… trees get this …

Kathy and I heard a sermon about the Sermon on the Mount this morning.  Jeremy Duncan talked about the meek and the poor in spirit. Jesus was upending the power arrangements of the world as we seem to have them. There is a different way!  He was saying that the meek really are those who are trodden upon, who have lost their place.  God, he said, is for them!  Poor in spirit are those who are spiritually bankrupt. The confused. Those who have no clue. God is for them! Even if we remain confused our entire lives … God is for us. There is nothing conditional about God’s embrace. God is near us, even if we never, ever ‘get it right’.  And that, he said, is enough.

Maybe ten years ago or so, our friends, Charles and Cindy Petkau were moving back to Bolivia. They stopped in to see us in Calgary and dropped off two little spruce trees, each about 18 inches tall.  A kind of babysitting arrangement for a couple of little seedlings. They didn’t want them back but we also knew we didn’t have a permanent spot for them on our limited urban yard space. Spruce trees become big and we already had 4 trees taking up significant room on our yard so we planted the two little toddlers on the front yard, not far from the healthy, loud, established and assertive 40-foot-tall Spruce already dominating that part of where we live. fullsizeoutput_43a8

A few years later, Kathy got me a Christmas gift. A book called the Hidden Life of Trees. Peter Wohlleben.  I had no idea. I know pretty much nothing about trees except that they grow, provide shade, food, shelter, beauty, oxygen; so initially I thought the idea of a hidden life inside and among trees and other plants … a bit whoozy.  Trees don’t talk to each other!!  Plants are cells and molecules banded together to whatever their DNA destines them to be. Right? But Wohlleben writes about communication. Community. Trees make room for each other. They look out for a weaker one among them. They have an intuition about which of them need to do well in an area, how to resist pestilence and disease … . They grow up in communion with each other?? Sap travels. The root systems send out signals and the community takes shape accordingly. I found all this a bit of a stretch.  A farm boy from the 50s and 60s in Saskatchewan, I understood plant life pretty much as vegetation to be planted, managed, harvested. Wild brush and forest … well, mostly there to be tamed … enjoyed, yes … and maybe harvested.

When we moved into our house in Calgary, back 23 years, the older Spruce was already about 30 feet tall.  Right beside it, the previous owner had planted a kind of willow bush.  Not tall, but bushy. It took up room, almost underneath and into the side of the Spruce branches.  Eventually the Willow became a bit much and we cut it down.  It was then we realized that the Spruce had shaped itself around the Willow, giving the Willow room to develop. To that point we hadn’t really noticed the formation. The branches of the Spruce, rather than simply push their way through the Willow, which is what I had expected them to do, had shaped themselves in large halfmoons around the Willow. Kind of like a 20-foot embrace. Removing the Willow had left a gaping void on that side of the Spruce. Not pretty.  But only four years later, the Spruce branches have moved into that gap, so that by now the Spruce looks pretty good and the void is almost entirely filled in.0lNOGMeAR8aln+B1gAdqLg.jpg

But back to our little spruce toddlers.  The one didn’t do well and a couple of years after planting it, I dug it up and shredded it.  The other one is now about 7 or 8 feet tall. It’s in excellent health, but since returning home a month ago after being away for most of the spring and summer, I’m noticing that the branches on the side facing the tall, older Spruce are becoming woefully short and stunted and what had been a pretty well-rounded and full set of branches is rapidly becoming a bit of a lopsided-looking tree.  The smaller tree is not pushing its way into the bigger tree. It’s pulling back.  The older Spruce is also pulling back, away from the younger one. What is fascinating is that they know to do this without actually touching each other.  Like they’re talking to each other. IP94cDElSkifE4PTLaeSnA.jpg

So … does any of this matter? Trees and how they cooperate?  I’m an amateur. Well, not even. I don’t know anything about trees. But if this little dance on our front yard among a Willow, a giant well-established Spruce and a newcomer Spruce is any indication of what happens in any forest or orchard … then we live in a much more interesting, far more intelligent, more compassionate and more connected world than I had thought.

