Executive Presbyter’s Report

Executive Presbyter’s Report

Once a year I’m expected to give a report to the Presbytery. I was prepared to give a report that was already too long, but the meeting was going late, and my dogs seemed to think I should keep it short. In case anyone is interested, here is the report I intended to give. Overall, of course, this has been the strangest year I hope to ever experience. But it was a time for some rich learning, and through it all the work got done—and God was there.

Adaptive Change: Instant Evangelists and Holy Imperfection

Most pastors I know have heard about, tried to explain, endured through way too many lectures, and read countless articles and several books on adaptive change (especially Heifetz and Linsky). We’ve been told I don’t know how many times that we are facing a time of adaptive change. Adaptive change (as opposed to the fine tuning of “technical change”) is so radical that not only do we not know the answers, we don’t even know the questions we’re supposed to ask.

Well, I think we’re finally experiencing adaptive change. The basics of life as we know it, and church as we’ve always done it, were taken away, in ways that were unpredictable, sudden and deep, and for several months they were constantly changing—sometimes on a moment’s notice. We had to use technology to recreate our lives virtually—whatever that means! But I am convinced that the Holy Spirit went into overdrive, helping us turn this crisis into remarkably creative new ways of being church, and we learned some things that we never would have learned, if we were allowed to keep doing things the way we always did it.

We were forced to focus on the essentials of church—worship, pastoral care, and mission—and church leaders found new ways of doing these essentials, sometimes more than they did before. We found that there were opportunities in the crisis. Most significantly, we found out that many more people are interested in worshiping with us, if they don’t have to come into the sanctuary. Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson likes to say how thousands of Presbyterian pastors became televangelists overnight—and our audiences are much larger than any of us realized.

And COVID forced us to try new things with no guarantee of success. One of the best things that I hope will come out of this strange year is our new-found experience that grace exists, and comes alive when we let go of our attachment to perfection.  Perfectionism has kept us from trying new things, taking risks, stepping forward into the future that is only known to God. But there was no way to do church in 2020 by holding on to the tried and true. Living in holy imperfection, we learned that we are capable of far more creativity than we thought; we were free to challenge our old ways; and sometimes we stumbled into even more effective mission. I do hope that we continue to experience God’s grace as we allow for holy imperfection that allows us to reform the church.

However, I am saddened to have learned that some church members somehow thought pastors weren’t working as hard because of COVID. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have seen pastors face their own performance insecurities to preach, lead, and care through technologies that they didn’t know any better than you did. They worried when the finances plunged through the floor, trying to save their staff’s jobs and wondering about their own. And they tried to care for the church through all the unpredictable changes, even as they shared the same challenges everyone else did, with no advance warning as things flip-flopped in a blink of an eye. While I have not heard from our pastors of the suicidal thoughts that have plagued some pastors this year, I do worry how they will crash when the urgency of the now finally subsides.

Better Together

In the midst of all this uncertainty, we give thanks for being a connectional church. The pastors and church leaders meet weekly to get and share information, compare notes on new technologies and ways to provide care from a distance, and we pray, and share concerns and joys. It has been quite lovely to see ways we’ve been able to support each other. Honestly, this has been an opportunity for the Presbytery to help in more tangible ways, through financial grants, mutual support, common guidelines, even stepping in to play “Presbytery bad guy” in enforcing strict distancing rules. But as time wears on, we also feel the limits of being together only virtually, and we all long for the ease of being physically together, joining our voices in song together, and staying connected with people who do not have comfortable access to technology. So in some ways, this time has actually given us more desire and time to be together, while we also feel the emptiness of being apart. As we move into the holidays, I am more concerned, especially for those who already feel isolated. And we all look eagerly for vaccines to become available in the new year.

Seeing—and Valuing—Each Other Anew

All this disruption gave us new ways of seeing each other. Young leaders, our digital natives, became lifelines as we turned to technology to enable physically distant church life. The young pastors of this Presbytery have always been one of our great gifts, and their creativity and collaboration and commitment continue to amaze me. Through God’s provision, we welcomed Ally Lee to Presbytery staff. She took on almost all the technology needs of the Presbytery and many churches, facilitated communication and collaboration, and brought great new ideas to ways we can support our churches.

