Reflection: We Are the World

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25:37-40

I am writing this from beautiful Zephyr Point, the conference center on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, co-owned by the Synod of the Pacific and Synod of Southern California and Hawaii.  This is my second weekend in a row here—last weekend several of us came to participate in a consultation to Presbyterian World Mission about the future of their work.  This weekend I am a leader in the Mentoring Conference for Leaders of Color.  When I completed my term on the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, I told Rhashell Hunter, Director of Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries, that the one thing I would commit to is help encourage leaders of color in the PC(USA).

As it turns out, we in San Gabriel Presbytery can be proud of our leadership development efforts.  We are known for our racial and ethnic diversity, but others have noted how many young leaders we have in the Presbytery.  When I came to San Gabriel, I was told that the practice is that at any given time, the three Presbytery leaders (Moderator, Vice Moderator, and Moderator of the PEC) would include at least one person of color, women and men, ruling elder and teaching elder.  We have been able to maintain this, though we have to work a bit harder to ensure we have proper ruling elder representation.  Our installation and ordination commissions also hold to these patterns.

In many ways, we have become a witness to what the PC(USA) hopes to be:  diverse in age, ethnicity, perspective, and church size, active partners in ministry, wise stewards of our assets, and welcoming to the community around us.  On a regular basis, I have shared stories of our presbytery with others who are new to welcoming immigrant churches, or partnering with other presbyteries and organizations such as International Theological Seminary (see the article on our partnership in the recent “Presbyterian Outlook”).

At the World Mission consult, several of us (including Magdy Girgis and James and Charlene Jin Lee from our Presbytery) shared our different experiences in mission around the world, but we also pointed out how many people from around the world are now in our presbyteries.  For us, we have personal connections with several countries through our members—so when we help rebuild a church devastated in a Mexico earthquake or support a mission trip to the Philippines or help buy food for a ministry with the homeless in Eagle Rock, it’s not just charity to strangers, it’s family.  So yes, while we continue to support our partnerships in Peru and around the world, we can celebrate that the world has also come to us—and we are found to be welcoming to Christ who greets us in the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned.

I am happy to share that two of our recent initiatives have been given the green light.  ITS has been granted a Conditional Use Permit to operate the seminary on the West Covina campus, so they should be moving on campus in mid-June.  And when I sent a draft grant request to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, to partner with Presbytery of the Pacific in funding an organizer to support and encourage churches and individuals to offer various forms of hospitality to families seeking asylum from violence in Central America, they responded by approving the grant!

So at our June 8th Presbytery meeting, we will celebrate both these initiatives:

  • We will hear about ITS and their innovative mission, and we will paint some rooms and do some yard work as we get ready to welcome them to West Covina, and
  • We will greet Kristi Van Nostran, former mission coworker in El Salvador and the new organizer for welcoming the refugee families, and we will hold another gift card drive to help with much-needed supplies, and write notes of encouragement for the families who are under these trying circumstances.  We will also put together school kits that PDA gives to kids who have been displaced by disaster.

In addition, we will welcome Rev. Ming Hsu, who has been called to be the new pastor for Good Shepherd Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Monterey Park, and we will pray with Grace Presbyterian in Highland Park, as they honor their ministry which will be disbanded this summer.

You can find a flyer about our June 8th Day of Service by clicking here.  We also have it on our website, and will send it out separately so it can be forwarded more easily.  Just remember:

  • 9 am Presbytery meeting and 10 am work projects, so bring clothes for painting, gardening, or packing school kits or hearing about Kristi’s ministry
  • We will collect $5 and $10 gift cards for our offering in worship, and see the flyer for the kind of supplies needed for the school kits.

As the PC(USA) seeks to respond to Jesus’ call to generosity and care through the Matthew 25 movement, may we share the good news we have found in welcoming Christ into our midst,

Peace,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Jesus the Refugee

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

Matthew 2:14-15a

For some years now, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has asked presbyteries about their work on behalf of refugees in their area.  Since PDA was first established, their charter has included care for refugees, which is logical as migration is a normal response to disasters.

