A letter from Karla Koll in Guatemala
Is not this the fast that I choose;
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Dear Companions in Mission,
Once again the liturgical calendar has brought us around to the season of Lent. Last year as Lent was beginning I was just starting my journey with breast cancer. This year I am recovering from treatment. I have returned to teaching theology classes at the Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA).
Lent is a time for reflecting on the world's need for God as well as our own brokenness. This Lent I am celebrating something I have learned over and over again in the last year: we do not have to face brokenness in the world or our own pain alone because we are part of a believing community.
We Presbyterians have a particular way of understanding and embodying how we are tied together in community. We speak of a connectional church. In part this means that each local congregation belongs a presbytery. Presbyteries in turn are part of synods and of the General Assembly. Being a connectional church also has implications for the way we live out Christ's call to participate in God's mission around the world.
Mission co-workers like myself are sent out by the whole church. Though congregations, presbyteries and individuals are encouraged to designate part of their giving to the support of mission co-workers, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) World Mission prepares us and sends us out on behalf of the whole church. Through World Mission the whole church commits to our support and care.
One of the ways World Mission cares for mission co-workers is by providing us with comprehensive health insurance through a carrier that specializes in coverage for people working outside of the United States. When I received my diagnosis I knew that most of my medical expenses would be covered.
When my diagnosis was made public, a college friend who is the moderator of the Global Outreach Committee of University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wrote to me immediately. As part of the biology faculty at the University of North Carolina, he is involved in cancer research. "You have to come to Chapel Hill," he told me. While the surgeon here did a marvelous job on my mastectomy, the sophisticated diagnostic equipment needed to determine if the cancer had spread does not exist in Guatemala.
University Presbyterian Church has supported Presbyterian Women in Guatemala and made occasional gifts to the Biblical and Theological Formation program of CEDEPCA. I first visited the church while on mission interpretation assignment in the spring of 2008. My visit led to a joint trip to Guatemala through CEDEPCA's Intercultural Encounters program by folks from University Presbyterian and Chapel in the Pines in May of 2009. Chapel in the Pines joined the community of churches that give toward my support. I visited Chapel Hill again in October of 2011 in the company of Juana Herlinda Yac Salanic, a Guatemalan friend who served as an International Peacemaker for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
I wrote to all of the folks I knew from the two churches in Chapel Hill, "Will you all take care of me if I come?" I did not know that they would care for me so well. My first sojourn in Chapel Hill, which lasted from late February to late March, included lots of tests as well as a lumpectomy. I was hosted by a family in Chapel in the Pines who shared their home and occasionally their car. After receiving chemotherapy in Quetzaltenango, I returned to Chapel Hill in early September for two months of radiation treatments. A retired pastor let me housesit her beautiful home. A couple from University Presbyterian Church lent me a car for my daily trips to the hospital. Both congregations welcomed me into their lives and activities, though most weekends I was away visiting other churches.
To help mission co-workers face the costs of unforeseen problems, World Mission maintains an Extra Commitment Opportunity account for missionary pastoral care (#E864021). Churches and individuals contributed enough on my behalf to cover both of my round-trip plane tickets from Guatemala to North Carolina as well as the medical expenses my insurance didn't cover.
Several churches in my support network also sent care packages to Guatemala with visitors. The gifts of herbal teas, dried cranberries, books, scarves and hats cheered me up and helped me get through the days of chemotherapy and beyond. Three prayer shawls and a prayer quilt found their way to me.
Sisters and brothers here in Central America also cared for me. Co-workers from CEDEPCA accompanied me the day I had surgery. Former students and groups from several Presbyterian churches as well as two presbyteries around Quetzaltenango paid pastoral visits. My colleagues at the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica kept in regular touch via e-mail and Skype.
But most all I am grateful for the prayers that have surrounded me and my family during the past year. I have awakened every morning knowing that people throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and around the world are praying for me and my recovery, as well as for the work of CEDEPCA here in Guatemala. These prayers have carried me forward.
Lent began on Ash Wednesday with the reading above from Isaiah, a reminder that God desires our spiritual disciplines, during Lent as well as other times, to be part of the struggles to work for justice and free people from that which oppresses. Illness certainly oppresses. Our prayers take concrete form as we care for one another. My family and I are so grateful for the care we received during the past year. Thank you all so much. I look forward to your ongoing support as I continue to serve in mission here in Central America.
In resurrection hope,
I also remember your assistance while I visited Guatemala - a stop at pharmacy for antibiotic for suffering sinuses after a very long day. You faith is empowering others.
What a beutiful letter! Thank you, Karla.Trinity Pres in Nashville continues to pray for your full healing.