We also saw the rise of awareness of racially-motivated violence and disparities in economics and even health resources during this time of public health and economic crises. This led to a new humility, and a willingness to confront White privilege in historic and current systems of society. Perhaps the COVID pandemic gave people time for introspection, study, and conversation that were facilitated by Zoom—for instance, I’ve been able to attend meetings from around the nation, and we beta-tested our first “Belong Circle,” which is one way to enable people to come to know and care for each other across differences. My hope is that we will continue to find ways to live into the gift of diversity that God has given us.

Doing the Work

In the midst of these foundational shifts in life as we know it, we continue to do the work. There were many significant events, including:

  1. In January, the Presbytery approved COM’s major revision of our pastor compensation policy, with special emphasis on effecting family-friendly leave policies, not only for maternity leave but also times when pastors need time for elder care, or critical care of children. This comprehensive policy has been a boon not only for our pastors and the concept of support for the family, but it also provides more clear guidance for our
  2. Also in January, the Presbytery said good-bye to Alhambra True Light Presbyterian Church. Alhambra and our team probably showed more love and grace than in any other church dismissal, and ended years of attempts to stay together. As it turns out, the timing and dissolution terms enabled the Presbytery to continue ministry without feeling financially constrained. And we have opportunities to stay in touch. For instance, I had occasion to speak with Jack Davidson and Foster Shannon recently. Foster, who is still a member of San Gabriel Presbytery, is still writing (I will be reading one of his books, on Revelation), and because he’s still home I got to visit him and Janis. And Jack shared that Alhambra expects to end this year without a deficit, so we can thank God that if there had to be a dismissal, both the church and the Presbytery have moved on in love and continued
  3. In light of this year’s drastic changes in worship life and stewardship, and thanks to the funds that we received from the Synod, as well as the Alhambra dismissal and our reserves, we were able to offer financial support for our churches. We provided upfront finances to help our churches think ahead around technology and continued mission, and offered grants as churches requested them. We distributed almost $300,000 in aid to our
  4. Along the way, we learned of the special needs of undocumented members and friends of our churches, and also new and recently settled refugee members, who have come to us from Latin America and the Middle East. Thanks to two Presbyterian Disaster Assistance emergency grants, on top of the program grant they have given us so that we can employ Kristi Van Nostran, $10,000 of emergency food and medical/rent grants were offered to settled refugees and undocumented immigrants in our own churches. In partnership with Pacific Presbytery and several other nonprofits, Kristi coordinated the safe release and transition of nearly 100
  5. Our little presbytery has inspired the larger church in various ways. The immigrant ministry has inspired many, especially due to the strong support of the churches throughout this presbytery. We have also gotten some attention for our work in West Covina, because we are doing several innovative things at once there: we provided needed care for a struggling church by moving them to fellowship status, we looked for ways to enable larger mission through better use of the property, and we are developing an exciting partnership with International Theological Seminary. We’ve talked a lot about this, but you may not know that we have been asked to talk about this to the national church multiple times, most recently last month.
  1. One way we are like every other presbytery is the need to find new ways of connecting. As a presbytery, we helped convert presbytery and congregational meetings to virtual, we interpreted ever-changing government regulations, and we are looking at ways to share resources that can be used in worship and education, like for World Communion Sunday and our next WinterFest. And Diane Frasher and Lauren Evans, our chaplains for retired church workers, have gone back to old technologies, like the telephone and hand-written greeting
  2. Finally, we are preparing for the future. Thanks to the legacy of First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin Park, we hope to enable an affordable housing development, which will include a Presbytery House that we can use for mission purposes, such as offering housing for asylum seekers. Wendy Gist, who will now be our senior staff member when Twila French retires, is staff support for this project, with the newly expanded Baldwin Park AC. Thanks to the budget you have approved, we are able to expand Wendy’s hours so that she can use her expertise in civil engineering and affordable housing to provide wise, passionate, and focused support on this, and I’m

