Monthly Archives: April 2012

When Mission Partners Seek New Partnerships

Mission partnerships sometimes come to an end. They might fizzle out from lack of interest, or a clash might take place that they can’t overcome. It might simply be that their covenant expired, and one or both were ready to move to something different. In whatever case, break-ups leave partners wondering what’s next.

This past week a 4-member exploratory team from South Alabama Presbytery visited for five days with Guatemala’s Q’eqchi’ Chisec Presbytery. Both presbyteries had been partners before. South Alabama had a healthy partnership for over 20 years with the Mayab Presbytery in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The partnership’s end was caused by the rupture between the PC(USA) and the Presbyterian Church of Mexico over changes in ordination standards in the PC(USA). Because of its passion about God’s global mission, South Alabama Presbytery soon began searching for another partner and decided to take a look at Guatemala.

Guatemala’s Q’eqchi’ Chisec Presbytery had a previous PC(USA) partnership that went array several years ago because its then-moderator misused funds that were sent by its U.S. partner. Among other things, he deeded church property to himself that was purchased with those funds. In the wake of these improprieties, the partnership collapsed, the moderator was expelled, and the presbytery suffered a schism (previously it was known as the Playa Grande Presbytery). Ever since this disaster, the presbytery has hoped and prayed that another partnership might be possible.

The South Alabama team, led by Exective Presbyter Samford Turner, began its visit at the La Patria Norte School in Cobán. This Presbyterian school opened three years ago as a project of the La Patria School in Quetzaltenango. The school’s directors shared their vision, which is 1) to offer a top-notch education to young people in the Cobán area, 2) to start the first Presbyterian church in Cobán in collaboration with the Q’eqchi’ Chisec Presbytery, and 3) to develop a theological center for Q’eqchi’ pastors in cooperation with by Guatemala’s Presbyterian Seminary. The school is currently located on leased property, and everyone got to check out some prospective land sites for the future facilities. (See photo of members from each group at La Patria Norte)

The team then traveled to the mostly-Q’eqchi’ town of Chisec, where there are two Presbyterian churches. In the early 1980’s, during Guatemala’s armed conflict, Chisec was razed, and its inhabitants fled the region for safer ground. In an attempt to repopulate the town, the Guatemalan government offered property lots for 50 quetzales, and handed out building materials. New residents arrived from different areas of the country to make Chisec their home.

A meeting was held with the Chisec Presbytery’s executive committee in one church, and the team joined for worship at another. The stated clerk, Pastor Filipenses Flores, told about how the presbytery has moved forward with new leadership. For example, the presbytery is sponsoring monthly pastoral training and youth leadership workshops. According to Pastor Flores, the presbytery has only four quetzales in its bank account, and the volunteer pastors pay all their own expenses. “Before when we received money, no work was getting done,” he explained. “Now the presbytery has no money, but work is getting done.”

The South Alabama team then visited the village of Limón Sur, about 45 minutes north. Here the population is an ethnic mixture of Q’eqchi’ and Ladino, which is reflected in its three Presbyterian congregations. Each of these churches is in the process of building a beautiful new church building, and has active women’s and youth ministries. The top concern for all of them is the lack of clean water in the community. They led the team to the nearby Limón River, from which jugs of water are carried to homes. The river is also where the populace bathes and washes its clothes. Making safe water available to the community looked exactly like the kind of project that could be worked on jointly, since South Alabama Presbytery has experience from installing numerous water purification systems in Mexico with the organization Living Waters for the World. (See photos of new church building at Limón Sur, and the Limón River, the village’s source of water)

Leaders from both the South Alabama and the Q’eqchi’ Chisec presbyteries voiced their desire for a new mission partnership in which they can help one another with their distinct needs, offering their different gifts. Everyone agreed that in a vibrant partnership, each has much that it can teach the other. Although a visit like this one is the first stage in forming such a partnership, representatives from both sides were deeply grateful for the opportunity to cross paths, and very hopeful that this won’t be the last time that they do.

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Preaching Partnership, Practicing Paternalism? (Part Two)

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” –Matthew 28:18-19

When contemplating issues in mission partnerships, it’s always worthwhile to refer to the Great Commission. Usually our attention goes straight to verse 19: “Go therefore and make disciples…” Most likely, we’ll only give a cursory glance at verse 18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” If we ponder these words, we might find it curious that Jesus felt the need to stress his omnipotence at that moment. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to empower his disciples for the mission before them? Why not build self-confidence in their abilities to accomplish the task? Or else, could it be that Jesus is addressing the dynamics of power in the Church, and how they would advance or scuttle its mission?

