A letter from Dennis Smith serving as regional liaison for South America, based in Argentina
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I’m sick and tired of politics.
But serving for 40 years in Latin America has made me a political junkie!
When I gather with South American colleagues to discuss the challenges facing our partner churches, the question of politics is always on the table. Not so much partisan politics—who won and who lost recent elections—but how is power being administered by the current authorities? What challenges does that present to our church partners? What is the impact on the most vulnerable sectors of society? Is there recourse for the marginalized? Is the rule of law able to rein in violence, corruption and abuse?
In this Advent season it occurs to me that this is just exactly the world into which Jesus was born. A distant power forced a young couple to travel a great distance to register with the tax authorities. A jealous despot ordered the murder of infants. That same young couple had to flee in the dead of night and seek refuge in another country, where they were graciously granted asylum. They return to their homeland only after the tyrant dies. The angels and the Magi helped Mary, Joseph and Jesus survive, but they must have learned to be astute observers of their political reality.
Through the lens of politics, 2016 has been a complicated year in South America. The on-again-off-again peace process in Colombia, impeachment and ongoing corruption investigations in Brazil, deep social polarization in Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. As we begin a new year, the need for grounded, mature voices in defense of peace, justice and the common good is greater than ever.
In November I was invited to sit in on a roundtable session with CREAS, a PC(USA) ecumenical partner that helps to strengthen churches and ecumenical institutions throughout the region. Their highly skilled team is helping a struggling Bible Institute in the Peruvian highlands to design a strategic plan and mobilize local support that will help them to train the church leaders needed today, not those needed two decades ago. This is a project made possible through the generous gifts of PC(USA) congregations. CREAS is also working with the newly elected board of the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in Latin America (AIPRAL) to design their plan of action for the coming years. To see the many services offered by CREAS, see www.creas.org.
The CREAS roundtable is held once every two years. This is the chance for them to meet with their international partners to pray together and discern what the future may hold. The trends we observed in Latin America are not dissimilar to those suggested by recent political developments in the U.S. and Europe:
- Traditional political parties are in crisis and people increasingly distrust social and political institutions.
- The social media have emerged as major platforms for creating meaning. That meaning is not necessarily based on facts. At the same time the social media tend to isolate us from other points of view; we listen mostly to folks with whom we already agree.
- The problems of corruption and the fragility of the rule of law can’t be separated from the power of transnational corporations that have only limited accountability to any nation state.
Climate change affects us every day. Tornados, hurricanes, floods and droughts appear with an intensity and frequency never before experienced.
- Extractive industries—sometimes owned by the State and sometimes by the private sector—use their financial clout to cause devastating environmental damage. Water sources are polluted and agricultural lands are turned into deserts. Water needed for people and for agriculture is diverted to mining.
- Women, children, minorities and immigrants continue to be prime targets for violence; most perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.
- Youth continue to suffer from lack of educational opportunity and unemployment. Addictions are on the increase. This leads to a vicious circle in which youth are criminalized by law enforcement and by the media.
This is the world in which we proclaim the gospel today. This is the world in which God calls us to nourish hope and model justice. This is the world in which the Spirit of God blows where she wills, transforming the lives of broken people and healing hurting communities with the love of Jesus Christ. If you review the newsletters we’ve sent in recent years, you’ll find many stories of how God is working through our partners and through us to transform this troubled reality and sow seeds of God’s Reign.
You are our partners on this journey. During this Advent season we are especially thankful for your prayers and your generous financial support. Advent is a time to reflect on the God who becomes one with us, walks with us, challenges us to love and serve, picks us up and tenderly dusts us off when we stumble. We are so thankful that you are on the journey with us. And if you are new to our ministry, please consider joining us. Your prayers and your gifts strengthen us for God’s service.
Under the Mercy,
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