A letter from Sarah Henken, regional liaison for the Andean Region, in Bolivia
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face” 1 Thessalonians 3: 9-10a
Looking back on my first year of service as regional liaison in the Andean region with Presbyterian World Mission, a profound sense of gratitude washes over me. I’ve been blessed to learn and participate in God’s work in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and beyond: meeting the leaders of each of our partner churches in the region, and preaching and presiding at the Lord’s table on numerous occasions; sharing in fellowship, ministry, and deep conversations with mission co-workers and Young Adult Volunteers; discussing partnership practices with congregations and presbytery committees in the U.S. church. It’s been a year full of learnings and joy, challenge and travel-weariness. Today I write from the comfort of my apartment in La Paz, where I’m grateful to be sitting still and getting better acquainted with Bolivia, and I’d like to share with you about my most recent trip.
One Friday morning at the end of July, I left La Paz on a 14-hour bus ride over the Altiplano and among the Andes Mountains, traveling across the border and into Peru, to the ancient city of Cusco. I was going to meet up with two of our Presbyterian mission co-workers, Sara Armstrong and Rusty Edmondson, and a youth mission team they were hosting of about 20 high schoolers and 10 adults from Heritage Presbyterian Church in Ohio.
Saturday was a flurry of preparations for the workweek, and on Sunday we split into small groups for Spirit-filled worship with congregations in Cusco of the Iglesia Evangélica Peruana (IEP), one of our partner denominations. After church we loaded up all the luggage and rode an hour down the road to the town of Urcos, where we settled into our work site and met the local youth from the Synod of Cusco who were joining the group from the U.S.
Our task for the week: give a little TLC to a neglected church property built in the 1960s as a medical clinic and now envisioned as a retreat center for churches in the region. With about 30 gallons of paint and wood to assemble 30 bunk beds, plus a machete and some rakes for clearing the yard, there was plenty of work for youth from two countries to do, side by side. We ate together, washed dishes together, laughed together, and prayed together. In the local church fashion, each day opened with group devotions before breakfast, as the sun crept over the green-brown mountains and melted the frost on the cold ground. And we closed in the evening, after a full day’s work, with community worship.
As we gathered on the first evening, the energy was palpable, with all the youth excited to meet the group from the other country. Then the difficulties of language barriers and cultural differences began to set in, and there were moments when those challenges threatened to mar the hopeful beginnings of unity. But in the midst of it all, God’s Spirit was clearly at work, and times of sharing and fellowship helped the youth to reach one another across the divide. Dressing up in costume, sharing reflections on God’s Word, memorizing Bible verses in an unfamiliar language, teaching Peruvian campfire games, introducing the delicacy of toasted marshmallows and s’mores. The youth drew closer to one another and strengthened their faith.
The theme for the week was Friendship Without Borders, and it was a delight for me to take part in it. I was there partly to learn about the work that Sara and Rusty do with mission teams in Peru, partly to get acquainted with the IEP—a relatively new partner of the PC(USA). But my most important job there in that space was to be one of the interpreters for the week, helping folks on each side to communicate in effective and meaningful ways with the other.
In the end there was a clear sense that the week had been a success. Not only had walls been painted and bunk beds installed, but relationships were forged and we all learned more about what it means to be the diverse body of Christ. The closing worship service was a time for exchanges of gifts, tears, and hugs, saying goodbye with promises to keep in touch and to pray for one another. This was a first step toward one another, into that in-between space where God’s presence is felt in a special way. What a privilege to be called to share in such holy places of encounter!
I’m blessed to serve in a role that involves frequent movement in those in-between spaces. It’s not always an easy place to be, and not always buoyed by the newness of youthful excitement, but the bridge-building work of a regional liaison has been a joy and a privilege for me.
I give thanks every day for your support in prayers, letters, and donations. I continue to rely on financial contributions to carry out my work, and welcome your gifts—large, small, or in-between—to both my salary/support account and the ministry budget that pays for my travel to visit our sister churches and mission personnel. Thank you for partnering with me in this ministry.
In Christ’s peace,
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 280
The 2012 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 2
Blog: Andean Journey