1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The wisdom of the world tells us that where we are from matters. It is a wisdom that defines us and divides us because it gives value and power to some and takes it away from others based on where we were born, where we grew up, and where we live. This has been my story, and it is a story that echoes throughout time. It is also a story that Jesus came to re-write with a new wisdom: a divine wisdom of justice, equity, and unity.
I grew up in a small town in the high jungles of the Amazon. At age sixteen I moved to the big city of Lima about 30 hours away in order to continue my studies. Before leaving, my mother said to me, ¨Jenny, lose your accent. You don´t want anyone in Lima to know that you are from the jungle.¨ It is true, people from the Peruvian Amazon have a very distinct accent. It is a beautiful accent! Those who hear it for the first time often say it sounds like we are singing when we talk. That is what my mother thought when she heard it for the first time. She was born and raised in Lima where she met my father and later moved to the jungle, so she knew that people in the big city of Lima would tease me and even discriminate against me if they found out I was from the jungle. They would consider me less sophisticated, less capable, less virtuous, but above all just less than them because they saw themselves as closer to earthly powers. I trusted my mother because she has always fought for the most vulnerable and even more so for me, so I did as she said and taught myself to stop singing my mother tongue.
But such protective ways can play to the wisdom of the world. Learning to change our identity falls into the trap of the empires of this world. This is what colonization has done to my people and many more peoples across time from Babylonia to the Roman Empire to the Spanish Empire to the globalized world today shaped by white supremacy ideology. We define one another in part by where we are from and how close we are to earthly power, and when we are geographically and culturally far from such power, we learn to protect ourselves from those who are close to that power. We learn to change our ways. We learn to lose our accents. We let pieces of ourselves die. We live in anticipation of Good Friday and never even imagine an Easter Sunday.
And so, in today’s gospel story from John, it matters that visitors came all the way from Greece to Jerusalem not just to celebrate the Passover but to meet Jesus. And it especially matters that when the visitors from Greece arrived to Jerusalem they sought out Phillip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. And it matters, too, that Phillip confided in Andrew who was also from Bethsaida, a place far away from Jerusalem which was the center of power in the region – a power that would ultimately arrest, condemn and crucify Jesus. It matters that these were the ones who sought out Jesus and followed him, and it matters that these were the ones who Jesus walked with. They were not from the big city. They were not from the place of power. They were outsiders. They were not the ones who thrived in the empire. They were the ones whose ears perked up at the sounds of a new wisdom that Jesus sang. They were the ones who were ready to imagine a new day.
In time I adjusted to life in Lima. I lost my ¨jungle¨ accent. The problem was I never picked up a ¨Lima¨ accent. Many fellow Peruvians to this day will say I have no accent at all, and those who meet me for the first time often think I am a foreigner in my own land. If the wisdom of the world tells us that where we are from matters, how am I to be valued by others if they cannot place me? At the same time that I lost my accent, I also began to lose my love for the place that raised me. As I lost my identity, I also lost purpose and yearned for God´s call on my life.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, ¨Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.¨
Ironically, it would be a family friend from the jungle who would direct me towards God´s chosen path for me. He introduced me to the Red Uniendo Manos Perú, a global partner of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and he helped me get my first salaried job with them. The RUMP was addressing systemic poverty and other injustices attributed to globalization. I learned how places like where I grew up were often negatively impacted by development practices that help grow big cities like Lima and sustain powerful countries like the US. Later, I would be invited by the PC(USA) to be the Site Coordinator of the Young Adult Volunteer program in Peru.
I relished the opportunity to work with twenty-something year olds from the US to help them better understand and respond to the ways in which globalization and white supremacy give them more power in the world compared to their Peruvian contemporaries. While I worried that they would not take me seriously because of where I come from, over time I learned that the bigger threat was not their attitudes rather those of my fellow Peruvians who too often placed them on a pedestal because of where they came from. For this very reason, we are working to integrate Peruvian young adults into the YAV program in Peru so that young leaders from both places of power and places deemed less worthy can free themselves of the wisdom of the world and embrace a new divine wisdom.
Like the wisdom of the world, the wisdom of God also tells us that where we are from matters. But in God´s wisdom, it matters not because one place is more valuable or less valuable than other but simply because it is sacred. Because ever place is sacred. Every place in God´s Creation matters. God calls to each of us and to all nations to sing with joy the language of their land, not that we might sing more powerfully or more loudly than others, rather that we might rise together and sing more harmoniously in unity and love.
PRAYER: God of all nations and tongues, free us from the discord of worldly wisdom that gives powerful voice to some and silences the identity of others, and tune our hearts to sing in harmony of a new day of justice and unity throughout the land.
Jenny Valles is a PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker serving in her home country of Peru. Born and raised in the high jungles of the Amazon, Jenny moved to Lima to study business and secure a better future for her family. It was there that she was introduced to PC(USA) global partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru and discerned a call to social justice and inter-cultural work. Today, Jenny serves as the Young Adult Volunteer Site Coordinator in Peru where she thrives in accompanying young adults from both the US and Peru in discerning their own vocations as they work alongside partner organizations in decolonizing the church and society. Jenny continues to live in Lima today together with her husband Jed and their son Thiago. She is a member of Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus, OH.