Get Lost

Roberto and I have been developing a friendship.  Since I have arrived in León, Nicaragua, we’ve been working together doing urban ministry trainings in different locations throughout the city.  Our mode of travel is Roberto’s motorbike. He drives and I hop on the back of that two wheeler and we make it work.  Nicaragua is a land of volcanoes and one day on our regular trips I was enjoying the view of smoking volcanoes in the distance.  I holler over the wind so Roberto can hear me, “I want to climb a volcano!”  He looks back, helmet on, visor down, and gives me a thumbs up.

Roberto, who is a nature lover and formally a biologist, took my request to see a volcano seriously.  After a few days we took that motorbike up the side of the small volcanic mountain called Cerro Telica.  The paths varied from black and sandy to stretches full of sharp rocks and boulders.  For our safety, I would often have to get off the bike and let Roberto go ahead.  He would wait in clear area for me to catch up on foot.  With the mountain sparsely populated we asked for directions whenever possible to make sure we had some general sense of where we were going.  The only clear direction we had was up.

You know, being in Nicaragua isn’t as big of a stretch for me as it might be for other Americans.  I’m a Latino born in the United States.  My parents are from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.  I know each U.S. raised Latino relates to their Latino heritage differently.  But, because of my parents’ cultural heritage and the way I was raised, several things about being in Latin America naturally suite me.  On a few occasions, I have felt more at home in this foreign land than I do in my own country.  For example, everyone here knows what a platano is and I don’t get strange looks when I tell someone I had one breakfast. However, since my time in León, there is one thing in particular that has required my adjusting.  I’ve had to learn to be okay with getting lost.  Here, the streets do not have names like they do in the States.  Houses and buildings do not have numbers.  You can’t look at finding your way as academic exercise.  Unless you already know where you’re going, you are left with no choice but to ask for directions and hope you are going the right way.

Asking for directions is one thing.  Dealing with the directions given is a whole different level of adjustment.  It’s not uncommon to receive directions, not to your destination, but to another point of reference where you should ask for help. Once the directions I received went somewhat like this: “You see that purple building?  Go this way (the person makes a random motion with their hands) two or three blocks past that building.  Well, the street isn’t really divided by blocks.  Kind of figure out the length of about four blocks past that building and look for a tree and a red door…  Ask someone a little further down the road and they can help you.”  Never mind there were a dozen trees and red doors.  Not to mention the relative way of measuring a city block.  Really it’s about being relational and learning points of reference (the Lake or the Cathedral for example). It’s about asking for help down the road.  It’s about a willingness to fail and to ask again for help.

The whole situation reminds me of a prayer Paul shares to the church in Ephesus.  In Ephesians 3:16-19 he writes, I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”  You see the purple building.  Go four blocks past that, and God’s love is there to guide you to the next step.  We can’t go out of it.  We literally cannot fall out of the love of God.  It’s too wide, too long, too high, and too deep for us to escape.  Our ultimate point of reference is the cross of Christ, where His love was put on display for all to see.  To get lost is to be lost is His love.  And to be lost in Him, is to never be lost.

Maybe the interesting part of this journey is the relational bond we must have with those who have also become lost in Christ.  Can we learn to help each other along the way and receive the help?  Look for the tree…  Go south for about 5 minutes walking…  What you’re looking for is not too far, keep going straight.

3 hours after our journey began, Roberto and I reached the summit of Cerro Telica.  At one point the road was too treacherous for the bike.  We made the choice to leave it and climb up by hand and foot.  We both nearly slipped a couple of times, and I personally was not without my cuts and bruises.  But, we were at the point of no return.  We wanted to the see the majesty of God’s creation at the top of that mountain.

When we finally reached the top, Roberto gave a loud shout of victory.  We stood there breathless.  We could touch the thick smoky sulfur cloud of the active volcano.  After taking some pictures, Roberto and prayed for each other at the top of that mountain.  Then, I turned to look at the view.  And I am convinced now more than ever that God’s love to too high for me to escape.

