True Fasting and False Charity

 

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Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah 58:6-7

Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.

I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt. 

~Pope Francis

In modern Mainline Christian circles, fasting during Lent has become a practice of “giving up” some favorite food or favorite non-food vice. There is nothing wrong with this, but the prophet Isaiah reminds us that true fasting is a deeper practice than merely abstaining from certain foods, social media addictions, or other harmful habits.

True fasting requires service to God and to others, as well as recognizing that our ways of living may be depriving the poor and oppressed of their very lives. It requires solidarizing with and accompanying these marginalized peoples in their daily fight for survival.

True fasting requires real reflection about how certain human systems—political, economic, environmental, social—continue to torture and to kill our marginalized brothers and sisters. It requires us to ask, “What are the bonds of injustice and the yokes in our world?”

As we walk with Christ to the cross, true fasting requires us to ask, “What is the cross of Christ in our own time? Who is being crucified, and how, and why?”

The cross of Christ has taken so many forms throughout history. From the arenas of the late Roman Empire to the lynchings of the American south, from the assassination of Archbishop Romero to the victims of the CIA’s torture program, Christ has met death and pain in many places—for it is in these suffering places and suffering people that he promised, and warned, that He would be with us.

In 2015, El Salvador experienced the driest wet season in living memory, a situation that has led to widespread hunger and socioeconomic desperation for subsistence farmers that rely on rain-fed agriculture. Scientists concur that this drought’s strength and duration are almost inevitably a product of an El Niño exacerbated by climate change.

The cross of Christ is now empty silos and stomachs. The cross of Christ is miles of dry corn, scorched by a lack of rain. And the body of Christ is now Earth itself—her polluted, extracted, crucified body made one with His—and the bodies that starve as our Mother bleeds to death on the altar of unregulated late capitalism and economic self-preservation.

In response to this crisis, and in the ancient tradition of true fasting written of by the prophet Isaiah, we invite you to participate in Our Sister Parish’s first-ever Lenten Solidarity Fast.

Please consider giving up one meal a week with your family and donating the money you would have spent on that meal to Our Sister Parish’s Food and Fertilizer Fund,[1] which will help our subsistence farmers purchase both basic foodstuffs and fertilizer so that they can once again plant their crops in May.

Please also consider purchasing a Lenten devotional, “The Fast that Pleases the Lord,” written by members of the Pastoral Team and other lay religious leaders from Berlín. Let the lives and the crosses of the poor inform your Lenten walk.

But even if you choose not to fast or reflect with us this Lent, I invite you to fast from something far more pernicious than chocolate or Facebook.

I invite you to fast from false charity.

I invite you to fast from charity that believes giving to and interacting with the poor should always make us feel good.

I invite you to fast from charity that does not allow the poor to challenge us about our privilege, power, and wealth because of this desire for charity to make us “feel good.”

I invite you to fast from charity that thinks we know better than the marginalized and oppressed what they need in their own communities.

I invite you to fast from charity that requires only giving money or gifts—and that does not reflect on what systems, power dynamics, or public policies cause the poor to need our charity to begin with.

I invite you to fast from charity that does not require repentance from our participation (willingly or not) in these same death-dealing systems, power dynamics, or public policies.

I invite you to fast from charity that costs nothing and does not hurt. That asks us to merely rend our clothing—rather than truly rend our hearts.

I invite you, in other words, to fast from charity as usually conceived, and instead to embrace solidarity: to find ways to build deep relationships with the poor, to empathize with their struggles, and to involve ourselves—and our bodies—in those struggles as much as we can. Even when, and especially when, that solidarity costs us something—or even when it costs us everything.

After all, that’s what Jesus did.

A blessed Lent to all of you.

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To purchase a Lenten devotional, please stop by the Presbytery of Des Moines office or contact them via email or phone.

[1] Yes, this is separate from individual churches’ funds for their communities: it is a general fund that will particularly help those communities without a partnership, but could be used for any community in need of aid.

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Photos of the Week, 2/1-2/7

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The new truck has a new veranda, making it safer and more comfortable to ride in!

