04 4 / 2012
A man stood up in an international missions meeting and said to everyone solemnly:
“My tribe says that the journey is as important as the destiny.”
We were at an international executive meeting of the largest missions organization of the world. I had an invitation to join the international leadership for a few meetings and I would come to it from my dirty road on the Amazon to attend the meeting wherever they were held: Lausanne, London, Dallas. It was not a comfortable environment for me, a 3rd world woman. I made my presence less awkward in my own mind, convincing myself that I was some kind of indigenous heroine representing the poor in the middle of all the well-dressed male mission executives.
On this occasion, the man who was talking was a Pacific Islander. I felt uncomfortable with his dramatic presentation. Neither his self-important presentation, or the metaphorical proverb recitation were necessary. In my opinion, in order to contribute he had be less of a Sioux smoking his peace pipe, and more western. “Making a theatrical gesture was not going to help the western candidates present understand anything of “our”world,” I thought.
Evil me did not like the display of nativeness. It was enough that we had different skin color. We didn’t need to dress in ethnic costume. To me, a woman in her early thirties, breast-feeding a baby during the meeting (awkward), having to carry the gender difference was heavy enough. I refused to be branded like a stereotypical “native.” We, the “natives,” had thick accents, nappy hair, smells other than French perfume, we show our naked breasts. We commit sexual immorality, we get caught in financial scandals. Our theology sometimes is questionable and always too emotional. We are here as pets, not as partners.
My approach in those white male-dominated meetings, was to try to be smarter than John Stott himself. I would try to speak very cleverly. Never showing my latin-ness, my so called “nativeness”. “C’mon guys, let’s be productive contributing as equals, and not make our ethnic differences stand in the way.”
What I did not realize then was that the founder of our organization had a different idea. I was slow to understand that I was there not to be clever like a wanna-be Ivy League parrot. He called me there because I was myself, with my dirty feet and messy hair. The islander who spoke was there because he was Maori. As a Maori he had all the right to say Maori things and they were going to be taken as such.
The founder was purposefully breaking the white hegemony of the mission by inviting all of us, different people, to the first layer of leadership. He did not want a parochial mission but a global one. The big Maori guy exposed to the rest of the organization our well-disguised diversity. He was a full native, with all the gala, the protocol, the ceremonies that it included. To be a militant for a cause is not the same as being the cause itself. I was as close to the natives as Donald Trump is to the poor. I am a militant for the indigenous cause but I am not an indigenous myself, neither is my thinking.
The Maori was focused on the journey. He displayed the protocol and solemnity of his nativeness without fear or embarrassment of any kind . He understood the value of all. In the ceremonial language of Polynesia, concepts are communicated through dance and rituals. The glory, the honor, and the endurance of all generations before them are present in the chants and dances. They are not performances but a way of life, a way to make the intangible spiritual world close to our touch.
When the “awkward”Maori became the international president of the global organization, I had an epiphany. I understood the value of plurality through his chant. I knew then, that we were on the way to become a true international organization. We had broken the white protocol of rational discourse and entered the mysterious land of rituals and ceremonies. We had replaced the cold talks and strategic plans with dancing. Soon we would be under way to replace the exclusion with embrace.
Unfortunately many evangelical groups do not see cultural contextualization as a good thing. We get stuck in the format of our own western rites and protocols. We think we are not compromising the Gospel because somehow our version of it is purer than everyone else’s. Yet, we are equally influenced by destructive ungodly culture.
The present western gospel goes to bed with greed to mistakenly achieve “good” goals. As western evangelicals we prefer having beautiful red velvet chairs in our churches than to have real relationships. Our theological discourse still addresses the mind of the society of the 17th century, but our morals are very post-modern. The personality driven religious leaders trade personal charisma for real guidance, and the nauseating self-involvement of “normal” evangelical Christianity follows the rules of the day. Our theology might excel in systematic logic, but our morality is contaminated. That is the sad picture of western Christianity.
