Deeper Still

I confess that I was somewhat of an oddity as a child. There are some who might argue that I’ve retained this quality into my adulthood. When I was about eight years old, my family was part of Brethren church plant in Grand Rapids. Actually, my father is the one who initiated the plant and functioned as a sort of “lead elder” for this church during that time. There was not an abundance of Spanish- language ministries in Grand Rapids when my family moved to the city in the early 90’s. And so, an inner-city, Spanish-language dominant, Brethren church was conceived and brought forth in the southwest side of the city, where a growing population of Latino immigrants had begun to take hold.

When this novel church received its first convert, he was promptly properly seasoned and made ready for baptism by immersion. We were still doing home meetings for worship at the time. Having no baptismal in the living room an announcement was made. This Sunday we’re having a special evening service across the street around the neighbor’s pool. I realized then that I had never been baptized. After the folding chairs were put away, I went up to speak to the elders, including my father, who were in a sort of huddle. I asked them, “What prevents me from being baptized?” They chuckled and someone asked me if I even knew what baptism meant. They instantly became solemn when I replied by with a paraphrase quote of Romans 6:3-5.

“…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

For the life of me, I can’t ever remember memorizing that passage of Scripture and the look on my Father’s face suggested that he didn’t remember me doing so either. There were no further questions.

I was baptized in the neighbor’s in-ground swimming pool along with the other candidate. That anyone in that neighborhood had a real swimming pool was just as much an anomaly as the sight of church folks in their dress clothes gathered around the pool while singing hymns in Spanish. The sun set the sky on fire in its twilight. I don’t know if God troubled the waters as it says in the old-time Spiritual. But, I do remember that the water was cold. Ironically, I also recall being asked to share a testimony while standing there in that freezing water. I didn’t have anything to say. After a few moments of silence, they dunked me anyway.

The scene must have set some sort of precedence. Every other baptism in the church had its unusual elements. A narrow horse trough was used for several other baptisms. There were rivers chosen in nearby public parks, and I vaguely remember someone getting tossed into lake Michigan. I’m sure that if it ever came to it, the church might have been willing to take someone into the backyard and hose them down in the name of the Trinity, but thankfully the elders were fairly resourceful and found other means to perform the sacrament. One thing for sure is, the new church plant was determined to make disciples of every Latino-immigrant nation represented in the ‘hood. It was determined to let everyone in its vicinity know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. I was more than glad to participate. This was only my introduction to God’s mission to the world. The Holy Spirit would stir a passion for God’s Word and missional engagement in me that was deeper still.

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Sometime later, my family moved across Division Avenue to the southeast side of Grand Rapids. We then lived in the proximity of Garfield Park. I loved playing basketball and I was allowed to go the park on my own to shoot hoops in the afternoons. I began sneaking to the park with my Bible smashed into my pocket or hidden beneath my shirt. I’m not sure if my mother ever noticed, and now that I look back I’ve never asked her if she did or didn’t know what the square looking thing was under my shirt. I would walk past the basketball court to the west end of the park where there were several tall trees. Then, I pulled out my Bible and instructed the trees to, “Hear now, the Word of the Lord.” I took it upon myself to exhort those trees boldly with the words of Psalm 96: “Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth…” I found several other Scriptures related to their context and situation to use as sermon material. I conducted whole worship services in that park and did all, but collect an offering. This was more than just modeling what I saw on Sunday mornings. I didn’t fully comprehend it at that time, but God was forming my heart for the preaching of the Word.

