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We Are Better Together

A Letter from Jed and Jenny Koball, serving in Peru

April 2020

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A complete stranger changed my understanding of God’s Mission in the world today. About a month ago a faithful Presbyterian from Minnesota introduced herself to me by email. She is a member of a church that I suspect is not too far from the Canadian border. Her congregation discerned a call to support Presbyterian World Mission, and they were intrigued by the work our global partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru (RUMP) has been doing these past twenty years in La Oroya.

To refresh your memory, La Oroya is one of the most contaminated places in the world due to toxic emissions from a lead smelter once owned by a U.S.- based company. RUMP has been working with families of La Oroya for twenty years to secure specialized health care for the people, remediate the lands and ensure such contamination never happens again.

At the beginning of her email, she asked if I had heard of the Swiss mining company Glencore. In recent years, in RUMP’s efforts to address widespread contamination from the mining industry in Peru, it has helped organize the National Platform of Communities Impacted by Toxic Metals in Peru. Among the communities represented in this platform is one from the region of Cusco. The mining company jeopardizing the well-being of that community is, in fact, Glencore. I was not surprised to learn that Glencore is also financing a mining project in Minnesota that has led many to feel threatened by the impact it will have on the environment and human health. So, yes, I had heard of Glencore. But more than that, through a complete stranger’s words, I heard God speaking.

To better understand God’s message to me, we have to go back in time twenty years.

In 2000, Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery (St. Louis, Missouri) accepted an invitation from the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP) to engage in a mission partnership with RUMP. The partnering was a bit haphazard, as members of Giddings-Lovejoy had neither previously heard of RUMP nor of the issues it was facing.

RUMP is a network of Peruvian non-governmental organizations and local churches. In 2000, Peru was rapidly privatizing many of its industries. A national plan to stimulate the economy by strengthening the mining industry had been enacted. Foreign mining companies were buying up previously state-run companies at bargain-basement prices. Among the companies sold by the State of Peru was a metallurgical complex in the Andean town of La Oroya. The smelter was considered the largest and most capable of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere. Its unique smelting process allowed it to expertly refine the seemingly endless supply of minerals being mined in Peru. It also generated thousands of tons of toxins that were pumped into the air each day, poisoning nearly all the children of the town. The impact such toxins had on the health of the people of La Oroya was of great concern, and RUMP discerned a call to accompany the people of La Oroya in their fight for clean air and effective health care.

Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery realized that they had much to learn, so they traveled to Peru to meet their new mission partners. In these initial encounters, they began to gather facts, not the least of which was the identity of the foreign company operating the smelter in La Oroya. That company? Doe Run.

The name ¨Doe Run¨ may have rung a bell at first, but it was not until further investigation that Giddings-Lovejoy understood is relevance. Doe Run was a U.S.-based company with headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. Not only that, but it also operated a smelter in Herculaneum, Missouri about an hour outside of St. Louis within the bounds of the presbytery. To no one’s surprise, the smelter in Herculaneum was also under pressure from the local community because it had contaminated the air and gravely impacted the health of the people. If there had been any doubt about this call to global partnership, it was quickly erased. God had brought them together for “such a time as this.”

I have always understood the coming together of the people of Herculaneum and La Oroya as serendipitous. Unplanned. A fortunate coincidence. Granted, it may have been a coincidence that RUMP and Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery forged a partnership based on their mutual interest in God’s justice both in La Oroya and Herculaneum, but it has often left me feeling that without “dumb luck” such beautiful partnership and mission might never happen again.

The email changed all that. Perhaps her writing was God’s providence, but what it led me to understand is that we cannot wait around passively for good things to happen. We have to make them happen. We have to forge such partnerships. We have to seek them out, and seek one another out! We have to understand that the threats to the people of Peru are the same threats that are experienced by people throughout the U.S., too. Our role as the church–yes, God’s Mission for us – is to bring us all together. To learn together. To strategize together. To serve together. To join hands together. Because together, we are better!

On behalf of our partners in Peru, I thank you for walking with us in prayer, generosity, and faithful service to God, one another, and this world we share.

In Christ,

Jed Koball

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