Thursday, February 27, 2014

Day -33: The Full Circle of Partnership

The book of Ephesians 4:1-17 describes the church's call to unity this way:
"Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love."
This passage was part of a bible study that we led recently with some of our colleagues here at the Inter-Church Center for Theological and Social Studies (CIEETS). The passage led us into a rich dialogue of reflection on what the "ligaments" are that join and knit together the various programs of CIEETS, and has led us to reflect on what those "ligaments" might be that bind U.S. churches to those here in Nicaragua.

Thanks to the work of CIEETS, dozens of rural Nicaragua's most impoverished communities now have access to clean water, improved sanitation, a more reliable food supply, better nutrition, and organic farming methods that help conserve the soil and protect the environment. Thanks to CIEETS, thousands of women and men are reading the Bible together, learning about the importance of social issues for the church, and awakening to the power of women doing theology (who have for so long had theology "done to" them). Thanks to CIEETS, many Nicaraguan Protestant churches have trained pastors and leaders committed to improving life for their communities and their country.

CIEETS organizes its work in two areas: the theological faculty (FEET) and the area for sustainable development and the environment (AMAD). At first glance, these might seem like wildly different areas of focus, but on closer inspection the overlap offers much fertile ground.  In last week's meeting, agronomists and theologians alike described their shared vision of and commitment to social justice that is integrated with Christian faith.

We were invited to facilitate this dialogue to help discover ways the two branches can work together to strengthen the entire institution.  We were asked to facilitate primarily because my work is in theological education and Tim's is in sustainable development and environmental education.  Last year we co-taught a class on Ecology and Theology (in the FEET), and in that course we took the undergraduate theology students to visit one of the AMAD projects, a concrete example of development projects that care for the environment and for people.

Before we closed, they had created a list of 8 concrete things they can do to help each other and learn from each other, starting next month and into the future.  This kind of work is more gritty than glamorous, but it is important for the optimal functioning of the whole.

The Ephesians passage, and the focus on organizational unity took me back to the first Bible study I was ever asked to lead in Nicaragua, in the fall of 2010, in El Sauce, in the Western region.  In preparation for the Christian Mission Church elections in March 2011, our friend Carlos was giving trainings in the rural regions to pastors and delegates on the church by-laws, focusing on the requirements laid out for elected leaders.  I prepared a brief reflection and questions for discussion on the same passage from Ephesians, focusing on the by-laws as the "ligaments" that hold the congregations and the national church together.

What I remember most about that visit was the feeling of fumbling.  I was still learning Spanish, and put hours into writing 4 or 5 questions that I hoped would be intelligible.  Speaking was hard, and trying to understand rural dialects for the first time even harder.  I fumbled as I took Quinn (age 3) to the latrine at night with a flashlight.  Neither the child nor the flashlight fell in, but it was not pretty. And Carlos laughed (not unkindly) as he read one of the questions I had written, which betrayed my total ignorance of a lively internal debate about the nature of spiritual gifts.

Despite that fumbling, we were welcomed with love from the beginning, and have learned so much from La Misión Cristiana and CIEETS.  As we come to the end of our time in Nicaragua, and prepare to travel to U.S. churches sharing stories of our time here, I realize that the work of Global Ministries is also a powerful "ligament" in the body of the global church. Our presence here is a powerful reminder to our Nicaraguan partners that the UCC and Disciples value and support their work. Our presence in North American congregations will share the good news of what other parts of "the body" are doing in other parts of the world.  In my mind, it "completes the circle," of being in relationship across borders.

PS - Over a decade ago, a teaching pastor and mentor of mine gave me a volume of The Gospel in Solentiname, and those dialogues by campesinos on a remote archipelago about the gospel readings were my first introduction to Nicaragua. They were compiled by Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and leader in the liberation theology movement and the Nicaraguan revolution.  We made the pilgrimage to Solentiname last weekend, and it is lovely to see how it has been developed as a tourist destination enough to generate income for the community, while still preserving the lush natural environment.  Another circle completed!

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