And if trees and other plants intuitively communicate with each other and look out for each other for the better health of the larger forest, how odd then that we who are thinking and conscious human beings go to such great lengths to write rules and policies, build walls, stockpile guns and other weapons … wrecking havoc with the lives of our neighbors rather than profitably making room for each other. Most people, whether secular or in any faith group know this. Plenty of political and even religious leaders don’t seem to, but our human and divine DNA craves the goodness  of a caring community.  Jesus calls all of creation to himself, is all about creating space and safety for newcomers and strangers, and is for the meek and the poor and those who don’t quite have it together.  ‘That’s the Gospel’, said Jeremy Duncan!! Even trees apparently get this!!


… you can choose …

The UNHCR is posting a FB page inviting signatures of who will ‘stand with refugees’.  It reads, ‘we need compassionate Canadians …’.  It’s popped up a few times over the past week or so; on one of the feeds, 5 of 8 comments are harsh and negative, all bordering on nasty.

A few days ago, Phil Bender posted a cartoon. Phil lives in Bolivia. The cartoon, all words and in spanish, went something like this. A very rich man, a laborer and a recent immigrant sit at a table with 1000 cookies to share. The rich man takes 999 and says to the laborer, be careful or the immigrant will take yours.  And that, apparently, reflects a lot of what we see and hear these days. Five out of 8? I hope not. Almost a feverish clamouring about rights, about poor people threatening our privilege and security, about those of us who came earlier, losing our entitlements. MLpKUu5aSo6gCzJAMO+QXA

In an article someone wrote about western evangelical Christianity, wondering how it’s possible that many Christians who say they follow Jesus’ teaching and who sing him songs of praise on Sunday mornings, and who presumably believe that his sacrificial death is also their call to sacrificial living, seem, these days to be the ones most loudly saying we should not be feeding the hungry, the stranger should not be welcomed nor given to drink, the poor should not be clothed, mothers and children should be separated from each other (James Dobson seems to have no trouble with this), for months and perhaps for much longer in cruel and utterly inhumane conditions, those in prison should not be visited. It’s the opposite of any and every thing Jesus said and did … Matthew 25:31 to 46 as just one example.

Carol McNaughton, Peace Coordinator for MCC Alberta gave me a book before I left for Bolivia last March.  Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck.  It’s fiction, but I’m pretty sure it represents much of the experience of refugees in most countries these days. It’s the endless story of a retired professor from formerly East Germany who bumps into a group of Africans, arrived as refugees. He doesn’t know anything about them, but wants to write about them. The story is him meeting them, over and over again … connecting over little interests they might have, learning how deadly demoralizing the process of ‘letting them in’, or ‘maybe not’, always over some detail of their stories, and the horrific stories of loss that they tell him in bits and pieces … because they have nothing else to do. Some will be sent back to Libya, Nigeria, Ghana. Some will be sent back to Italy over some admission formality, which is where most of them initially landed.  None of them can work. They receive a small stipend while they wait, living first in tents, then in one temporary place after another. Without meaning to Richard becomes a friend to some of them.umKxW0rKTcWf0rokgx9x7A.jpg

At one point Karon says to Richard, ‘if I can’t stay in Germany after the interview, where can I go.  Where can I find work in Italy? How can I feed my mother and siblings. Where in the world is the place where I can lie down and sleep in peace?  I have no wife and no children,’ he continues. ‘I am small. But the problem is big. It has a wife and many, many children.’ Richard also hears Germans say how ‘incredibly generous it is of Germany to take in so many refugees. The Africans have to solve their problems in Africa’ … they say.