Short of reaching 20 years old, I met Dr. Duke. The church of my upbringing was going through significant turmoil with its leadership, organizational structure, and multi-ethnic tension. Feeling that I needed a change in order to continue growing as a Christian, I labored in prayer, asking God to lead me in the way which I should go. In what may seem like a major pendulum swing (and it certainly felt that way), I began attending an African-American Pentecostal church. I’m not sure when it began, but I began to notice a senior gentleman who tended to sit in the mid-section of the pews on the right side of the sanctuary. I don’t know what about him called my attention, except perhaps that he always seemed to carry an impressive sort of presence, as if he carried a sort of power in his demeanor. Whatever it was, I made a mental note to try and find a way to meet this man and find out who he was. When a class on ministerial training was offered at the church, I signed right up. As it turned out, this man, Dr. Duke, was the teacher. After several weeks, the class dissolved for unknown reasons, but I was very impressed with Dr. Duke’s knowledge of the Bible. Maybe he noticed that I was very serious about the class and wanting to grow as a disciple of Christ because he took me under his wing and we began to meet outside of class. I learned that he had once been a church planter and had a degree in social work and counseling. I began asking Dr. Duke all sorts of questions. I wanted to learn more about the Bible and interpreting Scripture. I wanted to know why different denominations have different traditions. When I wanted to learn about preaching, he invited me to join him on his regular visits to Mission in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Mission was a men’s rehab center which doubled as a homeless shelter. Dr. Duke and a friend of his, Pastor Waver, would visit the mission on Tuesdays at noon and take turns preaching for its chapel services. The first week I visited with Dr. Duke, he asked me on the spot to lead the attending group in a couple of songs before the preaching of the Word. Well, I was scared out of my wits. I was in a completely new environment and had no idea what I was doing. But, I came to learn. I walked up to the microphone and sang some worship songs that I learned at church. Several of those gathered there joined in the singing. The next week was Dr. Duke’s turn to preach. Again, on the spot he instructed me to preach in his stead. Well, if I was scared the previous week, at this I nearly peed my pants. I had no idea how to preach, let alone how to bring the Word to a congregation of folks who were at their wits end with life’s troubles and fighting various addictions. Perhaps that was the point… Dr. Duke looked at me sternly. He told me that this week it was fine to say no, but next week I would be preaching and that was that. Needless to say, I watched him intently as he preached. I took note of demeanor, his tone, and his style of teaching. And the next week when he tossed me the microphone, I went up to the podium with my rookie preaching notes and gave it all I had. It was in this way that Dr. Duke apprenticed me for missional ministry. I would preach, then we’d go over my sermon, noting improvements and needed changes.

Together with Pastor Waver, we sat at the lunch table with people who lost their homes or were estranged from their families. Many of the visitors also dealt with mental illnesses. After a few months, Dr. Duke was unable to continue visiting the mission. Pastor Waver, who was a bi-vocational church planter, also had to make some schedule changes. Because of this, he too was unable to continue volunteering at the mission. Our team of three became one. I continued volunteering at the mission for as long as I was able and increased my once a week commitment to several times a week as needed. Over a three-year period, I learned to eat whatever those gathered at the mission were eating. I learned to silence myself and listen to their stories. I learned to pray with them and to let them pray for me. I had never preached at a church before or pastored a congregation. But, something about serving at this Mission felt absolutely right.

Dr. Duke had a small office in his home. Once when I visited with him, he invited me to his office to talk about some of the books he had there. When I walked in, I immediately noticed the number of degrees that he had framed on his wall. To this day, I don’t think I’ve met anyone with such a strong educational background, yet he never flashed his degrees or talked about them much. I was so curious that I asked him about each of the framed degrees on his wall. I can’t remember them all. However, there was one that seriously caught my attention. It was a seminary degree. As he began to tell me about his experience going to seminary, I began to feel the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart.

R.R. Tavárez

Smoke-Stained Sky

This article was first published in the Kerux magazine here.

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“Ethnically ambiguous.” I have adopted this short phrase to describe my appearance. Most people in West Michigan cannot identify my ethnicity without asking. Really, I am the love product of a brown Dominican daddy and a fair-skinned Puerto Rican mom. You can see that in my own caramel skin, dark eyes and wavy hair. But, I have often been mistaken for African-American, Indian, Arab and various “other” Latino ethnicities. I used to sing in a choir at an African-American church for several years. Only as recently as last year did the choir director approach me to say he didn’t know I was Hispanic. After a hilarious exchange, he concluded the conversation by saying, “Well, you’re still Black to me!”