Giving Thanks

As we look back on this year, we need to take a moment to give thanks. Thanks to God, of course. Thanks to God for bringing us our nearly 100 volunteer Presbytery leaders, the amazing committed leaders in every congregation, the pastors who reinvented ministry on the fly, and the chaplains who care for patients in hospitals and care homes, sometimes risking their own health. And of course, I have to give thanks to God for an incredible group of gifted, committed, faithful, funny, loving, creative, inspired and inspiring colleagues on the Presbytery staff: Wendy, Kristi, Lauren, Diane, Ally, and of course Twila. We began this year mourning Jake Kim. We end this year saying farewell to Twila.  But as you can see, God has sent us new friends, not as clones for others, but each bringing new energy, perspective, skills, and ministries that help keep us moving ahead. I pray that you get to know each staff member, and show them appreciation for who they are and all that they do to enable transformative ministry in this presbytery. Thanks be to God! And thanks to each of you.

When I think of 2020, this is the image I want to remember. This is Registered Nurse Amanda Etienne, of Brooklyn, New York. She survived the hardest three months of her health care career, in those scary days when COVID swarmed over New York, and then she was confronted with—and compelled to fight against—the violence erupting against people who look like her and her family. Here she participated in a protest rally against the killing of George Floyd, in her scrubs, and holding this sign, saying,

“I will still do everything I can to SAVE you! A Black RN.”

As we go forth into 2021, may we stay dedicated to our mission, keep our eyes open to injustice, and stay committed to Christ’s call to each one of us to give our lives for others.

Blessings, and thanks,
Wendy

 

The Hard Work of Hope

The Hard Work of Hope

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Jeremiah 32:14-15

I’m aware that the events of this last week—or at least what we think might have happened last week— may be seen in opposite ways. Some may see it as the end of a nightmare; some may see it as the end of the promise of America as we’ve known it.

The one thing I hope we can agree on is that we cannot continue hating each other as much as seemed evident these days. The one advantage of electing someone with Joe Biden’s length of public service is the number of people, including people who opposed him, who have experienced his desire to listen, to compromise, to seek common ground even with people who disagree with him. Even his choice of Vice President symbolized his willingness to put divisions behind him, as other candidates would not have forgiven Kamala Harris for her dramatic criticism of him during a debate.

But the reality is that most of us don’t forgive that easily. Even as the results of Election Day—or Election Season—started to take form, and Biden started to express his hopes for reconciliation, many of us started to wonder whether reconciliation was possible, and what it would take. For myself, I was reminded that reconciliation does not usually evaporate in an instant. Reconciliation takes hard work, and to be a people of hope, we must be people of perseverance.

Even as we hear the great news of the possibility of a vaccine being tested as 90% effective against COVID-19, we must remember that it will still take several months into 2021 before the benefits of the vaccine will take full effect. And it will take who knows how long for us to see each other not as a political enemy or a threat to our individual existence, but as a fellow compatriot.

Whenever I wonder how long we need to walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I recall the story of Jeremiah making a land purchase. Consider it: in the midst of a conquering empire taking control of your country, having been told by God that your nation will be occupied and your people exiled for a lifetime, you are now told to go buy some traditional family land and tuck away the deed for a long time. Who does that?!

It’s an act of sheer faith for Jeremiah to obey God’s word, the promise that eventually—after decades of suffering, but eventually—the people of Israel would be restored. And through those decades of suffering, Jeremiah would attempt to offer hope to his people—not always perfectly or joyfully!— but faithfully.

As we reflect on this time in our own nation’s history, the phrase I heard that has stuck with me is deep listening.

Can we listen deeply to the perspectives, the fears, the values of others, especially those others who see us as the downfall of our nation? Can we make room in our own perspectives, fears, and values to consider the possibility that the others are not so wrong, and we are not always right? And at least for us Christians, can we listen deeply to each other, even—especially—to those who differ from us, remembering that no one of us, no single group of humans, has all the wisdom, but only together do we learn more of our infinite God?