On my way to Bolivia back in late last March,  I was sitting in the Toronto Airport, thinking I should be sleeping, but not able to, even when I laid down on the floor for an hour. Years ago I remember being in Montevideo with Nestor Perez, on our way back to Santa Cruz from a gathering of Southern Cone Anabaptist church people. We had to overnight at a bus station; it was chilly and the floor was tiled. We didn’t sleep then either. So … while a lot of this giant Toronto airport does sort of shut down for a few hours, once you find your way to the E gates, there is a vast atrium of desks or tables … kind of a cross between a very fine eating area and a work place. Each table – there must be hundreds – has a little pay machine perched beside a mounted ipad on which you can check your flight status or order food and drinks from one of many food places that will serve you.  You pay there, right under your nose, sitting and maybe finally dozing a little in a very comfortable chair. Maybe they will soon have little cots around the edges with pull-down curtains so the hundreds of travellers who choose to hang around the airport rather than find their way to an expensive nearby hotel … can get some sleep.  But even without the cots it’s an amazing  convenience; so beyond the floor on the other level.Jw%IrjKDSGG96ThCH5GLFQ

Between my various attempts at napping, I read an article in TIME magazine about slavery … slavery today.  (TIME, March 14, 2019, Aryn Baker. The Trade in human beings thrives on the road to Europe.) European leadership win elections these days, campaigning to keep the immigrants and refugees from Africa out. Not many, anywhere, will campaign on bringing them  in.  But in places like Nigeria, Libya, Congo, Ghana … other places … life is so difficult that men, women, and children try anyway, and they become especially vulnerable because of their desperation. Vulnerable to the sea, to those who smuggle them, to entrapment. Literally, in Italy, there are paperless Africans working farmers’ fields, because they fell for the lure of wages only to learn that almost all of what they are paid for a long-day’s work goes to paying for the food they consume and the transportation to and from the field.  They are left with virtually nothing. This has been going on for many years, largely driven by organized crime but condoned by government.  There are literally auctions in North Africa as desperate people find themselves in ever more desperate situations. ‘According to labour unions and community leaders, Italy’s largely hidden community of Sikh migrant workers – estimated 10,000 – are increasingly vulnerable in some of Italy’s biggest food-producing regions.’ (theGuardian.com. Modern-Day Slavery in Focus.)

I’m back in Calgary now, but a few days before I left for Bolivia, Orlando had reminded me of my privilege.  Our privilege.  He wasn’t speaking particularly to me, but he might as well have.  Well, probably he was. Even in the world of altruism and service, it’s easy to see who has the relative privilege of experience. Orlando had reminded someone else of the privilege we have, we of the ‘dominant culture’ …  ‘to choose who we will talk to, when we will speak, and what we will say’.  He has been in Canada for over 30 years and still knows this personally. It’s a delicate and precise comment loaded with truth about how the world runs.  The article about slavery, and Go, Went, Gone may have nothing to do with racism (hmm, for sure they do) but they have everything to do with desperation and what people will submit to when they are desperate enough.

Phil’s cartoon maybe exaggerates a bit. 999 to 1?  But it doesn’t matter. Jesus would identify with the worker and the refugee. Richard, in the book, begins, slowly, to understand how almost impossible their lives are and how daunting any way forward. Matthew 25 speaks to those who profess the Jesus who was and is unconditionally about and for all those on the margins, of whatever faith, culture or orientation, and who gave up all rights and privilege and entitlements and suffered with them … .  As Orlando says, we can choose.


… the crowd erupted …

When you represent a mission, an organization or any employer,  you are usually a bit conscious of that relationship. If you are not, it’s easy to get the organization into trouble, or more to the point, yourself with the organization. Important as the formal or informal protocols of that relationship are, if the work is relational, people work, as almost all work is, then it’s also important to sometimes give up the positions we occupy so that we are people, rather than positions or resumes working together.  The other day Brad R posted an article about a recent incident at the Vatican. It’s published by Americamagazine: the Jesuit Review.   Pope Francis was giving a weekly general audience when a 10-year-old girl walked out of the audience and approached him at his chair. Rather than ask her parents or his staff to restrain the girl, he told his security detail to ‘let her be. God speaks’, he said, ‘through children.’ The crowd erupted in applause.RMOolnZUQ9uHnAy71gR40A.jpg

It’s a good story.  The Pope holds an important office; he’s a very busy person and he has an audience waiting. A young girl interrupts him, he allows the interruption without becoming impatient and reminds himself and his audience that she needs to be welcomed.  The audience, who might have been annoyed, weren’t. They applauded.

