A letter from Tracey King-Ortega serving in Nicaragua
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At the end of September I was honored to be a part the 5th mission-focused meeting of the PC(USA)’s Presbytery of the Pacific. This series, called “Embracing God’s Mission,” has provided enriching opportunities to reflect on how we participate in God’s mission. The last three meetings have explored the critical global issues (CGIs) currently being addressed by Presbyterian World Mission. These issues—poverty, evangelism and reconciliation—were discerned by consulting with leaders from across the PC(USA) and our global partners and have helped us focus our involvement in God’s mission.
This year the presbytery meeting focused on engaging faithfully in addressing root causes of poverty. Many of us are involved in ministries that respond to needs created by poverty. That is good and important work, but how can we go deeper in our mission witness together? Throughout the day we tried to name and understand root causes of poverty and also struggled together with how we as a church can address those and be agents of justice.
I flew to the event from Managua, Nicaragua, my home for over 15 years now. While in southern California I stayed at my childhood home in Palos Verdes. Being back is always a bit like walking down memory lane. One formative memory that sticks with me is really just a moment, but one that I believe has shaped me in significant ways.
I was a very active member in the youth group at St. Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church and the annual spring break mission trip to Mexico, known as the “Easter Project,” was the most anticipated event of the year. Many of the details of those trips have faded from my memory, but I clearly remember returning home after one of those intense weeks of service and learning and feeling so incredibly out of place and uncomfortable with the comforts of my own home.
As I try to understand why this moment is burned into my brain, a few things come to mind. Perhaps this return from the Easter Project was particularly poignant because it was when I had made a conscious decision to follow Christ. What sticks with me is not coming back with a feeling of accomplishment for the good works we had done, but rather how this mission experience made me feel and the questions it left me with. I was touched by poverty. In contrast to the wealth and luxury I grew up in, I found it hard to comprehend how but three hours down the road and across the border a family of five was living in the back of a blue station wagon on the edge of a dump. We spent a week working with the family to build them a house and hear their stories. Getting to know that family transformed me.
I am so grateful that my early mission experiences not only exposed me to poverty but also began framing questions about justice, or the lack thereof. Perhaps this is what set me on course for a lifetime of asking questions, learning and wanting to work toward lasting change. And now, two and a half decades later, my understanding of mission has matured. It is now more complex and nuanced, but the essence of that first experience remains; God’s call to mission calls us to step into uncomfortable places and, more important, uncomfortable relationships. We need to shift mission involvement from patron/client relationships to partnership. As Presbyterians we “do mission in partnership.” That is messy and hard, but powerfully transformative for all involved.
Father Richard Rohr says, “Only near the poor, close to ‘the tears of things’ as the Roman poet Virgil puts it, in solidarity with suffering, can we understand ourselves, love one another well, imitate Jesus, and live his full Gospel.” He goes on to say that “Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain only to be helpful; he called us there to be in solidarity with the real and for the transformation of ourselves.”
I know that we are all called to participate in God’s mission. I also believe that mission is not just something we do, but it is who we are as followers of Christ, builders of God’s kingdom. I dare to say that God calls us to mission not just to transform the world, but to be transformed ourselves. If the mission work we are involved in doesn’t transform us, perhaps we need to reassess how we are “doing” mission. Mission, when done right and focused first on building relationships, can lead us to wholeheartedness. It can help us understand and experience our humanity. Cross-cultural experiences break us. If we challenge ourselves to go into another’s space, we are vulnerable, and God will touch us and transform us.
The last 10 years of mission service with the PC(USA) I have been in the role of a regional liaison. Much of my energy has been invested in accompanying others and facilitating experiences so that mission won’t be focused on what we accomplish but on maximizing the potential for mutual transformation. I’ve worked hard not to be a glorified tour guide and calling it mission and not to provide opportunities for feel-good ministry that merely respond to the needs created by poverty without seeking to understand why people are impoverished. I understand my role as one who serves the church, helping build our capacity to become a community that transforms and is transformed rather than just provides services. My experiences have been limited to Central America, and I know it is easy for me to focus on mission as the church’s identity because that is my day job. I think the real challenge before us is how we can move our congregations to live into mission, coming to understand it as their identity, their reason for being. Isn’t this the purpose of the church, what we should be doing day in and day out, building the kingdom of God?
If you or your congregation is interested in exploring these ideas more, I would love to help facilitate those conversations. I am working on plans for my upcoming interpretation assignment and will be spending the first five months of 2016 based in southern California with the aim of connecting in person with supporting congregations and sharing about what God is doing in this part of the world. Contact me if you are interested in a visit from me and we will see what can be worked out.
In the meantime, thank you for your financial support. It makes this ministry possible! Also, thank you for your prayers and for your regular correspondence. They help me feel God’s continued presence in our lives. Please continue to give, to pray and to keep in touch.
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 44
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