The Reflection; Revelation 21:22-26; Isaiah 65:17-25
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; July 25, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
As we continue this series Quest: Travel as a Spiritual Act, and look at this week’s focus on “reflection”, I decided I would like to share several experiences with you I’ve had—during seminary and afterwards—going to places I never thought I’d go and learning things I didn’t realize I needed to learn.
My interactions weren’t among people of different faiths but were among Christians living in other places whose lives were very different mine—where there was civil war (even though I’m not certain history will describe it those terms), where governments were at war against their own people, where infrastructures were undeveloped, where the police and military were feared and not helpful, where hunger and poverty were widespread.
So, there was always this dissonance between what I had at home and what I was seeing in these places. It was unsettling always, frightening sometimes, and continuously a call for me to learn and try to better understand…
The first two experiences happened while I was a student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
They happened because during my second year, the seminary began a new opportunity for students that included travel. During the January inter-term, we spent a week or two studying the particular topic and place where we were headed, and then we traveled for 2-3 weeks together, listening to community and church leaders, an embassy ambassador, farmers, business owners, moms and dads and kids, and whoever else crossed our paths. Some of those conversations were planned out ahead of time, while others were more spontaneous. We listened, we learned, and 30 some years later, those experiences remain an important part of who I am.
The first time I traveled outside of the country was to study the Base Christian Communities of Central America, particularly in Guatemala and Nicaragua. That was in 1990. Rosemary Radford Ruether was my professor and she and a missionary whose name I don’t remember led our group.
Base Christian communities in Central America are small face-to-face communities of people who know one another, who are peers, and who gather together in the same room for worship, generally including 15 to 30 people. Their purpose is to study scripture and to be empowered for evangelism. Their goal in evangelizing isn’t to get more and more people to church: they say, the church doesn’t exist for itself, but to be a catalyst for a just society.
On this trip I did journal, writing down quotes and information about the various services and agencies and emphases of the different groups and organizations. Rev. Miguel Angel Casco expanded on the goal and purpose of the church in Guatemala, telling us, “The church that does not act today will not be heard tomorrow. It’s not that it will not be listened to, but it will have nothing to say.” That seems a prophetic word for the Church today.
It has been interesting traveling back to Guatemala in recent years. Mission Guatemala, the ministry that hosts the work teams we’ve gone on, wasn’t founded until 2009, but I realized on my second trip with them that their work is based in the same area where I traveled in 1990. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the children I’d met in 1990 were on the staff of the Mission; I’ve wondered how many of them were still alive, if their lives had improved over the years…
In 1990, there was significant political turmoil in the country. People were being “disappeared.” Young boys would be taken from their play with one another and trained as soldiers who would then be set up against their own people.
In 1990, we spent a week or so based out of Guatemala City. I remember the significant military presence there. Pickup trucks carrying a few soldiers with loaded machine guns mounted in the bed. There would be a soldier in doorways down the main streets where we’d walk. People who lived there would walk by without seeming to notice, but that was so different for us. We noticed. There was a student demonstration on the cathedral square a block from where we stayed with military wearing riot gear and carrying machine guns. Everyone was prepared for something big to happen, but that day, thankfully, it didn’t.
I wrote in a number of places in my journal that I didn’t feel safe…that I was uncertain of what might happen.
I can’t compare the capital city then and now because when we travel to Mission Guatemala we are whisked directly from the airport and taken to the rural community where the mission is based. There, and perhaps in the city as well, the government is less imposing than it was 31 years ago. It’s safe where we are and I’ve never been afraid. My understanding is that the safety of Guatemala City is similar to safety in any metropolitan area in the US and other places in the world: you need to know where you are and be smart.
In 1990, 85% of the children were malnourished. I remember a red tint in their beautiful dark hair, that I learned was a sign of malnutrition. I don’t see that anymore, although according to the World Food Programme, 47 percent of children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition, which is the highest rate in all of Latin America and the Caribbean and one of the highest rates in the world. That’s one of the concerns Mission Guatemala seeks to address today.