Our neighboring presbytery, Pacific, has developed a good working relationship with PDA in helping people who have fled their home countries.  Pacific has reached out to us as a potential partner in coordinating services primarily to people seeking asylum from the fatal violence they are facing, especially in what is called the “Northern Triangle” nations of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  El Salvador has the highest incidence of murder of any nation in the world.  According to the United Nations, El Salvador had 82.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016.  Honduras was second at 56.5 per 100,000.  As a comparison, the United States rate was 5.35 per 100,000, South Korea was 0.7, and in 2012 (the most recent report) Egypt’s murder rate was 2.5 per 100,000.

Pacific approached us because we are the other presbytery that has been most responsive to the concerns of immigrants in crisis.  Our churches have shown welcome and support to refugees from the Middle East and Central America, not only through our immigrant churches but from majority-culture churches who are following the Bible’s repeated direction to care for orphans, widows, foreigners, and all oppressed people.  One question that I am often asked is for coordination and emotional support for our church leaders, as this work is confusing at best and heartbreaking on a regular basis.  I am especially concerned for our Latino/a pastors, who are on the front lines of caring for families threatened by ever-changing immigration policies.  Our Justice, Peacemaking and Mission Committee has approved applying for a grant to partner with Pacific Presbytery, and to support our own churches as they support asylees. Claremont Presbyterian Church has already generously pledged $2,500 and office support for such a coordinator.  I will update you as we make progress in this area.

I realized as I was speaking about this effort for refugees and asylees that there are several kinds of immigration, and sometimes they are lumped together, and not for the better.  Off-hand, I can think of several categories of migrant who are present in our community:

  1. Of course many of our immigrant neighbors have become legal citizens of the United States, or are permanent residents (ie, they have their “green cards”).  While they enjoy their rights to work and live in the US, they sometimes face racial discrimination, including when crossing the border.
  2. Many of our friends hold visas of some kind, either for work or study.  Some of our pastors, for instance, hold religious work visas.  These are time-bound but can be renewed, and they can apply for green cards and citizenship. 
  3. Others were settled as refugees with the help of our government.  For example, many US allies from conflicts in Southeast Asia and the Middle East have been welcomed with some support and protection from the government, and they are able to obtain green cards and citizenship.
  4. A large number of residents in Southern California are here legally with “Temporary Protected Status,” or TPS.  These people were granted legal status out of generosity on the part of the US and other nations, when their homelands were destroyed by earthquake, hurricane, or civil war.  The largest number of TPS residents come from El Salvador, but include individuals from Haiti, Somalia, and South Sudan.  These individuals could be deported on short notice if their nation’s eligibility expires or is revoked.  A court case has temporarily preserved the status of people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, because the government has recently attempted to terminate their status.
  5. An especially admirable group of residents have received DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, status.  We also call them “Dreamers.”  They are legal residents as long as their DACA status is kept current, which must be renewed every two years.  Though they do not have documents, they did not consciously break the law, since they were not of age when they were brought to the United States.  We have a church leader who recently applied for renewal of her DACA permit, and this week I just learned she received it.  Thanks be to God, not only for her sake and the sake of her family, but for the three churches in our presbytery that she serves!
  6. The current focus in the news is the people fleeing the Northern Triangle.  They are called refugees, or asylum seekers, or asylees.  The thousands of unaccompanied minors who came to the United States a few years ago, and families who have been presenting themselves at the border seeking asylum now, are awaiting hearings in the immigration court.  Due to delays in the court system, it can take years before their case comes up.  The unaccompanied minors were placed with families.  Now there are whole families who must find housing as they await their asylum hearings.  As long as they presented themselves as asylum seekers, they are here legally.
  7. And there are those who are living in the United States without documentation of any kind.  As you have probably heard, most of these undocumented residents did not slip in across the border.  The largest number of undocumented residents are people who have continued to stay in the US after their legal visas expired.

I expect there are many other categories of migrant status, but these are the groups who are well-represented in our community.  One thing I want to point out—ALL of these categories of immigrant except the last group are here legally.