According to some commentators, verse 18 implies that Jesus is granting his authority to the disciples, or at least he’s assuring them of the full force of his backing. However, there’s no indication that Jesus was doing that. On the contrary, Jesus seems to be withholding his authority. Apparently he was concerned about giving his disciples too much, and the wrong kinds, of power. No doubt, he bore in mind the power struggles amongst the disciples, and their hunger for glory and influence. Given their self-serving tendencies, it would be disastrous for the disciples to have access to “all authority in heaven and on earth.” As the famous quote has it, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For the disciples to faithfully fulfill their mission, it seems, they first needed to grasp how authority can be used and misused.

Someone might counter, “But doesn’t Jesus tell the disciples in Acts 1:8, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.’ Doesn’t this contradict the idea that he denied them the power he had?” Jesus said this right after dissuading the disciples in their excitement about Israel’s restoration as a world power. Here, Jesus speaks primarily of spiritual power. Rather than a Church that fulfills its mission with the resources of worldly power, Jesus envisioned a Church that was fueled by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this vision was realized. The early Church expanded rapidly as a grassroots movement of common people. Furthermore, this growth was holistic and sustainable, without dependency on the world’s powers-that-be. This distinction of types of power was illustrated when Peter and John met a lame man who begged for alms. Peter responded: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk,” and the beggar did. (Acts 3:6-7)

Here are a few more thoughts, based on verse 18, on how mission relates to power:

  • By declaring that all authority is given to him alone, Jesus suggests, among other things, that nobody in Christ’s mission is intended to have special power that others don’t have. It also means that we’re united by a common authority, and we’re all equally responsible to Christ. That’s one reason why mission partnerships are based on the principle of equal status.
  • Yet, there are clear inequalities between most mission partners. Whenever there’s a disparity in finances and educational backgrounds in the partnership, imbalances of power will always exist. These imbalances are leading causes of paternalism and dependency, and therefor pose a threat to Christ’s mission. That’s why it’s so necessary to have jointly-written covenants, and effective systems for mutual accountability and evaluation.
  • Diligent paperwork is important in mission partnerships, but they’re no substitute for face-to-face and heart-to-heart connections. Unfortunately, partnerships are sometimes left to run on automatic pilot, receiving personal attention only when the relationship veers off course. There must be a willingness to invest time and energy in mission relationships so that they develop the maturity to identify and overcome paternalism in its different manifestations.
  • Since Jesus was unaffected by the sin that corrupts the rest of us, he alone is capable of using all authority for good. Jesus came to serve, not be served. His is the ultimate benevolent lordship. In the end, it’s not by means of this authority that he’s glorified. Jesus was glorified on the cross, having sacrificed his life for the sake of all others. In taking the path of servanthood and sacrifice, Christ became our model of partnership.

In fulfilling the Church’s mission, Jesus likewise calls us to the path of servanthood. Mission partnerships thrive upon servant love. Paul, preeminent missionary among the apostles, told one of his mission congregations that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) Partnership demands that we value humility, that we not insist on our own way, and that we rejoice that all power ultimately belongs to Christ.

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Holy Week in Santa Rosa de Aguan

We traveled to Honduras for Holy Week break, staying mostly in Santa Rosa de Aguán, which is Bacilia’s hometown along the Caribbean coast. This community is built on a large sand bar between the beach and the Aguán River. Spending time with relatives was great fun, as was participating in the simplicity of the Garífuna lifestyle.

By the way, the Garífuna are an ethnic group that traces back to a blending of West African and Arawak populations that occurred on St. Vincent Island in the 17th century. Over time they established a unique language and culture. The British came to view the Garífuna population as hostile to their interests, forcibly transplanted them to Roatán Island near Honduras. From there, they spread along the Central American coast, mostly in Honduras and Belize. Their livelihood revolves around fishing and farming. Mostly Catholic, their religion includes strong currents of ancestor worship and witchcraft. Garífuna people have suffered from political marginalization over the years, as well as severe weather. The town of Aguán was almost wiped off the map by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Garífuna cultural identity is in decline, due in large part to migration to the U.S. and the overall effects of globalization.

Here are some photos from our trip, with captions that I’m afraid aren’t going to come out in the right order. Family members laid wreaths on the graves of Bacilia’s mother and father. Stefi with several of her cousins. There were several horses that our kids rode each day. Matthew is holding some iguanas we had for lunch one day. Bacilia organized a Bible school on 3 afternoons for some 50 children from Aguán. One of several Good Friday procession that passed by. The snapshot that somebody took of me strolling on the beach.  

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