Strangers in Our Midst

A letter from Dennis Smith, regional liaison for Brazil and the Southern Cone, based in Argentina

September 2015

Write to Dennis Smith
Write to Maribel Smith

Individuals: Give online to E200481 for Dennis and Maribel Smith’s sending and support

Congregations: Give to D503801 for Dennis and Maribel Smith’s sending and support

Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).

Dear friends:

Back then, she was still a nun.  Maribel and I had worked with her in the early ’90s to prepare liturgical materials for ecumenical rallies and marches in support of Guatemala’s peace process.  Our families became close.

There was the time her brother’s child was born with a heart defect.  We were able to provide food and lodging for them when they came into Guatemala City to negotiate treatment at the state-of-the-art cardio care center built by a local heart surgeon who had been highly successful in the U.S.

Our house was full the night of the surgery.  We will never forget the phone call, the heartbroken wails that filled the house as the family learned that the child had not survived the surgery.

She ended up leaving her religious order and marrying the leader of a base ecclesial community from a poor and violent neighborhood.  They were so, so happy.  Shortly after their son was born, they decided to move to the U.S., where they already had family. They did not make the dangerous trek through Mexico; they had U.S. visas, so they saved up for a plane ticket and—like so many others—overstayed the allotted time.

Despite the constant risk of living as undocumented people in a large, Midwestern city, they did quite well.  They were active, valued members of a Roman Catholic parish.  She set up a small housecleaning business; he worked in a restaurant.  They bought a car.  They bought a house, sold it, and then bought another. They paid their taxes, although they knew they would never be able to collect Social Security benefits.  Their boy did quite well in school and showed promise in the parish as a musician.

Then she received word that her mother was dying.  Of course she had to return to Guatemala.  Of course she had to take their son with her so he could say farewell to his grandmother.  Of course her husband had to stay and work.

It was shortly before her mother died that her brother was killed, a victim of the violence so common in so many Guatemalan neighborhoods. On her deathbed, the mother asked why he wasn’t there with the rest of the family.  “They’ve killed him, haven’t they?” she demanded.  “Yes,” the family responded.  She called for her sons to gather.  “You must swear, here and now, that you will not avenge his death,” she demanded. They looked at her silently. “Justice is in God’s hands. Swear so that I can die in peace.” They did, and not long after that, she died.

Then our friend learned that her husband’s father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Her father-in-law’s last wish was to see his son, her husband, before he died.  But he was now the sole financial support for the family. He had to stay in the U.S., working.  He was heartbroken.

Maribel spent three weeks visiting family in Guatemala in August.  She was able to meet our friend and catch up.  It was a bittersweet time.

We share this story because immigration has been so much in the news recently.  Our hope is that this story—one that is repeated in all its individual variations tens of thousands of times in our world each day—will encourage you to become aware of the many divided families in your community, in our country, in our world. Please discuss with your friends at church how you can reach out to the stranger in your midst.  They too are God’s children. Please remember them in prayer.

Brazil partner breaks with the PC(USA)
In July the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) voted to end their mission partnership with the PC(USA). Our churches had been mission partners since 1983.  The reason given for the break was recent decisions by the PC(USA) to allow presbyteries to ordain homosexual persons as ministers and, more recently, to define marriage as being between two persons, not only between a man and a woman.

In recent years the mission partnership between the IPIB and the PCUSA had focused on four areas:

  • The IPIB has received mission workers from the PC(USA).  These mission workers have provided training and pastoral support for IPIB mission workers, both those serving within Brazil and in other countries.
  • The IPIB and the PC(USA) have jointly sponsored IPIB mission workers called to serve with a partner in third countries, including Bolivia, Venezuela and Chile.
  • The PC(USA) has received IPIB mission workers in the U.S.  Ministries have included new church developments and a prison chaplaincy.
  • There are presbytery-to-presbytery and church-to-church mission partnerships between the two churches, especially in northeastern Brazil.

In August we began conversations with IPIB leadership to determine how to implement this decision in a dignified and orderly manner. We will meet again in November and in February 2016 to sort out the details. Please pray for wisdom, humility and creativity as Valdir França, Area Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, and I participate in this process. Please also pray for Rev. Aureo Oliveira, the IPIB Moderator, and Rev. Roberto Mauro Castro, the General Secretary.  We give thanks to God for their constructive and gracious spirits.

This decision is cause for sadness for many in the church in both countries, but we know that God is not finished with any of us yet. We will continue to hold the IPIB in our hearts and prayers, and they have promised to pray for us, even as we await the leading of God’s Holy Spirit to show us the way forward.

New opportunities in Brazil
In October I travel to Portugal with Wertson Brasil de Souza, the Moderator of the United Presbyterian Church (IPU), another Brazilian partner.  For some time the IPU has been praying for an opportunity to reach out in international mission.  The IPU is a small denomination with a wealth of experience and a number of skilled pastors.  Wertson has been in contact with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Portugal (IEPP) and with Presbyterian World Mission about how we might be able to join in mission together.  The IEPP is also a small denomination with a strong tradition of community outreach. Please pray that God might guide in this process.  More news to come in my next newsletter!

To reach out to the stranger in our midst with the love of God is never easy.  Nor is the work of cultivating mission partnerships within Christ’s Church.  But to these tasks we are called together as we engage in God’s mission.  We give thanks to God for your gifts and prayers—and for the questions and comments you frequently share.  They make you part of this ministry!  If you have not yet contributed to our sending and support as your representatives in God’s mission, please consider doing so today.

Under the Mercy,
Dennis A. Smith

The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 44

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