Is the audience reaction surprizing? No impatient indignation? Post any redemptive story like this on social media and people cheer. Every human being knows that this is good and while not all, most people are glad when we see goodness among us. My old university friend, Raj, would at this point have said, and ‘where do you think that universal hunger for goodness comes from?  Only from one place’, he would say. ‘A God who is good, and whose DNA is inside every human being, no matter of what faith or culture’. (The exception these days, Donald Trump, sadly and strangely, seems to have little if any taste for genuine goodness.)

The Pope also talked about praying for the girl, who, it turned out is autistic. And praying for her parents.  Her family.  When we see a person suffering, he said, we must always pray. He also talked about the early church and how they cared for each other to keep away the ‘scourge of poverty.’  Communion, he said, became the new way of relating among the followers of Christ and was expressed in the sharing of material goods. Meaning, we help each other. We go out of our way for each other. ‘The stamp of the saint,’ said C.S. Lewis, ‘is that he/she forfeits their own rights on behalf of the other.’ ‘The sharing of goods,’ Pope Francis said, ‘is far from being an activity of social assistance, but rather the indispensable expression of the nature of the church, the tender mother of all, especially the poorest.’  In fact, our salvation depends on this … on our personal interest and caring for each other.IMG_3399

Layton Friesen is Conference Pastor of the EMC (Evangelical Menn Conference) of Canada.  In a recent article in the EMC Messenger he writes about ‘Saving our Souls by Feeding the Poor’, a reading of Matthew 19:16-22.  The rich young ruler has kept all the laws, he says, and still asks Jesus what he must do to be saved.  Jesus tells him to sell his goods and give the money to the poor.  He says similar things in at least 9 other places recorded in Matt and Luke, writes Mr Friesen.  The one that comes most quickly to my mind is Matt 25:31-46 where Jesus is pretty clear in saying that unless we are looking after the widows, those in prison, those who are hungry, those without clothing and shelter … we are in fact out of line, and God doesn’t know us; these actions are not optional to anyone.  It’s that sheep and goats metaphor and there’s no ambivalence in the message.  Layton Friesen acknowledges that our salvation is a gift of grace, but he adds that our response to that abundant grace, according to the words of Jesus ‘is feeding the poor, without which there is no conversion.’

My guess is that it doesn’t really matter how many biblical texts, theological discussions or organizational mandates we can pull out or quote about service and grace and faith and the various beliefs we like to think Jesus requires of us … ; it really does come down to the personal. Feeding the poor and looking after children and widows and visiting those in prison can be and usually is much better managed by institutions, including the church. Without such management and planning, a lot of our commitment and compassion goes up into chaos and flames. But within that reality, compassion has to be personal.  Otherwise, I’m not sure it’s anything. Jesus constantly stepped over the lines of religious protocol … to connect. The 4 Gospels are full of those stories.veDfKJqBRByjmZCbiZulug.jpg

I worked for many years with MCC, an organization – now pushing 100 – that exists to help the poor.  It’s why MCC was started back in 1920.  Over the years we have become quite proficient.  We have websites that promote what we do, lots of donors, compassionate and excellent partners in more than 50 countries, volunteers in most of those countries, and we have sophisticated program plans and ways to monitor and evaluate them to know if they actually help … both overseas and all over North America. The verses in Matthew 25 that talk about caring for the widows, the homeless, the poor, those in prison … MCC is about those verses.  All of this is good and important, but I’m pretty sure every MCC worker also knows that unless they are personally interested or have a connection in the story, the person, the community, the inmate … supporters and those with whom MCC works around the world can smell the distance.  It’s why those people in Pope Francis’ audience applauded his little interruption; aside from delivering a normal weekly message, which surely they had come to hear, he had become one of them.  He had stepped out of the protocols of his office … into the personal. They saw that and they felt it.  Just … the welcoming of a child.  And that, I am pretty sure is what the kingdom of heaven is about.