As the results of the election have come in, it occurred to me that perhaps God showed that wisdom by revealing a nation that is not easily lumped in one side or the other, that our people are not easily lumped together in just one of two camps. Commentators are trying to interpret what it means that people would vote for a Democratic President, yet increase the number of Republicans in Congress. Those who assumed that Latins would flee from President Trump had to be reminded that the people with roots in Latin America are not easily categorized as one voting bloc. As much as people on either extreme wanted it, there would be no repudiation of liberal or conservative views, no vindication against the “enemy,” no partisan triumphalism. Instead, we have to realize we are more complex than that, and we have to listen, not just assume; we have to come to know, not just categorize.

Even as we listen deeply, we also have to know that the road isn’t totally clear. The sign of true relationship is when someone feels safe enough to share their own hurts, their own anger, their own questions about what we did or didn’t do when they were at risk. But our ability to stay on the path of relationship, even through times of challenge, will enable true healing to happen. We must not give up, or avoid the pain that sometimes comes with new life.

Last week, Sonnie Swenston-Forbes informed us of the death of Rev. Donn Crail. Rev. Crail was pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin Park, and then retired to be Director of the Lazarus Project, the first ministry of the PC(USA) to offer words of Christ’s grace to gay men. Sonnie wrote, “No one was a stronger advocate for LGBTQIA+ people as a pastor and then as the Director of the Lazarus Project – the first inclusive ministry of the PCUSA. The blessing is that his son and [daughter- in-law] were able to travel from their home in Switzerland to be with Donn as he transitioned on All Souls Day.”

Any of us who have advocated for people on the margins of society—whether they be homeless, refugee, disabled, mentally ill, or people of another race or sexual identity—have felt the pain of the people they love. Jesus gave his life for, and still feels the pain of, the people he loves. May we have the faith to risk a life of faithfulness and hope, even when it does not come quick and easy, so that we—and many, many more—will know the freedom of the people of God, deeply and forever.

In Christ’s peace,

Wendy

 

Saints

Saints

Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

James 2:17-18

Tomorrow is Election Day, and it seems that’s all anyone can talk about. But amidst all the wonderings and fears of this interesting time, I remember that this Halloween would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. (Yes, I am old, though not that old, as my mother was almost 40 when she had me.)

Those who know about my family know something about my father. He had the intelligence, the voice, and the presence that his students and fellow community and church members appreciated.

As a pastor’s kid, he learned and showed me what it meant to be a servant leader. How many people who was profiled prominently by the Los Angeles Times had the humility to sit at the edge of his chair so he wouldn’t disturb a sleeping cat?

Those who know about my family know about my father, but those who know my family know that my mother was the powerhouse among us. When I was in seminary, I joked with my mother that she would be the most frequent sermon illustration in my preaching. While I don’t actually name her, I can look back and see how she, and her life, shaped my understanding of faith in indelible ways.

During these unusual times, I have had the opportunity to talk about anti-racism more than ever, and as I reflect on what I’ve learned, I noticed that many of the foundational lessons of my life came from my mother. As the son of a Presbyterian pastor who networked well with the majority culture, my father grew up in relative privilege; for instance, he and his siblings were educated at Occidental College (remember when it was a Presbyterian school?), and my grandfather had the knowledge and wherewithal to send his children out of the reach of the World War II internment camps. While my father was somewhat protected from the abuses of racism, my mother personally experienced the many ways that Japanese women have suffered from the divisiveness of her country in her lifetime.

My mother’s father was a medical doctor, but a century ago, a Japanese doctor was limited to serving Japanese patients, who were so poor they would sometimes pay him in produce. So when he died, my mother’s family was left without financial resources. My mother grew up in Pasadena, which even then was racially diverse. I found a remarkable school picture of her that shows how the Japanese were placed somewhere in between the Blacks and the Whites. They weren’t Black, and they were not White. And when World War II came along, my mother’s family was sent first to sleep in the horse stalls of Santa Anita Racetrack, and then to barracks at Gila, Arizona.

