A Letter from Dennis and Maribel Smith, with Dennis serving as Regional Liaison for South America, based in Argentina
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It’s been a long time on the road — almost two months away from our apartment in Buenos Aires.
This journey began on September 5, when I joined José Luis Casal, director of Presbyterian World Mission, and Valdir França, area coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPU).
In fine Presbyterian style, the IPU celebrated their anniversary with a lively conference focusing on theology and the pastoral challenges facing their church today.
The IPU was born out of a time of conflict. Brazil lived under a vicious military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. In the 1970s, national leaders of the country’s largest Presbyterian denomination publicly supported this dictatorship, a move that was resisted and publicly denounced by some of their most respected pastors, theologians and lay leaders. Those who resisted were systematically repressed, some were denounced to military intelligence, and many were forced out of the denomination.
In 1978, these exiles gathered to form a new denomination that came to be known as the United Presbyterian Church (IPU). One of the hallmarks of this group was the prophetic vision, social service and theological clarity of leaders like João Dias, Jaime Wright and Rubem Álves.
Forty years down the road, a new generation of women and men are stepping up to lead this small but vital denomination. We met to learn from them how they are being faithful to the Gospel today and how we can support new leaders as they finish their academic training. We agreed that in today’s world, we must create agile networks where we can support and challenge one another in our understanding of God’s mission today.
In recent weeks, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro as their new president. Bolsonaro was a low-ranking military officer during the dictatorship and has called for a return to authoritarianism to deal with Brazil’s deeply rooted problems of corruption, violence and crime.
During the electoral campaign, the IPU leadership circulated a pastoral letter reminding their members that “the ethical and Christian values on which our denomination is founded bear the mark of the struggle and faithful testimony of men and women who sought ‘a new way of being church’: non-authoritarian, inclusive, that values women; a prophetic church that gives voice to those on the margins of society, denouncing violence, oppression and injustice; a church in solidarity that embraces all in need of sustenance, the Word and love.”
“For this reason, we repudiate all forms of violence, physical or verbal, all racism, sexism and misogyny, all homophobia or any action that is an affront to the dignity of persons, to human rights or to the full exercise of democracy.”
The first signature on this pastoral letter reads: “Elder Anita Sue Wright Torres, Moderator, Daughter of Jaime Wright (Brasil Nunca Mais) and niece of Congressman Paulo Stuart Wright, disappeared by the military dictatorship of Brazil.”
Anita’s father, Jaime, was a Brazilian citizen, born to Presbyterian mission worker parents. He and his wife Alma also became Presbyterian mission workers. As it became clear that the military government was engaged in massive and systematic violations of human rights, Jaime worked with Cardinal Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns to copy and smuggle out of the country thousands of official documents that would be published as “Brasil: Nunca Mais,” published in English as “Torture in Brazil.” This document shook the military dictatorship to its foundations.
Please pray for our sisters and brothers in the IPU as they seek to live out the hope of Jesus Christ in an increasingly challenging environment.
* * * * * * *
After Brazil, on to Louisville.
First, I participated in a training that Presbyterian World Mission holds for regional liaisons from all over the world every second year. This is always a rich time of sharing that gives each of us a challenging sense of how our church works in partnership with other churches in service to God’s mission. I’m proud to be part of a church that does mission thoughtfully, humbly and with mutual accountability.
Then, family time! The Smith Pérez clan gathered in Louisville at the end of September to accompany our grandson, Alan, for surgery on his cleft palate. His cleft lip was repaired in March. A shout out to Dr. Jones, a gentle and remarkably skilled surgeon — and all the team at Norton’s Children’s Hospital — for using their God-given skills to care for this remarkable little boy.
Argentina is a long way from Louisville, so we are deeply grateful to our colleagues in World Mission for the flexibility that allowed me to spend a week working from the Furlough Home at Louisville Seminary, and then take a couple of weeks of vacation to accompany family during this time.
* * * * * * *
Next stop: Colombia.
I traveled with Valdir França to all three presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC). We worked with our Colombian colleagues to envision the future and celebrate all we have been able to do together over the last 160+ years.
We’re especially excited that February 1-2, 2019 the IPC will host representatives of the churches and presbyteries that have active mission partnerships in Colombia, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) and World Mission to breathe new life into the Colombia Mission Network. Let me know if you’d like to join us!
Everywhere Valdir and I visited, we were reminded of decades of civil war and heard testimonies of how the IPC is seeking to be an active force for reconciliation and peace with justice in a deeply polarized country.
The profound complexities of reconciliation came home to me as I listened to the testimonies of church members in Urabá Presbytery describing attacks by paramilitaries, guerrillas or military that left them displaced in their own country. Finding in the church a source of strength and hope, a new community, is for them a powerful sign of the Resurrection.
One challenge of Colombia’s peace process is how to reincorporate former FARC combatants into civilian life. As part of the peace process, 25 reintegration camps were created for about 8500 ex-combatants. The IPC has a pastoral presence in three of those camps, as part of ecumenical efforts to provide job training and education and to promote reconciliation after decades of war.
Our visit to the Presbytery of the Coast included a meeting with the Presbytery Council. A former FARC guerilla shared his vision of how the Peace Accords are being implemented, a process full of contradictions and uncertainty.
Later, I was talking with Ruth Ahumada, an elder from First Presbyterian Church of Barranquilla, who serves on the Presbytery Council. Ruth is a retired police officer. Police were frequent targets of FARC military actions. Ruth shared that when she was on active duty she had participated in many funerals of former colleagues. It was not easy for her to sit and listen to her former enemy.
What is one to do? Living the Gospel is not easy. Thank God we aren’t expected to do it alone.
This is our last letter for 2018. As we approach Advent and remember that God is in our midst, please know that your prayers and your generous financial support make our service to God’s mission possible.
Under the Mercy,
Please read this important message from José Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission
Dear partners in God’s mission,
We near the close of 2018 inspired by the hope of Christ. God is transforming the world, and you are helping to make it happen.
Thank you very much for your support of our mission co-workers. The prayers and financial gifts of people like you enable them to work alongside global partners to address poverty, hopelessness, violence and other pressing problems in the name of Jesus Christ.
Every day, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers are blessed to be able to walk alongside their brothers and sisters across the globe. Listening to each other in faith and in friendship, they learn from each other how to work towards a world in which everyone flourishes. Acting upon what they discover together, PC(USA) mission co-workers and our global partners strengthen the body of Christ.
Because you are an integral part of God’s mission, I invite you to become more deeply committed to Presbyterian World Mission. First, would you make a year-end gift for the sending and support of our mission co-workers? The needs in the world are great, and World Mission is poised to answer God’s call to serve others.
I also invite you to ask your session to add our mission co-workers to your congregation’s prayer list and mission budget for 2019 and beyond. Your multi-year commitment will make a great difference in our involvement with our partners. The majority of our mission co-workers’ funding comes from the special gifts of individuals and congregations like yours, for God’s mission is a responsibility of the whole church, not a particular area of the church. Now more than ever, we need your financial support!
In faith, our mission co-workers accept a call to mission service. In faith, World Mission, representing the whole church and you, sends them to work with our global partners. In faith, will you also commit to support this work with your prayers and financial gifts? With hope and faith, I await your positive response!
At God’s service and at your service!
José Luis Casal
P.S. Your gift will help meet critical needs of our global partners. Thank you!
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Tags: Dennis and Maribel Smith
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