hear that the Moderator of the General Assembly is the undistiputed king of the “spit through a tube” contest in Wapato.

Trusting that God has a great sense of humor,


link to Rick's article on the church of the 21rst Century

Sisters and brothers,

One of the reasons that I was so quiet on my blog in the month of December is because I was working on an article for the Presbyterian Outlook. It contains my reflections on the challenges confronting the Presbyterian Church (USA) as we look to the twenty-first century. Since it is quite long, and may not interest the non-Presbyterians among you, you can link to it at www.pres-outlook.org if you like.

The Outlook has recently done a complete makeover on their website, and it’s worth signing up (no cost) to read extended articles, and browsing on-line every now and then.

With hope that we can become a new kind of church,


A Report from a PC(USA) Colombia Accompanier

Dr. Philip E. Gates, Trinity PC, Prescott, AZ, served as a PCUSA volunteer accompanier
in Colombia June 30 through August 31, 2005. The following is his report.

Colombia has endured civil war for 41 years. While visiting with Colombian Presbyterian Church (IPC) Executive Secretary Milton Mejia in September 2004, Rick Ufford Chase, PCUSA moderator, was with Milton when he was informed of the midday assassination of friend and fellow human rights advocate Professor Alfredo de Correa Andreis. Professor Andreis’ murder was a defining moment for Moderator Ufford-Chase. Upon his return to the United States Rick sought and received approval of the GA Assembly Council for our denomination to establish an accompanier program with the (IPC).

Because the IPC plays a leadership role in attempting to restore respect for human rights in all of Colombia, its clergy and lay leaders are at high risk, much as was the case of Professor Andreis. At one point in time, Milton Mejia himself had to leave the country for three months until authorities could apprehend an individual who had issued a credible threat on his life. During his 11-year tenure as Executive Secretary, Milton has assisted five IPC pastors and their families in going underground because of death threats related to the pastors’ human rights work.

Assassinations of human rights advocates in Colombia, including approximately 100 priests and pastors over the past ten years, is but one of the tragic legacies of this four decade old internal conflict. In addition, an average of 3,000 innocent civilians are murdered by one of the two major warring factions, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), or by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (paramilitaries), who are funded by the drug war-lords and wealthy Colombian landowners. Four million landowners, mostly farmers and ranchers, have been forced off their land by these two armed forces. They want control of as much land as possible for militarily strategic purposes, and to use it for cultivation of the coca bean and poppies used in the manufacturing of cocaine and heroin. The majority of the four million people displaced from their land have fled to the cities where they live in slums or on the streets. About 500,000 of them have fled to other countries. Sixty-five per cent of all Colombians (28 million people) live at or below the international poverty level. In short, the majority of Colombians live in misery, fear, and hopelessness because of a war that seems to know no end.

Since Moderator Ufford-Chase received approval for the accompaniment program in November 2004, our church has been sending pairs of volunteers to Barriquilla to accompany IPC church leaders on a month-by-month basis. They reside on the campus of the IPC’s national headquarters in Barranquilla, Colombia. Their job is to, in Rick Ufford-Chase’s words, “Go see and be seen.” As simple and direct as this charge is, its positive impact on IPC clergy, members and non-Presbyterian associates is immense. Many of the accompaniers have reported various Colombia clergy and members telling them “Your presence is an answer to prayer:” “You are saving lives.” “With you here we feel more confident.” “Threats to us have lessened.”

Dr. Philip E. Gates, a life-long Presbyterian and currently a member of Trinity PC, Prescott, AZ was one of 10 Presbyterians trained for this volunteer work in Tacoma Park, MD in February 2005 by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF). He, along with Presbyterian Kathryn “Cat” Bucher, Sherman, TX, served as an accompanier the month of July. Gates’ assignment was extended through August when another accompanier scheduled for that time had to cancel.

Following are a few examples of the suffering being experienced by many of the 28 million poor and 4 million displaced persons who Gates, along with his colleague Cat Bucher, observed during their accompaniment work (names of people intentionally omitted for security purposes):

A young couple with eight children living in a displaced persons shanty town on the outskirts of Barranquilla are living on less than one dollar a day. While sitting in their small, unpainted and weathered wooden shack with corrugated tin roof, dirt floors, no electricity, and no running water, the man of the house told us he tries to find work as a field hand. However, because there are so many unemployed displaced people seeking work, he is only able to get employment a couple days a week, not enough to feed his family. Therefore, his wife found a job as a cook at a daycare center in Barranquilla. Each day, she rises at 2:30 a.m., walks five miles to the center, cooks a noon meal, gets paid in food, walks back home with her groceries, and prepares an evening meal for her family. “At least our children do not go to bed hungry,” said her husband.

In another displaced person community, again on the outskirts of Barranquilla, we observed community members purchasing 25-gallon plastic containers of water from donkey cart vendors. When our escort, a human rights worker, asked them why they were purchasing water when the city is to provide it by water tanker truck twice weekly at no charge, they responded there had been no water truck deliveries in their community for several weeks. Our escort told them he would show them how to complete the appropriate paper work to notify the city of this problem. Filing a report like this is risky.

In another displaced community, four representatives were sent to the Mayor’s Office in Barranquilla to report certain irregularities in delivery of city services to which the community was entitled by law. Within days all four were found murdered, most likely by those who had been pocketing money originally designated for the undelivered city services.

We met a young woman living in the city of Soledad who tried to make it to her government-assigned medical clinic, a two-hour bus ride, to deliver her baby. The infant was born enroute, and died of complications. Members of her displaced community told us they wish they had a car that could be used for community emergencies such as this.