So when Joseph and Mary heard about their government’s threats against their child Jesus, they fled to Egypt and stayed there until it was politically safe to return to their homeland.  Thank God they were given refugee status for those years!

I expect there are many different perspectives on the amount of immigration we are experiencing in the United States.  Our San Gabriel Presbytery has done better than much of the rest of the PC(USA) in welcoming, and benefiting from, our new neighbors from many nations.  As such, we have a special mission in helping our fellow Presbyterians to know that when we choose welcome, we choose new life, new gifts, new energy, and yes, new language, new traditions, and new food.  It isn’t always easy, but it is the way of our world.  From the beginning of human life, there has been migration across oceans and continents.  Let us follow God’s guidance and seek God’s comfort and encouragement as we seek to be faithful and loving, reflecting the compassion and life experience of our savior Jesus Christ.

Trusting in God’s providence in sending us neighbors,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: The End

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Revelation 5:11-12

We are living into the Easter season, and the question that faces us is, how do we live in response to the resurrection?

As we know, Christ rose in triumph after a humiliating betrayal and execution.  When we say Christ has triumphed, what does that mean?

Too often broken people exploit their faith to justify violence.  Crusaders, Nazis, the KKK, and various White nationalist militia claim Christianity as the basis for untold atrocities against Muslims, Jews, Blacks, and others.  Anti-Semites use Christ’s crucifixion as justification for their virulent and horrifying hatred against Jews—though they are just as quick to use the defense of Israel as an excuse to hate Muslims, from as long ago as the Crusades to now.  Muslims strike back, most recently against Christians celebrating Easter mass in Sri Lanka.  Sikhs get caught in the cross-fire as they have been mistaken for Muslims.  Jews stay ever-vigilant, to the point of restricting the human rights of Palestinians living in Israel.  Is this the way to defend one’s faith?

This Sunday’s lectionary passages (Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and John 21:1-19) give us guidance on how to live as people of the Resurrection.  In the Acts story, an early Christian is directed to receive Saul, a Jew who was known to persecute followers of Jesus.  Even though this Christian, Ananias, objects due to Saul’s violence against Jesus’ followers, Ananias is told to receive, bless, and care for this persecutor.  His ministry heals Saul, who as Paul becomes one of the greatest evangelists for Jesus Christ.  Psalm 30 reminds us how we are prone to stand on our own in good times, but we turn to God in our distress; as God answers our prayers, we are to praise God and witness to God’s mercy.  In the Gospel according to John,, when the risen Christ appears to his disciples, he still bears the wounds of the crucifixion, but he does not direct them to wreak vengeance.  Instead, Christ tells Simon Peter that if he loves him, Peter is to care for Christ’s lambs.

And in Revelation, multitudes of angels, elders, and all creatures sing resounding praises to Jesus Christ as the lamb.  Now the book of Revelation is perhaps the most intriguing and misunderstood book in the Bible, and it has been interpreted as countless sects, cults, and others attempt to foretell the end of the world, or to justify militaristic “evangelism,” since Revelation uses military imagery in the vision of Christ’s ultimate triumph.

I may never come close to understanding the Book of Revelation, but I have been inspired by the work of New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing.  She wrote a book on Revelation with the sensationalist title “The Rapture Exposed” and developed a Bible study for the Horizons series from Presbyterian Women.  Rather than get caught up in the sensationalist imagery, Rev. Dr. Rossing lifts up the unique characteristic of Revelation:  that the ultimate hero, the only one worthy of all of heaven’s worship, is a little lamb still bearing the marks of crucifixion.

Why would God lift up such a vulnerable image to represent the King of our worship?  For the same reason that Jesus came not as a great military commander, but as a humble teacher, willing to give up his life for the sake of others, and who teaches us to forgive and show compassion beyond reason or our human sense of justice.  The only way to break the cycle of violence is to refuse to respond to violence with violence, and the only way to lead as a Christian is to be servant of others, especially the outcast and oppressed in our society.

