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I Was Hungry …

A Letter from Dennis and Maribel Smith, based in Argentina, serving as regional liaison for South America

April 2020

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Dear friends:

In February, I made a pastoral visit to the Presbyterian Church of Venezuela (IPV). Because of the economic and political crisis facing the country, many communities are experiencing hunger. All the churches I visited have food programs. Many offer monthly food baskets; some also provide weekly hot meals. These programs, initiated in 2018, give priority to children and the elderly, then to neighbors, and finally to church members.

Sometimes, you just sit back and admire the skill and commitment of people who take Jesus seriously in Matthew 25 where he says that when we feed the hungry, we are feeding him.

What struck me on this visit was the passion and thoughtfulness our Venezuelan brothers and sisters bring to the task. Rev. Nyezer Gómez, moderator of the IPV, works with his session at Divine Savior Presbyterian Church in Barquisimeto to find local providers that sell food in bulk. Their monthly budget is about 14 million bolivars (about $185). By buying in bulk, Nyezer found that they were able to buy 10 per cent more food for the same amount of money.

At Jacob’s Ladder Presbyterian Church in Ocumare, Rev. Omar Díaz and his team serve about 400 hot meals every weekend. Jacob’s Ladder has a main campus and three related ministry sites in neighboring communities. By pooling their resources, they can make a single purchase of 70 kilos of grain per week, freeing up money to buy onions, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

Throughout the IPV, church members share what they can from their own reserves for the food programs. Deacons gladly receive small offerings of salt, sugar, rice, fruits, and vegetables at worship services. By taking advantage of the fresh fruits bountifully available on members’ patios, the food preparers make healthy juices to accompany the hot meals instead of using expensive, artificial drink mixes. In addition, one of the deacons noted, “When we prepare a birthday cake for the kids, it’s always on us to make sure that it’s made of carrots or squash so that it has more nutritional value!”

To be present in the community, to walk with those that are going through rough times, also means learning to really pay attention to your neighbors. Rev. Wilfredo Peña is the pastor in the town of Turen. (Dare I confess that Wilfredo and I have been friends since 1985 when I led a workshop on communication in his hometown of Barquisimeto?)

Wilfredo noticed one morning that Darwin López was sleeping on the front steps of the local Catholic parish. Wilfredo invited Darwin to church for a hot meal. Darwin confessed to Wilfredo that he was homeless because he had become estranged from his mother. God began to work in Darwin’s life. He was reconciled with his mother and moved back home. The local mayor learned that Darwin was unemployed and found him a job. Darwin asked me to share with you that he is now part of the team that provides hot meals at church.

When I brought greetings to churches in Venezuela, I shared that North Bend Presbyterian Church in Oregon, where my parents are members, also has a food pantry for homeless and hungry neighbors. And that many, many churches in the U.S. have similar ministries. I asked for their prayers for Presbyterians in the U.S., promising that we would continue to pray for them, as together, each in our particular circumstances, we seek to be faithful to God’s mission.

In light of the Venezuela experience, maybe we need to do a minor re-write of Matthew 25. Perhaps, it’s not so much giving food to others as it is giving it to each other. We all hunger, our Venezuelan sisters and brothers teach us; we all sustain one another. Our calling is to do so intentionally, with creativity, accountability, and grace.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has recently provided an emergency grant to the IPV for its innovative food program. Through the Venezuela Mission Network, several PC(USA) congregations have also supported this program. Last year, according to Dr. Loida Gaffaro de Valera, IPV’s financial secretary, the program provided weekly hot meals to more than 1300 persons and monthly food baskets to almost 500 families. To support this creative ministry, go to
“https://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E864562/”https://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E864562/.

Mission in Times of Coronavirus

When I returned to Argentina from Venezuela, the region had become engulfed with concern about coronavirus. Countries throughout the region are implementing ever more stringent travel restrictions as officials seek to limit the spread of the virus.

My colleague Rev. Dr. Jo Ella Holman, regional liaison for the Caribbean, observed recently that tourists had spread the virus to several nations in her region.

As the season nears when many U.S. churches send mission groups to Central/South America and the Caribbean, we know that the last thing U.S. Presbyterians desire is to spread this terrible sickness to communities throughout the region.

I encourage you to be in prayerful conversation with your mission partners and to consider postponing or canceling this year’s mission trip.

In these troubling times, your prayers and support are a lifeline to us. Thank you!

In closing, a phrase shamelessly purloined from good friend Rev. Nancy Chester McCranie that she, in turn, took from I Cor. 16:13: “Stay alert. Stand firm. Show courage. Be strong. Do love.”

Under the Mercy,

Dennis A. Smith


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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