Being the Stranger
Emily Lasinsky, SE Asia Mission Trip Participant, Spring 2017 (original blog post)
I tend to read and think much about what it means to "welcome the stranger." Being in South East Asia gave me the opportunity to practice being the stranger and receiving hospitality. I learned that it is important to give what we can offer, but how we "serve" should not be used to create or exacerbate a power differential. God is not so much interested in what we give, but how and why we give. What did we give while in South East Asia? Presence. Why? Because when we are still, we open our hearts to listen and receive (from God and others). To say that we gave anything more would be a reflection of the human desire to do something and see results, as if the results depend on us in the first place.
People welcomed us into their homes and openly shared their food and stories. Talk about hospitality and courageous vulnerability! I am a sensitive person in general, but I cried after some of the visits because I felt so blessed and connected. I was a bit perplexed about this felt connection because although we had an interpreter, I could not understand what many of the individuals were saying. How can you feel so in tune with people you just met? The presence of God—the presence that reminds us that we are all brothers and sisters. To be honest, I think we have forgotten about this presence in the United States. Or, maybe we are too distracted to notice it. Maybe the job of this generation is to illuminate this presence and the hope it promises.
Overall, this mission trip encouraged my heart and reminded me that the Kingdom of God is a diverse mosaic. More than ever, we need to open our hearts, minds, and spirits to the colors, shapes, and squiggles that mark our shared humanity.
Hospitality, Strength, and Endurance in Russia
Joanne Spence, Russia Trip Participant, Spring 2017
There is much to say about Russia and Orthodoxy as a result of my welcome and unexpected opportunity to study Orthodoxy in Russia with Dr. Burgess in February/March 2017. I have written at length about the trip, but for this short reflection I would like to share a glimpse of what I saw in the Russian people—their hospitality, their strength, and their endurance. Let me give you a snippet of each.
Hospitality: We visited the small village of Davydovo during the first week of the Great Fast, when observant Orthodox were not eating meat or diary. There were services daily and sometimes twice daily. Yet, the local priest, Father Vladimir (a friend of Dr. Burgess), invited our group of 10 to dinner at his house. He and his wife, Olga, had prepared a feast for us (including meat and dairy), complete with local Russian folk singers and balalaika playing. It was a beautiful feast, a mingling of cultures, and a testament to Russian hospitality and graciousness, despite the great demands of the church season for Father Vladimir and his wife.
Strength: Physical strength was evidenced in how the Orthodox participated in their services. During our brief visit, the shortest service we attended was around two and a half hours, and the longest about five hours—much longer than your average 59-minute Protestant service in the U.S. On top of this, there are no pews. Russians have a practice of standing, yes, for all five hours. Yes, there are one or two benches at the church perimeter, and people do use them for a few minutes at a time. To be fair, not everyone stays for the entire service, but many do. Here’s what the revelation was for me: Standing for the Orthodox is a spiritual practice; it is asceticism. The experience is meant to be hard.
Endurance: During our second-to-last day in Russia, we had a three-hour lecture at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University on Russian Church History in the 20th Century. I was struck by several things from this period. Beginning with the advent of the Revolution in 1918, the Church was severely reduced. Just prior to the Revolution, there were 50,000 parishes, 24,000 chapels, 1,000 monasteries, 60 seminaries, and four theological academies. By the end of 1960s, the Church was reduced to 7,000 parishes, 16 monasteries, three seminaries, and two theological academies (Holy Rus', 33). According to Kallistos Ware, there were more martyrs in the 30-year period following the Revolution than in the first 300 years of Christianity. Clearly, the Church in Russia has endured much. Yet, the signs of life are everywhere.
These signs were never more evident than in the faces of the twenty-something St. Tikhon students who met with our group so they could practice their English. One of them had shared with me that 90 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox, yet only 3 percent attend weekly services. When I asked my new, young friends how they might address this gap, Ivan, one of the young students, said he will reach people by singing beautiful music. Maria wants to reach her fellow Russians though her art. Naydia plans to teach young Russians about their own history through Russian Literature. Each seems eager to shine the light of Christ in their own particular way. I expect it is through these young lives that the power of the great tradition found in Orthodoxy will continue to invite fellow Russians, and indeed the world, to a life in Christ. I know I am changed for the better by their example.
