In February and March, 2006, Grace joined me for a trip around the world speaking and networking with people who are part (or becoming part) of the emergent conversation. The trip marked a new beginning for us. We completed 24 years of pastoral leadership at Cedar Ridge Community Church (crcc.org – which will continue to be our home church) and began a new phase of life, concentrating on writing, speaking, networking, and otherwise “plotting goodness” in new and undiscovered ways.
We began in Sydney, graciously hosted by our friends Fuzz and Carolyn Kitto. The first event had about 180 people in attendance (they had hoped for 100, so this was very encouraging). Guests came from across denominational lines and included a number of denominational leaders, along with plenty of church planters and other interesting folk. Response was very positive. The organizing group - Converse - has an exciting future!
While in Sydney, I had my first day "out of the pulpit" as a pastor. (The previous Sunday didn't count because we crossed the International Date Line, passing from Saturday night directly to Monday morning!) It was a completely free day for us. We had an experience that I thought I'd share. It was a truly holy and glorious moment and I felt God spoke to me through it.
We walked down to the "Circular Quay" where the famous Sydney Opera House is situated. Across from the Opera House is a district called "The Rocks" - full of shops, sidewalk booths, etc. It was a perfect summer day, beautiful breeze, blue sky, sailboats filling the bay behind us. A jazz group was playing on a stage in a courtyard, and we got something to eat and enjoyed their music. A middle-aged couple got up and started dancing - they were amazing! Then an old lady got up, then an old man, and soon there were half-a-dozen people spontaneously dancing to this beautiful music - blues, swing, etc.
Near the stage, I noticed a five or six year old boy who appeared mentally handicapped. He was absolutely entranced with the music. He put up a fist to his mouth as if it were a trumpet and pretended to play it with his other hand. Soon, without realizing it, he had moved out beside the stage. His eyes were closed and he was playing his heart out on his imaginary trumpet. The sax player noticed this, and the hopped off the stage and stood beside the young guy. When he opened his eyes, the sax player started dancing around as he played and the little boy followed his lead. Then the trumpet player saw them, and he came down. The little boy in between the two musicians ... "playing" and dancing in an obvious state of ecstasy - the audience started applauding and I know my eyes were overflowing with tears to see something so beautiful and spontaneous and glorious.
Then I looked back to where the boy had been, and his grandfather was standing there in obvious delight to see his grandson so happy. I leaned over to Grace and whispered, "It's a glimpse of the kingdom of God."
It was a perfect end to our time in Sydney, and that scene will stay with me as a reminder that God is at work everywhere, if only we have eyes to see.
From there we went to Melbourne where we were hosted by Mark and Robyn Pierson at the Urban Seed headquarters. Fantastic organization and people! Mark arranged a number of gatherings - with pastors from the Uniting Church, with pastors from the Baptist Churches, and with a variety of people at Tabor College, an interdenominational school with Pentecostal roots. Each event was full of interested and gifted people, and I left very much encouraged by the response.
Our time in New Zealand was equally good and rich. Mark Pierson accompanied us and treated us royally. We spent the first weekend in Aukland. I spoke for a conference there, then at two Baptist churches. We then travelled south to Palmerston North where there was another one-day conference plus a lot of good conversations with some very sharp young leaders. Next we flew to Christchurch where we stayed with some wonderful artists, Peter and Joyce Majendie, who do installation art (Stations of the Cross, Christmas, etc.). We did a one-day conference plus two church services and had lots of worthwhile private conversations and dinners.
Then we flew here to South Africa. Mosaiek Church, led by Johann and Wilma Geyser and a tremendous team, has helped create a wonderful network (MissioNet) which brought together 120 leaders, twice the size of their previous gatherings. These were really thoughtful and committed leaders from a variety of backgrounds - pastors, church planters, theologians. Emergent Africa (emergentafrica.com) helped promote the event. Then I spoke at the Sunday services at Mosaiek, one of the warmest and most talented and hopeful churches I have ever visited. Grace was able to visit a township church and get a feel for the important work being done in the midst of extreme poverty.
From there we went to the East Cape, spending time with our friends Graeme and Jane Codrington and John and Colleen Benn, key people in emergentafrica.com and wonderful hosts. We spoke for several gatherings held at First City Baptist and toured the HIV/AIDS clinic they have developed. Then we traveled with Sean and Monica Callaghan to Port Elizabeth. Sean and Monica are church planters and leaders who epitomize what is good and hopeful about emerging churches. We spoke at a vibrant multiracial Baptist church, and had a breakfast meeting with a wide array of innovative leaders from that city.