My mother lived through many hardships, and overcame them through grit and determination, but also through the faith and fellowship and healing and leadership and service opportunities in the church. Her compassion and her strong sense of justice were borne out of this hardship, so she found a great partner in my father. They dedicated their lives to service to God and all people through the mission of the church. Her circumstances did not give her the platform to speak her truth and her wisdom in a public forum, but her works certainly showed her faith for all to see.

While I have often felt my mother didn’t get the attention she deserved for her wisdom and her labor, she is not unique. As she taught us, we take God and the concerns of the world seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. As we celebrate All Saints Day one day late (or Dia de Muertos, which extends to today), we all know people who have been an inspiration and guide, a model and a challenge, a comfort and source of empowerment that shape who we are as disciples of Christ.

As we enter into this week of change and anxiety, may we keep the perspective of the ages, remembering ancestors who faced much more hardship and uncertainty than we do. As we enter into this month of Thanksgiving, may we remember and live out our gratitude, for the privileges we enjoy, and the sacrifice of our families to provide for us. As we look ahead to the season of Advent, may we remember that even in the dark, still night, we are never alone, as Jesus Christ came into this world to be one with us, to love and heal and teach us, and ultimately to save us.

As we recall the saints who came before us, as we anticipate the saints who come after us, may we consider and take responsibility for those who look to us as models and teachers of the faith. And through this week, may we as a nation live into the ideals that we profess, and seek the path of peace. I am reminded of the first General Assembly I attended, in 1996, which marked one of the most tense decisions made in recent decades in the Presbyterian Church. Before the vote was taken, the Moderator John Buchanan told the Assembly that no matter which way the vote came out, there would be people of faith who would be hurt. Such is true this week.  I pray that we find ways to know and share God’s grace throughout this time.

In Christ’s peace,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Kristi Van Nostran

Reflection: Kristi Van Nostran

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Hebrews 13:1-3

“Let mutual love continue” was our theme last weekend for World Communion Sunday. It was a beautiful way to frame the celebration of the unity that we are called to as Christian siblings around the globe. Mutual love sounds sweet, don’t you think? Love is always a good thing. Cue the singing animals, some sparkly stars, and warm fuzzy feelings. Until of course you are stuck on a never-ending zoom call with the person who drives you absolutely crazy, or the person who always complains but never steps up to fix the stuff they complain about, or that person you live with who just left their dishes inches from the dish washer for the 10th time this week, or the family member who knows exactly which of your buttons to push… And so the author of Hebrews goes on to describe what mutual love actually looks like. And unfortunately for Disney it doesn’t appear to include singing animals or star-crossed lovers. It is a choice, and often not an easy or comfortable one.

Mutual love is counterintuitive: it looks like congregations who are facing all the challenges of living in this difficult, in between, insecure, unclear and unsure moment welcoming strangers. Strangers who could be angels, but who are strangers all the same. Mutual love isn’t safe. It means empathizing with those in prison, so much so that you visit them, write to them, pray for them, advocate for them. Mutual love extends to those who we can easily love like family and those who are strangers, love means being in the skin of the person being tortured, practicing compassion so extreme that you experience the suffering of others yourself. Which is probably going to demand that you do something about that torture. Love changes you, love demands things of you; love is action. Love is making the choice to act for those who are in danger, who are powerless, who are other. Love is a risky choice that will change who we are at our core.

The reason is simple: we are made in the image of a God who is mutual love. God of course does it perfectly, the three diverse persons of the Trinity freely to act for one another, to make room for one another, to always choose the best for the Beloved, and in turn the same is done for them. Mutual love becomes perfect in that the One who made us got so in our skin and felt our struggle that God came to us having put on human flesh. It doesn’t get much more compassionate or more loving than that! God took on real risk to be with us, to experience our lives, to show us with God’s own hands a different way of living, a way of choosing to love. Even if it meant suffering, even if it meant conflict, even if it meant death.

