U-C: What I See

Sunday, May 28, 2006


I arrived home last night after three weeks of travel - mostly in churches in the mid-west. Today I am trying to prepare for the last major event of my term as Moderator. This week I will be joining a group of ninety people who will spend the week walking through seventy-five miles of the Sonoran desert to follow the trail of the migrants. The event, called the Migrant Trail: We walk for Life http://www.derechoshumanosaz.net/migrant_trail_2006.php4 will begin tomorrow, Memorial Day in the border town of Sasabe where so many of the migrants are beginning their journey. It will finish seven days later with a rally in Tucson, Arizona.

I'll be hiking with many colleagues from the border region, of course, but I'll also be accompanied by a thirteen year old named Ben from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I met Ben and his folks at an event at Maryville College in February of 2005. During my talk, I encouraged those present to consider getting rid of their televisions as a step toward creating the space in our lives for more active engagement in living our faith. This is a pitch that I often make, and it typically finds resonance with some folks, and others often to write me letters expressing outrage that I would make such a ludicrous suggestion.

Anyway, on this particular evening when I finished my talk, Ben was the first person in the audience to raise his hand. He wanted to know how he could convince his folks to let him go on a mission trip. Somewhat glibly, I responded that if he would agree to get rid of his t.v., I would convince his folks to let him go "do mission." With ear-to-ear grins, Ben and his folks, Peggy and Dan, shook hands on it right there in front of everyone.

What I learned over the next few days is that the Terpstra family is actually quite committed to all kinds of mission service work, and Ben's dad has led groups of students into Latin America on environmental trips, they've participated in Katrina relief work - and the list could go on. Ben's situation is special, however. When he was nine, he contracted a life-threatening illness, eventually diagnosed as "Guillion Barre Syndrome." It was not at all clear that Ben was going to make it, and he lost the better part of a year in recovery. The experience clearly deepened Ben's interest in living life as fully as possible, and put him in touch with his faith and his desire to do something meaningful in a way that is foreign to the vast majority of eleven-year-olds in our country. It also is quite reasonable that his folks' tendency could tend toward caution and protection.

Well, to make a very long story short, Ben and his folks did, indeed, give up cable and put the television away, and last October, all three of them joined me for a BorderLinks trip that I led in Arizona and Sonora. Toward the end of the trip, we attended church at Sol de Justicia Presbyterian Church, part of the Presbyterian Border Ministry project in Sonora called "Companeros en Mision." (You can check out their website at http://www.binationalministry.org/companerosenmision). Sol de Justicia has made a pretty consistent effort to offer an evening meal to migrants in the shelter that is less than a block from their church. One of their needs, they explained, was to provide phone cards for migrants to be able to call their families, and they said that it was beyond their budget to come up with the forty or fifty dollars a month to support the migrants in that way.

After a quick consultation with his folks, Ben asked to speak with the young woman who was pastoring the church. He suggested that their family would be willing to send the forty dollars they were saving on cable service each month to the church to buy phone cards.

During the week, Ben also learned about the migrant trail that has taken place each of the last couple of years during the first week of June. By the time he left, he was trying to cajole his parents into letting him return to do the walk. His parents agreed when I suggested that I also wanted to do the Walk this year, and that I would be willing to take responsibility for Ben if they wanted to send him.

So last night, a couple of hours after I arrived home, my son Teo and I returned to the airport to pick up Ben. Tonight, we'll join the rest of the walkers for an orientation, and tomorrow we will begin the journey. I will do my best to journal during the week, so that I can post a couple of blog entries when I return.

I can think of no better way to wrap up my term as moderator than to spend time in the desert. The desert wilderness is such a theme throughout scripture, time after time God's people end up in the desert as they look for renewal or a clearer sense of God's call. I'm looking forward to the coming week, at least in part, because I am in need of serious discernment as I think about where God might be calling me next.

I remember that Gandhi quote that I found and blogged when I was in India last January:

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

I think this is probably the best place I could be to do the kind of memory work that Gandhi proposes. Please keep Ben and I, and all the other walkers, in your prayers during the coming week. Even more importantly, please remember the migrants who are crossing the borderlands themselves this week in search of survival for themselves and their families. As you move around your own community, keep your eyes open to see where those folks are, and stay ready for the possibility that God might be calling you to accompaniment, to the margins, with those who are most at risk right there, wherever you live.

