Column Title: Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission
Column Entry: Seeking Refuge: An Advent Story
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.
Seeking Refuge: An Advent Story
December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is a big deal in Latin America. This day remembers Herod’s massacre of young male children in his vain attempt to destroy the rival announced by the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12.
With grim irony, December 28 serves for Latin Americans as the equivalent of April Fool’s Day. Newspapers publish prank stories and people play practical jokes on one another. And when you are caught out by the pranksters they say, “¡Por inocente!” . . . or, because you are so innocent, so naïve, we fooled you!
Latin Americans have learned to respond to harsh realities with dark humor. We make jokes about our politicians, about corruption and incompetence in high places, about the foibles of the powerful. Come to think of it, late night comics do the same for us in the United States.
In Latin America, the Feast of the Holy Innocents helps us move beyond the commercial frenzy that has become Christmas and points us to the human drama experienced by the Holy Family so long ago. Mary does give birth, after all, in a stable, probably a smelly cave. Her child is laid in a feed trough. Mary must have wondered about her own encounter with an angel nine months earlier. Is this what happens when you give yourself to God?
Joseph must have wondered what he had gotten himself into; his fiancé was giving birth to a child that was not his. Traditionalists back home, he knew, could have shunned Mary, or even called for her to be stoned. His solution? To settle for a time in Bethlehem, far from the family home in Galilee. Enough time must pass so that he could plausibly present the child as his when they returned home.
Time passed and these wandering Magi appeared. Based on their warning, Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee in terror, under cover of darkness. Forced into exile, they become refugees in Egypt.
As a brief sidebar, several years ago I was attending a conference in Cairo and had the opportunity to visit the site where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are said to have lived during their time in exile. It was a rustic, very old church building; no extravagance burdened the atmosphere. To this day, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt celebrates the privilege of providing hospitality and sanctuary to the Holy Family.
I don’t know whether the adult Jesus retained any memories of his years in exile, but Joseph and Mary must have told stories of their Egyptian sojourn. This experience may have influenced Jesus’ particular concern for those living on the margins of society. I suspect his time in Egypt influenced Jesus’ provocative call in Matthew 12 to broaden our concept of family far beyond our next of kin. To his very traditional Middle Eastern culture, where family was everything, Jesus says “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? . . .Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Perhaps recalling his sojourn in Egypt, Jesus calls for all of us to be family in new ways: welcoming the strangers in our midst; practicing hospitality; transcending barriers of place, tradition, and culture; challenging us to understand that we belong to one another as members of the new family that God is creating in our midst.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents helps us restore this teaching to its central place in the Advent story. Christmas, finally, is a story about hospitality. About Mary welcoming God into her very self. About Joseph listening to Mary’s outlandish tale and accepting her anyway. Of his learning to love a child that was not his. Of his taking extreme measures to defend the dignity and integrity of two people who suddenly found themselves outside the protections of family and custom.
Honoring the Tradition of Hospitality: The Case of Nueva Helvecia
A few years ago, I accompanied a group of Presbyterians from Midland, Texas on their visit to mission partners in Argentina and Uruguay. We spent one afternoon with members of a congregation of the Evangelical Church of Río de la Plata (IERP), a Presbyterian mission partner, in the little town of Nueva Helvecia, Uruguay.
Uruguay was founded in 1828 after having served for centuries as a buffer between the competing Portuguese, Spanish, and British empires. These lands east of the Uruguay River, reaching to the Atlantic, lay nestled in the hulking shadow of neighboring Brazil and Argentina. Within a decade after independence, most of Uruguay’s indigenous population had been killed, enslaved, or fallen victim to diseases imported from Europe. Beginning in the 1680s, all three empires had used Uruguayan ports to traffic in enslaved Africans. By the 1860s, more than two-thirds of Uruguay’s population was made up of European immigrants, mostly Spanish and Italian.
Nueva Helvecia was founded by Swiss immigrants in 1862; the church hall where we met had been dedicated in November 1863. Since the ancestors of this group were facing economic and political hardship in Europe, they decided to cast their lot in the New World. They considered emigrating to the US, but they heard that a brutal civil war was raging, so they decided to follow thousands of other Europeans and immigrate instead to the Southern Cone of South America.
In Uruguay, this hearty band discovered the extravagance of God’s grace. Not only did they prosper, but they also forged unprecedented ecumenical ties with the Roman Catholics living in their new community. Roman Catholics and Swiss Reformed shared this new church building, organizing their calendars to accommodate both the Mass and Reformed worship. Such sharing simply wasn’t done in Latin America in the 1860s!
When this little congregation celebrated their 150th anniversary in 2013, the local Catholic bishop came, excited to share a special greeting from Pope Francis. Francis is from just across the river in Buenos Aires—only about 75 miles away—and knew well the vital role that this Reformed church had played in establishing a pastoral presence to Roman Catholic immigrants in this region.
When I visit mission partners in Latin America, I always ask my hosts to share their family history. Over the centuries, for indigenous peoples, for members of the African diaspora—and in some countries, the sizeable Asian diaspora—it has been a tale of resistance, a struggle to survive as they try to preserve language, culture, and identity in the face of overwhelming odds. Then there are the huddled European masses who came fleeing hunger and war. For many of them, their church, their religious tradition, became the space where they preserved a sense of purpose and identity.
To visit a community like Nueva Helvecia, and to honor their tradition of hospitality, calls us to remember our own family stories. How did you get here, wherever “here” might be? How dependent were you and your people on the generosity of strangers and the extravagant abundance of God’s grace?
As Jesus, Mary and Joseph listened to the unfamiliar accents of their Egyptian neighbors, they too must have paused to reflect.