Critical Presence Is...

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As we begin our time together this morning, I would like for each of you to travel with me to a remote, isolated and extremely poor village in the northwest region of the Republic of Mozambique in South Africa, where Global Ministries is engaged in mission with our partner in that country, the United Church of Christ in Mozambique, and where I had the opportunity to visit just seventeen months ago, accompanied by our Africa executive, Rev. Sandra Gourdet, and my co-executive in Global Ministries (my identical twin), Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte.

To be exact, it was Sunday morning, April 26, 2009.  After traveling from Zimbabwe in a pickup truck for five hours, most of the time on a bumpy dirt road, we finally arrived at a community in the middle of the forest known as Goi Goi.

In Goi Goi, according to the schedule for the day, we were to participate in Sunday worship with the local congregation, followed by a meeting with the local pastor, the national leaders of the church in Mozambique and some of the lay leaders of that small congregation.

Worship that morning was held outdoors, … under the shadows of a huge tree, simply because a rustic chapel built by missionaries 50 or 60 years ago was no longer usable due to the devastation caused by years and years of civil war.

That morning, about 60 persons gathered for worship, including some who had traveled on foot for 4 or 5 hours, …not only to worship, but also to meet and to welcome our delegation.

Under the shadows of that big tree, we worshipped God that morning with hymns and dance and prayers; we worshipped God by reading passages in the Portuguese language from the same book we call the Bible, and we worshipped God that morning by reflecting on the good news of love and salvation from the same God we believe in … by the redeeming power of the ONE we both call Jesus.

After worship that morning, we walked about 500 yards to a location where, under the shadows of another big tree, we met with the pastor and other leaders of that congregation, … followed by a simple lunch.

Of all our experiences that Sunday of April 26, 2009, there is one ---- just one ---- that I would like to share with you in some detail this morning.

When I heard that we were going to have a meeting with the pastor and other church leaders following worship that morning, it was immediately very natural for me to put-on my Global Ministries church executive hat in preparation for a typical church business session.  Especially, I prepared myself for a meeting where proposals and requests were to be presented to Global Ministries, specifically in search of financial assistance for the ministry of that congregation in that community.

Indeed, just a few minutes into the meeting, the convener opened a big blue folder and began to introduce a document describing a plan for the building of a new chapel to house the local congregation, a plan to expand a water well project that was vital for that community, and a plan for the construction of an educational facility to serve not only church members, but the entire population of that region.

At the end of his presentation, the convener looked at the three of us who were representing Global Ministries and, after a brief pause, he said: 

“Brother David, Sister Sandra and Sister Cally, … the only thing we want to ask you this day is to pray with us about these projects and dreams.”

Sandra, Cally and I looked at each other like saying, “Oh yeah,” … and remained silent for a moment; then, still using my church bureaucratic hat, I said to the whole group:

“Of course, we will pray for all this; … but do you have an idea of how the cost for these projects will be financed?”

The answer was:

“No, we don’t know; we don’t have an idea.  That’s why we need to pray together about this.  That’s why we are asking you to join us as we present these to God in prayer.”

On several occasions during that hour-long meeting, my Global Ministries colleagues asked again and again the same question, … using different wording with the same intent, but to no avail.  The answer was the same again, and again and again:

“What we need from you,” they insisted, “are your prayers as we present these plans and dreams to our God.”

And friends, to our surprise, that was the only request we received from our sister United Church of Christ in Goi Goi, Mozambique, that afternoon; … that was the P-R-O-P-O-S-A-L.  Just that; … just that.

We left the Goi Goi village that afternoon at about three o’clock; and, as we headed back to Zimbabwe on another long trip on the same bumpy road we had traveled earlier that morning, … we began to realize that the proposal we had just received that day from our brothers and sisters in Goi Goi was, indeed, much more than a proposal. Much more than a simple request.

During the past six years, we have been affirming (and you have probably already heard this several times during this training) that for Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, “Critical Presence” is and must be our number one priority in mission, … with the understanding that “Critical Presence” means “to timely and appropriately meet God’s people and creation at the point of deepest need,” … whether that deepest need is spiritual, physical, emotional, or financial. 

We have also said, again and again, that our engagement in “Critical Presence” ministries does not always take the same form, neither seek the same results everywhere, … but that “Critical Presence” is to provide accompaniment (“acompañamiento”) to/with our global partners in various forms and modes of presence which …

  • sometimes may consist of supporting pastoral ministries related to fear and hopelessness where people are desperate for meaning;
  • sometimes may require walking the walk of those who are experiencing dangerous or life-threatening situations related to social, economic or political realities;
  • sometimes may require our support of partners living in countries wherein the Christian faith is a minority faith;
  • sometimes could happen through the affirmation and encouragement of interfaith relations;
  • sometimes may occur as we provide the necessary expertise for conflict resolution or transformation, … or for capacity-building and health care;
  • sometimes will happen through the facilitation of economic alternatives which empower the powerless within the human community, giving priority to the poorest communities and those in turmoil;
  • and sometimes (and that’s why you all are here this morning) that “Critical Presence” becomes a reality when we help facilitate the engagement of local congregations and other church settings in global mission and ministry.

