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Join Us in the Dance

A Letter from Jed and Jenny Koball, serving in Peru

October 2020

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Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast.
Psalm 139:7-10 (NIV)

Dear friends,

In his right hand the dancer holds two metal blades that resemble a pair of scissors. With nimble fingers he clanks them together, keeping the rhythm of the violinist and harpist. Dressed in traditional Andean garb sparkling with gold trim, he flips across the stage like an award-winning gymnast, twirls on his head like a modern-day break dancer, and prances on tip toe like the most gracious ballerino. All the while the clanking metal blades never fall from his hand. In fact, they never even lose the beat. This is La Danza de Tijeras – the Scissor Dance.

Every September, we invite the newly arrived Young Adult Volunteers to experience Peruvian Folk Dance. With great pride we want them to see the magnificent artistry that has been passed down from generation to generation throughout the Andes and the Amazon. Just as importantly, we want them to be oriented to the stories of life struggle, resistance and celebration that are told through the dances–stories that shape a common understanding of history and tell of the presence of the sacred over time.

The origins of the Scissor Dance go back to the 16th century following the arrival of the Conquistadores. There were three prongs to Spanish Colonization: extract resources from the land (namely gold to finance the Spanish Empire); construct a hierarchy through a caste system (the seeds of white supremacy in Latin America); and plant a Church to promote a religious belief that would attempt to justify the conquest while also erasing the indigenous spiritualities that sought harmony with the Earth. As church buildings were literally built on top of destroyed Incan temples, indigenous healers developed a dance to spread a message throughout the land: the sacred is still alive because the sacred never lived in the building; in fact, it lives far beyond the building. The sacred is encountered in the mountain top heavens and the valley depths below, in the rising of the dawn and on the farthest side of the sea. The indigenous healers were saying that the sacred is as alive as an acrobatic dancer flying through the air and that the clanking of the metal blades – formed from the mountain rock itself – was the language of the Earth reminding all that the oppressive darkness of the occupation had not snuffed the light of life celebrated through their spirituality. It was an act of resistance. It was a dance of rebellion.

Over the years, the message of the dance has changed. Some might say the dance was co-opted by the Church as it is often performed during religious festivals in which the dancer is considered to have acquired other-worldly abilities through a pact with the devil. However, some will argue that the message of resistance is now working from the inside out, firmly planted within the structures of a religion that can still be very oppressive to this day. A hope persists that a time will come in which the dancers will rise up and both the Church and the world will be healed.

Until then, for so many – especially the poor, the indigenous, the oppressed – it is difficult to say that anything has really changed over the past 500 years. The pandemic has only further hi-lighted the inequities and evils of humanity. While Peru suffers the highest fatality rate in the world from COVID-19 and a projected 12% degrowth in an economy that has left more than half of the work force unemployed, the government has turned its eyes to gold as it fast tracks new mining projects and rolls back environmental protections. Like the Spanish Empire of centuries ago, the earthly powers of today seek salvation in the extraction of resources from the land. Those paying the ultimate price are the same as always. In the seven months of pandemic, five indigenous leaders have been assassinated for raising their voices in defense of the Earth.

But what about the Church? Have we changed? An honest look and a truthful answer may provide us with a mixed report. We are a confessional church after all – always being reformed. As Presbyterians, though, we can say that our denomination´s Matthew 25 initiative is a faithful and promising commitment to not only right wrongs of the past but also to live life more fully, more equitably, and more harmoniously into the future. Our partners here in Peru will also suggest that the three foci of the Matthew 25 initiative not only reflect the work they have been committed to for decades but also serve as a response to the three prongs of the Spanish Conquest that continue to ail Peru: addressing a systemic poverty driven by human destruction of the Earth; dismantling structural racism rooted in white supremacy; and promoting vibrant congregations that seek the sacred beyond the building.

From here in Peru we see you among such congregations! This year has shown us more than ever how important you are to us. Over the years some of you have come to visit us in Peru, and we and our partners have been sustained by those sacred encounters. The pandemic took that away from us this year, just as it prevented the Young Adult Volunteers from joining us in service. Nonetheless, as the Dance of the Scissors reminds us, even when the world seems to be spinning out of control all around us God is still very much alive and holding us fast wherever we may go.

For joining with us in this dance, we thank you!

In Christ,

Jed and Jenny


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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