… loose ends … thank you, Bolivia …

Alfred Lloyd Tennyson wrote ‘I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades Forever and forever when I move. How dull it is to pause, to make an end.’

Years ago, at a meeting in Akron, some senior MCC administrators were sitting with Lowel Detweiler on what was near the end of his time with MCC.  He had been in one or another leadership role for about 30 years and so we asked if, in leaving, he might leave us with some last words. A final wisdom.  And all Lowell said to us was this: ‘none of you will finish what you are doing’.  His comment has always stayed with me. He didn’t explain it.  Just left us with it, but to me, it says at least two things: 1) it really isn’t about us. It’s about our participation, along with all the others.  And 2) everything carries on, in one way or another and our need to finish things, to wrap up and package what we work on or play with … is kind of an illusion.  We are part of something much bigger, much longer, and our experience of it is brief.1sPFAtyXSNqTbSM5qZ9uRA.jpg

Someone else once felt the need to say the obvious: ‘age doesn’t just come with years.’  When I was  8 or 10, I think I barely knew I had a body.  I was just waking up.  At 15, like every other teenager, I was thoroughly confused and well aware of my body.  At 40 I began to see that mid-life is not young life and that getting older kind of relentlessly sneaks up on you.  Since then I’ve added almost 3 decades and have experienced some health issues along the way that have made me more conscious of my body than I wanted to be. We were meant to live inside our bodies, but I’m not sure we were meant to be so conscious of our them, nor even of how it all sneaks up on us.

I was 4 months into a short (for me, excellent) assignment with MCC and low german speaking Mennonites in Bolivia when one of those health issues emerged to remind me of this aging thing.  I’m back in Calgary as of two weeks ago hoping to sort this out and as a result, finishing, at a distance of 9000 km, various reports and projects that come with work assignments like this. I was fortunate to have visited 40 Mennonite colonies (part of the assignment). I had also been able to visit specific places and people I had hoped to see during these few months back in that place where Kathy and I had met in the 70s, and where we, with Ryan Adrienne had lived for part of the 80s and half of the 90s. Still, for all that, I left Bolivia with a bit of a ‘loose-ends’ feeling.   KKtbXutkSpWVNAv3RYWHfQ.jpg

Most of those ‘loose ends’ are people with names. A short assignment makes almost every encounter, every visit feel like a bit unfinished; thoughts are be shared, ideas may see the light of day in conversation but never really hatch, an acquaintance is made that has no chance of becoming anything more, good wishes are left without following up … because, well, you are only there for a short while and the chance of a second or third connection isn’t high.  At the end of those meetings, maybe even faspas with entire families, it’s always a bit unsettling because it’s kind of ‘unfinished’. Most likely, I wouldn’t be back. They knew it.  I knew it.