R. R. Tavárez

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A Greater Whole

What does it mean to be a part of the church?  To many that is probably a familiar question.  But, I wonder, how often do we reflect on what it means to be a part of the global church?  We read in the book of Romans God’s admonishment through the Apostle Paul, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”  It’s that last line that we often bypass that should strike us.  How often do we think of ourselves as belonging to someone else?  Move past the individual.  How often do we think of our church community as belonging to someone else?  Have we ever been guilty of treating our local church or denomination as if it is the center of Christianity?

You know, this world is bigger than you.  And it’s so much bigger than me.  It’s not enough that we know that. We have to intentionally be aware of this reality.

A couple of weeks ago I was blessed to be one of about 800 participants from all over Latin America in CLADE V.  I met new people every day and the exchange of life stories became a regular exercise. There were international students, like Samuel, who had spent time in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Spain.  There were teens from Chile standing up against child abuse.  I met Uruguay’s director of Youth for Christ, an older, humble gentleman with a great laugh.  There were several Pastors and ministry leaders from Brazil and even some American Theology professors at the conference as well.  I got to hang out with a professor from Oxford and a professor from Eastern University.  To my surprise I also met a couple there who had graduated from Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.  Together, all these, and so many more, were challenged daily to reflect theologically during the gathering on several issues affecting Latin Americans; from environmental degradation to immigration and from child abuse to perpetual poverty.

When delegates from all over the world gather together and share about the work God is doing in their contexts, and the confrontations they yet face, it leaves much ponder.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much environmental issues came up during the conference.  The Latino church has and is embracing Christian responsibility to God’s creation.  You know the Bibles with the words of Christ in red?  I now have in my possession the Eco Biblia (Bible), with words concerning creation care in green.  Yeah.  In green.  I didn’t see that coming, but it’s wonderful.  Every delegate got a free Eco Biblia.

It wasn’t until I met a delightful Columbian lady with a British accent that I thought about Latino immigrants living in the U.K.  I had been so focused on Latino Immigration to the U.S. that I never paid much attention to Latino immigrants moving to other countries and the issues they face in doing so.  Honestly, I had to repent concerning that.  This Columbian sister and her husband live in London, and there she serves in an organization that supports Latinas who have been the victims of violence. She led a workshop during the conference titled, Jesus the First Feminist.  I bet that title is making somebody’s hair on the back of their neck stand up straight.  It certainly grabs one’s attention.  I was blessed to have a few moments with her discussing the issue of domestic violence against women and the role preachers and pastors need to take in addressing the issue within the church.  These and many other similar moments have been shifting my thinking.  What is my role in the global church?

During the conference there were over 100 tables set up for the participants to sit and dialogue together.  On the last night, there was bread and grape juice set on the tables for the participants to share in communion.  Some of the friends I had made during that time wanted to sit together to have communion before departing to our different countries of origin. That communion time was probably the most awkward communion sharing I’ve ever had.  There were pieces of bread on the table and we weren’t sure how to share it.  Did we take a piece and pass it around?  Do we each just grab one for ourselves?  Is there enough for everyone?  Sharing the juice was just as challenging.  The beauty of it was that we figured it out together.  And everyone was served.  Communion that night was probably one of the most special times of the entire event.  In all likelihood, the next time we all sit at a table together, like we did on that night, will be when sit at the King’s table at the end of age.  Still,  I can’t wait to share that table again with my friends.

As awkward as it might be, we believers must look for the opportunity to be in communion together.  We read in Philippians 2. “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”  I don’t write this blog to give anyone answers on how to be a better part of global church.  Indeed, I myself probably have more questions than answers at this time.  But, I do think it’s something we should consider as exercise our daily ministry, wherever we are.  It may be awkward at first, but God has called us to live with each other.  He has called us to serve one another, and treat our brothers and sisters at home and around the world as if we belong to them.