The author of Hebrews is seeking to guide that congregation – and our congregations – to build wide and welcoming community where the vulnerable are cared for and safe, where those with privilege and power give of themselves for the good of all. And the key to all the author’s instructions is action that builds welcoming, mutual, loving community. Love is about our relationship with others, the actions that will draw us closer to others, that will knit together a community, that will bind individuals into relationship with each other, and with God.

Love is a choice, however. We are free to walk away from it. We are free to choose an easier way, probably a more comfortable way. That easy way lets us choose just the people we like to

surround us, and only do activities that we like, and resist any change that might crack us open to otherness, or newness. We do have that choice, but it won’t help us to pattern our lives after Christ’s way; not like consciously choosing love does.

To choose mutual love is to choose to act in a way that gives life to all. Sometimes that means welcoming the stranger who is in danger, afraid, hated by others. Sometimes that means allowing ourselves to be the stranger who is welcomed by others out of our suffering, to be raised up and cared for in a community of love.

We are called by God to choose to act toward others in ways that builds wholeness, promotes healing, provides welcome and wellness in ourselves and our communities. It is work we can only do together, with one another and with the God who made us. This is the hope to which we are called on World Communion Sunday, and every day: To be people who are formed by and who practice mutual love.

In peace,

Kristi

 

 

Adventures in Justice – Merilie Robertson

Adventures in Justice – Merilie Robertson

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause.

Isaiah 1:17

I have known Merilie Robertson since the early 1990’s when our paths crossed as my husband and I were gearing up for PC(USA) mission service. Little did I know that our paths would continue to cross for the next 3 decades, but I’m sure glad they have! I have been blessed to know her and be inspired by her. She moved into Monte Vista Grove Homes in Pasadena in Feb. 2019 after spending many years (when she was in the U.S.A) living in Canoga Park, CA. If you don’t know Merilie already, I hope this article gives you a glimpse into why I feel so blessed to have worked alongside her in both San Fernando and San Gabriel Presbyteries for a number of years now by giving you a brief look into just a few of the adventures in justice she has lived.

Merilie was born in Simi, CA, in 1928 and grew up on a ranch that grew mainly oranges, walnuts, and grapes. She characterizes her family as adventurous, and she remembers many a summer camping trip in Baja California. She has many happy memories of growing up.

It was while earning her teaching credential that Merilie first considered that her calling might be to the mission field. She got her teaching credential; taught science, math, home economics, and P.E. for two years in a small town; earned a Masters in Religious Education at seminary; and then applied to the PC(USA) Board of Foreign Missions. In 1957 after missionary orientation in New York, she boarded the USS Flying Independence (a freighter) for a two-month trip around the tip of Africa to Karachi. She lived in Lahore, Pakistan, for 11 years teaching at the Forman High School for girls. Forman High School was a Christian school for Muslim girls. Merilie started the science department and taught mainly physics and chemistry in the Urdu language. Her next assignment which started in 1969 was teaching school at the Community School in Tehran, Iran. It was a very diverse school both religiously and ethnically. Merilie came to love Iran – the beauty of the country, the cultural treasures, and her students. In 1979 the U.S. Embassy was taken over, and then the Community School was taken over by the revolutionary guard.

Merilie and some other teachers stayed one final school year teaching at a new site in northern Tehran before the government closed all foreign schools and she came back to the U.S. in 1980.

That year, at General Assembly, a 5-year study that produced a document called “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling” was received. This little booklet had a profound impact on Merilie, and she says “it was a life-changer for me.” It helped her put many things together and cemented her call to be a peacemaker.

Merilie states that her love for justice started in Iran and grew from there. In the 1980’s Merilie really became an activist. She went on Witness for Peace delegation trips to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Colombia. She learned about issues affecting Latin America and worked to raise the awareness of U.S. citizens and elected officials so as to effect change in U.S. policy toward Central America. She participated in acts of civil disobedience. It was an important time for her.

