“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he (sic) can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
I think it was early July when I received an invitation to write this blog post for Unbound’s series on God´s Mission for the Church. I accepted eagerly, almost immediately, thinking “I’m a mission co-worker! Of course I’ve got something to say about God’s Mission! I’m going to tell you all about what´s happening in Peru! Who wants to hear?!”
And indeed, I had a whole piece worked out about restoring the broken relationship between humans and nature. I was going to talk about the church’s historic and misguided anthropocentric theology and the false interpretation of Scripture that misunderstands “dominion” over creation as “domination” of creation, thus establishing a launching pad for systemic oppression by conquerors throughout time, leading not only to the utter exploitation of the Earth but in so doing breeding the evils of racism, sexism, nationalism, slavery, genocide, and on and on and on.
I was going to propose a re-reading of Scripture, starting with Genesis 1, to hear that everything in all of creation is just as “good” and valuable as we humans are, with equal purpose and promise – to glorify God and have abundant life – thus, silencing any attempts at the dehumanization of others. I was going to suggest a theology and politics and practice of ‘harmony’ and ‘balance’ over ‘progress’ and ‘development’, in the interest of living into the beloved community of all creation. Suffice it to say, I had an agenda.
I can say with great certainty that my agenda today is not what my agenda was seven years ago when I first arrived in Peru.
And then the weeks rolled by. My agenda was formulated, yet there was a tugging inside me that prevented me from putting it on paper: Laziness? Procrastination? The Spirit? My initial deadline of mid-July quickly passed. The end of July approached with my promise to get my blog into the editor before turning the calendar. Alas, the final, final and ultimate deadline arrived – this morning.
I think what has been eating at me is the very notion of actually having an agenda and furthermore supposing that my agenda can even be associated with God’s mission. Seems just a little pretentious, no? What I can say with great certainty, however, is that my agenda today is not what my agenda was seven years ago when I first arrived in Peru. I think therein lies the more interesting story and perhaps some helpful insight into what God´s mission is for us today.
At this point I should probably make clear (if it is not already terribly obvious) that when I speak about God´s Mission for the church today, I am largely speaking to a particular expression of the church – the church in which I grew up. Presbyterian for sure, but more so very white, very middle-class, very North American, very uniquely positioned in the world. In other words, I am largely speaking to the ‘white moderate’ that Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses above in his words from that Birmingham jail. I am speaking to myself. Perhaps in this context, I am speaking especially to my overeager, agenda-bearing self seven years ago.
I want to be known as a helper. I want to be useful to the cause. “Help me to help you!” – that was my mantra when I arrived in Peru. You’ve got concerns? I’ve got connections!
So, how did I get where I am today – geographically, theologically, spiritually, emotionally, politically? Because – thanks be to God! – I am in a very different place than I was seven years ago. One might argue that I am a different person today than I was then. I prefer to think of it as more fully me. This is not to be confused with more correct or more righteous or more holy or even more evolved. Rather, what I’m trying to convey is something along the lines of more fully alive – as if a part of my being, my soul, has been awakened or touched for the very first time – more fully the person God intends for me to be.
It’s important for me to note that I was invited to Peru. The PC(USA) does mission in partnership. We have global partners around the world, and in Peru one of those partners is the Red Uniendo Manos (Joining Hands Network), which works to address systemic root causes of poverty. They invited me to accompany them in their struggle.
Now, for all the Enneagram folks out there, I have most recently tested as a Type 2 – Helper. I used to be a Type 9 – Peacemaker. I guess I care less now about not rocking the boat, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “absence of tension”, and I simply want to help. More deeply, I want to be known as a helper. I want to be useful to the cause. “Help me to help you!” – that was my mantra when I arrived in Peru. You’ve got concerns? I’ve got connections! Just let me write an email, send a text, post it on Facebook and Twitter. The revolution may not be seen on television, but certainly it will come alive on your cellphone screen – in high resolution no less!
It was the first time I had ever been tear-gassed. Not so for our Peruvian partners.
About six months into my first year in Peru, our partners invited me to participate in a protest march. The U.S. State Department had sent a letter (which can be read on wikileaks) to the then President of Peru, suggesting that he take action (even by force!) to silence a group of indigenous peoples protesting recent Presidential decrees that were passed by the Peruvian Congress in order to facilitate the implementation of the U.S.–Peru Free Trade Agreement. Two days after receiving the letter, the President ordered the State Police to open fire upon the unarmed protestors, killing several and initiating two days of violence in the region.