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A meeting in El Tablon…

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…which included snacks. 

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A wedding in Cantón Virginia on Sunday. There were at least 500 people in attendance!

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Congrats to Ana and Humberto, the bride and groom!

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The after-party.

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The chaos in the kitchen. Yes, the Pastoral Team was invited to attend the wedding and they ended up cooking and serving the food. That’s just how they are. 

And finally, a bonus video: getting out of the cantón was difficult, seeing as we were parked in and the car in front of us got stuck. Thank God for Salvadoran grit!

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Your Weekend Reading #1

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Photo credit: Jan Sochor / Flickr. Via Jacobin magazine. Retrieved 2/4/16.

I know you, America: many of you spend a lot of time on the internet on the weekends, catching up on news and social media accounts. I therefore present to you this new blog series in which I recommend things that you may want to read from Friday-Sunday between bouts of watching sports, cleaning your house, chasing after your children and/or pets, reading books, and playing video games on your phone. Some of these articles and blog posts will be about El Salvador, while others will be more about the underlying beliefs and philosophy of our work. But I’ll try to make them interesting, in any case. Enjoy, or at least be enlightened!

~

First and foremost: many people have been asking me about the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness that causes flu-like symptoms and has also been linked to microcephaly in newborn infants whose mothers had this illness while pregnant. The bottom line is that yes, it is still safe to visit El Salvador, as long as you are not currently pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the near future. In fact, El Salvador’s government has recommended that no women become pregnant in El Salvador until 2018–an understandable, though entirely implausible, piece of advice. If you’d like to read something short but through, “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus” is perfect.

For those seeking more information about the virus and its real-life effects on the communities that we serve, I recommend “How Climate Change Could Spread Diseases Like Zika,” and “The Abortion Rights Dystopia Brought on by the Zika Crisis.” Regardless of your stance on abortion or reproductive rights, I encourage you to read the latter–and read it with real empathy towards poor women in Latin America who may have to live in fear of becoming pregnant for years to come.

Many people think that the best solution to most of El Salvador’s problems–gang violence and extortion, high rates of unemployment, a depressed agricultural sector–is to provide people with work, particularly in the manufacturing or garment industries. There may be some wisdom to this, but as “Capitalism Won’t Save El Salvador” explains, this well-intended solution may be empowering the gangs even more:

At the same time, it isn’t clear that local business leaders are entirely victimized by their dealings with the gangs. Even as they pay the mandated protection tax, disturbing evidence suggests that in some cases local businesses partner with the gangs to keep employees from organizing and advocating for their rights. A report issued earlier this year by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University detailed apparent connections between local garment factories and the gangs.

“It is an increasingly common practice of Salvadoran employers to retain the services of gang members,” its authors argue, “when trying to eliminate the presence of independent union organizing.” The report details a number of incidents in which gangsters intimidated, threatened, and physically attacked workers attempting to secure their rights.

Maybe you’ve heard that the USA is sending aid to El Salvador to combat this gang problem, as well as provide jobs and increase tourism in the region. Think that’s a good idea?  Well, maybe not so much. In fact, “Experts Say U.S. Aid Package To Central America Is Backfiring Big Time:”

“One big concern in this increase in funding is a lot more security assistance — $349 million is going to the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI),” Main said.

Main has described CARSI as a “multilateral cooperation mechanism that is notoriously opaque, leaving the public and members of Congress with little idea of where and how funds are used.” He said that the CARSI funds continue to go to the Northern Triangle even though there have been “countless reports of abuses” by police and army forces.

Your theological reading of the week (don’t be scared–it’s relatively short and to-the-point) comes from America magazine: “The Climate Crisis and the Counter-Apocalypse.” Nathan Schneider brilliantly explains how American Christians’ lack of impetus in responding to climate change is based in some deeply-rooted and deeply-destructive theology–theology so deeply rooted in the American psyche that we barely notice it–that enforces the belief that massive crises are a necessary part of human history. As Schneider explains, these beliefs are also a function of relative socioeconomic privilege:

Those who long for crisis, and who imagine that it is necessary, betray their privilege. They are willing to believe crisis is needed because, on some level, they know they’re well-positioned to ride the tremors and come out ahead. Those who long for crisis, and who imagine that it is necessary, betray their privilege. They are willing to believe crisis is needed because, on some level, they know they’re well-positioned to ride the tremors and come out ahead.

