Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meet Maud

Certain inconveniences of life in Bolivia have actually endeared themselves to us through the years. I write this tongue-in-cheek, but it’s true. The cobblestone streets, the rattle-trap busses, the heavy blankets that make going to bed seem more like being buried—the list goes on and on. These are life-style quirks that make us smile.
I put electric shower-heads on this list. We are currently staying at a hostel in the upper section of La Paz, near the New Jerusalem Friends Church. Like most hostels (and homes) this one does not have hot running water. Here is where the electric shower-head comes in. This device houses electric coils that heat up, allowing the water that flows through them to become somewhat hot. “Somewhat” is a key word here. When the water pressure is sufficient, the coils automatically switch on. When the pressure lowers, they switch off. This all happens quickly. In a hostel, water pressure varies depending on how and when other people in the building are turning water off or on.
I suppose one could consider it a rich sensual experience. In rapid succession, the water goes from tepid to cool, back to tepid and up to somewhat (that word again) warm. If the pressure gets too low, the coils switch off and you have to quickly turn the pressure up before the water becomes icy. This is tricky and you will most likely have to fiddle with the faucet before you reach a temperature that approaches lukewarm. And once you get there, someone in the next room turns on his faucet.
We’ve named our present shower Maud. Personalizing the thing helps us focus on the humor rather than the inconvenience. “Shower” in Spanish—“la ducha”—is a feminine noun, which helped us name her. But something else convinced us of her femininity. Maud is clearly going through menopause. While normally providing us with water ranging from cool to tepid, she occasionally has these glorious hot flashes. For a few seconds, I can actually imagine that I’m home in my own comfortable, convenient, and consistently hot shower in Newberg, Oregon. It never lasts long, but I’ll take what I can get. Way to go, Maud!

La Paz: city of uncertain peace

Today is our last day in La Paz. Early tomorrow morning we head down to the tropical city of Santa Cruz, adding about 40 degrees to the temperature, plus a much welcomed increased percentage of oxygen in the air. I’ve been looking forward to breathing again.
Our16 days in La Paz have been good, but as usual this lovely city has not lived up to her name. On the social and civic level, the background music for our stay has been fire crackers that recently upgraded to dynamite. We are in the middle of a civil war between two groups of Bolivian miners: those employed by the government since the nationalization of the mines and those belonging to the labor unions. Both groups are claiming rights to the Colquiri mine in the mountains south of La Paz. The government has made promises to both groups and it is finding it difficult to reconcile these promises. There have been marches and clashes, with some causalities in the center of the city. Roads to other parts of the country have been blocked. (We’re told that the road to the airport is still open. We hope it stays that way.)
This is not strange. With the radical changes to the Bolivian constitution and the increasing participation of the indigenous populations in government, this is a time of major transition. Transitions never happen smoothly, so much of this is to be expected.
Our consultation on gospel and culture officially ended on Saturday, but we are all realizing that this conversation is a beginning. Aymaras are action-oriented, and the expectations for this gathering were solid conclusions as to how Christians are to respond to the cultural pressures. Good things happened during the consultation, mainly that people with differing perspectives were willing to come together, share their experiences, search the Scriptures, and try to find a way forward. In the concluding session, several expressed dissatisfaction that they were not given ANSWERS. As those of us in the leadership team are evaluating the event, we are more and more positive about the steps taken and the plans for further conversations. The complexity of the issues demands time and serious reflection, and hopefully this will lead to principles for action and behavior. More and more we are seeing the tensions in Bolivia today as fertile ground for mission through service.
But the uneasiness of so many of the participants adds to the lack of peace surrounding us these days.
Another ingredient in our dis-ease is bad news. A few nights ago we received news of the death of Jon Holt, our pastor’s husband, and our friend.  This was unexpected. We know we are supposed to be here in La Paz right now, but we wish we could be home to help bear the burden and share the grief in person. We wonder what the church service was like yesterday. We shared in both the grief and the prayers, but doing this long distance is lonely.
So here we are, our last day in this city of uncertain peace, surrounded by situations that would normally rob us of peace. Yet we sense the presence of Jesus, hear his voice, sense his love, and his peace is with us. Who can explain it? We’re grateful.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wrestling the tensions between gospel and culture

Last weekend we presented the first half of the consultation on “The Gospel and Culture in the Aymara Context.” About 60 people showed up to the event held in the large meeting room in the basement of the New Jerusalem Friends Church in La Paz. People are vitally interested in the topic at this time in Bolivian history where the government, led by an indigenous president, is pushing people back to their animistic roots.  How to be an Aymara and a follower of Jesus is not an easy question.
The team of people leading this event have chosen to call it a consultation rather than a seminar or conference, with the idea that we bring people together to share their experiences, reflect on some key passages in the Bible, learn some tools of discernment, and together listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church at this time, in this place.
A highlight for me was hearing from Romualdo A. on Friday evening, followed by a question and answer time between him and Hal on Saturday. Romualdo is an Aymara pastor, president of his denomination, and director of a Christian publishing company. He lives in a rural community just outside of La Paz and has successfully juggled being a follower of Jesus with fulfilling community obligations. At one point he was elected “Jiliri Mallku” of the community, the top leadership position. He felt he had to accept, but told people he was a Christian and would not be able to participate in some of the obligatory animistic rituals or share in the drinking (a religious obligation). He did not resign his pastorate, as other pastors have done, but managed to serve his term of office in a way that earned the respect of the community. He has gone on to carry out other civic roles, seeing this as a service to his community.
It’s stories like this that give other Aymara Christians hope.
The participants in the consultation are seated at tables and after each presentation, people discuss the ideas in their table groups. These small groups are the heart of the consultation, the place where people talk, apply the concepts to their situations, and do the hard work of theological reflection.
It’s been good so far, but not entirely smooth. Last minute logistical snags, the traditional disrespect for time and schedule, the cold that permeates the meeting room all contribute to a sense of chaos. But I trust it’s creative chaos. Toward the end of Saturday’s all day marathon, one young man stood up and said he was mad, that the consultation was not meeting his expectations, that he needed answers and so far we hadn’t given any. Aymaras are action oriented, so his frustration was not unusual. But we who have planned and prayed and are now leading have deliberately decided not to try and give answers. This may be hard for some to understand. We hope we are providing tools for discernment, helpful information about government laws and guaranteed human rights, biblical insights and testimonies of people like Romualdo who are finding their way through the tensions between Gospel and culture. I think the process is working, but this is hard work. We really need the Spirit to show up.
We have this week to continue to prepare and pray. On Friday and Saturday we conclude the consultation. Our prayer is that people will not only have tools for discernment but renewed hope. And a word from the Lord.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Coca-Cola Law

