A letter from Sarah Henken in Colombia (regional liaison for the Andean Region)
Entertained by Angels
A welcoming smile. A cup of coffee. A good place to sleep. Interest in hearing my stories and sharing their own. These are some of the gifts of hospitality I receive from the people I visit, things that help me feel at ease wherever I find myself in the Americas.
I’ve been blessed to receive such hospitality from some of you this year. I was in the U.S. for five months of Interpretation Assignment and visited 6 states, connected with 24 congregations, preached 16 times, presented at 5 presbytery meetings, and led workshops both at a Presbyterian Women summer conference and with wonderful colleagues at World Mission’s Big Tent event. It was an invigorating season that helped me get in touch with my home base in the United States. I was back home with my parents in Los Angeles for some of the time, while simultaneously preparing for a move to my new home in Barranquilla, Colombia. In the midst of it I found myself reflecting often on the meaning of home.
Over the years of my adult life I have pulled up roots and put them down again every year or two or three. I grew up in Los Angeles and have planted pieces of myself in Uruguay, Argentina, Chicago, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. My journey in mission and ministry has led me beyond my first home and blessed me with becoming part of many communities. Leaving my heart in so many places means I’m always missing someone, but I wouldn’t trade the friendships that have flourished or the treasured sense of belonging that remains in spite of the distance.
When asked what I love most about my work or the places I’ve lived, the truest answer is always, quite simply, the people. Relating with people and walking beside them in their struggles, beginning to understand their perspective and their faith, learning to appreciate their humor; these are the things that keep me going. But long before I can get to that level, I rely on their hospitality.
Living in a new country, I come with my past and my accomplishments, but I also come with a fair amount of helplessness. A master’s degree isn’t very useful if I don’t know how people greet one another, where to buy groceries, how to get across town. It’s humbling and often frustrating to suddenly find myself so dependent, needing others to help me learn the most basic things about how to live in their context. I rely on the generosity of spirit of the people alongside whom I have come to serve. I depend on their willingness to show me Christ-like love, patience, and hospitality.
I find this openhearted generosity reflected in the apostle’s words: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). My beloved sisters and brothers have followed this injunction, opening their homes and tables and lives to me, a stranger. I don’t mean to suggest that in so doing they entertained an angel. In fact, it seems to me that quite the reverse has happened: I have been the one entertained by angels.
Colombia became my newest home when I got on the plane October 1, but in a very real sense I’ve been putting down roots here ever since I first visited in 2006. Seven years ago I arrived as a volunteer accompanier with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, participating in a ministry of presence with this church that speaks out against injustice and supports victims of the country’s decades-long armed conflict. Since then I’ve visited once or twice each year, and now Barranquilla is my new home base for my work as regional liaison. I will continue to work with our partners in Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia, but I’m excited to be settling in as a resident here, and look forward to collaborating more closely in the life and ministry of the Colombian church.
Arriving feels like coming home. I have deep and cherished friendships here; foods I look forward to learning to cook; a respect for the complex history and textures of the sociopolitical context; joy in the lilting accordion and rhythmic percussion of the vallenato music heard so often in my new city. In this place over the years I have been taught about street safety, how to negotiate with taxi drivers, how to use local slang. I’ve also been taught more job-related lessons, such as the diversity of theological perspective and liturgical practice among the congregations and presbyteries here.
Colombia is the place where I came to understand the importance of a place to call home through relationships with a few of the 5.4 million Colombians who have been forcibly displaced and turned into refugees in their own country. It’s a place where I feel safe and protected, but not because I have a special freedom from danger (although I do carry significant privilege as a U.S. citizen). I feel safe because I am part of the web of Christian community here, living as people of the resurrection even when life is hard and the future uncertain.
God’s presence is never far away in this place where I am entertained by angels and blessed to stand with other flawed but faithful children of God. I invite your prayers for this season as I transition into this new home, and for the work and witness of our partners here in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. Your gifts of prayer support, your words of encouragement, and your financial contributions are what make my presence here possible. If you are able to consider increasing your gift, of whatever sort it may be, I will be most grateful. Thanks be to God for the privilege to serve, and for each of you who support and accompany me on this journey.
In hope and joy,