Trees of Life

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Write to Jenny Koball

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For three weeks Mama Toya could not get out of bed. “I thought I was living my final days,” her voice trembled. Indeed, her daughter and members of her community, Villa El Sol, were already making plans for her funeral. At 84 years of age, Victoria Trujillo – better known as Mama Toya – had lived a full life, and she had accepted that the Lord was calling her home. Until one day the whispering winds of the mountains outside her window beckoned for her to get up. And so she did.

The Andean community of Villa El Sol, where Mama Toya has spent her entire life, is located about 13,000 feet above sea level on the outskirts of La Oroya – one of the most contaminated places in the world. Poisoned by the emissions of a U.S.-owned metals smelter, nearly one thousand square miles of surrounding land is contaminated up to four inches deep with lead, cadmium, and arsenic. Acid rains have whitewashed large tracts of rockface, and these once-productive lands have become largely infertile. As for the people, each breath of life carries with it the risk of ingesting toxic dust. Despite the smelter not having operated at full capacity in over a decade, still more than 50% of the children have extreme levels of lead in their blood.

For twenty years, our global partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru with the support of the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP) has been accompanying the people of La Oroya in a campaign to secure specialized health care for the residents, and to establish and enforce adequate environmental protections. Despite tremendous resistance from both the company and the State, this ongoing campaign has led to present-day negotiations with the Prime Minister´s office and related government agencies to address the health of the people and the ecosystems that are impacted by mining activity, not only in La Oroya but throughout Peru.

Over those same twenty years of advocacy and accompaniment, Mama Toya could not sit idly by waiting for the government or the company to take action in defense of the land that had sustained her life. So, she organized a small group of friends, who call themselves the Conservation Committee of Villa El Sol. Their plan was simple: plant trees to restore life. With shovels and picks, they began tilling the scorched earth. Over these past twenty years this small group of senior citizens has planted more than 30,000 trees in Villa El Sol and cared for them day by day, season after season, often feeding them water by hand with recycled two-liter soda bottles.

About a year ago, Mama Toya and the Conservation Committee of Villa El Sol appeared to reach an impasse. Like some of her fellow septuagenarian and octogenarian cohorts, the trees were no longer thriving; in fact, some were dying. Not only were the toxic soils apparently winning the battle against life, an equally if not more threatening issue was taking its toll: climate change. Weather patterns had shifted over the decades. The dry season is now longer. When the rains do come, they fall with such force that the soil cannot retain the waters. The odds for restoring life to the land seemed overwhelming, and in the face of such dire circumstances, Mama Toya fell ill.

At about that same time one year ago, Red Uniendo Manos Peru applied for a grant from the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to support the work of the Conservation Committee. Because of its immense biodiversity, economic inequality and decaying infrastructure, Peru is considered one of the three countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change. Having recently responded to massive flooding, mudslides and displacement due to unprecedented rains near the coast of Peru, Red Uniendo Manos Peru knew that the long-term struggle against climate change in Peru must focus on retaining water in the mountains. To this end, the proposal to PDA called for capturing water using pre-Incan strategies of canalization, reservoirs, and slow-building terraces while also introducing more diverse native species of plants to generate quicker growth, remediate toxins and return nutrients to the soils.

Perhaps it was the hopeful news of receiving the grant that gave a spark of life to Mama Toya. After three weeks in bed, one day she just got up and started walking up the hill again. “I am as strong as ever!” she says. This could not have been more apparent when I led an intergenerational group from the Covenant Presbyterian Church of Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year to spend a week together with local youth from La Oroya in support of the Conservation Committee in Villa El Sol. Upon arriving, I asked for Mama Toya, and her daughter said to me, “She has been out working in the hills since sunrise. That’s where she is every day, all day.” And it was there that we found her, lifting rocks, moving soil, watering trees, never stopping. “These hills give me life,” she says. “I thought I was going to die, and these lands healed me. God healed me. And you walking with me gives me the strength to keep going.”

To all of you, throughout the church, who walk with us and with Mama Toya and the people of Peru, we are immensely grateful and ask that you please continue to support this gospel ministry we share. Your generosity provides seeds of hope. Your accompaniment here and from afar nurtures and strengthens. And, your prayers help sustain life for all of God’s creation. Thank you!

In Christ,

Jed and Jenny Koball

Please read this important message from Sara Lisherness, interim director of Presbyterian World Mission

Dear friend of Presbyterian Mission,

Greetings in Christ! As the interim director of Presbyterian World Mission, I am grateful to have the opportunity to thank you for your continued support of PC(USA) mission co-workers.

The enclosed newsletter bears witness to some of the many ways in which God is at work in the world through long-standing relationships between global partners and the PC(USA). These partnerships are nurtured and strengthened by the presence of mission co-workers in over 40 countries; you are an important part of this partnership too, as you learn about and share how our church is involved in global ministry; as you pray for our partners and mission co-workers; and as you take action to work with others for God’s justice, peace and healing.

I write to invite you to continue joining us in partnership in three ways. First, your prayers are always needed. Please pray that God will continue guiding the shared work of the PC(USA) and global partners as we engage together in service around the world. Pray, too, for mission co-workers, that they may feel encouraged in the work they are doing under the leadership of global partners.

Second, please consider making a year-end gift for the sending and support of at least one mission co-worker. There is a remittance form at the end of this letter and an enclosed envelope so that you can send in a special year-end gift.

Finally, I encourage you to ask your session to include one or more mission co-workers in your congregation’s mission budget for 2020 and beyond. PC(USA) mission co-workers’ sending and support costs are funded by the designated gifts of individuals and congregations like yours; your gifts allow Presbyterian World Mission to fulfill global partners’ requests for mission personnel.

Faithfully in Christ,

Sara Pottschmidt Lisherness
Director, Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry
Interim Director, Presbyterian World Mission


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