Our trip ended with a week in Stellenbosch, just outside of Capetown. Wilma Enslin, a pastor at Stellenbosch Community, arranged our time and proved to be a truly “lakker leader.” She and senior pastor Theo Geyser (brother to Johann, our host in Johannesburg) treated us far better than we deserved and made our time a real delight. Dr. Jurgens Hendricks invited me to speak to a group of church and university leaders on economics (a topic of growing interest to me, since one can’t address poverty without addressing what makes for a healthy and just economy). After speaking to a large group of students, I led a half-day seminar with about 180 Christian leaders from the region – a group representing 32 denominations!
I also spent a day with Johannes Erasmus, a caring Christian leader who has helped “map” extreme poverty in the Cape. First we visited African Indigenous Church leaders in Khayelitsha – a community plagued by poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDs, overcrowded and temporary housing without adequate infrastructure, rapid immigration from rural areas, and other related problems. Then we met with leaders in another poor community – Mitchell’s Plain. These meetings were a great privilege for me – as I was able to ask questions, listen, and learn from people who are seeking to serve God in the Africa that breaks so many hearts. Jurgens and Helen Hendricks introduced us to a number of their friends – PhD students from across Africa who are being mentored by this wonderful couple.
Our last day in Africa, I spoke at Stellenbosch Community, one of the most vibrant young congregations I’ve seen anywhere in the world. When we left, Grace and I had a tear in our eyes and a lump in our throats, as we felt we were leaving new friends whom we will miss greatly.
At most gatherings, Grace has been able to bring together some amazing women leaders. The tide is turning and doors are opening for women leaders, although all of us wish the progress was faster and farther along.
Through all this we've had great meals, met phenomenal people, heard both inspiring and heartbreaking stories, seen glorious scenery, laughed at great stories and more than a few jokes, and grown in our awareness that something important and far-reaching is indeed happening around this conversation about emerging, missional, post-colonial Christian faith. I sense that we are very near a "tipping point" - and my concern is not that this emerging global movement won't fully emerge, but that we won't be fully ready when it does. The growth of the emergent network globally is indeed an important and needed endeavor (amahoro.info).
Of course, each locale has been unique, but I'd say that the similarities among the events, churches, and leaders are more striking than the differences - both the similar problems and the common sense of hope, both the shared obstacles and the uniting dreams for better days for the church and for our holistic, integral mission in God's world. It was a privilege beyond words for us to get a glimpse of what’s happening, and I hope in some small way to encourage it.
I had a short but full and enjoyable time (that's still an
understatement) with some new friends in Dominican Republic in early
January. It was great to get to know Dee and Tom Yaccino and meet
their lively and intelligent daughters. They are doing a tremendous
job, not only of encouraging and linking leaders in DR, but all across
Latin America through La Red del Camino, which is linking up with the
new amahoro network (amahoro.info).
La Red del Camino is linking Latin American leaders engaging in
"mision integral" - mission that integrates evangelism and social
action, concerns for compassion and justice ... in short, mission done
with a "kingdom of God" mindset. I saw some beautiful examples of
churches doing work among the poor - some of the best examples I've
-- Getting to hang out with Robert Guerrero, pastor of Iglesia
Comunitaria Cristiana in Santo Domingo - doing wonderful work both
building an innovative church and through a health clinic, school, and
other forms of outreach.
-- Walking the streets of Manganagua with Domingo Mendez, pastor of
Iglesia Comunitaria Altos de Sion in Manganagua, and Daniel King of
Iglesia Comunitaria de Herrera. We saw the job training, health
clinic, and education facilities that are being developed to help poor
people who live in "the gulley." In Santo Domingo, perhaps 30% are
employed, 30% are semi-employed, and the rest unemployed, so projects
like theirs are so important.
-- Visiting pastor Raquel Albuquerque and her son Robert Mateo. They
have built a beautiful ministry through Iglesa Comunitaria Nueva Vida
in barrio Luperon. I heard so many stories of God at work - including
the story of how their church has reached out to street kids (many of
whom are addicted to sniffing glue) in some beautiful ways.
