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Mission co-worker says COVID-19 shows the need to answer the Matthew 25 invitation

Tracey King-Ortega is grateful for the ways PC(USA) has responded to the overwhelming need

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Tracey King-Ortega in Cartagena, Colombia, during a consultation with Latin American and Caribbean partners. (Photo by Valdir Franca)

LOUISVILLE — Tracey King-Ortega was recently asked to preach virtually on Matthew 25 at her home church, St. Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

As she reflected on the Scripture and the ongoing global pandemic, she realized that COVID-19 is like an x-ray that has exposed the most vulnerable in every part of the world and brought into stark relief the importance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation.

King-Ortega, World Mission’s regional liaison for Central America, has lived in Latin America most of her adult life. Her time there has had an impact on her understanding of Scripture.

She said a key tenet of Latin American theology is God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

“Throughout scripture we see how Jesus sought out ‘the least of these,’ talked to them, touched them, ate with them, treated them with dignity and invited them into community,” she said. “As we read in Matthew 25, on the final day of judgement, the question asked is simply, ‘What did you do for the poor and needy?’”

For the mission partners in Central America she has worshiped with and served, this is the lens through which they interpret the Bible. They analyze what is happening in the world and ask what Scripture has to say about it.

“How does the Bible help us to understand what God is calling us to do? And in particular, they look to see how the poor and vulnerable are being further impacted and marginalized because they understand that the gospel directs us to bring good news to the poor.”

Another way her experience in Central America has taught her is to think about systems, about power, systemic violence and poverty — all traits, she believes, of our current society, and the antithesis of what God desires for God’s people.

“Christ teaches us not only to show compassion through individual acts of charity but to also challenge and change the structures that oppress,” she said.

She asked herself, who are “least of these” Christ refers to in Matthew 25?

Currently sheltering in place in the U.S., like others sees staggering unemployment, increased demand on food pantries and essential workers who are bearing the brunt of the virus because they can’t stay home. She also sees how the coronavirus has exposed racial divides in the country.

“People of color are being hit the hardest,” she said. “Those impacted most by the virus are those who have always been on the margins of our society. If we are paying attention, not only do we see great suffering around us, but there are patterns to it. Our systems and structures are not working for most.”

She continues to work virtually with partners in Central America and follows closely how the pandemic is impacting Latin American society. It varies by country, she said. Costa Rica has done a good job of containing the virus with restrictive measures and universal health care. Both Honduras and El Salvador enacted strict lockdown measures to try to prevent the spread, but the economic impact in already impoverished communities is a huge burden. In El Salvador, some families have taken to placing red or white flags outside their homes to indicate that they have no food to eat.

“Just as we are seeing in the United States, the impact of this virus is not even. The poor are being hit the hardest. It is a privilege to be able to stay home and social distance yourself as a protective measure,” she said. “The challenge sheltering-in-place brings to the working poor, dependent on today’s earnings to feed their family today, is part of the justification of not implementing quarantine measures in Nicaragua. The official government numbers are not reliable, but the devastation is undeniable and there is no end in sight.”

King-Ortega said she is grateful for her denomination and the way the PC(USA) has responded, in tangible ways, from solidarity grants given by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the work of partners like the Presbyterian Church of Honduras and CEPAD (Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua) who are doing all they can to help during the current crisis.

“We believe in the promise that God has great plans for us. This current extended pause provides an opportunity for us to take stock, to rethink what church looks like, what ‘normal’ life will look like as we slowly start up again,” she said. “Perhaps God is doing a new thing and we are invited in. Our mission partners in Central America are asking the same questions and there is hope in that. I pray that we envision together a post-COVID world that is more faithful to the principles of God’s realm. I pray that we can be a church that recognizes Christ in the face of ‘the least of these’ and responds in meaningful transformative ways.”

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