A letter from Jed Koball in Peru
David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
—2 Samuel 6:5
May I Have This Dance?
My grandmother used to tell us that she grew up on Double Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York City. Duma, as my sisters and I affectionately called her, migrated to New York from Northern Ireland with her family in 1903, when she was a mere infant. In fact, you can find her maiden name, Marguerite Connelly, engraved on a memorial wall at Ellis Island.
I suspect that Duma had within her a hidden desire to live in the limelight, or at least in the center of the action. She grew up in the section of Manhattan that is today referred to as “Hell’s Kitchen” over on Tenth Avenue (hence “Double Fifth”).
When she was a young adult (early 20s perhaps), she was approached by a talent agent to dance for the Ziegfeld Follies. Her mother in no uncertain terms forbid her to participate in such frivolous and seductive activities. Perhaps there was wisdom in her judgment; it’s hard to know. Either way, it appeared to thwart any dreams of fame and stardom that my grandmother may have harbored. (Only later in life would she name her first child, my aunt, after Ethel Merman, seeming to reflect her appreciation for the entertainment world.) And so it was that this became the family attitude, if not the party line—which is not to say that dancing was forbidden in my family; rather, it was never strongly encouraged. Through my own adolescence, the mere mention of the word “dance” incited some amount of fear and trembling within.
It might then be a mystery for some as to why I have settled into Latin American culture…and married a Peruvian for that matter! Dance in Latin culture is nearly unavoidable. Festivities are shaped by dance; stories are told through dance; values are formed with dance; relationships are strengthened through dance. Certainly there may be aspects of the church that frown upon dance; nonetheless, dance is paramount to engaging Latin culture, undoubtedly so in Peru. A dancer lives within everyone. And within me a dancer seems to have been born again—from home life to work life and throughout my ministry here in Peru, I have learned to appreciate if not love dance.
So it was early this month at the VI International Congress of Youth Environmentalists, hosted by our partner organization Red Uniendo Manos Peru, in the central Andean town of Concepcion. Over 200 gathered from across Peru, Bolivia, Chile, the U.S. and Canada for a week of learning and sharing on such issues as water management, climate change, bioremediation, renewable energies, ecological architecture, threats of trade agreements against public policies that protect the environment, contamination from the extractive industry, recycling, re-using, remembering our place among nature, restoring our spirits through grateful praise of our Creator and Sustainer. Opinions varied on issues; debates ensued. It was a lively time and a productive time. It was a formative time of preparing ourselves to be better stewards of this gift of Creation that we are part of and that we share.
And, it was a time of dancing. On the last night we gathered to celebrate our week together and our new bonds of friendship. Each delegation representing various regions from the countries represented was invited to present something "cultural." The folks from the U.S. performed a hilarious skit; our friends from Canada led us in "rain-making"; and our friends from Bolivia and Peru danced.
We were treated to dances in full costume and synchronized step, reflecting age-old melodies of their ancestors, Spanish folk tunes, Afro-Peruvian rhythms, and more. And, toward the end of each dance number there was an invitation, a personal invitation with hand extended, to each one of us to join them in the dance.
I won't lie. It was not pretty. At least not at first. With each dance there was a new rhythm, a new movement, a new step, and a new partner! There was clunking of knees, crashing of arms, tripping of feet. But there was also forgiveness, understanding and laughter. And within moments there was great joy. By the end, our dances did not necessarily mimic what we had been shown, but they were beautiful nonetheless, for they were rooted not only in traditions shared but in grace fulfilled.
Such dance should not be new to us. Dancing has long been part of the human experience and most certainly part of our faith tradition. One of the more magical dances of all is described in our sacred texts—the story of David’s joyful dance before the Lord as he brought the ark of the covenant to the house of Israel. One cannot doubt the sincerity of his praise to the Lord.
Yet upon further study, one cannot also help but question the spectrum of David’s motivations to dance before the Lord. In a few politically astute moves, David was but a few mere steps away from assuming the throne. Great power was to be bestowed upon him. Was his dance not only one of sincere joy but also one of political calculations? Upon further consideration, David's dance may not simply be a beautiful story of praise, but rather a very accurate portrayal of the human experience—a story of mixed if not confused motivations.
Another important lesson that I have taken away from the story is remembering that David did not dance alone. And in our sincere desire to praise the Lord, nor do we. Indeed, to dance alone is dangerous. To dance alone sets us down a potential path of self-absorption, blindness to our ways. Like the faith community we need to grow spiritually, we need a dance partner to most fully express our joy.
Is this not what partnership in mission is about in so many ways? Is this not why we stumble down this road of international mission, full of potholes and pitfalls? Partnership is a dance. It is awkward. It opens the door to trips and stumbles. Sometimes we even fall down. When the rhythm changes, our flaws are too often revealed. We depend on our partners to trust in us and vice versa. We depend on Grace.
As I look at the critical global issues being addressed by our partners in Peru, I realize that we will trip and we will stumble as we face them together. We will stumble together as we address the pressing issues of climate change, trade agreements, the extractive industry, and land and water rights. We will unintentionally crash arms and bang knees as we define strategies and employ tactics to address these issues—strategies reflecting our sincere desire to please the Lord as well as our very real and sometimes confused motivations that reflect different agendas that we ourselves may not fully understand. We will, undoubtedly, trip over one another as we define what development means, what justice implies, what peace will look like. At times, it will not be pretty.
But, in the end, we will find a new rhythm, a new step, a new dance. We will let grace lead us and joy fill us. We will celebrate our shared work, our common purpose, our friendships, our faith. We will give glory to God.
For most of my life I used to believe that my grandmother simply aspired to "making it" on Fifth Avenue. Now I sometimes think she was perhaps mocking Fifth Avenue—as if to say, our joy in life will not be the synthetic joy of wealth, fame or even success; our joy will be double that and even more. Our joy will be a pure joy, an honest joy, revealing of our common humanity; unrehearsed and often offbeat, clumsy and yet so very full of grace. It will be a thing of beauty.
As I begin a new term in Peru I think of the dancers that surround me and feel I must do what is the only proper thing to do—that is ask the very question that has been asked me time and time again. And so, to each one of you who supports this gospel ministry we share, whether through your prayers, through your dollars, through your voice or through your actions, I ask you on behalf of all our partners here in Peru… May I Have This Dance?