A letter from Sarah Henken in Bolivia
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory ...
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:14, 16)
As I sit to write, it is not quite Advent, but already I feel the budding hope of the season all around. For Christians, this time of year reminds us of the joyous mystery of the Incarnation, God come to live and dwell among us, to be our friend and guide.
Here in Bolivia, the signs of the season are different from what I grew up with in California. The days are growing warmer as the Southern Hemisphere moves toward summer, but stores are putting up displays with plastic evergreen trees and ornaments, and vendors in the street and even at the post office are selling nativity scenes and decorations. There’s a comfortable, familiar rhythm to it all, a contrast to how unexpected things were that first Christmas. Mary and Joseph had not planned to have a baby yet. The shepherds in the fields were unprepared for angel song. And most people could not believe the Messiah would come as a lower-class baby, born in a feeding trough.
But that is how God chose to enter our lives, appearing first to the humble and the marginalized: the bread of life, for all the world, even for smelly shepherds and a teenage mother. And the bread of life is born anew for us this year, for all of us, because we are still in need of a savior and friend. The Incarnate One can be found in all sorts of places, and I have been blessed to experience something of that mysterious presence at the Independent Presbyterian Church in Bolivia, here in La Paz.
Hermana Marta suffered a stroke some time ago and now cannot speak any word except her own name. In spite of this, she has an infectious smile which she offers readily to everyone she greets at church on Sunday morning. Her beautiful eyes glow with love and joy, and when she greeted me last Sunday she kissed and hugged me with such enthusiasm that I wasn’t sure she would ever let go!
Marta is one of an older generation of traditional Aymara women in the congregation who attend services faithfully despite their limited comprehension of the Spanish primarily used in worship. Some of these older members also have trouble hearing, and few are able to read, but they have a strong desire to join in worship. During times of prayer, they often lift their voices in heartfelt supplication to God, an opportunity to join in the moment with their own feelings in their own language. It is a beautiful and somewhat mysterious testimony to the power of Christian community, that they choose to come and join in worship week after week even with this language barrier.
One Sunday we sang a beautifully simple song of praise, originally in Spanish but also translated into Aymara and English — so everyone present was comfortable singing at least one version of the song. In that moment, the diversity of our tongues was a gift, a way for us to broaden our praise to God, Emmanuel, who came to love us and teach us the power of presence — what it means to live in unity, working together for God’s purposes. I hope that one day I will be able to understand the hermanas’ words when they speak to me, but for now I am richly blessed by the evidence of their faith and the love we share in a communion that transcends words. It is enough to join together in fellowship and know that the Incarnate One is there among us.
In this season of preparations and celebrations, I am filled with thankfulness for the opportunity to be and learn, worship and serve here in Bolivia. I am beginning to get a sense of why I was called to this place, of ways in which I might, by God’s grace, be of use to the church here, in addition to the many ways I am being shaped and taught by them. A year ago I could never have imagined I’d find myself here, but improbable surprises seem to be the theme of the Incarnation, and I am delighted and humbled by the ways God’s self-revelation has been at work in my life these past months. This call to serve as a bridge, a connection point to strengthen our relationships between the church in the United States and our partners here in the Andean region, is truly a blessing.
Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. I ask for your continued support through prayer and communication and am grateful for those who are able to make a financial commitment to support my work and presence here. Please continue to pray for our partners and mission personnel in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, that they find joy in their celebrations and return with renewed energy and vision for their ministries in the new year. My prayer for all of us in this sacred season is that we will be open in mind, heart and body to receive with wonder and joy the guidance and loving presence of God-with-us in the days to come.
In joy and peace,
Regional Liaison, Andean Region
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 280