The Holy Spirit at Work in Kenya 2016 - Josephine Kulea
Carmen Lee, Kenya Trip Participant, Summer 2016
Our team spent one Wednesday afternoon visiting some of the girls who have been rescued by the Samburu Girls Foundation. It was a moving experience. The girls we met are enrolled in the Falling Water Boarding School, which is co-ed. As we sat with girls in a circle on the school’s front field, several mustered the courage to stand up and share their rescue stories. Without going into a lot of detail, the accounts included stories of betrothals or forced marriages to men 40 or more years older than the child brides, experiences of rape and beatings, and undergoing FGM or trying to escape the procedure.
But the girls also shared their aspirations for futures better than their pasts. All said they wanted to help others in some way, with several describing a desire to rescue or encourage other girls like themselves. Their career goals included becoming doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, or journalists. A couple said they wanted to become judges who would fight corruption.
After the girls spoke to our entire group, we passed out packets of travel-size toiletries, most of which had been provided by a member of Friendship Community Presbyterian Church. The gifts were an apparent hit as the girls sniffed each other’s lotion bottles or scented soaps and smiled with approval. Our team also took up a collection from among ourselves, which along with donations that had been brought from Pittsburgh amounted to more than $1,000. The funds eliminated the school tuition debt for the year for 11 girls and reduced the amount owed for a twelfth. While the need for the Samburu foundation girls is still great, our contribution was beneficial and greatly appreciated.
Tent of Nations: The Heart of the Gospel
Dr. Steve Tuell, Trip Co-leader
I have used this image before—in advertising for a conference at the Seminary, and in a previous blog—but this is my photo, taken earlier this month, from my first visit to the Nassar farm. These stones were placed at the entrance to his family farm by Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian Christian living in the West Bank, southwest of Bethlehem. Although the land has been in his family since 1916, and has been cultivated by them throughout that time, the Nassar family has been in Israeli state courts since 1991, resisting attempts to seize their land for a Jewish settlement. Daoud and his family host Tent of Nations, a work camp dedicated to fostering peace and understanding among the world's communities. The stones declare the purpose of Tent of Nations, and the commitment of the Nassar family to nonviolent resistance, in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and German: “We refuse to be enemies.”
We could not drive to the farm: settlers have blocked the road with heaps of boulders. So after our bus had taken us as close as John, our exceptionally skilled driver, could manage (driving backwards a good bit of the way, as there was no place to turn around!), we hiked the rest of the way. The view across the Judean hills was spectacular!
Later, Daoud explained to us the meaning of those stones to him and his family. In response to attempts to take their land from them by force or to seize it through government action, how could they respond as Christians? First, they decided that they could not give in, nor could they remain silent: “We refuse to be victims.” Nor, however, could they respond with force, or violence: “We refuse to be enemies.” I thought of Jesus’ own life and teaching—how he freely healed and taught and fed the hungry, refusing to the very end to return evil for evil, violence for violence.
We saw this faith in action. The family had prepared a delicious lunch for us. As we were sitting down to eat, four Israeli soldiers, with weapons at the ready, walked up to the farm. We watched and prayed as Daoud walked down to meet them. They talked briefly, and then the soldiers, clearly puzzled, walked away. When Daoud returned, we asked him what had been said. They were curious, he told us, about who we were—specifically, they wondered if we were Israelis, and if so, what we were doing there. He explained to them that we were Christian pilgrims paying fellow Christians a visit. “And then,” he said, “I invited them to lunch.”
That, to me, was the heart of the gospel—expressed simply and profoundly. “We refuse to be enemies” is not a passive stance, but an active one—we will not respond to violence, we will not be intimidated, we will show hospitality and try to be friends. We will, in short, love others as we God has loved us.
Whole orchards of fruit trees belonging to the Nassars have been bulldozed by settlers claiming that the trees were on their land. So before we left, we planted a few apricot trees. The soil was rocky, the air was cold—I am not sure if the trees will make it. Nor am I sure that Daoud will prevail in this struggle. But I do know that I have met a saint of God—a Christian committed to living his faith, despite circumstances.