Don’t worry, he also explains how we can re-imagine and re-center our theology in order to better respond to the climate crisis–which will eventually affect us all.

Finally, in “The Suicide of the Liberal Church,” Chris Hedges argues that Mainline churches may be in decline because of their fear of truly solidarizing and speaking out with the poor and marginalized. I do not think that our collective failure to live up to Christ’s exhortations in Matthew 25 and Luke 4 is the only reason why Mainline churches are failing to attract members, but I find his thoughts compelling:

The self-identified religious institutions that thrive preach the perverted “prosperity gospel,” the message that magic Jesus will make you rich, respected and powerful if you believe in him. Jesus, they claim, is an American capitalist, bigot and ardent imperialist. These sects selectively lift passages from the Bible to justify the unjustifiable, including homophobia, war, racism against Muslims, and the death penalty. Yet there are more students—2,067—at the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary alone than at the divinity schools and seminaries of Yale, Harvard, Union, Vanderbilt and Chicago, whose combined enrollment is 1,537.

The doctrine these sects preach is Christian heresy. The Christian faith—as in the 1930s under Germany’s pro-Nazi Christian church—is being distorted to sanctify nationalism, unregulated capitalism and militarism. The mainstream church, which refuses to denounce these heretics as heretics, a decision made in the name of tolerance, tacitly gives these sects credibility and squanders the prophetic voice of the church.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

 

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Photos of the Week, 1/25-1/31

But first, a plea to those of you who live in Iowa on the day of your caucus.

El Salvador experienced the driest wet season in living memory in 2015, a situation that has led to widespread hunger and desperation. Climate scientists indicate that this was most likely due to an El Niño strengthened by anthropogenic climate change. Salvadorans alone can do very little about climate change as a global problem, seeing as most carbon emissions come from larger, industrialized countries and regions such as the United States, China, and Europe. We simply cannot let this continue, nor can we continue to live in communal denial about it.

We would never tell you who to vote for; that would clearly be unethical, and we both respect and appreciate that there are people of all political affiliations involved with this mission. But we implore you: please consider voting for only those candidates who understand that anthropogenic climate change is real and threatens the very fabric of human civilization. There are viable options across the political spectrum.

What we ask for is not political, because insisting that Christians defend the hungry, the oppressed, and the marginalized is a central tenet of our faith–and climate change is only creating greater hunger, oppression, and marginalization. As Blessed Oscar Romero once said, “Those that cannot speak, those that suffer, those that are tortured, silenced, interest the Church. It is not political. Politics is simply touching the altar, is touching morality, and the Church has the right to speak her word of moral orientation.”

Vote wisely. The lives of Salvadorans you love depend on it.

Love,
The Pastoral Team of Berlín

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This is Oscar, one of our scholarship students. He’s from Santa Cruz. He loves writing poetry and was invited to compete in a state-level poetry competition last year!

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Just hanging out in Los Yánez.

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The Pastoral House is getting a new paint job!

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Some young friends in Los Yánez.

 

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It’s Not Socialism. It’s Christianity.

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All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. [Acts 2:44-46a]

Last week, a newly-organized committee of 30 families in the community of Las Delicias invited us to a meeting. Opening the doors of their beautiful community church, they served us juice and sweet bread: the hallmarks of Salvadoran hospitality. After a short prayer, their leaders informed us that they convened this meeting in order to thank us for the small bag of fertilizer we gave them in 2015, purchased with proceeds from the Don Justo Coffee project.

They lamented that much of the fertilizer went to waste—most of the corn crop was destroyed by a severe drought brought on by a climate change-strengthened El Niño—but were incredibly grateful to us nevertheless. So grateful, in fact, that they had decided to donate a small portion of their already-small 2015 corn harvest to the Pastoral House, in the hopes that we could sell it and use the proceeds to assist us with house maintenance costs and projects for other communities or donate it directly as food aid to people who have none.

