In Peru, the light at the end of the tunnel still a distant one

Surrounded by desert, mission co-worker finds peace among the plants

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Jenny and Thiago tend their plant garden. (Photo by Jed Koball)

LOUISVILLE — Although the U.S. is slowly returning to some semblance of normalcy, the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel is much more distant for other countries.

In a recent letter to supporters, mission co-worker Jenny Valles Koball sees a stark contrast in Peru, where she serves with husband Jed and son Thiago.

“Jed and I can see how the pandemic is subsiding in your part of the world, and we celebrate with you the newfound freedoms of social gathering that many of you are now enjoying,” she wrote. “Here in Peru, throughout Latin America and across the global South, we still have so far to go. The light is still so distant; the tunnel is still so long. And so, I ask myself, from where will my help come? How do I find peace in the darkness? When will the light shine again?”

Jenny Koball was born in Peru and as a child she found refuge and a kind of inner peace among the plants that surrounded her childhood home.

“When war prevailed around us in the high jungles where I grew up, and later when economic difficulties fell upon my family, I found peace among the flowers, the fruit trees, the vegetable plants and the medicinal herbs that filled the land around us. The colors of the flowers helped me see beyond the black and white versions of life that only serve to divide us. The intertwined prickly thorns and soft petals taught me about our interconnectedness. The fruit of the vine reminded me that when we care for one another, God saves us. God provides. The plants not only gave me comfort, they gave me courage, purpose and hope.”

Mission co-worker Jenny Koball and son Thiago sit in the garden they have created on the 16th floor of their apartment building. (Photo by Jed Koball)

While she can’t pinpoint exactly where her love of plants came from, she believes it may have come from family before her who, by tilling the soil, made it a way of life.

“Perhaps it was passed down through the blood of ancestors long before — those who sought to live in harmony with the Earth before the Spanish arrive,” she wrote. “I still tremble at the thought of those who came not only to conquer a land and its people but to bury its spirit, too.”

Today she works to restore that spirit, not only by honoring those who came before her but thinking about those who will come after, like Thiago, so that he too can know the spirit of the land that surrounds him and find its inner peace.

Like millions of others in Peru and around the world, the past 15 months have been challenging for her family.

“From the 16th floor of our apartment where we have spent most of every day for nearly 500 days, we are able to look out upon the concrete jungle of Lima that is built in the middle of a desert,” she wrote. “There are no flowers or fruit trees, vegetable gardens or medicinal herbs. It is a reminder that those who came to conquer and exploit our people and our land have secured immense power that continues to divide us and generate inequalities. I look out the window, and I see no place to take refuge, to find peace, to find hope. I see so little green.”

Thiago, protected by his mask, finally gets to dig outdoors. (Photo by Jenny Koball)

So, in their own small way, Koball and Thiago have dedicated the past year to creating their own refuge. They have planted and nurtured their own little jungle on the 16th floor of a high-rise in downtown Lima.

“The colors of the flowers tell us the story of God´s diversity. The scent of lavender brings calm to the moment. The feel of the soil between our fingers reminds us that we are part of something bigger. We are part of God’s Creation. Our tiny jungle gives us peace. And it gives us purpose because to plant a seed, to nurture it and watch it grow is nothing less than an act of resistance in the face of the powers that tell us we are anything less than a valued member of our Creator,” she said.

Koball wants everyone to know that she, Jed and Thiago are doing well. Despite the pandemic, they continue to work with PC(USA) global partners in Peru to accompany those with the greatest need.

“Together, as God’s people, we continue to plant, even in the darkness of a concrete jungle, so that God´s garden of hope takes root wherever we may be,” she said.

Jed Koball assists the Peru Joining Hands Network (Red Uniendo Manos Peru). Joining Hands is an initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program that addresses the root causes of hunger in partnership with networks of churches and non-governmental organizations in countries with high poverty rates.

Jenny Koball is the Peru site coordinator for the Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer Program. Prior to the pandemic, they also worked together to host PC(USA) church groups, educating them about the issues being addressed by Joining Hands as well as involving them with hands-on service opportunities.

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