As the Maoris leader said: “The journey is as important as the destiny.” It is required of us not just to arrive at results, but to have an honorable journey there. There is no honor in walking alone.
28 3 / 2012
LaVera Betts was an American missionary from Wycliffe Bible Translators. She was short in stature, short in hair but large at heart. She was almost 80 years old and had lived in the jungles of Brazil for more than 45 years when she had had a stroke in her small wooden house in Amazonian city of Porto Velho. She was transported for treatment to São Paulo, 4,000 miles away. For a few weeks, accompanied by her fellow worker in Bible Translation and best friend Helen, she fought for survival.
Meanwhile in Porto Velho a party was taking place. It was a crazy conference/party that our local mission had decided to host. Indigenous Indians from more than 50 tribes came to enjoy a week of fellowship and good food in my back yard. A big tent was set up for 2,500 people. Several cows were killed and donated to us by friends of the mission. A lot of indigenous preachers, singers, dancers came from all over to enjoy the fellowship. It was during the days of the party that Helen called with news from Sao Paulo. LaVera had die the night before.
Alan Lea came to me and asked: “Could you say something about her during the meeting today?” Mr. Lea was the director of Wycliffe Bible Translators, our next door neighbors in Porto Velho, and co-hosts of the party.
LaVera was not married and did not leave any close relatives. She had outlived everyone close to her. In a few months, she would have to go to compulsory retirement in a home for missionaries somewhere in the US. She would have to live there among complete strangers until her death. LaVera and Helen, her dear Canadian work partner for many years, were dreading the eminent separation from each other and from the missionary field they called home.
“She is gone, dead, and now what?” A single missionary lady whispered to me in great pain; “Braulia it is so sad, what do we do with her body?” This was more than just a question, it was an outcry. LaVera had dedicated almost her entire life to the Tenharim Indians of the south Amazon basin. She lived in a simple wooden house without any extra comfort other than a hot shower and a fan when she came to town. Now she would be buried in an unknown cemetery in Sao Paulo, far away. And after Helen returned to her home in Canada, no one in Sao Paulo would know who LaVera was. No one would ever honor her grave with flowers, or recite poems or Bible verses to the wind in memory of her.
I thought to myself that it would not be difficult to gather some money to get her remains back here to the Amazon, so the people who loved her would have a chance to remember her. Before I had a chance to suggest that somebody remembered that LaVera had left clear instructions. She had said that if she died in Sao Paulo, she wanted to be buried there. She did not want to disturb anyone and be a burden after her death. I was a little put off by this cold pragmatism, but it came from somebody who always knew who she was and what she wanted. LaVera was a citizen of the kingdom. She had no earthly ties, nor belonged to any people group. When she embraced the missionary call, she understood that God had called her to give up everything for Him. And that’s what she did.
It was not because she loved the Brazilians, that she lived in Brazil. What moved her was her love for Jesus. It was not because she loved the Tenharim people that she had spent an immeasurable amount of tiresome hours translating the New Testament into their language. She did it because she loved Jesus. Her love for Jesus was reflected in her love for others.
As Christians we believe in eternal life. But loneliness scares us. LaVera’s grave was going to be lonely like she was in life.
I walked slowly to the tent, and just before the end of the meeting somebody asked me to talk about LaVera. Even though I was not very close to her, I was asked to speak because most of her American friends felt too emotional to say anything. So I stood up on the wooden platform, staring out at the tent filled with indigenous faces to pay a last tribute to LaVera.
The short and dark Tenharim Indians gathered around me singing in their language. They sang a song that LaVera would have understood had she been here. They finished in tears, reminding everyone they had the Bible now only because of the effort of that short lady.
I started my piece, mumbling some nonsense between tears, thinking to myself, that to be a Christian after all is to be able to say: “We enter this world with nothing, and can take nothing with us. We are not from here. This is not our home, it never was nor ever will be. He is our one and only gain.”