While some communities have been donating small portion of their harvest to the Pastoral House every year for many years—completely of their own volition—we were not expecting this to happen this year, given the losses that people suffered due to the drought. But Las Delicias is not the only community that has decided to continue with this practice in the face of additional hardship.

This morning, we visited the community of Los Yánez. Despite being one of the poorest communities we work with, they are always incredibly generous to us. In fact, this small group of people—just 20 families—gave us more corn than any of their much larger neighbors. “We’re happy to help!” they told us.

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As Blanca always says, “There’s always enough for everyone when we share.” The whole Pastoral Team of Berlín believes that. These Salvadoran subsistence farmers in Las Delicias and Los Yánez, most of whom lost 90-95% of their corn crop last year, also believe that.

The first Christian communities believed that, too.

Some people believe that having “all things in common,” communal redistribution of income and resources, or giving to all “as any have need,” is socialist, Marxist, or communist.[1]

It’s not. It’s Christianity. It’s one of the pillars that the early Church stood upon, organizationally and relationally. It’s in the Bible. Really. Go read it.

We who have so much have so much to learn from people who have nothing. There will be enough for all when we all learn to share.

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[1] Not that there’s anything wrong with being a socialist, Marxist, communist, or leftist, or even being a Christian socialist, Marxist, communist, or leftist.

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Photos of the Week, January 16th-24th

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7th & 8th grade students in Mediagua receive 2 notebooks from their partners at Art for El Salvador. The government did not have funding to give older children notebooks, pens, or pencils for the first few weeks of the year. Clearly, they didn’t have enough for uniforms, either.

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Blanca speaks to a group of our scholarship students about the responsibilities of being a student, the dangers of paying more attention to our phones than our homework, and the importance of continuing their education. 

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It’s already extremely dusty and dry here in Berlín–and the rainy season will not arrive until at least May!

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We delivered a wheelchair to our friend Omar, who lives in San Isidro. The people of Covenant PC were kind to respond to his needs for a new one–his old one had no brakes and was too small for him!

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Cecilia and Judith clean ears of corn outside of Judith’s house in Las Delicias. We were there to meet with the Pastoral Committee, but her mother was kind enough to feed us all lunch!

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The Heartland Presbyterian Church Delegation

Feliz Año Nuevo, everyone!

I am excited to get back to blogging; I have some interesting new ideas that I hope will bring new energy to this space. But first thing’s first: we had a delegation here last week from Heartland PC, and I wanted to share some photos with you! Thanks to the delegates for the time and effort made to travel here, the communities of Tablón Cerna and Tablón Centro for their hospitality, and to the Pastoral Team for their organization.

It was a hard week in many ways: these two communities shared with openness, trust, and vulnerability their struggles to feed themselves this year due to the drought, and then subsequent excessive rain, that ruined their corn and bean crops, respectively. But there were moments of joy and celebration, too.

More and more, our work at Our Sister Parish will be exactly this: finding ways to accompany the people of El Salvador and to bring them moments of happiness during the ongoing crisis, but also listening deeply to their needs and advocating for them whenever and wherever we can. Last years’ drought is likely only the beginning. Climate change is here to stay, and we must find ways of helping our Salvadoran brothers and sisters face these dramatic changes that threaten their very survival.

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The Heartland delegates were kind enough to help us break in our new truck!

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The delegates also visited the Military Museum in San Salvador, which provides a very different side of history than that of the Museum of the Revolution in Perquín. This museum houses the “Popemobile” that Pope John Paul II used during his two visits to El Salvador. 

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This is what an excess of rain does to beans: they essentially rot on the stalk. Most farmers in Berlín lost their corn to the drought and their beans to excessive moisture in 2015.

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Riding in the new truck is a lot of fun! Lots of room for more friends!

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Juan, a leader in Tablón Cerna, poses with two plates full of home-cooked Salvadoran food.

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The delegates visit the water project in the community of Alejandría. 

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The delegates visit homes in Tablón. 

 

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