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A Region in Turmoil

A letter from Dennis Smith, serving as Regional Liaison for South America, based in Argentina

April 2017


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Dear friends:
South America careens from one crisis to another. As I write this, a general strike has paralyzed Buenos Aires, as people protest high inflation, increasing poverty and growing unemployment. In Perú, unseasonal heavy rains have caused massive flooding, with more rain in the forecast. More than a hundred are dead and tens of thousands have been left homeless. In Brazil, corruption investigations have shaken faith in government, in both right- and left-wing political parties, and in the private sector. Venezuela is mired in political polarization and economic crisis, while in Colombia paramilitary forces continue to undermine an historic peace process in Colombia.

Last September, I became the PC(U.S.A.) regional liaison for all of South America. As I have traveled throughout the region, I’ve had a steep learning curve. I’m grateful to mission partners and mission co-worker colleagues for their valuable insights into how to be bearers of hope in moments of rapid and chaotic change.

Here is a brief catalog of what I am learning:

• Some people and some institutions in our communities continue to provoke conflict and seek to manipulate public opinion to their own advantage. Entrenched economic and political elites across the ideological spectrum dig in their heels and seek to institutionalize impunity. Despite such dire circumstances, we find honorable people of good will and competent public servants who seek to serve the common good on all sides of these conflicts. Not everyone is a shameless opportunist.

• Difference enriches us. We must never cease listening to and learning from people from other traditions and cultures. We must learn from those whose lived experience is different from ours. Is God not present among those we do not know or with whom we disagree?

• As people of faith, we are called to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and the sweet, certain balm of God’s coming Reign. But we do so with humility, for we, too, are fallen people, utterly dependent on God’s grace. In addition, our Reformed tradition teaches us the importance of subjecting ourselves to systems of mutual accountability.

• Seldom is it useful to spend our time deciding who among us is less sullied by the corruption and violence that surrounds us. Seldom is it useful to cast one’s lot unconditionally with one side or another. We must learn to give thanks for all signs of justice, tenderness and compassion around us – whatever the source – yet we must never fear to speak boldly in defense of truth and against perversity. We must never cease to stand with those on the margins, the excluded.
• We believe in common grace; that is, Christians have no monopoly on where and how God is working in our world. We must always be prepared to work in good faith with all who seek the common good. God is working in ways that we do not understand to restore that which is lost, and to bring wholeness to those who suffer and consolation to those who mourn. To such encounters, we bring our relationship with Jesus, the Source of our Hope, and our life in community nourished by God’s Spirit. We name Jesus – gently, humbly – as the reason we serve.

Waldensians Explore Urban Ministry
In this challenging time, we are privileged to be able to accompany and learn from our ecumenical partners. In Argentina and Uruguay, one of our partners is the Evangelical Waldensian Church of Río de la Plata (IEVRP). The Waldensian presence here dates to the late 1800s, when they emigrated from northern Italy.

For decades, these hard-working immigrants settled in small towns, devoting themselves to agriculture and commerce. In many of these towns, the Waldensian church became a key center not only of faith in Christ, but also of education, culture and community service.

In recent decades, Waldensian young people have moved to urban centers to continue their education and to seek jobs. The IEVRP is responding to this shift by exploring new models of urban ministry. As PC(U.S.A.) regional liaison, I was approached by IEVRP leaders last year about sending a small delegation to the US to exchange ideas with folks engaged in urban ministry and to visit different ministry sites.

Sharing materials with PCUSA pastors Karen Hernández-Granzen and Michael Granzen

From Feb. 16-26, I was privileged to accompany IEVRP Moderator Rev. Carola Tron and two young Waldensian leaders from Buenos Aires, Yanina Vigna and Alfredo Servetti, on a whirlwind tour of New York City, northern New Jersey, Winston and Charlotte in North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky. We talked to pastors and lay leaders, seminary professors and community organizers.  My role was interpreter, driver and general factotum. It was lots of fun and a deeply enriching experience.

Early in the trip, we spent an evening with friends at First Presbyterian Church in Allentown, NJ. We gave thanks to God as we sat in on their rambunctious youth ministry. We saw that our Allentown friends have created a space where¬¬ all youth are accepted for who they are: white, Black and Hispanic, rich and poor, gay and straight. It was deeply moving to see how these kids are loved and called to serve their community in the name of Jesus.

We visited urban congregations that are shackled with large, old buildings that are expensive to maintain. Some congregations have come to understand that these creaky structures are public spaces. As such, these churches have invited their neighbors to share in the upkeep and use these old buildings for everything from exercise classes for seniors to performance spaces for local artists. Other congregations understand that their evangelistic calling leads them always to be available to the most vulnerable sectors of their community – undocumented immigrants, the homeless—and to advocate on their behalf.

PCUSA Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson II meets IEVRP Moderator Carola Tron

We found communities that – despite budget limitations and heavy workloads – are playful and Spirit-filled. Like Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville that passed out Mardi Gras beads just before the beginning of Lent and centered worship around a Dixieland jazz band! If you had joined us, you would have been proud to be a Presbyterian!

Special thanks to the American Waldensian Society for making the trip possible, as well as to so many of you who generously shared your time and hospitality. Please pray for our Waldensian colleagues as they discern the next steps in being a more effective presence for Jesus Christ in urban communities in the Río de la Plata region.

Floods Cause Destruction in Perú
In recent weeks, floods and landslides have devastated parts of Perú. Please pray for Sara Armstrong, Rusty Edmondson, Jed Koball and Jenny Valles Koball, our mission workers in Perú, and for our mission partners, the Joining Hands Network and the Evangelical Church of Perú (IEP), as together they respond to this crisis. Please give as you can through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: http://pda.pcusa.org/situation/peru-flooding/

For a more detailed description of flooding in Peru, please see the following Presbyterian News Service story: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-ministries-mobilize-help-people-peru-midst-heavy-rains-floods/

You are Maribel and my partners in God’s mission. Every day we give thanks to God for your prayers, your frequent greetings, and your financial support.

Under the Mercy,
Dennis A. Smith

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