A letter from Sarah Henken in Colombia (regional liaison for the Andean Region)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” Matthew 28:19-20.
“You all know our sister Brígida. She has demonstrated strong gifts for ministry and I want you to know that, should the opportunity arise [for her to pastor a church], she will have my support.” Young pastor Gabriel made this special statement about a year ago on my last Sunday at Light and Truth Presbyterian Church before moving away from La Paz, Bolivia.
The Independent Presbyterian Church in Bolivia (or IPIB in its Spanish initials) has a few strong women ruling elders such as Brígida, but no women ministers. Brígida’s daughter has expressed interest in ministry, and her sister has nearly completed theological studies. Brígida is a regular worship leader and teaches Sunday school for the children and for the older, indigenous Aymara-speaking women. These women demonstrate their dedication and gifts each week, and one of the primary motivations for the creation of the IPIB, when it split from a larger denomination a decade ago, was the freedom to cultivate ordained women’s leadership in the church. However, the IPIB’s current leaders have wavered in the commitment to the idea of women in ministry from that of the founding leadership of the denomination.
During my years in Bolivia I would regularly invite pastor Gabriel to have coffee and talk about theology and church leadership. He was just 21 years old when I met him, serving as lay pastor in the La Paz church and studying theology in a program with Fundamentalist leanings. From the start he shared frankly about his misgivings regarding his denomination’s acceptance of the ordination of women. For my part, as a woman minister, I shared my own understanding of scripture and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s position. A friend suggested a Spanish-language document affirming God’s freedom to call women as well as men to ministry, looking at the whole witness of scripture, and I gave Gabriel a copy. But I never insisted he change his mind.
Without ignoring or minimizing our theological differences, we came to respect one another’s commitment to Jesus Christ and our calling to ministry. I kept showing up to worship with them, and eventually Gabriel invited me to preach and teach. To the best of my knowledge, although he has certainly crossed paths with the handful of Methodist and Lutheran women ministers in Bolivia, I was the first one Gabriel had the opportunity to serve with. It seems that somehow God used my presence to help open up his understanding, and that opening may allow a new generation of Bolivian Presbyterian women to follow God’s call. Saraí, Brígida’s daughter, has yet to pursue pastoral training, but I hope she will now have more wholehearted support from her church family as God shapes and nurtures her for ministry.
I was able to visit these sisters and brothers again this month after nearly a year outside Bolivia, to pray with them and preach the good news of God’s amazing grace. The tiny worship space was crammed with familiar faces as well as new children from the neighborhood. It brings a huge smile to my face to think of the road ahead for Brígida and Saraí and the entire congregation, and I’m profoundly grateful for the time we’ve spent journeying together. It might not always be easy, but this experience with Gabriel and Light and Truth Church affirms my belief that just showing up, willing to be God’s instrument, can make a difference in unforeseeable ways.
I always thought “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) was an insurmountably difficult charge. But of course Jesus wasn’t talking to one lone apostle. The mandate is given in plural form, and we hear it speak to us today. A community of disciples is sent forth to encounter others and continue teaching and growing into Christ’s body. In Bolivia I learned some of what it means for us to disciple one another in Christ’s church, being present and open to one another in spiritual friendship and prayer.
Our first step in accepting the Great Commission is simple enough: Go! Some of us are sent to our local streets and churches, others to an unfamiliar neighborhood, still others to another nation. So we show up, sometimes eagerly and sometimes after dragging ourselves out of bed. And surprisingly often, when we look around, we find that Jesus has shown up, too.
Thank you for making it possible for me to minister with our partners in the Andean region. Your prayers, communications, and financial gifts are key to my presence here. Would you or your church community consider renewing or increasing your commitment to support me?
I will be praying for you, and I look forward to connect in person, on the web, in writing, or via Skype sometime soon. I’m not sure what challenges and opportunities await us in the days ahead, but I’m ready to show up where God leads me, confident that grace and new life will spring up along the way.
In thanksgiving and joy,