In 1990, in our gatherings with people in the community, scripture would be read and people were invited to speak. They spoke of hope.
“They keep us busy on non-productive land so that we don’t have time to think.”
“I believe that the hope is very close to the people who plant the seeds amid all these stones. The mere act of planting a seed demonstrates hope. The women give birth almost every year. It takes hope to nurture them and feed them and bury half of them in a setting such as this.”
They went on to say that North America would have a lot more hope if they’d turn off their TV’s and go outside and plant flowers. And planting corn would be even better.”
“The land is a sign of hope.”
“We experience hope through work: our hope is that someday God will bring us special help.” This woman went on to say that she didn’t know what that help would be, but perhaps by our sharing back home, they/we might find out.
“Faith that God is parent of everyone.”
“There’s hope in knowing that Jesus chose to be poor.”
“It’s the poor who are teaching us how to be Christians.”
“It’s very possible that we’ll be killed, but the Spirit of God and the Spirit of the martyrs encourage us.”
Someone read James 5:7, “Be patient then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.”
A leader clarified the definition of blessing. He said, “it’s not “we’ve been blessed because God gave us this house or *whatever*.” When you think of blessing in that way, you begin to come up with the notion that those who are homeless or family-less or whatever aren’t blessed, or are somehow less blessed than the other “blessed one.” Instead of this, a blessing is something that is received, and that then moves on through you and into someone else. It’s a reflection, an action, a caring, a demonstration of God’s love.”
The second trip I took was with Dr James Will and the purpose was to study Peace and Justice in Eastern Europe. My most profound learnings on that trip were unexpected. They were due to timing more than anything else.
We went to Poland, to the Czech and Slovak Republics and to Germany.
It happened while we were in Dresden, Germany. It was January 1991, a little over a year after the Berlin wall had come down, and only a few months after the unification of Germany. There were stark differences between Dresden and the former eastern side of Berlin to the former western side of Berlin: rebuilding under Soviet control hadn’t happened, 46 years after World War 2 had ended.
There were ruins everywhere, buildings half standing, block upon block nearly flattened with only bricks and weeds to mark where there once was life: homes, businesses, and people.
If I journaled during that trip, I have no idea where my writing is now, but I have some very clear memories interspersed with places I can’t identify but emotions I can.
When we woke up on the morning of January 17th, we had been alerted to listen to our radios, and we learned that an air campaign had been initiated by NATO in response to the invasion of Iraqi forces in Kuwait the previous August. The news report was broadcast in English, so we could understand the reports, and apparently they were being transmitted from warcraft in the Gulf, because we could hear sounds of battle—airstrikes and missiles—behind the reporter’s voices. I remember laying in bed early that morning listening, thinking how it must have been for those who turned on their radios and heard The War of the Worlds back in 1938, not realizing it was fictional. But this was real. And it was frightening. Home was a safe place to be, but I was uncertain about how safe we were now in this place.
The news we listened to that morning and continued to hear was not from the perspective of the United States. I had first experienced that in Guatemala and Nicaragua, which was troubling enough, but this was wartime. When our group gathered that morning, we were told to lay low: to blend in as best we could and to “not look like Americans.” Ok, so other than our language, our dress, our hairstyles and overall physical appearances, yeah, we could do that. (Not). Our leader was concerned that we might be targets for harassment.
That evening we attended worship in a huge cathedral that showed significant scaring inside and out from World War 2. There were ruins all around the structure, but somehow this building had remained standing. The purpose of the service was to pray for peace, and it was packed with people. Standing room only. I couldn’t understand the language of the preachers or the speakers. I wasn’t seated close enough to our interpreter to hear what she was quietly relating. As the words continued, I looked around the room at the physical damage of the structure, which was something I had never seen before (we tear down or repair places like that in the US, we don’t keep filling them with people). But somehow, worshipping in this space, listening to the scripture and prayers, hearing words I couldn’t understand and surrounded by people who knew the consequences of war in a way I had never experienced it, seemed like the right thing to do.