We cry out for peace, though there is no peace.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

What a commencement should be - thoughts from Bloomfield College


Thursday morning found me participating in a second commencement, this time at Bloomfield College located a few miles from downtown Newark, NJ. (Check out their website at www.bloomfield.edu) Like most of the other schools I've visited, Bloomfield has strong Presbyterian roots. This school was started initially as a seminary for German speaking immigrants, and over the last century it has morphed into an amazing liberal arts college. What makes Bloomfield almost entirely uniqe among our Presbyterian related colleges and universities is its high level of commitment to diversity.

As I sat on the stage, under a tent in the small quad at Bloomfield, I felt like I had been transported from "Presbyterian land" into another world. I'd say fewer than twenty percent of the student body was European American. Most of the students were African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, African, and even a smattering from eastern Europe. Most are the first generation in their families to go to college, and many are participating in a creative, non-traditional, weekend oriented academic program that allows non-traditional students to work on a degree while continuing to work to support their families.

The graduation ceremony was barely controlled bedlam. While the students were listening and thoughtful when each of the speakers spoke, the place erupted in between speakers and the din never dropped throughout the hour of hooding each one of the 227 graduates. Students were yelling to one another, screaming (supportively) for each graduate that crossed the stage, and standing on their chairs in order to wave and yell their gratitude to their families. There was laughter, and more than once a group of students would break into song, or yell in unison "we love you, Dr. so and so" to one of their professors.

These students know they have something to celebrate, and their deep appreciation and profound sense of community put a lump in my throat. Bloomfield College's mission statement says that the institution is committed to preparing a generation of students who know how to be leaders in a multicultural and global world, and it was clear that they are doing it. Many of these students speak English as a second language, and many more grew up speaking English as a first language but maintaining the language of their immigrant parents.

I was proud to be offered an honorary degree from this institution, because folks here are living the commitments that every one of our Presbyterian Colleges should be striving for (and many are). Presbyterians were known one hundred years ago for being on the frontier, where they founded institutions of higher learning in the places where no one else wanted to do so. In today's world, that frontier is going to be discovered wherever we are at work creating a new generation of leaders who know how to live their faith in a way that boldly stands against all of the hatred and violence and mistrust and inequity that currently characterizes our relationships around the world.

So there you go, two honorary degrees last week (you can just call me Dr. Dr.) from two Presbyterian institutions that are working hard to propel a new generation of leaders with border-crossing skills into the world. Pretty different contexts - from Hastings College in the plains of small town Nebraska, to Bloomfield College on the edges of Newark and the New York Metro region, these and many others of our Presbyterian schools are preparing students to stand against the ego-centrism and nationalism of the dominant culture and to prepare students to live as God calls them to live in the world.

Kind of a hopeful week.


Friday, May 26, 2006


Becky White Newgren, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, sent me this photo of Princeton students who wanted to make a statement about their common commitment to unity as we approach the Presbyterian General Assembly in June. Here's her explanation of how it came to be and the message they wanted to send:

One hundred and twenty-five students including many faculty and administrators stood side by side on the steps of Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary on April 17th, 2006 to symbolize their commitment to the unity of the Presbyterian Church (USA). They responded to a couple emails and a few signs that asked them to put their face behind the following statement:

Being aware of many issues that could divide the PCUSA, we stand here representing different viewpoints on these issues, but we desire to reflect the unity of Christ and to serve in ministry together.

Organizing this photo is something that God laid on my heart. I procrastinated for a while, but then realized that if I, a future PCUSA minister, felt like I wanted to say something to the General Assembly this summer, maybe others at Princeton Seminary did as well. As a denomination, we have some very serious issues before us that we need to consider humbly before our God. The Church for centuries has let serious issues divide it, and I pray that the PCUSA can find a way to be the body of Christ together in all of our diversities. It is my prayer that the PCUSA will realize that the unity of Christ is much stronger than any current issues that divide us.

Those are my words. The people in the picture agreed only to the statement. But the photo itself was an event. At any seminary, students are often given the opportunity to agree and disagree over theological and political matters, but that day on the steps of the chapel, people who are typically on polar opposite sides of any debate came together in a spirit of humility and gratitude, in the Spirit of God, to stand for unity in the PCUSA. Our hope is that this photo will make a positive impact on the commissioners and visitors at General Assembly this June.