Gerhard, another MCC worker and I had travelled to visit some colonies near Yacuiba, just north of the Argentine border with Bolivia.  We stayed with different families for a night, but before heading out to catch a bus back to Santa Cruz, we had supper with a family of 8 children. A pleasant visit.  They had finished milking and feeding the cows. It was already dark since the sun sets soon after 6, and they hurried to prepare an evening meal. The dad is a farmer, school teacher, self-learned veterinarian, self-learned emergency medical person in the colony. The older children can already do a lot to help. The mother is clearly the manager of the household, freeing the husband to his various vocations. The youngest girl, still with limited chores had time to kick a soccer ball around with me before supper.  A bit uncommon for a girl in a Mennonite colony to have access to a soccer ball, but also not entirely. It was a good supper with a very busy family. And then … our taxi arrived.  We said goodbye. Both of us knew we would not be back. Gerhard is now back in Mexico. I would soon return to Canada. It’s possible these days to stay connected; they are not allowed what’sapp, but the husband has a laptop and an old-style cell phone. So yes, I think we will stay in touch.  If we were living there, or staying a longer time … meetings like this would be followed by more times together. But still, that short time sits with me, a memory of kind people engaged in their world and pushing the boundaries just a little as their ‘margins fade’ … just a little.

Colony leaders. Colony store managers. People in their buggies or on their tractors. Kids playing prisoners’ base at school. Missionaries and local pastors. The MCC team and their leaders. Sunday morning Mennonite church in Santa Cruz. The Catholic Mass I sometimes visited in the Cathedral on the Plaza. Bolivian friends from years ago who went out of their way for me, and always will.  It’s a long list of people, colonies and other places I was fortunate to meet.  Some were planned. Others … just accidents.  I was leaving a colony and stopped to take a foto of a farmer combining. It was already later in the afternoon and I was conscious of the distance still before me, but when he stopped his tractor and stepped down, I stayed for a while. We had not met, but for half an hour he talked about their colony. Some of the history.  The challenges of raising children and teenagers when their activities are severely regulated by church and colony lifestyle policies.  His own experience being excommunicated for taking his children to a new church inside their colony where they have  organized activities for young people.  He kept talking.  I, a stranger and now an acquaintance to him, mostly listened.  ‘I am a part of all that I have met,’ and so is he.

A few days before that, I stopped to say hello at the farm of a younger couple whom I had met before.  We chatted briefly. He gave me an address I had wanted and I left. Except that, as I drove away, I saw their 4 boys playing in the sandbox. Well, it’s not a box. Just a part of the garden their mom will have assigned to them for their play area.  They said I could take their foto. Klaas, Andres, Philip and Paul, building roads and plowing fields, little future farmers … ‘gleams that untravell’d world’  before them.fullsizeoutput_423d.jpeg

One gentleman, when I sent him a message that I was leaving Bolivia sent a what’sapp back and said it’s ok. He’s a colony leader and also owner of a large general store.  He said he has learned that when an employee decides to leave, another one comes and the work continues. Maybe differently, but yes. His message reminded me of lines in a prayer often attributed to Bishop Romero, though it was written by someone else.  Nothing we do is complete. We are workers, not messiahs, prophets of a future not our own. The kingdom always lies beyond us.

Thank you, Bolivia, for all that you are!!






… silencing … and the voices …

I was in a colony last week with a friend who had grown up in that colony, but had left it a long time ago. For leaving and joining a different church, he had been excommunicated.  In that colony, he had several siblings, other more distant relatives, and, as it turned out, plenty of people whom he still greeted as we passed them on their buggies or met them in village stores. Excommunication varies a great deal from colony to colony.  I have heard of being excommunicated for as little as using someone else’s cell phone, but I also know of colonies where the approach is more generous, and in some colonies, it rarely, if ever happens.

I’m told that the idea of excommunication, among most colonies in Bolivia comes first from the interpretation of biblical references in Phil 3:16, where Paul tells the Philippians to ‘hold fast to what we have attained until now’ and II Tim 3:14 where he writes … ‘but you must continue in the things which you have learned’.  Steel wheeled tractors were, a long time ago, the only way tractors had wheels at all and the traditional colonies have assumed that living ‘as far back as almost possible’ is part of what Paul must be talking about in these verses. Steel wheels go back quite a long way. Is it far enough? Too far? From colony to colony, there is variation in how far back to go to ‘hold fast to what we have attained’. Are all the regulations really about ‘holding fast’ or is some of this action also about simply keeping people inside the community?  One colony has gone back even farther and have decided to have no motorized anything; they function with only horse power.  Whether not having any motors goes back far enough, I suspect even they have debated the question, and likely will again.  Other colonies have embraced rubber on all vehicles, electricity, cell phones, higher education, learning of spanish … whatever can help them make life more comfortable.fullsizeoutput_4292.jpeg