This past January I went to Israel with a group from Calvin Seminary. Once again I had to decide if I would keep my black beard and get the not-so-random security check or shave it off and cut those chances in half. After several hours of indecision, I decided to not shave. It shouldn’t surprise you that by the end of our pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” I had been given the evil eye and questioned several times by Israeli guards and airport security. For a fragment of time, I entered the world of the Palestinians.

I became most conscious of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians when our crew visited the town of Bethlehem. Present day Bethlehem is a Palestinian community in the West Bank of Israel. To enter Bethlehem, we needed to pass through the literal dividing wall of hostility that surrounds the West Bank. Just as I made the conscious choice to keep my beard, regardless as to what would be assumed of my ethnicity, at the checkpoint I made the decision to crouch away from the tour bus window. I didn’t want to be seen by the Israeli soldiers. I had seen enough guns and soldiers and I confess that with my passport in my backpack, I was ready to exercise some American privilege. I wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being questioned by guards in front of my peers. And ironically, as I thought about that passport, I felt a sense of shame take hold of me. Is this what it feels like for the Palestinians? Is this what it feels like when the have to stand in line every day at the checkpoint just to get in and out of the city?

We chose the perfect day to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. No, not really. We learned on site that a young man was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers the night before. I saw a procession of mourning Palestinians clothed in every rich shade of black and on their way to a funeral at the same church we visited. I saw a man in that multitude who reminded me of my father before I could think twice about him. His salt and pepper hair gleamed in the morning sun while he stared at his feet and followed his shadow on the stony pavement. His eyes conveyed such a deep sense of loss. I saw young men in the streets, burning tires in protest at the injustice of the shooting of one of their brothers. I was reminded of the young people on Madison Avenue in Grand Rapids, who often hold their poster signs in silence at the Hall Street intersection, hoping for change.

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After visiting the church, we went to Bethlehem Bible College. I was amazed to learn that there was Palestinian Christian college in the West Bank.  Palestinian Christians are striving to be faithful to the Gospel hope in a context of apartheid. Inside, Dr. Munther Isaac walked us through a brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the second time we had the opportunity to learn from a professor through this walk of history. But, listening to a Palestinian Christian witness to us about how Palestinians are robbed of their property and subjected to constant inspection shook my core. Families are being divided by the contribution of American dollars. As I listened, I was again ashamed of how I felt at the checkpoint. I was ashamed for my American and Latin American brothers and sisters who rally a cry for Zionism without a moment’s thought at the cost someone has to pay in return. I became enraged when I considered how the same Bible that I use to preach shalom and reconciliation between God and men has been used to support theft and abuse of the Palestinians.

I can never unlearn what I learned that day any more than I can erase what I saw. After we left Bethlehem Bible College, the streets were burgeoning with protests. We walked several blocks to our waiting bus. Walking the streets of Bethlehem during the protest was not a fearful event for me. I perhaps never felt safer, even at the sound of tear gas shot into the air and watching the smoke in the distance. God chooses to shed the light of Christ first in Bethlehem. Angels shouted His praise in that same smoke-stained sky. Hosanna in the highest. Bethlehem changed me just as much as standing at the Jordan River and praying at the Garden of Gethsemane. God met me at the checkpoint.

R. R. Tavárez

Homenaje

It was early Tuesday morning and I was alone, working on my laptop at a coffee shop. Only a few days into January, the new year was still fresh. Decidedly, I had no resolutions in place, other than trying to keep up with the curve. I was moments away from packing up to head toward my office when my cell phone began to ring.  8AM is never a good time to get a phone call, at least not in my book.  I knew something was wrong.  My sister’s voice was dry on the other end of my hello. “Abuela[1]… is dead.” I… paused to take in those words. My abuela, who had been at home in bed for months, had recently taken a turn for the worse. Death was something we knew that was coming, but not the something I prepared to receive. And to hear she was gone… Who knew one sentence, with so few words, could destroy so much?