-- We also went out into the mountains, where we met Francisco Roso
who pastors a church in Peralta that is doing amazing things. They
have a sewing center where they are teaching people a marketable
skill, and even more impressive, they have developed a health care
system that serves 18,000 people. For people who are disillusioned
about the church, I wish they could see what Francisco and his friends
When people think of emerging churches, I hope that more and more
they'll think about churches that are emerging from their four walls
to make a difference in the community, like these beautiful examples
in Dominican Republic. Thanks again to my hosts, Dee and Tom!
It’s my second day in Mexico City and everything has been going very well. I arrived late Thursday night – the only problem being that they lost my luggage. So, after a long wait and filling out a lot of papers, I finally got through customs and was picked up by Rene Padilla (who will be my traveling companion for the next several weeks) and our host here, Saul Cruz. What a tremendous fellow – he leads a ministry called Armonia (harmony – their translation for “shalom”) that does a lot of work among the poor.
It was about a 90 minute drive to his home on the north side of the city. It took a long time because a) there are massive demonstrations (“manifestaciones” in Spanish) going on in the center of the city, with between a half million and a million people camping out to peacefully protest the elections (which were strangely similar to our 2000 elections), b) Mexico City metro area includes 32 million people (can you imagine that?) and a lot of them seem to be in cars at any given moment, and c) there had been massive rains, and the main road into our neighborhood was flooded so we had to take a long detour. But eventually we got to the house and slept well. The weather here is nearly perfect – daytime highs in the 70’s, lows in the high 50’s or low 60’s – which helps explain why a third of the nation’s population chooses to live here.
Yesterday (Friday) we had to drive from the north side of the city to the south side, which took another 90 minutes. By daylight, the city looks a lot like an intensified LA – more people, more crowded, quite a bit messier, much worse traffic, and sprawling even farther in all directions. We spent the day at the Theological Community, an interdenominational seminary. It was a tremendous group of ministry leaders, pastors, professors, and workers among the poor – a lot of very sharp young folks. Rene and I both spoke, and our talks were very well received, with lots of good discussion. Our host, Saul, is one of Rene’s old students, as were several others at the conference – so it’s great to see Rene’s teaching being lived out in such creative ways among the poor here.
We went out to dinner with a group of young church planters and pastors (Guess what? Mexican food! Pretty authentic!) During dinner, we tried to track down my luggage, which they promised would be delivered to Armonia, but wasn’t. We called the airport and after a lot of busy signals, got through. At first they said they had no idea where it was. We called back a couple more times, and then they said they had it. So we decided to go to the airport and get it, which made the drive home (again, in the most incredible traffic I’ve ever seen) about 2 hours or more – just to get across town!
Today Rene and I speak here at Armonia for a group from the north side of the city. “More Ready Than You Realized” is now available in Spanish (Mas Preparado de Lo Que Piensas), and I think the book will be very well received here. Tomorrow I have the day basically free, so I hope to get some writing done and rest a bit. Monday we visit a ministry in a squatter area, and then fly to Guatemala, unless the demonstrations shut down the airport. If that happens, I’m not sure what we’ll do, but it will be interesting. It doesn’t feel dangerous or even tense – the demonstrations are peaceful, and it feels like a grass roots democratic movement – protesting corruption in the current government and expressing concern that the elections were tampered with (at worst) or handled incompetently (at best).
I miss everybody already. Thanks for your prayers.
Greetings, family and friends!
It’s Tuesday and I’m writing from outside Guatemala City, where the weather is perfect. We have well over a hundred pastors gathered here at a seminary, many of them from small rural villages, many of them (I’m told) barely literate – maybe not the ideal audience for talks on postmodern ministry (!), yet there are some good things happening, especially with the younger pastors who “get” everything I’m saying immediately … their heads are nodding enthusiastically and they’re smiling while some of their elders look a bit bewildered.
One lady here has taken me under her wing to help me with my Spanish. She speaks really slowly and really loud, and exaggerates all of her syllables with her eyebrows and mouth, and it’s quite sweet. She’s a kindergarten teacher, and I feel like a kid who sometimes doesn’t know the simplest words. Actually, I’m understanding about 90 percent, and my speaking is getting better too, but the ten percent I don’t understand tends to include the most important words. Like in a restaurant, “Would you like order some ??? with your ??? or would you prefer some ???” The words I know don’t help much with the ones I don’t!
