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Uprooting the Weeds and Tending the Garden

A Letter from Jenny Valles Koball and Jed Koball, serving in Peru

April 2018

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I never imagined myself marrying a white man. It was never part of my plans. This is not because I harbored ill feelings toward white people; rather white people were just not a part of my reality. I simply did not know any white people when I was growing up in the high jungle of Peru.

Not until I moved to Lima to go to college did I actually get to know a white person. In fact, the first white people I ever befriended were Presbyterian mission co-workers serving in Peru! (You may know them — Ruth and Hunter Farrell). This was certainly God´s doing, as they left a good impression on me. They helped open my eyes to the love of God that lives inside people who look and sound and often times act very differently than me. I can say with great confidence that without their presence in my life, I may never have opened my heart to Jed. My husband has so much to share with the world, but without eyes to see and ears to hear one can easily miss such gifts in others. For this I thank God for Presbyterian World Mission. It awakened me to a new life. Of course, I myself am now a Presbyterian mission co-worker, specifically the Young Adult Volunteer Site Coordinator here in Peru. But, more than that, I am a Presbyterian!

I have learned quite a bit about Presbyterians over the years and especially since joining the PC(USA). We Presbyterians are a thoughtful people. We like to study and reflect and discuss many things! We want to understand. We want to understand the Word and the world. Above all we want to understand God. We want to know God. Often we work towards this by getting to know one another. We are at our best when we get to know those who are different than us, that is, when we love our neighbors. This is not always easy. It takes practice, humility, courage, and of course forgiveness.

After our first date, about nine years ago, Jed and I both felt a strong connection, but we also knew that the road ahead would be filled with potentially insurmountable challenges if we were not very intentional about the values and practices that would define our relationship. We knew that not everyone would approve of us dating (and not everyone did). We knew that some would actively work against us (and in fact, some did). But more than that, we knew that our life experiences were so radically different up until that point in our lives, that our own lack of understanding about one another would be our biggest threat. And so as a precursor to our second date, we laid down the rules: courage to speak the truth in all things; humility to accept the truth in all things; forgiveness to live with the truth in all things.

Understanding our truths would be the foundation on which our love would grow. And, among the very first truths we both had to accept is that the difference in the color of our skin often shapes how others treat us.

To be honest, I was not fully aware of a different treatment from others until I started walking around Lima with Jed. Suddenly I received privileges that I had never known before. No longer was I followed around a store by a sales person when Jed was by my side. No longer did I have to show my receipt and the contents of my bag to the security guard upon leaving the grocery store, as long as Jed was with me. No longer did I get questioned at the bank about the purpose of a check I was cashing or money I was withdrawing, if Jed was there, too. It was like I was being presumed innocent by association with a white man. The saddest part of it all was that the people who were judging me were my fellow Peruvians — other people of color.

I blame the Spanish Colonizers. At the National Museum of Anthropology there is a diagram that shows the hierarchy of the races during Spanish Colonial times. As you might imagine, the lighter one´s skin the more valuable one was perceived and the more power one had. Of course this is not official policy today in Peru, but these poisonous seeds planted nearly 500 years ago continue to produce thorns and vines that are strangling my fellow Peruvians. They are strangling all of us really. Certainly one is living a spiritual death if they consciously or subconsciously believe they are of less value due to the darker color of their skin, but I also believe it hinders life for the white person who consciously or subconsciously believes they are more trustworthy, honest, or virtuous because of the lighter color of their skin. So, I blame the Colonizers for what they planted, but I believe all of us are responsible for uprooting the weeds and tending the garden.

This is what we are trying to do with the Young Adult Volunteer program in Peru. In our mission to share the Good News of God´s love in Jesus Christ, it is not enough to simply say to our neighbors that they are beloved children of God. Nor is it enough to support our neighbor´s initiatives to escape poverty, to grow their churches, or to access clean drinking water. What is needed is what we Presbyterians love to do — understand! What we need is courageous and humble individuals willing to open their hearts and minds to believe and accept the truths of a people who look, sound, and even act differently than they do. We need holy presence.

It is true, I never imagined myself marrying a white man. I never imagined myself a Presbyterian either! I also never could have begun to imagine the community of saints with whom I now walk — people dedicated to being in right relationship with God and with one another. You are among those people. For the many ways you support me, Jed, the YAVS, our partners and neighbors in Peru, for the seeds of grace you plant — through your prayers, your financial gifts, your voice, and above all your holy presence right where you are — I thank you. Above all, I thank God for this ministry we share, this garden we tend, this Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In the Name of the Risen Christ,

Jenny Valles Koball

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