As followers of Christ, even when we are oppressed, we must find ways to transcend the violence of the world, and answer hurt with mercy.  We are forgiven as we forgive others, in gratitude for the merciful judgment of Christ, who loves us so much as to lay down his life for our sake.

I am grateful for those who have given us living examples of peace and forgiveness in response to violence, be they world leaders such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, or individual people of faith such as the survivors of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, SC; the Amish community that showed compassion to the family of their children’s killer in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; and the people of Billings, Montana, showing solidarity with their Jewish neighbors.  Recently, people of all faiths visit faith communities under attack, including Muslims protecting their Christian neighbors in Egypt; Jews reaching out to Muslims after the attack on the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand; and we who are invited to attend next week’s service at Congregation Chabad of Poway, including the Muslim members of the Escondido mosque who suffered from arson and yet now express support for their Jewish cousins.  I remember Nancy Moore and the session of Shepherd of the Valley, who volunteered their support and protection for a local mosque after anti-Muslim threats rose up after the San Bernardino shooting in 2015.  So we all can show concern and care, as Christ directs us.

Now despair may take us over, and we may ask that if these brave souls resisted violence, why do we continue to suffer from so much hatred?  This may be a similar despair that tempted Jesus’ friends when he was taken to be crucified.  And yet, Jesus stopped Peter from doing violence, and showed forgiveness even on the cross.  We are in such a liminal time, when we have the choice to respond to violence or any kind of hurt with revenge, or with mercy.  Christ calls us to do the latter.

So even in the face of tragedy and betrayal, may we truly celebrate the risen Christ by living as agents of mercy and forgiveness and peace, as Christ teaches us.

To the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Hope Lives

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. 

John 20:18

Happy Easter!

It almost seems an act of insensitivity to be joyous this Easter, against the backdrop of the last week’s events that remind us that Christianity offers no guarantee against mortal danger.  When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his coming crucifixion, he warned them that they would face persecution, even sharing, “They will put you out of the synagogues.  Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

But being Christian in the United States can lull us into thinking that we are safe to worship Christ and share our faith (as long as we don’t pay too much attention to Black church burnings or the occasional invasion of armed individuals threatening church services or Bible studies).  We sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and assume that our churches are like fortresses against any unpleasantness we face in the world, our faith a shield against any pain of doubt or accusation.

And then we saw Notre Dame on fire.  As a student of Western civilization, I watched in disbelief, much the same way I watched the World Trade towers go down on 9/11.  I kept recalling the many times I had visited there, especially when I went to school in France.  You never feel unsafe inside a cathedral like Notre Dame; you feel like the stone structure will stand forever.  So I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, partly because it never occurred to me that the roof was made of ancient wood, but also because it almost seemed symbolic of the death of the Christian faith, especially in secular Europe.

And then the singing began.  That was when I started to cry, to hear about the people kneeling and praying for their spiritual home, and the hymns being lifted up outside the cathedral.  While everyday life in Paris is led by so many without acknowledgement of God’s blessings, the danger of losing such a formidable foundation of Christian culture pricked their consciousness, and they turned back to God for help.

And God helped.  Only one firefighter and two police were injured, priceless art and holy relics and the magnificent organ were saved, the building stood, and the wealthy and powerful pledged support for rebuilding.  The desire to contribute spread to more modest churches closer to home, to three Black churches that were burned down in Louisiana a few weeks prior to Notre Dame, all historic in their own communities, precious in the lives of church members for generations.  Since Notre Dame burned, some $2 million was raised to rebuild these three churches.

France has suffered greatly from terrorist attacks recently, so it seemed a relief that the cause of the Notre Dame fire seems to have been a short circuit.  However, it is all too familiar a story that the Black churches were victims of yet another young White man acting out of racist hatred.  And yet, members of these churches have responded in a way that must make Jesus’ heart swell with joy.  Greater Union Baptist Church celebrated the Resurrection in a windowless basement in the local Masonic lodge.  Rev. Harry Richard reminded his people, “Don’t ever give up on love.  I don’t care what the world might do to you.  You never give up on love.”