Sunday, after attending a small urban Mennonite church in Mexico City where Rene preached, we drove around the downtown area. We saw the huge encampments of the demonstrators – very peaceful and quite joyful, really. To me, it felt like democracy in action. Then we went to Jalalpa, the slum area on the west side of the city where my hosts, Saul and Pilar Cruz and their daughter Eidi, have been working for 20 years through a ministry called Armonia. What wonderful people! They established a beautiful community center in this slum, on the site of an old garbage dump. It is a beautiful example of what “integral mission” is all about – a health clinic, support for children and mothers, a little church, a counseling center for drug abuse and domestic violence, assistance for the poor, advocacy for the community. Now it’s completely run by local people who are taking real pride in their area … which has gone from a garbage dump with open sewers and muddy roads to a neighborhood that is still desperately poor, but now has paved roads, bus service (so people can get to jobs), shops, basic sanitation, and growing dignity. It was very moving.
On Monday, we went with a beautiful couple, Jean-Luc and Shabrae Krieg (with Servant Partners), to their neighborhood, one of the very worst slums in this huge city. I’ve walked the streets of a lot of poor areas in the last ten years, and this was in many ways among the very worst. Over 500,000 people live in a huge, flat plain (actually a dry salt lake) on the east side of Mexico City. As far as the eye can see, shacks and small houses, muddy, rutted roads, open sewers, massive mud puddles from recent rains, trash, stray dogs, some kids playing in the midst of it all. It’s amazing and powerfully counter-cultural to think that this gifted couple lives in this area by choice, to embody the good news of the kingdom of God there … organizing the community, exploring ways to promote economic development, building relationships, starting small house churches and bible study groups, just being good neighbors in the name of Christ.
Our four-wheel drive truck got hopelessly stuck in a bad patch of mud and filthy water and we wondered if we would get out in time to get to the airport for our flight to Guatemala. Eventually we got a bulldozer working nearby to come and pull it out and from there, everything went well. All in a day’s work in this neighborhood.
In my free moments on flights, etc., I’ve been reading Elias Chacour’s “Blood Brothers.” With all that’s going on in Israel and Lebanon, I’ll just say, BUY AND READ THIS BOOK! It’s well written and inspiring and heart-breaking, and gives a powerful window into what’s going on there, from the viewpoint of a Israeli-Palestinian-Christian-peacemaker. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. It will make you see the world differently.
I miss everybody, but so far I’m sleeping well, staying healthy, and feeling pretty good. I’m meeting wonderful people, and seeing many signs of God at work.
My trip is already one-seventh completed! Thanks for your prayers and I hope everyone is doing great.
It’s Wednesday night and I’m back in Guatemala City. We were outside the city for two days at one seminary, we’re staying at another one tonight (where I speak tomorrow morning), and we just returned from a third seminary where Rene spoke to a packed house. I decided to skip going out to dinner (it’s after 9 pm) to get to bed early.
Guatemala is the third or fourth poorest country in the Western Hemisphere – after Haiti and Nicaragua and maybe Honduras. It was interesting to hang out with a lot of poor, uneducated, and deeply dedicated rural pastors, many of them Mayan in origin. Now, this afternoon, we’ve been with highly educated seminarians and professors at a very modern university. What contrasts in one day.
We leave for Honduras tomorrow afternoon. I miss everybody. Thanks for emailing when you get a chance – it’s nice to hear from home.
I’m writing from a pretty little garden in a courtyard at a small hotel in El Salvador. I just returned from visiting the Catholic Church where Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in 1980. We also visited the Jesuit residence where six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were shot in 1989. I’m moved, inspired, and also a little shaken up.
Rene Padilla and I left Guatemala City and arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last Thursday. I stayed at the home of Alexis and Lucy, and was treated so well. On Friday, Rene and I taught all day at the Bible Society headquarters – a wonderful group of about 120. These were amazing people – pastors, church planters, and a lot of NGO workers. It was really great to show them the photograph of the “Choluteca River Bridge” that I’ve shown all over the world – we were right near the Choluteca River, and all of them experienced Hurricane Mitch, which I talk about when I use the photo.
On Saturday morning, we spoke to an ecumenical group called The People’s Christian Movement. The gathering was in an Episcopal Church, and these were people who are deeply committed to the gospel and justice. Then we traveled to a very poor neighborhood called Flora del Campo, and spent a few wonderful hours with a church called Amor, Fe, y Vida. My friend Mark Baker worked with this church for many years. If I lived in Tegucigalpa, I’d love to be part of this church. In their poverty, they have grasped the idea of “mision integral” and they’re making a real difference for the kingdom of God. Plus, I heard some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard there.