Throughout the years (especially during the last six years), that is how we have described the different forms and modes of “Critical Presence” as we try to fulfill Global Ministries’ mission commitment “to a shared life in Christ and to an ecumenical global sharing of resources and prophetic vision of a just, sustainable and peaceful world order, joining with God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed.”

That’s what “Critical Presence” means to us; and that is the way we understand and experience our witness in the global community these days.  In this regard, let me share at this time some personal experiences..

During the past six months, I have had the opportunity to visit churches and ecumenical partners in six countries:  Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, China, South Korea, and the Philippine Islands.  In each of these countries, our “Critical Presence” priority takes a different shape in different circumstances.  For instance, “to timely and appropriately meet God’s people and creation at the point of deepest need” in South Korea means to walk hand-in-hand with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and other Christians working for the reunification of the two Koreas; or it means to help provide an oasis to immigrants, including counseling and other assistance to women brought into the country to serve as “entertainers” (meaning prostitutes) for soldiers on US military bases. 

In the Philippines, that “Critical Presence” means to help rescue thousands of families from the Smoky Mountain garbage dump in the heart of Manila – God’s children living in subhuman conditions – and/or to provide “acompa┼êamento” for pastors and other church workers of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines who are risking their lives seeking justice for peasants and other citizens who are victims of human rights violations. 

In China, “Critical Presence” means equipping a new generation of pastors and lay leaders from a church that experiencing an explosive growth; to respond to the needs of families accidentally infected with the HIV virus; and/or to join the reconstruction efforts in communities still suffering the effect of an earthquake that caused devastation two years ago. 

In Johannesburg, South Africa, “Critical Presence” means to continue helping save the lives and the future of children and youth through the ministry of the Bridgman Center in the community of Soweto, and/or to help equip the new pastors and church leaders for a post-apartheid era.

In in Zimbabwe, “the point of deepest need” requiring our Global Ministries’ “Critical Presence” these days is the United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe’s initiatives and commitment being about national healing and reconciliation that may lead the country toward a democracy.

And in Haiti, “Critical Presence” means to help rebuild a country demolished on January 12 of this year by a horrible earthquake, … being aware that, before January 12 and for many decades, Haiti has been immersed in the worst misery of the western world.

These are just a few examples of what it entails these days “to meet God’s people and creation at the point of deepest need.”  But, that is not all, friends.  That is not all which “Critical Presence” entails.  “Critical Presence” is a journey that continues to bring surprises to each of us as we try to respond faithfully to God’s call to mission.

What we learned in the remote community of Goi Goi in Mozambique on Sunday, April 26, 2009, is that “Critical Presence” is also to pray, not just to pray for but, more importantly, to pray together with our sisters and brothers in the global community as they present their concerns, their pain, their needs, their plans and their dreams to the same God we worship. 

More than a proposal or a request, what we heard from the church in Goi Goi that Sunday afternoon was a reminder to the three of us, who were representing Global Ministries, that the relationship between that faith community in Goi Goi and our church in North America is not a contract arrangement between a recipient and a giver, or between one who is in need and one who has resources to help, … but a sacred relationship, a partnership between two branches of what is supposed to be one sole vine: Jesus the Christ.

What we had just heard that afternoon in the midst of that African forest was a much needed reminder as we engage in God’s mission in the twenty-first century. What we heard that afternoon was a reminder to Global Ministries, as the mission arm of two so-called mainline denominations in North America, that our call and our vocation is not simply to be open to the possibility of being merciful, compassionate, hospitable and loving to others, as if we were a welfare agency, … but rather to be sure on every single day of our existence that, as a church, we are nurtured by the same vine that nurtures their faith.  If that is the case, then there would be no doubt in the mind of those we relate to that the fruit of our common faith has to be          Peace, Love, Justice, Mercy, Freedom for the captives and for those who are oppressed, Compassion, and all those fruits of the Spirit for which there is no law.  (Galatians 5:22 and Luke 4:18)

As you continue this training to become solid and faithful Ministries and Mission Interpreters for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, please do not forget the proposals and the invitation of our Christian family in Goi Goi, Mozambique. Please remember that “Critical Presence’ is also to learn to pray, not just for, but more importantly, to learn to pray together with those who have dreams, who have plans for a better day in their lives, as if those dreams and plans were also ours.   

Amen, and amen.

 

David A. Vargas
Global Ministries’ MMI Training
Cleveland, Ohio
October 2010

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