Friends, as we approach this Assembly, I ask you to be in prayer for our church, not for its own sake, but for the sake of all that we can accomplish when we agree to put first things first and to truly live our faith in Jesus Christ in the world.

As Moderator, I've grown into a new respect for the letters of Paul. He also was dealing with early Christians who were deeply divided - over what they believed to be matters of great substance. Check out his advice to the Philippians in the second chapter (New Testament - small book toward the back :)

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete; be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in hman likeness. And being found in human for, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.

May we hold Paul's words, and this powerful image from the students at Princeton, in our hearts as we approach this important moment in the life of the church.

Thanks Becky!


What's an education for? Migrant Art from Altar Sonora


It's not such a very long way from Nebraska to the U.S./Mexico border.

Last weekend I had the honor to offer the commencement address at Hastings College, a small, liberal arts college founded by Presbyterians that is located about one hundred and seventy miles west of Omaha. I was pleased to be asked, because lately Hastings students seem to be showing up in many of the places that are important to me. For instance, more than a dozen students have spent time at BorderLinks learning about migrants over the last year, and several of them came down to hang out for more than a month last summer.

While I was on campus, I was re-aquainted with two of the students I had met on the border, affectionately known by friends and faculty alike as "the M & M's. Melissa and Molly are part of the Vocaton and Values program that Hastings offers for students who want to explore ways in which their faith is integrated into their sense of vocation.

This spring, Molly and Melissa decided to do a class project on migrant art. They raised enough money to spend spring break on their own in Altar Sonora, and they took paints and forty canvases with them. Then, they hung out in the plaza in Altar where migrants are getting off the bus and trying to figure out how to get across the border. When they invited some of the folks they met to paint their feelings about their journey, they were overwhelmed by the response that it ilicited.

I've asked them to put the resulting paintings up on the Hastings website. You can find it at http://www.hastings.edu/igsbase/igstemplate.cfm?SRC=MD014&SRCN=index&GnavID=144&SnavID=289&TnavID=274

If you're at all interested in the current conversation in the media and in our congress regarding migrants, I hope you'll take the time to look at these paintings, which are quite moving. If you have access to email networks or other blogs, I hope you'll post this link to help us get these images out there.

Both graduating seniors and the rest of the student body impressed me a great deal during my visit to Hastings. Somehow, Hastings is pulling off a major shift in the campus culture, and their students are becoming more and more invested in how to make a difference in the rest of the world. When you finish looking at Molly's and Melissa's project, you might take a couple of minutes to learn more about the Vocation and Values program, and to check out the rest of what Hastings has to offer.



Friday, May 05, 2006

Presbyterians, Israel/Palestine, and Corporate Engagement

Comment and advice from the General Assembly Council to the 217th General Assembly (2006) regarding all overtures relating to our witness for peace and expressions of conscience in Israel and Palestine

The Office of the General Assembly has received more than two-dozen overtures related to the actions of the 216th General Assembly (2004) regarding Israel and Palestine. The General Assembly Council (GAC), with guidance from an informal group convened by Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004), at the request of the GAC, has carefully reviewed these overtures and submits the following comment and advice to the 217th General Assembly (2006).


The General Assembly Council recognizes the goodwill and concern for peace and justice reflected in all the overtures. The intense debate occasioned by the actions of the 216th General Assembly (2004) regarding “phased, selective divestment” from companies whose products, activities, or services support the violence of the conflict in Israel and Palestine is grounded in the inescapable reality that as Presbyterians we have deep, meaningful, and historic ties with many of the primary players in the conflict.

Our Christian partners in the region ask Presbyterians to hear and act on their grave concerns about the injustice of the occupation. They are clear that a peaceful resolution of the conflict will be unattainable as long as the occupation continues to make it impossible for Palestinians to create a viable state that offers genuine hope for their children’s future. The church’s own mission experience in the region impresses upon us that no Palestinian can be secure in the midst of the violence and daily oppression that define the military and economic occupation of the West Bank.

Our Jewish partners, both in the United States and Israel, are clear that no legitimate peace can be possible without a guarantee that the State of Israel will be respected by all of the surrounding nations in the region, or without genuine safety for the citizens of Israel who live under the constant threat of attack against civilians. Further, they have worked hard to help Presbyterians understand that we must “go the extra mile” in an attempt to stand against a two-thousand-year history of Christian violence against the Jews that culminated in the Holocaust.

