Two weeks ago I was in Ayacucho, Peru. It was election day and many people were traveling that weekend, since Peruvians face a fine if they fail to appear for voting in the district where they are registered. Many social controls are put in place, such as a prohibition of alcohol sales throughout the weekend. But in spite of a law forbidding public gatherings of any kind during voting hours, many churches chose to disregard that stipulation and held worship services as usual. Or, in the case of congregation Emanuel of the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church in Peru, with a slightly unusual aspect: visitors from the PC(USA).
Emanuel is a congregation composed largely of Quechua speakers, people who work in agriculture in the surrounding area or in shops in town. We sang songs both in Quechua and in Spanish, and by the time the service got going, the sanctuary was comfortably full, and we who were visiting received a warm and generous welcome. I was honored by an invitation to preach that morning, and it was an experience of firsts: not only the first time I preached in Peru, but the first time I preached with an interpreter.
Preaching through an interpreter can be a tricky business. Those of us who preach are often inclined to use clever, creative language or draw out fine nuances, which may or may not be translatable or even decipherable for the generous man or woman who is serving as interpreter in the moment. And then there’s the critical question of timing—breaking everything down into small phrases so that the flow in each language isn’t lost in the periods of translation in between. All this before even worrying about the content! Fortunately, thanks to some solid advice from mission co-worker Sara Armstrong (who is much more experienced in preaching in such communities and circumstances) and some concepts I’d gleaned from serving as an interpreter in other settings, things went pretty well and smoothly, as far as I could tell—the only Quechua I understand are the words borrowed from Spanish (which is fascinating in itself, to see which concepts were adopted from the colonizing culture)! It led me to reflect on the miracle of communication–how amazing it is that we are able to express our needs, hopes, faith, and struggles, not only in our own languages but also from one language to another, through patient listening and careful interpretation or translation.
It was a tremendous blessing to be able to share the living Word with the congregation that day. Even though they are not particularly tied to the liturgical calendar, I chose to preach an Advent sermon—but I did take the liberty of using a text from last year’s lectionary, the Song of Zechariah. It is a text that I find profoundly moving, a song of thanksgiving and an expression of radical hope and confidence in God’s promises. In the end it speaks of the promise of guiding light, which is something we seem to need in all times and places. Advent is a time of active waiting, an opportunity to glorify God through our lives, preparing ourselves to serve better and more eagerly as co-creators of the Kingdom (or Kin-dom, or New Reality… however you like to call the promised, intended order that was inaugurated with Christ’s incarnation).
There is plenty of work for the church to do today, not least of all in Peru. Most all of the members of Emanuel church have been affected by the violence that plagued Peru in the 1980s, and the Shining Path guerrilla group appears to be gaining strength once more in the high jungle not terribly far from Ayacucho. I am still learning about the history and impact of the violence in Peru, and the work that is being done to seek healing and peace, but the parallels with the situation of the longstanding conflict in Colombia are striking.
So in my sermon I chose to take my main illustration from the life of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, and one pastor in particular. (That is one of the exciting benefits of working with partner churches in different contexts, the opportunity to introduce them to one another and facilitate sharing resources and experiences.) I hope the story I shared conveyed something about the way God can use us to reach out to our neighbors in times of need, the way a tough personal choice to follow the biblical call to stand on the side of justice can build and inspire others to also take bold steps in faith.
I was deeply moved by the opportunity to worship with Emanuel church that day, to share in the unity of the church and to encourage one another in discipleship. The guiding light that comes to us in Jesus sometimes shows us a difficult, dangerous, or otherwise undesirable path. And yet through faith we can trust in the tender mercy of our God, who does not leave us to walk the path alone. With joy and blessing we are able to walk together in human community and with the constant guidance and accompaniment of the Christ.