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A letter from Jed Koball in Peru

January 2010

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
(Matthew 27:50-52)

Dear Friends in Faith,

The alarm clock has sounded! It’s time to wake up!

At 11:30 on a Thursday night I received a phone call. Before even saying “Hello,&rdqupo; Conrado spoke urgently, “Jed, disculpame! I"m sorry for calling so late!” Conrado Olivera is the director of the Red Uniendo Manos Contra La Pobreza (Joining Hands Against Poverty), one of three Peruvian partner organizations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — more specifically, the partner organization that I accompany in my work as companionship facilitator.

Conrado was to attend a gathering out of town that weekend, leaving early on Friday morning; however, he had become ill earlier that day. I was unaware of his status, as I myself had just returned from a conference in the Andes a few hours prior to his call. I was tired. He was sick. One of us had to travel to the north of Lima the following day. Masking my discontent with a minimally mustered-up joy to serve, I accepted defeat and told Conrado to sleep well. I then repacked my bag and set my alarm clock.

Not even the darkest of Peruvian coffees could have stimulated my mind to receive the new day at 4:30 in the morning. I spent most of the night anticipating the sound of the alarm, never falling into a deep sleep. Moved almost entirely by the desire not to disappoint, I managed to get myself out of bed and find my way across town to the bus that would carry me and my fellow travelers to Huacho — a coastal town about two hours north of Lima.

We were met by a rising sun casting long and somber shadows toward the Pacific coast, and we were greeted by the short and playful words of Pablo Flores, director of Tierra y Mar, an NGO with deep ties to the Red Uniendo Manos. Standing at the shore of the ocean, the soft breeze carried the heavy scent of dead fish, and the backwash of waves desperately reached out to us only to be pulled away by a more authoritative force. It was that force, that current, that called our attention — the power of the ocean that Pablo wanted us to see, to feel, to know.

That current has a name. It’s called the Humbolt current. And, it’s the most productive marine ecosystem in the world; nearly 20 percent of the world’s fish catch comes from this cold water current. It is a current so cold that it does not produce precipitation in the marine air, which is in part why the entire coast of Peru is a desert. However, once every so many unpredictable years, yet always at the same time of year, something happens — “El Niño.”

In December, the people wait. They wait for “El Niño.” They wait for this natural phenomenon that warms the waters of the current, altering the ecosystem, diminishing marine activity, altering the course of the current, reversing the course of rivers, flooding the lands, commencing drought, destroying crops, lending to economic despair, creating social upheaval. They wait. Like vigilant church goers lighting the candles of Advent, they wait. They anticipate this phenomenon that comes in any given year but always in late December — always near Christmas. They wait, and they prepare: for disaster ... for “El Niño&rduo; ... for “The Christ child.”

Our travels with Pablo took us to several communities, from farmers to fisherfolks, many thriving and many still recovering from the last time “El Niño” came their way. But it was the last community we visited that struck me most. It was a community that has long since perished. In fact, it is the oldest community ever known in the Americas — the Lost City of Caral. Discovered a mere 15 years ago, this ancient city of pyramids on the outskirts of Huacho is believed to be more than 5,000 years old.

Photo of men and women standing in the sand in front of a stone wall.

Pablo Flores (second from right) stands alongside a group of church leaders in front of a 5,000 year old pyramid that was once buried beneath sand in the recently discovered Lost City of Caral — the oldest civilization in the Americas.

The questions percolate as one walks the sandy paths of this once buried metropolis: who lived here? How did they come together? What did they do?

My question was altogether different. My question was, “how did it die?”

Pablo had an answer, a theory perhaps, nonetheless a reasonable response. He said, “It was ‘El Niño.’” His theory is that this phenomenon created either flooding or drought, destroying crops, leaving the people hungry and searching. When their prayers and sacrifices did not work; when their gods did not respond, they scattered. And thus, the earliest civilization in the western hemisphere came to an end because of a natural phenomenon for which they did not prepare — a disaster.

We live in a world of disasters: tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. Today the aftershocks in Haiti are the stories that fill our screens. And the questions percolate. Like a dark coffee stimulating our minds, the images awaken us to human suffering, human need, human response.

But here in Peru, Pablo is asking, and the people are asking — they’re clamoring — they’re shouting, “Why do we not wake up sooner? Why do we not hear the alarm sounding? The earth crying?” Like the vigilant candle lighters of Advent, why do we not hope, anticipate — and prepare for something better?

We can prepare! We can prevent! We can bring an end — not to the marvelous phenomenon of God’s nature, but to the reality of suffering — the disasters we invite through human division, inequality and blatant disregard for the sacredness of all life. Thousands upon thousands need not die when the earth decides to dance and sing and lift up her voice.

May we be as bold as the earth herself to free ourselves. May we be so bold as to release ourselves from the pull of the current, the undertow of our social structures, that allows us to spring forth like waves on a beach with joyful offerings of relief, but ultimately suck us back in to the disconnected, uncompassionate deep sea of materialism, competition and neglect for humankind.

And may we be so bold to not only free ourselves but to free our God! May we release our Creator from the burden of our questions — why did this happen? Why is there suffering? Why must so many die? May we let our God be our God ... our Savior! For the Christ child, “El Niño,” did not come to bring bad news and despair; our God of love came to wake us up!

Today our God calls again, sounding the alarm, through our brothers and sisters in Peru. Our God calls out, the people call out, not in anger but with love and with hope, because our God knows that we are the saints — the slumbering saints — but saints nonetheless. May we be awakened to our own potential, our calling to prepare and prevent, to hope, to love one another. This is the good news that lives among us and in us for God’s sake and for the sake of the world.

Jed Koball

The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 294

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