Column Title: Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission
Column Entry: More About Dealing with Difference
Column Description: If you hang around long enough, mingle with enough folks in enough places on this fragile planet, and pay attention at least part of the time, life happens. And with life, stories. In this monthly column, Dennis Smith, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication, shares communication insights and wisdom gleaned from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. Through mission service, God gifted Dennis with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine whupped him upside the head and “invited” him to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.
More About Dealing with Difference
As Christian communicators, we tell stories of how and where God is present in our world.
As I described in last month’s blog, as an evangelical, I was raised to fear difference. I learned to fear not only other Christians like Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, but also people from other religious traditions, a different class or culture, or a different race or expression of gender. As a result, I was slow in learning to really see or hear those who were different from me.
Over time, I learned that God refused to be subject to the limits I tried to impose. God’s Spirit transcended the limits of my tradition. I learned that I could not bear witness to how the Spirit moves among people I had never learned to see or listen to, communities with whom I had no real relationship. I learned, by God’s grace, to acknowledge God’s image in the Other.
Learning to Discern God’s Presence
These are some of the stories that helped move that process along:
Doña Juana is a Maya spiritual guide—Westerners would call her a shaman—from the Guatemalan highlands. With the pain of remembrance, she shared with me how, during Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996), she and her colleagues were engaged in spiritual warfare against the forces of death. The Guatemalan Army had fiercely repressed all expressions of traditional Mayan spirituality and, as part of a counterinsurgency campaign that the United Nations would later describe as “genocide,” had specifically targeted Mayan communities for massacres.
Night and day, Doña Juana and her colleagues were vigilant to protect the physical and spiritual well-being of their community. In the dead of night, they sometimes encountered spiritual beings at the service of the forces of death that sought to destroy the community. It was their task to defend the community through fasting and sacrifice, ritual offerings prescribed by ancient wisdom. They did not take on this task alone, for they were accompanied by their ancestors, especially in the moments of greatest danger.
She was not speaking metaphorically. In her semblance I could see still, more than a decade later, the shadow of terror, the deep courage they brought to these battles. Their lives were in danger. They defended their community with the spiritual resources they had at their disposal. By God’s Grace, the death squads sent by the Guatemalan army never entered this community. Nor were they able to establish there the hated civil defense patrols that in hundreds of communities had turned all local males into army informants and cannon fodder.
She was 18 years old. On February 4, 1976, a massive earthquake had killed tens of thousands of people in Guatemala. That night, she was supposed to have stayed with her grandparents, but her mother would not allow it, because it was her job to care for a new puppy.
During the earthquake, the house next door to her grandparents collapsed onto theirs, killing them instantly. She understands that she is alive today because of that puppy.
With her mother and sisters, she moved to a new neighborhood created for earthquake survivors. As people built simple block houses and rebuilt their lives, the Catholics in the neighborhood began to organize themselves into base ecclesial communities, meeting weekly in improvised shelters as a new community took shape around them. With the support of a group of nuns, they prayed and read the Bible together, celebrating their faith and attending to the many urgent needs of their neighbors.
The nuns called on this girl to be one of the leaders of this precarious community. They discerned in her gifts that she had not seen in herself.
The base communities began to dream together. As their immediate housing needs were met, they longed to build a church as a concrete manifestation of their hope for the future; a building erected by the whole neighborhood, for the whole neighborhood, proclaiming that “God is in our midst.”
Twice they organized building committees. Twice, the middle-aged men elected to lead these committees had failed or absconded with funds. Finally, the community elected this girl to preside the committee. She left school for a year to take on this task. The neighborhood rallied around her, they found resources together, and built the church with their own hands. There it stands today.
Sometimes, during mass, the neighbors remember what, one day, they did with their own hands.
A third story:
A Pentecostal pastor and his wife decided they must do something for the children of their community. Their neighborhood was controlled by gangs, and they knew that most of the children in their community were at constant risk.
The Spirit of God moved in their hearts, and they shared their concerns with the members of their congregation. Together they came to understand that the boys and girls in the neighborhood—including their own sons and daughters—lived on a street marked “No Exit.” They learned how the gangs offered at-risk children a semblance of identity and self-esteem, a purpose for their lives.
Perhaps, thought the pastor, we can identify 50 at-risk children in the blocks around the church and try to offer them a more stable, healthy environment. They were surprised to find 90 at-risk children in their own block! In one house they found 14 minors living under the supervision of an elderly grandmother.
When I talked to them, the program they had created had been going on for three years. They provided a safe space for after-school tutoring and offered kids healthy role models, as well as healthy snacks.
“Our purpose,” said the pastor, “is not to convert them, but to accompany them. And God is faithful.”
Saturated with the Spirit
As a communication professional trained to pay homage to technology and to proceed according to the categories of rational thought, I gradually learned in Latin America to pay special attention to the breath of the Spirit in our communities. I learned that Latin America is physically and metaphysically saturated with Spirit. One cannot understand the past, present, or future of this region without contemplating the complex and contradictory impulses of human beings as they confront the numinous, as they wrestle with the fragility of human existence.
I encountered persons that are intermediaries with the unknowable, custodians of sacred space. I also learned that while our encounter with the Sacred sometimes births health, wholeness and hope, this is not always the case. There can be a wildness, almost a savagery, to the Sacred. I also learned that some intermediaries with the Sacred have yielded to a bentness—a thirst for vengeance, a mercenary spirit. Their encounters with the Sacred can become clouded by fear, even terror.
I had encountered this before, in the realm of the imagination, in the novels of Charles Williams, but not in real life. I also recognized that I had seen these same demonic forces—greed, lust for power, brutal manipulation—at work in some Christian churches.
As I reviewed the history of Christian missions in Latin America, it became clear that both Catholics and Protestants are, to some degree, spiritual interlopers that have sometimes served the agendas of foreign empires. Today, both traditions live in tension with this history.
By facing this history without fear, and with thankfulness to their forbears for their faithfulness, many Latin American Christians have learned, in the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez, to “drink from their own wells.”
Now their task is to discern how and where God’s Spirit blows in these lands, known in the Guna language as Abya Yala, “the land of vital blood.” They know that Grace abounds, here and now. And this sense of place, this spiritual geography, is the gift they bring to the table to share with other Christians and all people of good will.
I also learned that storytelling comes with grave ethical responsibilities. In my communication studies and practice in the US, I learned how to tell stories well, but Latin America taught me that deciding what stories we tell is an exercise in power.
Because of who I am—a white, male, English-speaking, college-educated gringo—my skills, my access to media platforms, can be used to distort, to invisibilize, to silence. This is how power flows in our world, and to distort, to silence, to make invisible are violent acts. To consciously trivialize or manipulate the personhood of others in pursuit of my own agenda, or even through my own lack of skill or failures of perception, is to distort the image of God.
The Christian communicator’s task is not to be the voice of the voiceless, but to accompany the voiceless as they find their own voices and struggle no longer to be silenced.