Reflections on our Time in Guyana
April Roebuck, Trip Co-leader
During my mission experience in Guyana I participated in a feeding program that caters to seniors. It’s easy to forget about the seniors within our churches and community at large. Gloria is a young lady who oversees the delivery. Every day she goes around the city delivering meals rain or shine. Each meal has a protein, vegetable, and starch along with a beverage. I actually helped with the food prep as well before we went out. The program was great but I don’t want to focus so much on the program more than I’d like to lift up Gloria. Gloria is a deaf and dumb (not able to speak) as everyone kept calling her. However, I beg to differ. Gloria may have been deaf but she surely was not dumb. I do not know sign language but somehow we communicated just fine. We understood one another as if we were speaking with words.
Being out with Gloria I experienced the glory of God. The glory of God is both God's presence and mystery. The only way I can explain us being able to understand one another is through the Holy Spirit. We were one kindred spirit recognizing the other as we were able to share laughs and conversation without uttering a word.
Isaiah 43:7 says that we were created for the glory of God. If our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, this also means to enjoy the glory of God that exudes from those who are different from ourselves. It’s in those intimate moments that we will discover that God is present and requires us to not try to figure things out but to simply behold His glory on earth and within one another.
A Letter to a Dear Woman in South East Asia
Kelli Booher, SE Asia Trip Participant
Greetings from Pittsburgh! After some time of being back home and reflecting on our trip I find feelings of blessed gratitude, prayerful hopes for you, and also regrets that often come with this complex world and religion.
I am so grateful for our time together and how through your story and tour you shared with us so many things that had to be felt and not heard. As you were an orphan yourself, from a minority tribe whose land had been taken away, you lived here in the States for years but felt a longing and call back to your homeland. Not only did you feel the land calling you back, but it was your people too, and specifically, the children who also did not have parents that were on your heart. You moved back and built a large house with lots of land and gardens in a village where the children you care for can go to school and be around their people.
You teach them using both your tribal language and the language of your country, because you have a love for your people and expressed how important language is to knowing who you are, where you come from, and how to truly interpret the location you live in. You beautifully expressed how important it is to you that the Bible become translated in the tribal language because there are words in that language that are more than a single meaning translation and cannot be fully expressed in any other language to really feel the true meaning of that word.
The way you show hospitality and welcome friends and strangers into your home was so effortless that it was noticeable how much a part of you that was and that it seemed to be a part of the tribal culture no matter where we went. At every table we sat down at, mounds of tangerines, star fruit, grapes, roasted soybeans, watermelon, and dragon fruit would begin piling up. Glasses of artichoke tea, green tea, or grape juice would be poured and all of it from your gardens; from your land which is a part of you. The love that you showed and how you would meet a need before it even came to fruition is a true gift that we do not see a lot of in our culture here. Thank you for showing and teaching us these things through your love and actions.
At this point, if you were reading this, I know that you would have already stopped me to tell me that all of this that you have done and showed us is not you but God at work. The most beautiful thing that was felt and seen, not heard, was God’s love in all of this. A call, not just any call, but a pretty big call! To return home, move across the world and not for fame or fortune but to serve your people. To answer that call and to truly trust God in all that you knew he was calling you to do, not only shows your faith to Him, but also shows how faithful our God truly is. You said He brought you this far and that you still dream bigger and bigger dreams because His love is infinite and it isn’t your dream but your call from Him. To see how He has gone before you to your homeland, used you for His greater purpose, and continues to give you dreams, knowledge, and provisions for those dreams is an amazing testament to His faithfulness. Thank you for teaching us this through your love, hospitality, and passion for your culture and people.
My hopes and wishes for you are a continued strength so even in the hardest of times, as I’m sure they are there, you don’t feel you are alone, burnt out, or ever question why am I doing this? I hope that you are able to continue working on getting the Bible translated in the tribal language, as language is so important to who we are. Languages can die, we see that happening here today in the States, but you know the importance of that, to really preach the word of God, it must be a language that speaks to your soul. So I wish for you the means and connections to continue to see that work through. I hope that the children you nurture and love continue to grow spiritually knowing who they are in Christ and who they are as people, a beautiful people.