R. R. Tavárez

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God’s Country

It’s hot everyday.  And everyday it’s humid so that you don’t want to move or even turn your head.  You sweat enough just by sitting still.  The doors and windows stay open, allowing whatever breeze may fall to pass through the home.  You try and find a place between the shadows and the chance to catch a breeze.  Be still long enough and the market comes by your door.  Everyday people walk past announcing the products they carry in their baskets, buckets, and pick-up truck beds.  Be still and you might also hear some of the daily news.  Things that are relevant to the local community.  Some is exchanged with greetings and sales.  Some might be heard through drive by loud speakers, like the announcement of the passing of Doña Rosa.  She has gone to glory and apparently she is survived by several sons and daughters.  Her funeral service is happening right away this afternoon.  This is León, Nicaragua.

When Roberto swings by on his motorcycle in the morning, I’m almost too happy to hop on for a ride just to catch some wind.  Almost.  With no helmet, and hanging on for life, I ride with him as he whips through bumpy roads and between semi trucks.  Occasionally I work up the courage to open my eyes.  People are standing on the side of the road in groups, waiting for rides.  I see people on bicycles and other motorcycles.  One little girl sits on her bike while holding a three liter bottle of red gaseoso (soda/pop) on her head with both hands.  Her little sister has arranged herself to sit on the bike without actually sitting on the seat.  One sister pedals, the other guides the handle bars.  These kids have skills.  With all the motorcycles and bikes on the road, it might seem that everyone is going green.  The diesel fumes from the buses and trucks suggests otherwise.  We turn onto a dirt road and pass by a bus with a picture of Jesus on the windshield.  This is a school bus converted to a city passenger bus.  Not an uncommon sight.  This bus reads over its windshield, “Dios te Ama.” God loves you.

We’re headed to the barrio of Eugenio Perez.  I’m sure that might be an actual person’s name, but it’s also the name of the community.  We were just on a busy road, whipping through the alleys of a city.  Then, we’re in a community that seems like it’s been somewhat forgotten.  It’s strange, but a strange that’s becoming familiar as it’s happened a few times already.  No more traffic or clear paved roads.  No more motorcycles.  Instead there are horses galloping by, dragging crates of wood on their backs.  Stray dogs, not unfriendly, trot toward us as we get off the motorbike.  Across the alley a group of children are playing in the pick-up truck bed of a vehicle that has been dead for years.  We are in a dirt parking lot and I see a simple rectangular concrete structure just meters away.  It has rusted doors and open windows with rusted metal frames.  Gold drapes hanging in front of each window.   No one has to tell me.  I can feel this is a sacred place.  Our American timing gives me several moments to take in the environment while we wait for our meeting to start.  The shade of the trees makes this place very cool.  Rosters crow nearby and the chittering of insects is heard in the leaves above.

After a while, the pastor of the church appears.  And again, I don’t have to guess.  His presence commands respect.  His brown eyes are friendly enough to bring you in and serious enough to let one know he is about his father’s business. A few of the sisters of the church come and we sit outside.  Together we discuss the work that God is doing in the barrio of Eugenio Perez.  We talk about the church building behind us.  About the calling the pastor felt to serve this community.  About the church plant that is only seven years old.  We talked about the future of this community and the vision God has given this body of believers to transform it from a community in the margins into a community that honors and glorifies God with its full potential.  We also talked about some of the challenges.  For example, the need for clean water, students losing some of their school-year learning during school breaks and youth in need of positive role models.

I am blessed to be a part of the work in the community of Eugenio Perez and two other local communities for the next three weeks.  The teams working for Christian community development in these contexts heard a bit about my experience in urban ministry and with youth. They’ve asked me to help do some training with their leaders and work hands on with some of the youth they are trying to reach.  They want me to share my testimony, but really I love to hear their stories instead.  I love to hear the history of their community and country.  I love to hear how God has been working through them for the building of His kingdom.  When I listen to them I know they are the real experts, living out the call of transformative ministry everyday and suffering with the people whom they are called to minister to.

Everywhere on Earth is God’s country.  The team in the barrio of Eugenio Perez in León, Nicaragua is just one example of His Kingdom here on Earth.  Often, when I talk with groups about community transformation I ask, where do you see God in your community?  If we step back from ourselves and open our eyes, we can see the Holy Spirit who has and is establishing God’s kingdom, long before we go work.  God is choosing and using people every day to bring his peace, his shalom, and justice to the world.  Let us proclaim the life of His kingdom over the loudspeakers.  Let us bring the news from door to door.  May the coming of the Lord come like a mighty rushing wind to refresh us!  We know that we won’t see it in its fullness until He comes again.  But, we work and trust, hope and pray.  In the Lord’s prayer we ask, “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done.”  As I serve in Nicaragua, that prayer rings more true than ever for me.  Not because of anything I’ve done, but because I’ve seen so much more of what He has already done.  And surely, He has done great things.