My abuela was a sweet little lady. Sweet, but also stubborn. If there was something she didn’t want to do, you couldn’t convince her to do it. If there was something she was going to do, you couldn’t stop her. I mean, she could really be intense… Like that time one of my sisters and I were sitting with her at her dining room table. It was a summer day and Abuelita[2] was lounging in her bata[3] when suddenly (and I do mean suddenly), a grasshopper appeared at the far end of the table.  My sister shouted, “Abuela, look!” It was just one grasshopper, but this vile apparition was so large that it was a plague of locusts all on its own. This unholy creature entered unannounced, threatening the sanctity of our breaking bread.  My sister and I looked wide-eyed, holding our breath, like we were in a Jurassic Park movie. Maybe if we don’t move, it won’t see us.  When it crawled toward my grandmother, she gasped, jumped back and snatched off her chancla[4].  She rebuked the devil and stomped on his head with a pounding rhythm. “¡Te mato!” She said. “¡En el nombre de Cristo, te mato!” [5] She kept that going for a couple of minutes…

Life without my abuela is an unresolved algebraic equation. The world still spins at the same speed and frequency, but something is off balance. Family is a big deal in my culture.  We were only a family of seven when we moved to Grand Rapids, nomads searching for where God would have us to be. When our small immigrant tribe drops by one, it feels heavy, like the empty space weighs more than breathing. Indeed, it has taken me a while to even process it, let alone write about it. But here I am, still spinning and trying to breathe.

We tearfully lowered my abuela’s casket into the hard winter earth, a few days after she passed into glory.  I remember there wasn’t much snow on the ground. The winter storms had yet to hit West Michigan. One of the guys from the funeral home asked if we’d like to throw dirt over the casket before it was fully buried. No one moved.

Then, after a great pause, I went forward. I heard behind me one of my sisters encouraging me to do what no one wanted to do; this was the same sister who called me at 8AM, and who witnessed with me grandma purifying her home from the locust plague so many summers ago.  “Do that, Rick.”  She whispered. She’s always been an expert at one-liners. And this one-liner would also not win an Oscar, but I felt her heart. I took the shovel and was the first to sprinkle earth on the casket. After what seemed like a silence of half an hour, someone came and took the shovel from my hand and did the same. Then another.  And another. Eventually, my eldest sister came forward.  With her husband holding her, she used her hands instead of the shovel to grab the earth. She dropped her tears and mud into the gaping hole. Everyone after her did the same. And our prayers of dirt of tears were presented before God.

My abuela was a believer in Christ. A life of faith in Christ was the only way she wanted to live. She knew that God was always at work and so much bigger than her. She was on her own for a significant part of her life and though she was never able to gain any formal education, she learned to thrive. Her children were her first priority. After her husband died, she came to the mainland U.S. as a young single mother from Puerto Rico, to help her family find a better life.  She struggled to be able to read the Bible in Spanish (English was a whole ‘nother issue). Nevertheless, on the summer evenings that I spent with her as a child, I would hear her reading through the Psalms in broken Spanish syllables. Then, she would come and tell me stories in Spanish, tales from life on an island I would have yet to know. But, it’s the sound of my abuela slowly reading the Bible that sticks with me.  I attribute part of my Christian journey to hearing her pray and trust God, while living in a place that was so foreign to her. She is my version of Abraham, Naomi and Ester.  When I close my eyes, I can still hear her reading the Psalms.  And I am blessed.  And  I hope that I can honor my abuela by living a life worthy of my calling, just as she did with hers.

R. R. Tavárez


[1] Grandmother

[2] Little Grandmother

[3] nightgown

[4] flip-flop shoe

[5] “I kill you!” she said. “In the name of Christ, I kill you!”