Since arriving in Bolivia last week we have learned of two new federal laws. The first, the Coca-Cola Law, degrees that as of December 21 (summer solstice—an important indigenous ceremonial day), Coca-Cola will be banned in Bolivia. On pain of arrest and jail time, no one can buy, sell, own or drink Coca-Cola, that dark devil liquid produced by the evil empire of the north. Seriously.
But in the meantime, ads for the drink continue to dominate bill boards and TV time, announcing to all citizens that Coca-Cola is the “chispa de la vida” (the spark of life). When I asked why the government was permitting the ads, my friend told me it was to help the supermarkets, small business owners and restaurants that need to get rid of a huge inventory before December 21. On that date, the spark of life will leave Bolivia.
This reminds me of the time in the 1980s when MacDonald's left Bolivia. This time it was at the instigation of the company, having determined its profit margin was not large enough in Bolivia. The government was not involved. MacDonald's had become a prestigious gathering place for Bolivia’s youth, and the company’s decision stung. I remember newspaper headlines lamenting, “MacDonald's! Why Have You Abandoned Us?”
I’m not seeing any public laments over the exit of Coca-Cola, and that may have something to do with the second new law. This one is more serious. It’s an anti-discrimination law, directed against a real problem of racial and ethnic discrimination that has plagued Bolivia ever since the Spaniards discovered her. Now, with an indigenous president and more even ethnic representation in congress than ever in the country’s history, some of the ancient wrongs are being righted. Yet people continue to carry their prejudices. And express them. This is the point the new law addresses.
It is now against the law to insult or verbally discriminate against anyone of another race, social class or ethnic group. Of course, such discrimination is never right, but turning verbal expression into a crime is dangerous in itself. Recently several newspaper and television reporters have been arrested for publicly criticizing the government. The government agents involved claimed, on the basis of the new law, that these reporters were verbally discriminating against them.
My friend warned us not to criticize the government while we were in La Paz, or to mention anything that might be considered discriminatory during our consultation on the gospel and culture. This conversation took place in a barrio restaurant, as we sat there, wondering about the future of the country, sipping our cokes.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dreams, drama and a thesis defense

Sergio da Silveira began the presentation of his thesis with a story. As an idealistic young man he had just graduated from the state university in Rio de Janeiro with a major in Portuguese literature. His dream was to go on and get his masters degree in literature, but there was an obstacle. He sensed God calling him to become a missionary.
Sergio chose to follow God and he gave up his academic dreams. For over 30 years now he has been involved in missions, first as a Brazilian missionary to Bolivia, and more recently as director of a program that trains Brazilian missionaries in Bolivia before sending them on to their final destination in Africa or the Middle East.
He told us that this afternoon, God was fulfilling his original dream. He was here to defend his masters thesis, not in literature, but in mission.
When Sergio speaks, all his Brazilian passion and flare for the dramatic come to the forefront. This was probably one of the most entertaining thesis defenses I have sat through. Sergio doesn’t just speak; he preaches, and although this was a formal academic event, he preached his way through it, accompanied by broad gestures and dancing feet. After he informed us that his research was qualitative and descriptive, based on empirical data obtained from case studies, he paused, then exclaimed, “Isn’t this marvelous?” At another point he explained, “Don’t be alarmed. This is my natural way of talking.” An occasional “amen” and “hallelujah” punctuated the 45 minute presentation, which had to be sped up at the end to include his conclusions. We were all panting. This was followed by 45 minutes of questions from the panel of judges. Sergio’s style didn’t change.
I love the origins of the word “enthusiasm.” It combines the Greek words for “in” and “God,” and one might say it meant, “infused with God.” That describes Sergio yesterday. I know the long road he walked to get to this point and the triumph it represents. Academic propriety can just go out the window sometimes. I didn’t miss it.
In his research Sergio was evaluating the effects of the intermediary training program that prepares Brazilian missionaries for their future service. He was motivated by the fact that well over half of Brazilian missionaries sent abroad encountered problems so severe they quit and came home before their first term ended. The program Sergio directs places missionary candidates in places of ministry in Bolivia as part of their training, hoping that experience in a culture that is a little different from Brazil will help prepare them for their posts in Africa or the Middle East. In the cases he studied from a 15 year span, over 70% of the 54 candidates were able to persevere in their new posts. Hopefully Sergio’s research will encourage his mission agency to continue this type of preparation.
It certainly encourages us. Hal was Sergio’s mentor and has had to work with him long distance for the past several years. He graduates from the masters-in-mission program we founded and directed at the Universidad Evangelica Boliviana. Even though we are no longer there, it’s good to know that the process works, and that our students are making significant contributions.
 Sergio passed his defense. We all went home tired but content. Today he is back to work, full of enthusiasm, one dream accomplished, many others ahead. Thanks be to God.