As I mentioned, I met Merilie in the early 1990’s before my husband and I went to Nicaragua as PC(USA) mission workers. In Spring 1994 we landed in Managua to begin our assignment. Then in the fall of 1994 Merilie arrived in Nicaragua with the Presbyterian Reconciliation and Mission Program. Merilie was 66 years old (the next oldest participant was 35 years old), and she was sent to the Atlantic Coast to the town of Puerto Cabezas. She was assigned to work with the Moravian Church’s Women’s Association and it was through that group she met many amazingly strong women who inspired her.

One such inspiration was a Miskito woman named Edrina. Edrina was extremely poor, but she was passionate about starting women’s associations at Moravian churches in the region. Edrina’s passion led to Merilie accompanying her to some very remote communities, and Merilie told me of one such trip.

Edrina had set up visits to several remote communities north of Puerto Cabezas, so one late afternoon Merilie walked to the port and boarded a 20 foot or so long sailboat along with Edrina. The boat carried quite a lot of people and freight, and they sailed on the ocean all night up the coast. When they got off the sailboat the next day they walked to a Moravian pastor’s house where they stayed for 2 or 3 days. Each day they walked to different communities and met with church women to talk about starting women’s associations. The return trip was via inland water passages and ended with them wading from waist deep to shore. This was just one of many interesting and adventurous experiences Merilie had while in Nicaragua.

Not one for twiddling her thumbs, Merilie felt called to travel back to Central America shortly after returning to the U.S. from Nicaragua. She went to Guatemala in the fall of 1995 where for two months she accompanied Pastor Lucio Martinez who was receiving death threats. Her time in Guatemala was very significant for her. Accompanying Lucio every day whether he went on a pastoral call in a community or to a meeting in Guatemala City or to work in his corn field gave Merilie a glimpse into and a better understanding of the lives of indigenous people. On community visits she would hear discussions about relevant issues. During Bible studies Lucio would read a passage and those in attendance would bring their experiences to the Scriptures in ways Merilie had not heard before.

Accompanying people like Edrina and Lucio gave her insight into how important it is to listen and especially listen to indigenous people.

Since leaving Central America she has continued to tirelessly do what she can for oppressed peoples. She spent parts of 3 summers along the U.S./Mexico border with “No More Deaths,” sleeping on the ground and carrying heavy water bottles around in order to assist migrants in the desert. At 78 years old she decided she had to stop that activity. But she realized that she could still work in aiding immigrants without traveling into the desert. She’s done a lot of advocacy work and about 7 years ago she started learning about detention centers and realized that people from countries she had visited or volunteered in were in some of these facilities. She started visiting detainees and listening to them, so she could then share their stories and struggles and better advocate for them. Then in time she began to train others on organizing and making visits. One local group she helped train is now way beyond just visiting detainees, and that makes her happy. During this pandemic she is still writing to a few detainees or released immigrants and she is reading to continue learning.

“See life as an experience that educates you,” said Merilie. Well, with all she’s experienced I’d say Merilie is a very wise woman.

In peace,

Wendy Gist

 

 

Languages

Languages

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

Galatians 6:9-10

Yesterday was Pentecost, and the day before that was San Gabriel Presbytery’s first Zoom-based Presbytery meeting. As we reflect on the many languages spoken on the day of Pentecost, several have noticed that in today’s context, “language” can mean many things. These last months, this time of Coronavirus, have made us much more aware of new technologies—Zoom, Facebook, email, phone— and modes of expression—speaking, singing, watching body language, touch—by which we communicate with each other.

In our Presbytery meeting, we experienced several new ways of communicating. In worship, we heard a few of the languages of our Presbytery, with a Call to Worship for Pentecost in Spanish, Filipino, Thai, Taiwanese, and English, and a virtual choir singing in Korean, Spanish, Taiwanese, and English. We welcomed Rev. Dr. Michael Spezio of Scripps College as a new minister member. Michael has integrated his theological training with his scholarship in neuroscience, focusing on neurodiversity and how we can appreciate and relate well to people who have been labeled “disabled.”