We had a two-hour meeting with five women living in Carmen de Bolivar, a city of 70,000 located in the interior of the country, about 100 miles east of Cartagena. All five had fled with their families from their mountain community of 6,000 people after guerrillas entered and began massacring residents to frighten them off their land. Each woman discussed how she had been forced to flee, leaving everything behind, including valued livestock. Each told us she had lost one or more family members, friends or neighbors during the massacre.

During a period set aside for lunch at the community center where we were meeting, my colleague, Cat Bucher, a trained massage therapist, offered to massage the legs of one of women. In her 80’s, she had complained of chronic leg pains. Later, my colleague told me that while massaging the woman’s legs, she’d asked the elderly lady when the pains had started. The woman stated that they had begun shortly after she had been forced to watch her adult daughter tortured and killed during the massacre in her village.

Even when displaced persons flee to the cities in search of safety, they are still in danger. Paramilitary death squads periodically enter the shanty towns looking for those suspected of having fought or at least aided the enemy and/or who were witnesses to paramilitary acts of violence. In one community we visited in early July, we were told that in the preceding six months, seven members of their community had been assassinated. In a second community, we were told that in the month prior, one of their community members had been assassinated and five had been wounded, one seriously. In still a third community, a young married couple on their way to work were beheaded by a para death squad while the couple’s children looked on.

During conversations with various clergy over the nine weeks he was in Colombia, Gates met a priest jailed for alleged subversive teaching and later exonerated, but who still fears he will be assassinated by those who perceive him as guilty. Another priest told fellow accompanier Bucher that his anticipated assignment to a parish requiring his human rights expertise believes it will be his last posting inasmuch as the three preceding priests assigned there have all been assassinated. A Presbyterian pastor shared in intimate detail with Gates his account of being extorted for several million pesos because of his alleged subversive teaching. Anonymous sources continued to harass him by telephone, and with mail drops, which included pictures of his teen age daughters going to and coming from school. Ultimately, police were able to track the perpetrators down (though they eluded capture), and after six months of terror, the pastor and his family have returned to a fairly normal existence.

Despite this climate, IPC clergy have played a leadership role in organizing and coordinating the “Red Ecumenica” (Ecumenical Network) in which many denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian) have joined together to improve human rights conditions in all of Colombia. Since organizing six years ago, it has started 35 human rights centers in as many cities throughout Colombia to assist the poor and displaced in procuring decent housing, health care, job training, food and clothing, legal assistance, etc.

Those in power see this human rights activism as interference. A variety of hostile activities have been initiated to try to curtail the forward motion of the churches in this regard. During these difficult and dangerous times, PCUSA will continue to stand in solidarity with its faithful and courageous sisters and brothers of all faiths in Colombia. In October of this year, eight more accompaniers were trained for PCUSA by PPF, and they, too, are being assigned in pairs to go “See and be seen” in the year ahead.

If interested in learning how to become involved as an accompanier or wish to have a program presentation about the accompaniment program at your church or civic organization please contact Dr. Phil Gates, 145 N. Rocky Dells Dr., Prescott, AZ 86303, 928-541-9458, drmsg@aol.com for more information. Because the costs of the PPF training and the expenses for accompanier participation (approximately $2,500 for one month’s service) must be covered by voluntary contributions, anyone interested in helping with the costs of this program is invited to send a tax deductible check to Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960, c/o “Accompaniment.”

An update on accompaniment in Colombia


Though the human rights situation in Colombia continues to be grim, there is much to celebrate in the ever-deepening relationship between the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) and the Presbyterian Church (USA). I recently received a letter from Milton Mejia, the General Secretary of the IPC, and he was unabashedly enthusiastic in his appreciation for the work of more than two-dozen volunteers who have provided continuous accompaniment for more than thirteen months.

Here’s how the program works. Presbyterians who are interested in volunteering (raising their funds through friends, family, churches and presbyteries) go to www.pcusa.org/onedoor to fill out the application for short-term service. Once they are approved as “official” volunteers (meaning we’ve done appropriate background checks, etc.), they go to a three-day training coordinated by Kelly Wesselink, the Colombia Accompaniment Program Coordinator for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

The orientation includes an overview of the situation in Colombia and shared experiences from past volunteers, a description of the basic responsibilities as delineated by our church partners there, and the underlying philosophy of nonviolent accompaniment work. The weekend is, in part, a time of discernment for both the volunteer and for Peace Fellowship steering committee members to determine whether each person there is genuinely called by God to this kind of service to the church. Part of that discernment is to pair the volunteers and assign them an appropriate time to spend a month volunteering with our sisters and brothers in Colombia.

Finally, the volunteers head for Colombia. Their mission is to “see and be seen.” They are to be international eyes and to accompany the courageous church leader, both laity and pastors, in their work documenting human rights abuses and working with those who have been displaced by the violence. During their time in the country, and when they come home, they are asked to share their experiences to help connect Presbyterians in the United States with Colombians who are at risk of being targeted by any one of the armed actors: guerilla forces, paramilitary forces, or government forces.

Milton has asked us to consider expanding the program to send two teams simultaneously in order to be deployed in more than one location. We are hopeful that we will be able to respond affirmatively to his request. We have more than thirty people who have expressed interest in the next training, which will take place the end of February, and we are always looking for more interested persons. You need to be able bodied, above twenty-one years of age, and flexible in attitude. Spanish is helpful, but not mandatory. If you’re interested, please check www.presbypeacefellowship.org for stories of past accompaniers. Contact Kelly Wesselink at Kelly_ppf@yahoo.com for more information about the training.

I will follow this entry with a reflection shared by my friend Phil Gates, who told me last fall that he never would have imagined himself an accompanier, and that the experience changed his life.

This year, let’s change the world for Christ.