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Encouraging Faithful Friends

A Letter from Tracey King-Ortega, serving as regional liaison for Central America, based in Nicaragua, currently in the U.S.

Spring 2021

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Dear friends,

One thing I love about being a Presbyterian is how much we value democracy. We may joke about needing to form a committee to get anything done, but committee work embodies our reformed beliefs that understand a need for checks and balances and shared leadership.

As part of my presence as a Presbyterian mission co-worker in Central America, I’ve often felt that our unique contribution here, in a context of fledgling democracies, is accompanying and encouraging our small but faithful denominational partners to model how to participate in democracy, starting in their local congregations. Accustomed to centuries of cacique-style governance that depends on strong political bosses who call the shots, becoming a democracy isn’t necessarily an easy or natural process. It is something that needs to be learned and valued, and it takes practice.

International Observers joining national observers’ final press conference via Zoom

Over the years, I have enjoyed several opportunities to serve as an international election observer in both El Salvador and Nicaragua. The first time was in 1994 as part of a Presbyterian Peacemaking delegation to El Salvador for the first democratic presidential elections in this tiny nation after over a decade of civil war. It was an honor to be able to witness such a historic event. Voting should not be the only way to participate in government, but it can serve as an indicator of the robustness of a democracy. National and international observers are one way to bring legitimacy to those processes.

Twenty-seven years later, earlier this year, I was again invited to participate as an international observer for El Salvador’s national elections for their legislative assembly. Given the global pandemic, our ecumenical team, six of whom came from the PC(USA), was not asked to travel to El Salvador, but to join virtually, accompanying the team of national observers from the Ecumenical Forum of Churches of El Salvador (FECLAI), of which our longtime partner, the Reformed Calvinist Church of El Salvador (IRCES) is a member. They took us into polling places through their individual cell phone cameras, showing us the day’s events from many angles and perspectives throughout the country.

At first, there was a lot of skepticism about how much we would actually be able to observe in this virtual format. FECLAI did an amazing job of bringing us into the action. In press-conference format, they had reporters interviewing national observers, via Zoom, throughout the day. We bounced around from place to place, hearing stories and observations of what was going at polling sites across the country. It gave us a feel for the day, the frustrations and challenges along the way, including added COVID-safety concern for those physically present on the scene.

After everything was said and done, we were convinced that this new role of international virtual observer, though limited, was greatly worthwhile in that we were accompanying our Salvadoran partners in their process, showing solidarity and support. By walking with them during election day and then backing their statement as national observers, our international team validated their work. It raised the stakes and continues to support them as they speak up and demand change in their structures. Because of us, they know they are not alone and perhaps feel a bit braver to speak truth to power.

Some, believing in the separation of church and state, may ask why it is important that the church participates as election observers. Our wise global partners know they are called to this work. They opened their post-election observation declaration with Exodus 3:7, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people.” And then went on to express the following:

We express our deep regret for authoritarian and domineering attitudes that contradict Christian teachings and break democratic rules of government. Jesus said: “the rulers of the nations oppress their subjects, and high officials abuse their authority. But it should not be like this among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 21: 25-26). Rulers are called to service, not tyranny, so the limits, checks, and balances of democracy must be protected while promoting humility. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but on the contrary. Therefore, we reject the tendency to autocratic political leadership as a theological danger that threatens the common good. We are concerned about the lack of respect for the rule of law, not recognizing the equal importance of the three branches of the state and replacing civility with dehumanizing hostility towards opponents.

Towards the end of their statement, they say:

We encourage pastors to speak and act with faith and courage, not for political reasons, but because they are disciples of Jesus Christ, the Lord. In this time of moral and political crisis, our urgent need is to regain the power to confess our faith, mourn, repent, and make amends. The Lord, who is just, weeps at the blood of the poor and calls his people not to be naive accomplices who tolerate idolatry. On the contrary, it calls us to re-identify the true interests of the disenfranchised.

God cares deeply for God’s people. As Christians, we are called to do the same. As concern for increasing authoritarianism spreads in El Salvador and throughout Central America, efforts to support and bolster democracy can be key. Our reformed tradition values democracy and, teaches participation and shared leadership within our own structures, which can then spill out from there. Being concerned about how the government runs matters because it affects God’s people.

These words from our church partners in El Salvador were written to address their particular moment in history. But mutuality in mission has taught me that lessons for or from our partners often apply to us. Following their example, may we learn together and support and challenge one another as we seek to live out our faith in ways both privately and publicly that make a difference for others, particularly for the least of these.

Thank you for your ongoing support to Presbyterian World Mission that makes it possible for me, even in times of a global pandemic, to be creative in the ways we are present with and accompany our partners in Central America.

Blessings and peace,

Tracey


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