We left from there to go about 2.5 hours through beautiful Honduran mountains to Seguatepeque, where we were hosted at the Evangelical Hospital by Enrique Martinez and his family. Rene and I each preached at a church the next morning and then led a seminar at the hospital – great interest and discussion. Then we were driven back to Tegucigalpa again – by our tireless driver, translater, and new friend Guillermo Mario. He is a Honduran who just graduated from Houghton College in New York, near where I was born. I enjoyed the ride so much – just staring out at the countryside and mountains, and later at the lightning and rain as a huge thunderstorm came through. (It’s the rainy season here, which means everything is very green.)
I spent Sunday night at the home of Kurt and Joanne Verbeek. They have two fantastic kids and have chosen to live in one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city – Nueva Suyapa. 71% of the people live in extreme poverty and the top cause of death is homicide. They live there as “secret agents of the kingdom of God.”
The next morning, Rene and I took a walk through the neighborhood with Carlos – their neighbor who leads an amazing work among the poor. It’s amazing what they have created – schools for the kids, services for families, an amazing microenterprise ministry that has helped hundreds of poor women start businesses, and much more.
We then spoke to a group of Evangelical leaders – Rene gave a fantastic challenge to them – and then visited Association for a More Just Society, which Carlos and the Verbeeks work with. What an amazing ministry – that combines counseling and legal help for the desperately poor with a brilliant website which publishes information about corruption and injustice that the newspapers won’t cover. You may never have thought of journalism as a prophetic work, but in the fifth most corrupt country in the world, it’s very important. (I think the same goes for good journalism in the U.S. – there’s so much truth that isn’t told, and so many lies that are told as truth.)
From there we flew to San Salvador, capitol of El Salvador. It seems to be much better off financially than any of the cities we’ve visited so far, but of course there’s terrible poverty too. Rene’s daughter Ruth surprised us (she now lives in Boston with her husband and their six kids – she’s getting a second master’s degree in theology) at the airport and has been our host. I predict she will someday be a world-renowned theologian like her dad. She was my translator today and is a dynamic and fascinating person, and a tremendous leader. Our lectures today were at the World Vision headquarters – we had a packed house, tremendous discussion, lots of energy about ‘integral mission’ – and the gospel of the kingdom of God.
I’m staying healthy and not too tired. It looks like my camera was stolen from my suitcase, which is a bummer, but I had just downloaded all my pictures the other day, which is good. Not sure what I’ll do for pictures the rest of the trip.
In my free minutes I’m working on the new book. Being here is incredibly inspiring for an author in a writing project like mine, and I couldn’t have a better traveling partner than Rene. Today he was telling me about meeting the great theologian Jurgen Moltmann, and he and Ruth really helped me get a feel for what it meant when Romero and the Jesuit workers (along with some Catholic religious women) were killed by the U.S.-backed government here. Because they stood up for the poor, they were labeled communists and that justified their murder in the mind of the government. I wonder how much the word “terrorist” is being used today in the same way … especially for the Palestinians, but that’s another story.
Sorry this is so long, but now you know everything I’ve been doing. We speak again tomorrow, then fly to Costa Rica. I’ll reach the half-way point in our trip there. I guess I’m at the one-third point today.
I love and miss you all. Thanks for your prayers and notes.
Greetings from wintry Santiago, Chile. It’s cloudy and about 52 degrees. We arrived about 1:30 this morning after flying from Costa Rica to Lima, Peru, and then to Chile. Some people from a seminary here picked us up. Rene and I each have a little dorm room at the seminary, so I feel like I’m back in college. My bed had warm blankets (there’s not much heating here) and I slept pretty well (until 8).
Driving through Santiago early this morning (at about 2 a.m.), I felt I could have been in New York or Boston, London or Paris. It’s the most modern city we’ve visited yet and appears so much more prosperous than Central America. So, as of this morning at least, I feel that I’ve left the third world.
Our time in Costa Rica was really busy, but very good. The owner of a large hotel there had read Secret Message of Jesus, and he gave us very nice rooms, so when we weren’t on duty, we felt we could rest. And Mauricio Soliz, who organized our time there, was a pro – so he worked us hard, but we had good breaks and the whole experience was great.