Our partners in both Israeli and Palestinian peace organizations have continued to call on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to find ways to support their positive efforts for reconciliation and the creation of a lasting, just, and durable peace that will allow their peoples to live together in two viable, side-by-side states.

Presbyterians have learned that most people—including many of our own members—who care deeply about these matters find it difficult, perhaps even impossible, to articulate the concerns and desires of one of our partners in this entrenched conflict without denying the validity of the concerns of the other. This is perhaps our greatest challenge, a critical balancing act as we continue to move across the high-tension wire of working to be a genuine partner for peace in the region.

The General Assembly Council notes the following concerns, many of which are broadly shared across our denomination, for careful attention by the 217th General Assembly (2006) as it considers these overtures:

Many Presbyterians are fully committed to the ongoing support of our Christian partners in the Middle East who have called on us to continue the sensitive and careful implementation of the work of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee as regards the action of the 216th General Assembly (2004) to engage those corporations in which we hold stock about our social witness policy.

Many Presbyterians are extremely concerned about the actions of the 216th General Assembly (2004)—especially regarding the specific language of “divestment”—and its unintended meaning and consequence for our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Many Presbyterians are calling on the 217th General Assembly (2006) to encourage the exploration of alternative investments that promote peace (especially joint efforts by Palestinians and Israelis), strengthen the economies in Israel and the occupied territories, and work toward a viable, two-state solution.

Some Presbyterians have called on us to empower a working group to continue to work intentionally on these matters with special attention to the following concerns:

- The quickly changing political realities in both Israel and Palestine;
- The need to build consensus around our core values as people of faith, even when some of those core values may appear to be in contradiction with one another;
- A commitment to strengthen and support all efforts to build positive understanding and relationships within and among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Israel and Palestine, in the Middle East, and in the United States.

The General Assembly Council urges the 217th General Assembly (2006) to keep in careful balance all of the tensions we have noted above as it sorts its way through the various proposals and overtures.

As commissioners and advisory delegates wrestle with these sensitive issues, the General Assembly Council advises the 217th General Assembly (2006) to:

1. Empower the Moderators of the 216th and 217th General Assemblies to create a working group of seven members that will:

a. Carefully monitor ongoing developments of the situation in the Middle East;
b. Intentionally listen to Presbyterians and our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends in the Middle East and the United States; and
c. Develop guidance that honors each of their concerns as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) considers how to move forward on these sensitive issues.
d. Report its findings to the 218th General Assembly (2008), in conjunction with the General Assembly Council.

We urge the Moderators of the 216th and 217th General Assemblies to ensure that the working group be made up of Presbyterians who are committed both to our continuing accompaniment of Palestinian Christians who seek the end of the occupation and to the deepening of our historic and ever-living relationship with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers. Further, we recommend that any guidance or recommendations on next steps from the working group be forwarded directly to the General Assembly Council for its consideration by February, 2008. Given that the working group is not tasked with developing policy, any recommendations or comments the members may wish to make regarding policy should be referred to the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

2. Refer any overture—including overtures and commissioners’ resolutions not yet received—that may affect the investment policy of the PC(USA) or that calls for boycott of or divestment in a specific company, country or region, to the MRTI committee for their recommendation to a future General Assembly, through the General Assembly Council.

3. Encourage the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation, and the MRTI committee to explore new or existing alternative investment possibilities that promote peace and strengthen the economies both in Israel and the occupied territories, and to report their findings to the 218th General Assembly (2008). We give this advice in humility, noting the serious fiduciary responsibility of these two partner agencies and seeking genuine partnership as we explore any possibilities cooperatively.


In encouraging the formation of such a task force, we note the following:

The important work of the MRTI committee is proceeding deliberately. We urge the 217th General Assembly (2006) to acknowledge that the MRTI committee’s work cannot and will not result in the selling of any corporate stock until (at least) the deliberation of the 218th General Assembly in 2008.

The political situation in both Israel and Palestine is changing extremely quickly, and we believe it would be helpful to have a group that is tasked with working to follow, interpret, and understand the potential impact of those changes.

We are convinced that our church would benefit greatly from a serious effort to listen to one another and seek a solid consensus for our actions in the delicate task of peacemaking in this troubled region of the world. The alternative is an “us vs. them” debate that misses the fundamental reality that most Presbyterians care deeply about the issues of peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.