R. R. Tavárez

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International, Latin-American, God

I feel… international. I’m not sure if that qualifies as an emotion, but its what I’m feeling right now.

I’ve crossed by bus through two customs/immigration check points in the past ten hours, traveling form Nicaragua to Costa Rica. My wallet now has three different currencies in its folds; dollars, córdobas, and colones. Bright pinks, yellows, green and blues. I’ve never had such a valuable celebration of color in my pocket. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sitting on a wad of cash. Its the rich history and the images on the few bills I have that intrigue me.

As I pay for my evening meal, the celebration of culture all around is even more real. The dinning room in Parque Sendas is quickly filling up. Parque Sendas is a Nazarene seminary in San Jose, Costa Rica and right now its sheltering over 100 people, of which I am one. We have come from all over to attend the conference of CLADE V that will begin tomorrow afternoon. Most of those here are planning to stay overnight throughout the week in the cramped seminary doors as conference participants. Quarters are tight with bunk bed type setups and with rooms that meant to hold about 12 people each. There are people of Latin American heritage here from around the globe. I’ve already encountered some from Dominican Republic, Peru, El Salvador, and the United States. In the hallways I overheard Portuguese and traces of European languages. But, check God out. Here, our common language isn’t English. Its Spanish.

About forty years ago La Fraternidad Teologica Latinoamerica or FTL (translated its Latin-American Theological Fraternity) began to organize a movement. They began to provide a platform for Latino American theologians and ministry practitioners to come and form their own theological reflection and responses to ministry in the Latin-American context. It wasn’t a short sided fad or casual gathering. This CLADE has met four times since 1969, and participants thoroughly examined for days at a time issues such as holistic evangelism, incarnational ministry, the value of indigenous perspectives, the role women in theology, political issues, social and family ethics, and justice issues.

Rather than depending on American or European theological thinking to inform their practice, these theologians have taken it upon themselves to be proactive and enter the global theological discussion. God has created a diverse community of believers and the Latino people, among ourselves, are extremely diverse. The Latino peoples have something to share and contribute theologically with each other. We have come together to better understand what God is saying to us as Latinos. In turn I believe that we will be able to share that with the world so that God’s community of believers will be better shaped in the unity of diversity. I am blessed to be a part of the fifth gathering of the CLADE, to be counted among the hundreds who are coming.

Holistic ministry, social justice, ethics … These are buzzwords that we now keep hearing in the churches in the states. Its interesting to me that while churches in America are just waking up to some of these principles, the church in Latin America has been on the move with these concerns for half a century. God is speaking through the Latin-American church. I pray that God would give us ear to hear what the Spirit of the Lord is saying to the churches, in Latin-America, the States and the world.

If you’d like to read more about the FTL, here is the story in English.

R. R. Tavárez

Rising

Usually, for me, one of the most nerve wrecking things about air travel is air travel…  That’s not a typo.  If you get in a car accident, you get out of the car and put your feet on the ground.  If a ship starts to sink, you put on a life jacket and swim to shore.  When it comes to planes, the flight attendant is kind enough to make sure you know where the exits are.  If something goes wrong, she wants you know where you can escape.  Thanks, but escape to where exactly?  Excuse me stewardess, where’s my parachute?  Wait, we don’t get a parachute?  We get life jackets?  I’m pretty sure there’s a failure there somewhere…

Anyway, for the first time, I didn’t need a paper baggie when the plane began to rise off the ground.  And flying ten thousand feet above the earth didn’t faze me.  As I took off through the skyways headed to my mission trip to Nicaragua, all I could think about were the people still on the ground.  I thought about my sister and her hilarious kids having VBS in the backyard with their neighbors.  I thought about my friend Alex at work with folks in substance abuse recovery.  I thought about my spiritual father and mentor, who was probably praying and looking for church planting sites in the Latino community.  For the first time ever, I would be beyond the usual phone, text and face to face contact that I shared regularly with them and others.  It would be 7 weeks before they could hold hands with me when I needed prayer.  56 days without their jokes and encouragement. I didn’t know if I was ready to leave my network of support behind.