Last Thursday, after arriving in San Jose, we went to a local TV station and did a one-hour live show. Then, I spoke that night at the National University on Inter-religious Dialogue. For them, that doesn’t mean Christians and Muslims and Buddhists as much as it means Baptists and Pentecostals and Catholics.
On Friday, we led a conference at ESEPA, a thriving seminary, for about 125 people – a packed room. That night, I spoke to a wonderful “emerging church” called Casona (which means Big House). It was about 250 people, I think, maybe more as there were people standing and sitting in the aisles. It was full of young people, plus some older people who have been attracted to what’s going on at Casona – lots of artists, musicians, and other creative people.
On Saturday morning there was another 3 hour seminar for La Red del Camino, and then I had the afternoon off to rest. That night, there was a special dinner for 25 couples at a country club, where I gave a talk and we had a lot of discussion. These are the “emerging leaders” of San Jose – some Christians, some getting interested in following Christ, but not in the traditionally religious way. I met a number of successful businessmen who were inspired by Secret Message of Jesus to contact the president with a plan to create a special fund to help the poor. The president has approved the plan to be sent to their Assembly, which is like Congress.
On Sunday I preached at a church of maybe 700. It reminded me a lot of Cedar Ridge. The music was really good – the band members were professional jazz musicians with a lot of talent and emotion. Then I had the afternoon to rest, and then Rene and I led an open discussion at another seminary. There was a torrential rain during most of our talk, and the tin roof made us feel like we were talking inside a huge drum. But the discussion was excellent.
Yesterday we had another TV show to do – this one live, and then we led a session for the pastor’s fellowship of San Jose – maybe 60 or 80 pastors and leaders. This was a conservative group in many ways, but we were well received.
In Costa Rica, a lot of people begin dinner between 8 and 10 p.m., so every night was quite late, and we had some really good food. We were with mostly middle class people there, which was a big change from the previous countries. But there’s poverty all around, and there, as everywhere in Latin America, people have to have high walls and lots of security systems because of the prevalence of robbery.
A highlight for me was having lunch on Saturday with a young pastor, Roy Soto, who came to a little town near the Poas Volcano. This is a poor town of 1000 people. There are about 14 churches in the surrounding areas, but most of them are very legalistic, etc. So this fellow started a church with the dream of bringing transformation to the community. When they started, the local catholic priest tried to have them shut down, and the local evangelicals opposed him at every turn. But in less than ten years, it has grown to 600 people – and in the process, they have been doing amazing things. He asked the people what the biggest problems in their town were. So he would preach to them that God could use them to change their town. There was a really polluted river going through the town, which they began to clean up. There was a lot of trash in the town itself, so they began a clean-up and beautification project, planting flowers, etc. They developed a program of micro-enterprise to help unemployed women start small businesses, plus a lot of other things that I don’t remember. Rene visited another church in another poor area doing similar things – a home for prostitutes and women drug addicts, schools for poor children, a lot of beautiful things. And we met another fellow who is organizing churches to do something very much like what I describe as the work of “unterror cells” – detonating explosions of kindness and setting off improvised joyful devices. They gather hundreds of church members to converge on a certain poor town somewhere the last weekend of the month, and bring their skills with them – from juggling to entertain children, to doctors and dentists giving free medical help, to cooks bringing food, to musicians doing street concerts, to carpenters fixing homes. For that weekend, the people of these poor towns know that the kingdom of God is alive. When I see these churches, I think, “This is how it’s supposed to be.”
Meanwhile, there are loads of televangelist types across Latin America driving BMW’s, flying in private jets, wearing $1000 suits and Rolexes, preaching prosperity (and getting rich in the process) but ignoring the poor … a very ugly contrast.
Well, I need to speak at the chapel here in about 30 minutes. I need to figure out what I’m going to say!
I love and miss everyone. Today I’m past the half-way point, so let’s see … I’ll be home in 17 days!
Our first day in Chile was a good one. I really like the Chilean people I’ve met. They’re funny, friendly, and energetic, but their accent is pretty tough for me to understand. I began the day by speaking at chapel, and from the first song and prayer, there was a strong sense of God’s presence in the room – sincere people, open hearts, humble minds, thirsty for God. Then I did a couple hours of writing before we had lunch with La Red del Camino – the network of leaders here.