My last hope for you ties in also with my regrets. Because I hope and wish for you as well as all the SE Asian tribal Christians the means and provisions to do what you feel God is calling you to do. Sometimes, I think we as Westerners on these short-term mission trips take for granted that whatever we are called to do, or think we are called to do, we could eventually find the money, we have the freedom, and we know someone who knows someone who can help. It isn’t like that everywhere else in the world so that means our “calls” or our “ministries” may not look the same. That is very hard for us to imagine sometimes. Church should look like what we think of “church” and being a “Christian” should look like what we think a “Christian” looks like.
We would never say that, but we don’t have to, because we show that in the types of questions we ask you about your church. We show that in how we describe your culture and your cultural religion. We show that in how we organize an attempt to “fix” your problems. We show that in choosing sides among your church leaders with our assumptions, comments, body language, and facial expressions.
So my regrets are, that we were not able to fully empty ourselves of our Western biased culture. I regret not allowing you more time to teach us about your culture and cultural religion. I regret not giving you more time and space to express your dreams and visions of what a tribal church looks like to you and how we can truly “come along side” you to see that come to be. I regret that because of “good intentions” in Christian mission history, when you ask for money so that you can begin a ministry you feel God has placed on your heart, we have to decline and use words like “dependency” and “Western Christianity” to explain our answer. Finally, I regret how the world structure is, that as far as access to money, travel, and education that often constitutes authority, there is this power Westerners carry. I regret that I can’t wish it or force it away, but I also regret that sometimes we blindly carry this “power over” you, instead of carry the “power with” you.
May God continue to strengthen, guide, and provide for you and your ministry within your land and among your people. I pray for you daily and am so thankful for what you have taught me through your love, actions, and stories of hardship in your life and currently in your ministry.
With love and love in Christ, peace to you.
Living Out One’s Faith in the Midst of Difficulty
Barbara and Hetz Marsh, Israel and the Palestine
We have recently returned from a World Mission Initiative trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, where we met with Christians who are faced with multiple problems as they live as Palestinians in a land controlled by Israeli Jews. There are three major faiths present in this land where conflict has been a part of its history. We heard Christians tell their stories of attempts to live as Christ would have them live, even though their daily experiences challenge this goal. Their stories reflect the depth of their faith. They were inspiring, calling us to recognize their struggle and to wonder what our response should be. The following story powerfully illustrates what it means to live out the gospel.
Sami Awad is a Palestinian pastor in the West Bank who felt challenged by Jesus’ words to “. . . love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you . . . ” (Matt. 5:44, Today’s English Version). When a pastor friend of his in Richmond, Va., asked him who his enemy is, he knew immediately. The Jews who live in the Settlements of the West Bank take up land that, according to the Oslo Accords, should belong to the Palestinians. Mr. Awad, though hesitant, took up the challenge of his friend. During his first meeting with someone from one of the Settlements, he found an Israeli Jew who, though that man believes that God wants the Jews to possess the land as a divine right, God also wants the Jews to treat all peoples with righteousness. He apologized to Mr. Awad for the Israeli Jews’ failure to do that. This was the beginning of many friendships that Mr. Awad is forming with Jews from the Settlements of the West Bank. They do not always agree on what God wants, but they have found a way to respect one another. “When anyone is in Christ, he is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends, and gave us the task of making others his friends also” (2 Cor. 5:17-18, Today’s English Version).
Sami Awad’s story is only one of many that we heard from Palestinian Christians. They are a gracious, hospitable people who opened their homes and their hearts to us. They acknowledged the anger that they experience as they are designated as second class citizens; as they have to get a permit to pass through the wall which separates them from places of employment, from school, from holy sites that they would like to visit; as they experience destruction of their legally owned property; as they feel humiliated by the way they are treated. In spite of the anger, however, they have rejected violence and sought ways to seek justice through the courts, through meeting others who can hear their stories, through building schools that teach reconciliation through God’s love.
Our reaction to their predicament was one of deep sorrow. They experience what we observed as oppression, resulting from laws that are burdensome and attitudes that imply that Palestinians are a people to be feared and avoided. If we were treated as they are treated, we hope that our faith would be as strong and that we would react with love instead of hate. Our response is to tell their stories to others, to advocate for them in the efforts toward peace, and to pray for their well-being in this land so full of conflict. “For he is our peace, who has made us (Jew and Gentile) both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility . . . ” (Eph. 2:14, RSV).