Without a Land
Without a people
Without a family
Her legacy: Jesus
08 3 / 2011
Alexander had a good heart but his brain was already fried by the use of crack. We first met him six years ago. He was a lost 20 years old boy, addicted to drugs, coming from a dysfunctional family that was in the mission’s center as a student of the discipleship school. Miraculously coherence slowly came back to him. After six months, in the end of the school, while his mother stayed on the missionary center as part of the staff group again, Alexander went back home to pursue the studies he had abandoned years ago. He was able to finish high school and tried applying to a university. His dream was to be a missionary pilot.
Then another crisis came, and then another, and reason abandoned him by a crack in the window of his brain, and he would get completely incoherent again making religious discourses nobody was able to understand. He usually came to the center to visit when the crisis were serious. We never saw him as a bad person, he was always docile and gentle in spite of his madness. My husband always took the time to listen to him, counsel him, to decipher his anguish in the middle of the abundant talking. Finally with the help of his dad, Alexander got a job at a gas station, and accommodated to a life permeated with periods of sanity and crisis of religious delusion.
In the past few months Alexander started to notice my daughter, a 10 year old girl. He called several times in the middle of the night, sometimes at 3am to talk about how beautiful she was, that he had seen her on the playground or playing soccer at the court, how he touched her leg, and how his touch was so pure, and how God loved angels like her and the other girls of the missionary center.
My instinct as a mother stands guard, I announce to the other mothers with daughters at the same age as mine about this, and every time Alexander comes to visit I try to keep company to him, following him around by the forest that surrounds the center, never letting him wander off by himself, and other staff members do the same.
Tuesday his bike with the Yokohama sticker was parked in front of my door. I was not home and Reinaldo was in a hurry. He explains to Alexander that he cannot talk that day, he had to leave for a pastors meeting in town. Alexander was more deranged than ever and insists in the absurd hope he has in Reinaldo. “You are like my father, you are my pastor, I need you today.” Reinaldo explains that he could not stay that day, he had a prior commitment. Alexander continues begging for attention and says that he wants to move back to the center again.
- How? You still use drugs, you walk around here looking at the little girls and call me in the middle of the night to talk about how beautiful they are, how can I trust you and let you move back here again?
- I am not going to do anything to them. I just want to be born again like them, I want to turn into a little child again, I want to belong to God and I don’t know how, I want to marry a little girl so she will help me to get clean. I want to belong to a family that is a family of God, please Reinaldo.
- I can’t do this today, Alexander, I am already running late. We have done a lot for you Alexandre, now it’s over. You have to get a hold of yourself.
- It’s over? It can’t be over. God’s love is never over. Look here.
He had a roll of toilet paper in his hands, and showed it to Reinaldo, who started to get a little annoyed with the whole story, as he told me later. Alexander unrolled the toilet paper giving Reinaldo the pieces until he found inside a little squished Bible, opened it on Psalms 136, and started to read the whole psalm right there under the burning sun of that Amazonian morning.
- See what the Bible says, my pastor? Give thanks to God because his love lasts forever…
And he kept reading as Reinaldo tried to interrupt him, saying that he was late for a meeting, that he had already read that psalm, that he knew the Bible, please come back another time, or not even that, please stop doing drugs, please get a hold of your life.
After finishing the psalm Alexander finally gives up and leaves and the pastor gets in the car and also leaves for his meeting. On his way back home Reinaldo still saw Alexandre from a distance, biking on the dirt road on the way back to town from the center. Alexandre saw the car but did not stop him to talk through the window, as was usual. Instead he turned his face to the other side, as if he was saying: “You, my pastor, have failed me. You exchanged my pain for meeting, you let your love come to an end even though God’s love never ends.”
The story of Alexander and his search for God also came to an end in that same afternoon. The next morning his sister called us to attend his funeral.
The boy had thrown himself under the wheels of a truck after two other unsuccessful attempts at committing suicide. Reinaldo and I cried for the entire week many tears of anguish, despair, and guilt. Still I cry as I write this.
I cry for us, for the missionary community, and for all the Alexanders in life that find in their paths the Levites and not the Samaritans.