After lunch, five of us skipped the afternoon session to go see an art exhibition by Nicanor Parra, who describes himself as an “antipoet.” The exhibition was unlike anything I’ve ever seen (Jodi, you would have loved it – I kept thinking of you). There were three main areas. In one area, there were about 10 huge screens, some on the walls, some hung in the middle of the room. Each screen had black and white slides showing in rapid succession, timed to some background music. One series contained old drawings and woodcuts from the days of the conquistadors, when so many indigenous people were enslaved and killed. There would be scenes of happy conquistadors feasting and riding horses, and then a single scene showing mounds of dead bodies of indigenous people who had been slaughtered by the conquistadores, then back to more happy conquistadors. The effect was quite powerful. Then it switched to black and white photographs of today’s Chileans, suggesting that their stories are linked to the stories of the past.
The second area was a huge open area containing strange combinations of objects the artist assembled – caskets, piles of old tires, beds – and each would have a little sign on it that would really make you think. In this area, the poet’s poems were painted on the floor and walls too, so as you walked along, you would be reading the floor, then the walls, feeling surrounded by meaning and imagination.
The last area contained a variety of things – one wall of billboards with provocative messages, some of them political, like one that said, “America: Nations Bought and Sold Here.” (This is significant because all Chileans know that the CIA planned the assassination of one of their presidents – Salvador Allende – and helped install in his place a military dictator, Pinochet, who killed thousands of Chileans who were fighting for democracy. I don’t think most Americans know much about this.) Then, one wall was decorated with paper plates of all different sizes, each with a hand-written poem on it. In the middle of the room were various displays – like a Bible, with this sign: “This Book is Not for Sale,” or a crucifix with one arm broken off, and the sign, “No Comment Needed.” The effect of the whole room was to make you think in deep ways. It really was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen – a great example of “postmodern art.”
That night I gave a presentation on Christianity and the global economy, and they invited a local economics professor to respond to my talk. It’s pretty intimidating to have to speak on economics in front of an economics professor! But he spoke very favorably of my talk, and the whole experience was very good. The room was packed and people were standing in two adjacent rooms to listen, even though they couldn’t see.
The next day was an all-day conference at the Baptist seminary. The place was packed and there was lots of great discussion on the topic of evangelism and disciple-making. As soon as we finished, we rushed out to the street to a waiting van which took us to Valparaiso, which is on the coast. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco. Rene and I spoke that night at an Anglican church to another good crowd. Then our hosts took us out to dinner at a restaurant next to the ocean – about 15 or 20 people in all. These people know how to party – we ate from about 10 p.m. to almost 1 a.m. That night I stayed in a home that had a view of the ocean. The next morning, we watched the fishing boats coming in full of fish.
The following day we toured various ministries of La Roca, a Christian ministry based in the Valparaiso area … their intake center for drug addicts in the city, a community center in a very poor slum area, and a wonderful residential facility out in the countryside. At the community center, they work with young juvenile offenders and also mothers and children. I had an interesting talk with one of the social workers there – she used to live in Silver Spring, MD. Once again, it’s “the big four” that cause so much trouble, and which are so interrelated: unemployment, substance abuse, violence, and AIDs. The key, in many ways, is employment … but it’s a hard road. The center’s offices were two metal shipping containers (like the kind that get loaded on semi trucks and ships), one stacked on the other, with windows cut in the sides, and stairs built to the second level. Quite resourceful, if a bit cramped.
One of the things that has struck me in many of these slum areas is that there are few or no “common areas” – parks where kids can play, for example, or sports facilities. It’s either concrete or dust/mud (depending on whether it’s rainy or not – it’s hard to tell which is worse!). So kids have to go through their childhood hardly ever seeing grass, just playing in the muddy-dusty roads, surrounded by the ever-present slum dogs with their ribs sticking out like picket fences, always looking a little sad and sleepy and lonely as they walk around looking for a scrap of food somewhere.
At the residential facility, we had a tremendous lunch and then the residents introduced themselves. All were in various phases of an 8 month program where they are learning to live in harmony with God, themselves, others, and nature (the integral mission of their program). Then we were treated to some beautiful singing – these tough, strong men sang beautifully, first some worship songs (that sounded so much richer than North American “praise and worship” music) and then some traditional Chilean folk songs. It struck me how many songs all of them knew by heart – something that seems pretty rare in the U.S. It was a real treat.