Thanks to Zoom we also had a running conversation via chat, and so we heard from the breakout groups that most churches are exercising caution about coming back into your sanctuaries, reflecting on the new learning—and new participants—you have seen through online worship. Those who responded said you will be taking several weeks or months before coming back in. (This is prudent, also, because the State and County will be reevaluating this allowance in three weeks, so there may be changes come June 16.)

And we were able to hear from and talk with Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, whose positive energy came across clearly from Boston, giving us words of encouragement and prophetic wisdom as we consider our calling as the Presbyterian Church (USA).

We also received an offering for ICON, the Inland Communities Organizing Network, as they organize community members for affordable housing in the Pomona area. If you want to learn more about ICON, go to http://www.icon-iaf.org/, and you can give by going to https://sangabpres.org/donate/ and using the drop-down menu to give “to Presbytery Offering.”

Not only was the meeting Zoom-based, we utilized for the first time a new Facebook account, https://www.facebook.com/SanGabPresbytery/ where we could livestream events such as Cindy Kohlmann’s message and Q&A—and we can also store and access a recording of Cindy’s talk, as well as videos that were created for and since the Presbytery meeting.

I cannot thank enough our Presbytery leaders who put countless hours, expertise and love into making this Presbytery meeting a truly inspiring and hope-filled experience: Diane Frasher, Ally Lee, Jennifer Ackerman, Lauren Evans, Beau Wammack and musicians from Calvary Presbyterian Church, and of course our moderators Karen Sapio and Deborah Owens.

This meeting was a needed oasis for me, as we continue to walk through this time that has become even more painful than dealing with the Coronavirus. As we have been dealing with the uncertainty of this unknown, we were slapped, maybe gut-punched, with the all-too-certain reality of racism and violence, most recently illustrated by the violent and totally unjustified deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. One cannot view the way Mr. Arbery was hunted down and shot, or how a police officer kept his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd for almost 9 minutes, with his hands nonchalantly resting in his pockets, without knowing that the lives, the very humanity, of these children of God were totally ignored. There is so much to say about this, and yet words cannot fully express the pain that has erupted into demonstrations and sometimes violent acts of protest and fury.

The sad thing is that for many, this pain is not new; in fact some recall Fannie Lou Hamer, who described the vicious 1963 beating in a Mississippi jailhouse that left her with severe kidney damage,

a blood clot behind one eye and a permanent limp. She said about that, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But for every generation, and for all who for whatever reasons are not aware, it’s important to speak, and communicate, from various perspectives. Over the weekend many presbytery leaders have been engaged in sharing thoughts and concerns, resulting in a video cry of lament and also many letters, including one from former San Gabriel executive, Ruth Santana-Grace, speaking from her Latinx experience, and a beautiful message to Detroit Presbytery from their Associate Executive, Charon Barconey, who speaks as a church leader and as an African-American mother of two young black men.

CNN commentator Don Lemon said, almost as an aside, that one way to learn more about what’s happening in this world is to make friends with people who are different from you:

If you are Black and you don’t have a White friend, get one, and tell him what’s on your mind.

And if you’re White and you don’t have a Black friend, then get one, and let him tell you what is on their mind. Because that is the only way we’re going to solve this.

Actually, I think there’s real truth to that. I remember many years ago watching a news item about a famous actor who accused a young man of assault. The actor happened to be White, and the young man was Black, and from Pasadena. While watching the report which assumed the young man’s guilt, my mother said of the young man, “That’s not true. I know his family, and I know he isn’t like that.”

How well do you know people different from you? Do you know them well enough to know better than to trust the lies and misconceptions that spread like a virus among us? Do you love them enough to care what happens to them and their families? Do you take the time (and maybe courage) to see and show your love for other children of God beyond the walls and myths that have been used to divide us?

In our Presbytery, we have people from so many different backgrounds and perspectives, we have a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other in this family of faith, knowing that however different we may be, we stand on the solid common foundation of our mutual love and faith in Jesus Christ. May we continue to build these relationships that enable us to be a shining beacon of light in this dark time.

Empowered and bonded in the Spirit,

Wendy