Likewise, the church secretary showed pity towards arsonist Holden Matthews, and noted the financial donations that will help these three churches rebuild their facilities better than before, saying “Maybe in some weird way or a blessed way, God had a hand.  I feel sorry for Holden.  He thought destroying a building would destroy our faith and ambition to be better, and he didn’t.  All he did was motivate us.”

Many of us woke up on Easter morning to hear of the tragedy in Sri Lanka.  The latest report is that nearly 300 people were killed and over 500 injured in a series of eight bomb blasts, including three churches that were attacked in the midst of Easter services.  In the depths of grief for this tragedy that strikes at the very heart of our faith, let us experience a resurrection of faith in our lives.  Just as the spear struck at Jesus’ side, leading him to glory and all believers to eternal life, may God show us God’s gracious and compassionate will on all who mourn for our sisters and brothers in danger.

As Jesus has risen, and Notre Dame yet stands, as the churches of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, witness to grace and rebuild, as I pray God will find a way to comfort all after Sri Lanka, may we ever see and proclaim that death is not the final answer.  Like Mary, each of us who know the risen Christ can declare, in spite of whatever the world might do, “I have seen the Lord!”  May we tell all the world that hope still lives, because Jesus yet lives, and will live forever.

I will be out of the office this week.  May we all witness to resurrection, the persistence of life in our Lord, this week and throughout our lives.

In faith and gratitude,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Blood and Salvation

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption

Hebrews 9:11-12

We are in Holy Week.  This year I have been more aware of the fragility of life because so many people I know are recovering from various surgeries.  The most recent is my dog Gaby, who had knee surgery on Friday.

As I attempt to take care of Gaby now that she’s home, I am reminded of how many times I’ve wondered about what motherhood would have been like for me.  I am able to do the work I do largely because I have so few responsibilities at home—except for the short time I was caring for my father, my only care has been for myself and my pets.  So as I struggle to watch out for this injured creature, I can only marvel at the love and energy expended on the care for a precious child.

Of course, the great mystery of this week is the suffering of Jesus, God’s own precious child, whose love for the outcast, obedience to his heavenly father, and challenge to the establishment church and political leaders culminated in his rejection and killing at the hands of the world he came down to love. 

Every year the question “why did it have to be this way?” comes to me, and honestly I don’t think this is a question any mortal can adequately answer.  Even Jesus wondered about this in Gethsemane garden, and yet in faith he continued on his journey to the cross.

When I was in seminary, my spiritual hero was a woman who was undergoing chemotherapy from the breast cancer that eventually killed her.  The chemo came in a bright red liquid, and she came to equate the chemo to the blood of Christ presented to all of us in communion.  She even went so far as to connect the harsh cleansing of the chemo, which seemed to almost kill her in order to eradicate the cancer, with the cleansing of sin that comes with taking the cup at the Lord’s table.  Are we willing to give our all, to be willing to die to self in order to gain the life that God wills for us? 

As we experience the limitations and even horrors of mortal life, may we learn to appreciate the radical lengths Jesus went in order to bring us back to God.  As we consider our love and care for those we love, may we remember the pain that God was willing to go through, watching Jesus die in pain and humiliation for the sake of a world that hated him.  As we ask God for everything that comes to our mind, may we every once in a while take a moment of silence and dare to listen for what God might want of us, and may we trust that whatever we do for Christ, we will also find peace in the eternal love of God.

The poet Richard Jones considered the great faith of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till.  For mothers like her, Jesus’ sacrifice proved that God knew her pain.  And through mothers like her, God’s healing and justice are furthered in this broken world.  Even in the depths of our own personal pain, even as the blood of life is shed for reasons of injury or violence or even birth, may we entrust our lives to our Lord, in gratitude for the life-saving love of Jesus.

“The Face”
by Richard Jones

Emmet Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,
how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes—
the face that badly beaten, disfigured—
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face to
the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse
than the son she loved with all her heart.

For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,
but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.

In faith and gratitude,

Wendy