Called to Rejection

They called me “100% gringo.”  If I had been white enough to blush, my anger and frustration would have instantly been revealed.  However, my skin wasn’t white.  They didn’t see my anger, frustration and shame.  Back in the United States, calling a Latino a gringo was either a bad joke or an insult good enough to start a fist fight.  But, I wasn’t in the States; I was in Nicaragua.  I swallowed my pride to try and understand why they thought it was okay to refer to me as a gringo.  I was born in Brooklyn, New York to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother.  I was raised within a tight community of Latinos in West Michigan.  My cultural heritage is Latino.  My culture in practice is Latino, specifically that of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.  More often than not, I’d rather converse in Spanish or Spanglish, and eat Caribbean foods.  I relate to others through a Latino lens.  I am Latino.   However, during my time in Central America I was treated as an outsider to the Latino culture.

When Christ entered the world, He was rejected by His own people.  John 1:10-11 says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”  “His own did not receive Him…”  Those words have never rung so true to me as they did after my experience in Central America.  In general, natives of Latino countries misunderstand the dynamics of the life of Latinos in the States and therefore often treat them as cultural outsiders.  A generation of Latinos raised in the States is going/coming home to their people, only to find themselves unwelcomed and misunderstood.  These Stateside raised Latinos also experience a similar rejection right where they live in the U.S.  We’re always under suspect.  Do you have a green card?  Where are you really from?  What’s with the accent?  Why do dress like that?  We’re American, but we are treated as something “other” because we don’t measure up to the cultural standards of the White American, forcing us to conform to a process of acculturation to which we will never be, “good enough.”  Perhaps even more hurtful is to be treated as “other” by foreign born Latinos who live right alongside U.S. raised Latinos, shopping at the same grocery stores and going to the same churches.  If you’re really Latino, why do listen to that White music?  Why is your Spanish so terrible?  We live in a hyphen, between two worlds, without a real place to call home.  Rejection has become the sanctuary where we gather together.  In my experience as a Latino American, I have come to identify in part with the experience of Christ’s rejection by his own people and with the Christ who had nowhere to rest his head.

When I was young, I spent a significant amount of time in the Dominican Republic in the barrio of my grandmother.  She lived in the southern end of Villa Mella where the world of el campesino (country person)meets urban Santo Domingo.  In other words, it’s a very poor area where rural culture clashes with urban development.  It’s not too bad if you know how to get around.  You don’t have to search hard to find some of the best chicharones (pork rinds) in the world there.  And you don’t have to search too far to find some definite misperceptions of what life was like for me and my family back in the states.  If ever there existed a money tree, the people in the barrio of Villa Mella thought for sure I had one in my backyard in Grand Rapids. My reality, however, was the opposite of their perception.  Often, my family survived on the mercy of others.  We barely had enough money for my siblings and me to get on the plane to go to Santo Domingo.  Our suitcases were packed with someone else’s hand-me-downs that we received from a local church, the one where we had to stand in line outside with all the other poor families while the gringos drove by on their way to work.  I arrived in Nicaragua ready to deal with the misperceptions of my bank account.  However, I was unprepared for people attempting to strip me of my cultural heritage.

Part of my experience growing up in West Michigan was being a part of a Spanish-speaking church plant on the south end of Grand Rapids. There I witnessed several failures in ministry.  There was a lack of cross-cultural capacity within my church to minister within different Latino subgroups in the church and to share the gospel to the surrounding outside community.  Other issues included breakdowns in the church’s organizational structure, leadership development and outreach to youth.  Growing up in this culture and environment, I purposed in my heart to acquire the resources and skills needed in my urban community and to learn to exercise them well, in order to share them with those living and serving in the urban environment.

Growing up I felt the major gap between the Immigrant Latino Adult ministry and the ministry to the Latino youth raised in the U.S.  There was not a youth ministry available to me that ministered to my needs as a Latino-American. I jumped back and forth between the extremes of youth ministry at conservative White churches to a piece-meal Latino youth ministry in a church all-together unaware of how to serve adolescents.  In many respects, I was treated as a stranger in both places. No one seemed to understand where I was coming from.  Not by choice, I learned to navigate both of these worlds, but always with the desire for a form of ministry that would quench my desire to be reached in the hyphen in which I was forced to live.  I decided this too would be my quest, to grow in a way that I could reach back to the young Christian leaders living in that same space.