At the conclusion of the service, we joined a group and walked a short distance away to a pile of bricks where a building once stood and made a circle. We held hands. We prayed. We listened to the words that some of us couldn’t understand. We prayed, too, in words our hosts most likely couldn’t understand.
We were welcome. We were fully included. We never experienced harassment, although one of our group who was a Chinese citizen with a Chinese passport had trouble at every airport we flew out of. Our leader was allowed to accompany him as he was questioned and we waited. He was released each time, after someone was finally convinced that he truly was a seminary student and a part of our group.
Some years post seminary, I led (2 or 3? Oh, my, bad memory.) combined work teams to Haiti, organizing both medical and construction personnel. I didn’t understand to begin with why I was having so much trouble communicating and sending the information they had requested about our medical team’s licensure to Grace Children’s Hospital. I had FAX machine numbers and seemingly everything I needed to provide them with what they asked, but it just wasn’t happening.
I’ve heard of Grace Children’s Hospital in the capital city of Port Au Prince for years and I envisioned the hospital to probably be less modern than our hospitals, but I wasn’t prepared for what I did see. Then I understood why communication was so poor and why I hadn’t heard back from them. They had neither the personnel nor the equipment to do what I considered basic. And yet their nursing personnel cared for sick children and gave their best.
On our second trip, the construction team spent several days searching for the equipment they needed to do the work they intended to do, having had the same problem gathering it in advance as I had with the medical requirements. It ended up that our two teams were completely separated from one another, with our women and teenage girls in a different city than our men and teenage boys. We were physically safe, but I was forced to re-negotiate previously determined costs and arrangements and had no other choice but to do so, even though I knew I was being taken advantage of. A woman leading other women in some places in our world (even in the US) isn’t always the safest or most comfortable situation to be in, and I determined at that time that I wouldn’t be going back.
And yet, the country is in great need, even more so in recent days. There are ministries that are well-established in Haiti who do good work, and connecting with one of them would mean time and tasks more effectively accomplished than our experience was. We were able to do good work, I interacted with people who were so grateful for the medical care we were able to provide, and I know that our men were eventually able to make progress in the task they planned to accomplish. That’s where I first learned that we can’t always finish what we had hoped to finish, but we can begin the work so that someone else can pick up where we left off. That’s been a repeated learning in Guatemala, as well. Two of my children who were teenagers at the time accompanied me to Haiti, and came home with a heightened awareness of the consequences of hunger and poverty. Our son Chris at some point suggested that we could make room for 3 more children in our family, which I thought was a pretty beautiful thing for a young teen to suggest.
Both of today’s scripture readings are messages of hope in the midst of tribulation. They were written as salve for those alienated and oppressed. It is a “global” vision in which the Holy One creates anew, and present suffering and division gives way to peace and abundance.
We forget sometimes that not everyone lives in the same circumstances we do. We have poverty and inadequate, unequally distributed health care here in the United States, and we don’t always see it or believe it, even here. But that doesn’t make it less true. The differences in what people have and don’t have are significant as we travel to places outside the US, as well.
The world is a complex place, and it’s not necessary for us to travel to other countries, to third world countries to understand what we have and what we might be able to offer. But at some point, I felt in my heart and soul that I needed to invite others to join me in traveling and working and doing what we might be able to do to make a difference. To see that people in other places are not a lot different than we are. They love their families. They want to provide the best they can. They feel hunger and sickness. As we go various places, it’s not so much the “to-do’s” getting marked off the list of things we hoped to accomplish when we set out, than it is the relationships, the salve that is offered to someone in need who receives a word of hope from us, in ways that we can’t always understand.
May we see, in our travels—whether they be far away or just outside our front door—that God is working through us, creating a new thing, bringing people together, teaching us, opening our eyes to see, and in the process, molding us in Christ’s image.