In the end, we are clear that Jesus calls us to just such an effort in peacemaking. In the second chapter of Philippians, we are told that Paul’s deepest desire for the church is to “make my joy complete,” calling us to “be of one mind, having the same love, being of one accord, and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

It is clear that, somehow, Christ calls us to stand with our Palestinian sisters and brothers—Christian and Muslim—and our Jewish sisters and brothers as each cries out for justice. We can stand with those bold and courageous leaders on both sides of this contentious debate who insist that there is a way to share the land of our forefathers and foremothers in peace and security with one another.

May it be so.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The first Presbyterian Podcast


If you're interested, here is a link at a "Presbyterian Podcast" put up by three guys who clearly have way to much free time on their hands.

It includes an interview I did last week with them, but lot's of other cool interviews as well.

Check it out at daio.typepad.com. If it takes awhile to load the interview itself, be patient. It eventually worked even on my low-end computer at home.

Moving toward the future,


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Musings on trade, immigration, and faithfulness


With all of the energy around the immigration debate at the moment, many have asked for my opinion. I thought I would post a response I wrote to someone this morning. This is a very cursory reflection,

If you are Presbyterian, and interested in becoming a positive part of the immigration conversation in our church, please send an email to Dana at ddages@ctr.pcusa.org to ask for an invitation to participate in the Immigration network in the PC(USA).

So here are some quick thoughts that are based on my border experience over the last eighteen years:

First, the unspoken conversation underlying our broken immigration policy is our flawed trade policy. Until we create trade policy that makes a legitimate attempt to build up the infrastructure, local economies, and job opportunities that provide a genuine future in Latin American countries with whom we would like to trade, we will continue to see a border and an immigration crisis here in the U.S.

Current trade policy is designed to promote economic growth for multinational corporations by dropping trade tariffs, but the result is a policy that sucks most of the economic resources out of the Latin American country because the driving motivator for the corporations is always going to be access to cheap labor and cheap natural resources. The problem, of course, is that the money leaves the communities, and although the workers often do get a steady paycheck, none of the profits remain to be re-invested in the community itself. (Note that this is no different than the arguments taking place in many of our communities about “big-box stores” that wipe out local businesses.)

Though no one has really asked me, it seem to me that the elegant solution would be to insist that if we sign a trade agreement with any country, we will concurrently sign legislation allowing the free and open movement of workers back and forth between our country and theirs. (Think about the way it currently works between states in the U.S.) I would note that this is not only good theology, it's also Capitalism 101. The ability of the worker to move for a better job is supposed to create a pressure that will drive up wages, and a "rising tide will lift all boats." That's not what's going on with trade policy we're developing in our hemisphere, where we allow capital and products to cross borders, but not workers.

Some folks respond that then “everyone would come here.” That’s probably true, which suggests that we would be much more intentional about designing trade legislation designed to create sustainable communities from which the immigrants are originating, offering them a legitimate choice to stay where they are because they can actually support their families without migrating to do so.

Second, we could solve many of our immigration problems very quickly with a good, readily accessible visa program for any Mexican or Central American who shows up at our border with a passport and a clean bill of health. As far as I'm concerned, I'd even be willing to see a hefty fee of $500 to $1,000 to cover administrative costs, since migrants are typically mortgaging everything they own or entering into indentured servitude to pay several times that to smugglers in order to get across the border right now. Once those folks are fully documented, it means that they are paying taxes. This is how we solve a serious problem of lack of infrastructure that exists in many communities that have been overwhelmed by undocumented migrants. If we want hospitals, schools, community security and transportation systems that create good quality of life in our communities, the answer is to use the tax base to put those systems in place, the same we our country has been doing that for decades.

Further, the church community has continually insisted, and will continue to insist, that any documentation program must provide the ability to reunite families, allow workers the ability to move independently to look for work (so that they don’t become a captive, “slave” labor force for an employer who can threaten them with deportation), and the ability to work toward citizenship if they are solid members of the community.

Finally, until these macro problems are solved, churches must find out where migrants are and support them. To be without documents in our country today is to be at extreme risk. It will take great courage and serious commitment for our churches to stand against the “anti-immigrant” lunacy that currently is infecting our country and insist that we will live the gospel values of welcoming the stranger and caring for the dispossessed.

I hope that you, like I, have been moved by the sight of several million people who have been demonstrating peacefully over the past few months to let us know that they are here, they are doing critical work this country depends on, and they only desire to be full and productive members of our community.

Peace to you,