This summer I spent time doing mission work in Central America (mainly in Nicaragua and a short time in Costa Rica), with the goal of further equipping myself for ministry in the urban U.S. Latino context.  There, in Central America, I heard some things that broke my heart.  I heard Latinos in the States referred to as everything from gringos to political traitors.  How does a father or mother risking their life and freedom to cross into the States become a political traitor to their country, just for wanting to feed their children?  When did the desire for abundant life become political treachery?

I was the first Latino from the U.S. that several people in Nicaragua had ever met.  The fact that they didn’t know how to receive me, as in whether to give me plantains or cheeseburgers for lunch, broadened my perspective to the needs in the Latino community.  There is not just a gap between immigrant and American-raised/born Latinos in the states.  There is, in many respects, a far larger gap between Latinos in the U.S. and those in living in Latino Countries.

I blame the Disney Channel.  I blame movies and the stereotypes that are translated through them.  During one of the few time periods where I had down time, I was watching a movie with one of my host families.  In this movie, a character played by an African-American woman was yelling at another character in the movie (who happened to be a Latina that could easily pass for White). Then they asked me, “Are Blacks always angry like that?”  In a time where Latinos are generally disempowered in the ability to create intentional international interaction to and from the U.S., the media and ignorance on both sides have fostered this gap for too long.

I don’t entirely blame the media.  Sin is also a factor in the conversation.  When we take our lives and our culture as the standard by which everyone else should live, we set ourselves up as idols to be worshipped.  We make our culture the god to which all others must bow.  What I experienced in Nicaragua was an augmented form of something I experienced as a child growing up in West Michigan, where the few Latinos that could be gathered to worship together were never really together, as they were always comparing cultural notes as to which people group had the right idea; the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Dominicans, etc.

White missionaries permeate the country of Nicaragua.  At times the indigenous leaders expressed to me their frustration about not being fully able to be on the same economic, social, and educational level with their American co-laborers.  When my host father expressed that he felt inadequate as a pastor because he never learned English, it broke my heart.  I heard the voice of my own father trying to navigate the tumultuous tides of being a Latino church leader in America.  I heard in my host father’s words the voice of my high school friends who felt ostracized by their own immigrant relatives because they never learned to speak and read Spanish up to their relative standards.  I wonder how we can learn from one another?  Can there be a bridge built between these two groups of people?  Why are Latinos from the States not being empowered to go serve as missionaries in Latino countries?  Well versed in the pains of cross-cultural living, they are natural leaders in this area of ministry; yet, they are in need of validation to go and serve the Lord on a global scale.

There is a need for the generation living in the hyphen, in the place between American acculturation and Latino culture, to rise and become the much needed bi-cultural bridge and minister to both worlds. Despite some of these cultural issues I experienced in Nicaragua, I was not dissuaded from God’s calling on my life to serve among Latinos.  If anything, I feel God affirmed me that calling, to the local and global Latino community.  And in order to be an effective minister to this community, I have to learn to be comfortable living in the hyph

My best friend, who is of Dominican descent, was born in Brooklyn, NY.  Actually, we were born in the same neighborhood, just a couple of years apart.  However, his family moved back to the Dominican Republic and a large part of his life was lived in the D.R.  Now, living in Grand Rapids, when people ask him where he is from, he usually starts by saying, “Well, I’m a very confused individual.  I’m American, but…”  I hear him say this and I don’t think my friend is confused at all.  He says this to make others feel comfortable with his person, with his cultural identity and with his ministry.  He reminds me of Paul, who says in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” This is not just the space where we find ourselves, but the space to which God has called us. We are called to rejection. We are called to be the bridge that gets walked on, rolled over and seen as another means to get by.  We are called to lay down our lives for the gospel in a way that most people will never comprehend, except for those who most need a place to step forward in a way that we are uniquely able to provide.

R. R. Tavárez

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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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