The protest march in which our partners invited me to participate was a response to this attack – seeking to denounce State violence and call for peaceful dialogue. We were among ten thousand people marching that day along streets lined with police dressed in riot gear. It was the first time I had ever been tear-gassed. Not so for our Peruvian partners: the quick solutions they offered on how to escape the thousands of protestors in front of us who were now running towards us and away from the gas assured me that this was not their first time being subject to such treatment.
A few days later, our partners invited me to participate in another protest march in a different part of the country. That day we were a much smaller group protesting for the enforcement of environmental regulations on a U.S. mining company that was poisoning the environment and putting the health of the local population at risk. I was the only white person in that march, which (along with my height – 6’4″ is not often seen in this part of the world!) made me easily identifiable. In my naiveté and eagerness to make friends, I was also quick to hand out my cell phone number. Thus, it should not have been a great surprise the day after the march to receive the first of several anonymous death threats. Again, our partners made me feel safe as they told me it was simply a fear tactic – assuring me that they had dealt with this before. They were right. Nonetheless, I took their sage advice and changed my daily routines and my cell phone.
We will know the blessings of God when we choose our partners wisely – and remember that they have chosen us, too.
Almost two years passed before my next great scare. While painting a mural about caring for God’s creation together with a group of youth in the highly contaminated town of La Oroya – where the people’s health and livelihoods are also at risk due to the mining industry – we were approached by a mob of at least two hundred men from the mining company who called us agitators and tried to run us out of town. This time it became violent. They threw rocks and later punches. We escaped, due once again to the sage advice and wisdom of our partners, who always seem to know just what to do in such situations. Experience is not to be taken for granted.
I came home from this close call questioning my purpose in Peru. I questioned my role. I questioned my calling – God’s calling upon my life. I questioned God’s mission. And all these questions were littered with doubts and anxiety – attacks that woke me up in the middle of the night, wondering what it means to be alive in this world. This experience that was just par for the course for our Peruvian partners shook my privileged, ‘white moderate’ self to my very core, existentially and spiritually.
The thing is, God never abandoned me. To the contrary, on the other side of this experience my faith has never been more important, my beliefs more unshakeable, my adoration more complete. I became utterly and undeniably dependent on a just and merciful God because I simply don’t know how else to live, to be alive.
This experience that was just par for the course for our Peruvian partners shook my privileged, ‘white moderate’ self to my very core, existentially and spiritually.
In the end, is that not exactly what our jealous God wants from us – even expects from us? Or, am I still stuck in the shallow end of understanding?
Last night, unable to sleep (though this time, thankfully, because I was thinking about writing this blog), I started to flip through TV channels on and came across a recent episode of I Am Cait. (Go ahead and judge me if you want. Or better yet, judge the U.S. entertainment industry for what it chooses to export around the world!). At any rate, I had heard about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman and her new identity as Caitlyn, and I was intrigued.
After a few minutes of watching, I was surprised – perhaps even impressed! Caitlyn (and/or her producers) had surrounded herself with a group of transgendered women – activists and academics – who, without the privilege of the fame and fortune afforded to Caitlyn, had fought for years for the rights of transgendered people in the face of discrimination, unemployment, violence, and more. They made it very clear to Caitlyn that if she is to be a spokesperson for the transgendered community, she must come to know and understand at a profound level the deep struggle of those who make up the community.
I became utterly and undeniably dependent on a just and merciful God because I simply don’t know how else to live, to be alive.
I realized, strange as it might sound, that as a mission co-worker accompanying our partners in Peru, I was living in something of a similar situation. I could identify with Caitlyn’s moments of resistance and defensiveness, and I was inspired by her apparent commitment to partnering with her new friends in learning how to take action – direct, appropriate, and meaningful action.
One of my earliest lessons in the church was that there is no greater blessing in life than to choose your friends wisely – and to remember that they have chosen you, too. I think the same may go for the partnership through which we are able to engage in God’s mission: we will know the blessings of God when we choose our partners wisely – and remember that they have chosen us, too.
Wherever you are; whatever your context; whatever the conflict; whatever the injustice; whatever the outrage: choose your partners wisely. Remember that they are choosing you, too. You may be surprised at who they are. You may be even further surprised as to where they will invite you. And the greatest surprise of all may be the awakening of your very soul. A soul that, if it’s anything like mine, may not even realize that it’s still asleep.
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Jed Koball is a PC(USA) mission co-worker who serves as the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Facilitator for Joining Hands in Peru. He serves with his wife, Jenny Koball, who is the site coordinator of the Young Adult Volunteer Program in Peru.