Then we drove back to Santiago and spoke at a Vineyard church there, to another good crowd with excellent questions. And our hosts treated us to another dinner – this one in a home, with lots of toasts and laughter and good Latino cheer – and another late night. We got up early this morning for our flight to Buenos Aires. In fact, I’m writing these words over the Andes – which are by far the most impressive mountains I’ve seen. I suppose the Himalayas are even more impressive, but since I haven’t seen them (yet), these have my vote for most beautiful and rugged mountains in the world.
I have two weeks left in South America. I’m looking forward to a free afternoon today … rest, some writing, catching up on emails. Then – a full day tomorrow. I love and miss everyone!
My two weeks in Argentina have been excellent. The first week was deep winter, and this week has been beautiful spring. Since homes aren’t heated here, I was glad for the change. I never would have guessed last week, with highs in the 40’s and lows in the low 30’s, that this week highs would be in the 70’s and 80’s, and lows in the 50’s. Songbirds (I have no idea what their names are) are singing outside right now.
In Buenos Aires, I stayed at the Kairos Center and was a frequent guest in the home of Steve and Elisa Shannon. I was well taken care of and even treated to some famous Argentinian beef by these good friends. Elisa (another of Rene’s daughters) has been my translator on many occasions, as well as chauffeur, and she has been a complete pleasure to work with. The Shannons chose to live for several years in a desperately poor slum; they are examples (to me) of what followers of Jesus are all about.
My first two days were really full – speaking at a variety of churches and to a variety of groups affiliated with the Latin American Theological Fraternity and La Red del Camino. I finally got to meet Rene’s wife, Cathy, and then said goodbye to them both as they were leaving for Thailand and Europe for another trip of several weeks. It was a real honor and pleasure to travel with Rene, to learn from his teaching, watch his example, and get to ask him lots of questions about theology and his window on church history. (I hope I have Rene’s energy when I’m his age! Actually, I don’t think I have it now, 25 years his junior.)
For the next three days, thankfully, I had a lot of free time. I rested and wrote … and to my surprise, finished the first draft of my new book, Jesus and the Suicide Machine. That means (since I edit, re-edit, and re-re-edit many times over) that I’m about halfway through the writing process, but I’m thrilled with what has developed. I feel very passionate about this book.
From Buenos Aires I went to Villa Maria, a farming town about two hours from the Cordoba airport (Cordoba is one of the larger cities of Argentina). There was a lively group from La Red del Camino there. We had a very good meeting, along with some stimulating conversations over meals – and a chance to experience small-town life in this beautiful and diverse country. It was inspiring to hear stories (and see photos) of how one family from Villa Maria launched an amazing project on behalf of a community of impoverished indigenous people in the far south of the country – the project eventually involved their church and other people from the town. The only bad thing about the quick trip was having to say goodbye to new friends so soon after meeting them.
From there I went to Mendoza for a unique and large youth leaders’ gathering – well over 2000 people present from all over Latin America. This is one of the many beautiful things that Youth Specialties has resourced, with great leadership from Mark Oestreicher, Lucas Leyes, Junior Zapata, and many others. I spoke for a plenary session and managed to do about 1/3 of the talk in Spanish, which I couldn’t have done five weeks ago. Then there was a large workshop, followed by lively discussion sitting in a hallway with a circle of people who wanted to talk more. I left there more convinced than ever that the issues being engaged by the emergent conversation truly are global and truly are needed.
It was strange to realize that I had been featured on the front page of the Washington Post while I was in Mendoza. It was probably better to be out of town!
Anyway, I came back to Buenos Aires on September 11, where I was asked to speak to a group about the U.S.’s response to September 11, 2001. After my presentation, two Latin American theologians responded with very insightful comments, and then there was some very stimulating discussion, followed by a traditional late-night dinner – beginning about 11 p.m.
Yesterday I spoke at two more seminaries to good-sized groups of interesting and engaged students, followed by some significant personal conversations. After a last dinner (beginning about midnight!) with the Shannons, I got two hours of sleep and then was off to the airport early for the trip home, which I’m in the middle of now. It’s one of those two-day, many-legged journeys … with stops in Lima, San Jose, Mexico City (with an overnight stay), Charlotte, and finally Baltimore. It’s hard to believe the five weeks here are coming to an end.
I’ll be so glad to be home, but sad to leave behind many friends … and the chance to develop my Spanish a little more each day. I find myself saying, not “Adios,” but “Hasta la proxima vez,” meaning … “Until next time.” The other night at dinner, in fact, a group of us started dreaming up future chances to bring North and Latin Americans together. That should be good.
Thanks for your prayers!