Acompañar, to accompany.
Shortly before the delegation left for Colombia, our U.S. organizer forwarded the entire group an email from our missionary: an invitation from El Garzal’s Foursquare Church in anticipation of our presence in two Sundays. Would we provide a sermon—joint or solo—since we were bringing along three clergy members? His suggestion was for
a message of solidarity, love, and encouragement from their sisters and brothers of the U.S. in the UCC to this peasant community.”
It wasn’t my decision to make nor one I had experience with, but I was queasy about dynamics.
We were brothers and sisters in Christ; we would have been in country only two days. They had graciously extended the (predictable) offer themselves; we were total strangers parachuting in.
I confided my unease to a couple friends in ministry:
They should be sermonizing us on the Gospels.”
I wondered if a solution for my personal discomfort—which reflected lifelong misgivings around outdated notions of “mission”—might lie in the Quaker-style reflection periods in lieu of a weekly sermon at my home church.
I immediately alerted the fellow delegation members from my congregation that I would be soliciting written greetings from our own members to bring to the Foursquare congregation.
I sent out a separate response to our missionary: could I get an elevator pitch in writing on El Garzal?
My last-minute effort was also a reverse mission of sorts, which must begin before you even depart. Of course, we were a delegation, not a mission; we would add no value so easily quantifiable as building houses, digging wells, or providing medical services. This created difficulty in defining goals for my individual participation and follow-up responsibilities.
My travel expenses were covered by my congregation; I was given the means to accept the unlikely invitation before I even had to ask. In return, I felt duty-bound to create a sense that they were a body sending a representative, not just setting themselves up for the inevitable potluck slideshow of gorgeous children and crude poverty—both equally photogenic—with a brief Q&A afterwards.
I also feared bringing home a sort of socio-political Mad Libs—the Latin American edition. I was the only member of the delegation who had never been, nor desired to be, on a church mission trip. I had no travel or academic exposure to Latin America—at all. I was concerned that without a specificity rooted in some attempt at relationship, I might concoct a quickly-forgettable narrative of suffering, uplift, and outrage complicated by U.S. entanglement, where the blank space for “Colombia” could just as easily be filled in: “Guatemala,” “Nicaragua,” “El Salvador.”
I was ignorant about the partnership itself. As a low-profile lay member, I had never been involved in anything at the conference level. I had heard the name—The Partnership with Colombia—years before. My knee-jerk reaction had been: what did that even mean, given a mind-bogglingly diverse and complicated nation like Colombia?
What would a “Partnership with America” mean? California? The bayou? And Westchester County?
Of course, UCC and Global Ministries resources spell out that the relationship—the power, respect, and mutuality that comes from specificity—is the connection with the CEDECOL Peace Commission and its close affiliates.
Thirteen members of the small congregation participated. With less than a week’s notice, they emailed me letters, brief greetings, and prayers––favorite Biblical chestnuts, and ones they had written themselves. “It’s so us,” I described the submissions to another member with pride—every entry as diverse, individualistic, and thoughtful as our membership. I could have identified who submitted what without ever looking at the names.
The final product likely still sits in El Garzal—where they were very pleased to accept it—untranslated. (There was no time to find someone to do this beforehand.)
There were two scraps of Spanish in the entire thing. I had suggested that members introduce themselves the way they might in person. One woman included, apologetically,
I am 85 years old. When I was 18 I studied Spanish for two years and enjoyed it, but “necesito practicar” before I could write in it!
The other was the cover, blank except for a UCC stamp, the red comma, and the official motto that goes with it, translated:
Dios habla todavia—God is still speaking.
Days later in El Garzal, I was offered the chance to join the clergy at the pulpit to read my introductory letter in the assembled booklet, as a preface for those who would follow. My submission concluded with a telling of the Road to Emmaus story; it turned out that two of the three clergy members had independently prepared their own remarks on that passage as well. Michael would simultaneously translate for us all.
The other American lay leader willing to participate (other than the delegation leader who delivered opening remarks in Spanish) would read a second entry, a prayer written by our music director:
O Holy One,
I ask your strength for the families of El Garzal, especially those who are gathered in Foursquare Church. Send your Spirit upon them that they may have courage and persistence as they seek to stay on their land and continue to claim it as their own. Provide for the needs of the families and give them joy in their lives. This I pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
I took the mic that morning with the customary me llamo __________ introduction, followed by fair warning:
Yo no soy pastora—I am not a pastor—so I apologize in advance if this gets rough.”
I read verbatim my explanation that the booklet was a response to their request for a sermon, from a congregation that shared on and wrestled with the weekly lectionary together instead of having anyone preach.
I told them that the letters submitted aspired solely towards the ancient tradition of one church greeting another, as
we are still strangers. Our holiest mission right now is to greet you, to appreciate your hospitality, to listen and learn (more than speak), to pay attention to what you think we should witness, and to stand in communion and solidarity with you.”
I kept talking anyway.
In response to a troubling comment we had heard at Saturday’s meeting and our experiences thus far, I departed from the text into the immediate tense:
I notice that where Americans say “help,” or “serve”, or aid, in Colombia you say “accompany.” And we hope to walk side by side with you, in addition to this face to face meeting right now.
At the meeting in the field yesterday, I heard a couple of people say things like, “it is so good of you to come here, or, we are so lucky that you came here.” But your leaders are so powerful and your faith is so strong, that you brought us here.”
I went back on script, reading from the booklet again:
As well as peace, another ministry Shalom holds highly is that of fellowship and hospitality.
On the road to Emmaus, two friends walked along in despair. A stranger joins them in lively discussion. After they insist he join them for dinner and the bread is broken, they learn that their hearts have been burning because they were in the presence of Christ the entire time. I have often felt the presence of God through the presence and actions and words of others….
In the letter drafted in Connecticut, the future-tense ending of the closing line was a cordial, …and I am looking forward to being in communion with you in El Garzal.
Standing up in front of the church that morning, it was modified to the past:
…and you have already accompanied me.”
After all the other American participants had finished their greetings, a Foursquare leader took back the microphone to thank us—and God:
it is a good thing to hear from many voices.”
My Corinthian gift will never be the command of a pulpit. I cannot preach like Peter; I can’t pray like Paul. I’ve held my sparse personal (as distinguished from philosophical) moments of feeling confronted with—or assured of the absence of—the great I AM so close and sacred that I do not testify, for or against. I knew going in to El Garzal that nothing I said that morning would linger, with anyone.
My exact words will fade even from my own memory, but I will never forget the astonishment of every breath and space in between. My grain of sand to offer that particular day, my fearsome quota, was the journey in.
Our physical presence was the message delivered, and was not free of gravitas; my feet rooted down heavy to the concrete that morning. I’ve thought often about what we—I—committed to with regards to accompaniment, before we even opened our mouths.
I’ve wondered how we might balance personal and congregational relationships with the civil society power of faith-based, institution-to-institution accompaniment.
The first (and only other) time Salvador was displaced from his home and flock was in December 2011.
Just one day after he brought in an international accompaniment delegation—which included senior-level representation from the United Church of Christ—he began receiving credible reports that men had been overheard discussing plans to murder him. Armed men, hiding behind balaclavas, were reported to be inquiring after his whereabouts.
That foreign accompaniment delegation was gone by the time the threats began; they learned of, but were not forced to witness, the consequences of their visit, to overhear Pastor Salvador break the news to his family.
Since June 2nd, I’ve thought about what we promised with those twenty four hours in El Garzal far more often than is comfortable.