On my final plane connection to Nicaragua, the plane began to rise, and I thought to myself, this is it.  I was leaving Atlanta and the flight attendant had already told us to turn off our phones.  Right after she made sure we knew where the exits where…  Again, thanks.  The plane was filled with a variety of tan colored shades of Latino natives.  There were a few Americans, clearly marked by their matching mission trip shirts.  Up until this point, I hadn’t talked with anyone on the planes or airports.  That’s unusual for me.  Now, I was in my seat stuck between two people.  A guy going in and out of consciousness was on my right, and a young lady to my left, reading what looked like medical research articles in the light of the window.  I pulled out my own book and read for a while, but I felt like God was telling me to speak with her.  Eventually, I gave in.

“So… are you a doctor?”  I asked.  Immediately the young woman engaged me in friendly conversation.  Her name was Carolina and it turned out she was going to do a medical residency in Nicaragua.  She wanted to be a surgeon and she was a Christian.

After we discussed a bit about her studies and work she turned the mirror on me.  She pointed to the book I was reading about the rising Latino American church.  “What about you, what are doing in Nicaragua?”

Good question.  And just like that, God lifted me.  I shared with her, what I share with you now.  While churches in the northern part of the globe are slowly dwindling, the church of the global south in Africa and Latin America are rising.  The Latino American population in the states is ever increasing.  The Latino community and church is need of radical leadership, leadership like that of the phenomenal staff at the Nehemiah Center in Nicaragua, to which I was headed.  Latinos, specifically in my experience with immigrants and their American born children, need to know that there is a place at God’s table for them.  Too long have they sat in the ashes of broken systems left behind by colonialism.  Too long have they sat in the shadows as people left in the margins hoping for scraps from missionary tables.  It is time for them… for us… to rise.

Our Latino brothers and sisters in the U.S. leave their support networks in their home countries and come to the states desperate for a chance to have a sustainable living.  And their sacrifice for their families is so much more than the one I am taking by sitting in a plane.  And so, this is my turn.  It is my turn to take one for the team, just as people like my parents, have done so for me.  It’s my turn to serve hard and learn from my brothers and sisters who are working to bring God’s peace and justice in their own context, so I can come back home better equipped to serve in my own multicultural and Latino context.  God saw fit for me to make this my turn.  Not because I’m awesome.  If anything, my stress level and emotional weakness up until that point in my travel proved otherwise.  No.  God saw fit for this to be my turn and He would be my support and strong arm.  And when I return, it will be my turn to share what God has shown me with my family and friends, in the fight for those on living life on the fringes.  And God will empower us to continue together, building God’s kingdom, so that every knee will bow and every tongue proclaim, including our own, that He alone is Lord.

R. R. Tavárez

Preparation

3 days.  In 3 days I will be up before the sun dragging suitcases behind me.  In 3 days, I will say goodbye to my loved ones and my closest friends.  In 3 days I will be on a plane, making awkward conversations with fellow passengers.  Then, I’ll be twiddling my thumbs during a day long layover in the Atlanta airport.  In 3 days I will be making my way to Nicaragua.

I’m excited!  I’m nervous!  And I’m wondering…  How will I get everything ready in time to go?  There is so much to be done in just 3 days.  Here is my blog-site, for everyone to join in with me on this God led adventure.  I hope to be able to post pictures, stories, and prayer requests as I go along the way.

Speaking of prayer requests, I’m still in process of satisfying the finances needed to make this opportunity a reality.  I’m believing God to bring all details to a close.  Please pray the finances come together, and that God would move hearts to help fund my mission work.  If you, or someone you know would like to give, please click here for instructions.

Thank you and blessings.

R. R. Tavárez