On our drive through the colony my friend asked if we could stop to visit his sister. He said that despite him being banned, she would still welcome him. We stopped and she did, but she did not shake his hand, nor did she offer him or me a drink or food, which, in a Mennonite home would be considered unusual. In this case, she couldn’t; her brother was banned and that means not even the relatives can associate too closely with him. If they do, they also can be in trouble.  A man in another colony told me he was banned because he and his wife are sending their children to a new church that is Mennonite but not Old Colony. He struggles with those biblical texts and kept asking (himself more than me) if it’s possible that we worship a God so strange that he would disapprove of parents trying to find healthy environments for their adolescent children.

The implementation of excommunication, and maybe the seemingly harsh way in which it is sometimes carried out comes out of Matthew 16:19 where Jesus says to Peter, ‘I will give you the keys to heaven, and what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Colony ministers see themselves as the ‘Peters’ of their colonies and when a definition of ‘holding fast’ has been stretched, a colonist is warned. If he or she doesn’t change their behaviour, they are then excommunicated and banned. Shunned.  They can repent and be welcomed back into the colony but only then.  Many live their entire lives under ‘the ban’. Others go back. The belief in how they interpret Matt 16:19 is long and deeply held; the additional pressure from family members and decades of tradition keeps people close to what has been home. That tendency is not unique to Old Colony Mennonites.

It’s a perplexing issue for me, and I think for anyone on either the receiving or the implementing side of an excommunication and a ban.  I don’t know if Jesus really taught this as something to be used easily? I like to think, and from what I know of how Jesus related to those who were accused of indiscretion and ‘sin’, that he always leaned quickly towards abundant grace and forgiveness … without conditions. All were welcome. And especially those most vulnerable, those most already on the outside of things. The lepers. The tax collectors. The prostitutes. The prodigal sons.  Maybe he did shun, but the ones, it seems to me whom he may have shunned by calling them out, were the religious leaders of those days, those who abused their power to keep others in line.

Rachel Held Evans died last May, a much too early passing from this earth.  She was a Christian writer but managed to disturb and annoy many evangelical leaders in the Southern United States with her thoughtful questioning of why some beliefs and behaviours are clung to by so many in the evangelical world in which she also grew up and which she loved. In response, one of the major Christian book store chains across the United States banned her books from their shelves.  It may have added to the interest in her books, as such actions sometimes do, but it was also a form of shunning … an intent to silence.

I sometimes wonder if, without naming or perhaps even being aware of it as such, established institutions, including MCC, church conferences, and any other organized people groups can use the practice of shunning by enabling a culture of disengagement? It’s convenient for me to poke at conservative church groups who formally practise shunning when maybe shunning is more common among us other people than we would acknowledge? Compliance with privacy and human rights legislation, important as those are, makes it possible for concerns to be raised, but also to be entirely ignored or so buried in procedure that no problem is ever easily solved? Employees can be silenced by organizational ‘privacy’, never being quite sure if they can ask about things that might be helpful for them to know to better do their work? The too-much regulating of interaction becomes part of organizational culture and challenges that could be resolved relationally become instead, intimidating procedures, leaving those involved sort of moved off to the side, silenced either by the corporate silence itself, or by the complexity and rigidity of it all.2KPA9TOdT6yDMyNARCis1w.jpg

Jesus never seemed to have a need to silence people. He gave them a voice. I met a family last week in one of the colonies. There were 11 children, from very young to young adult; as a family, they had started a library.  Most of the books were used, but they were excited and ‘readers all’ as the mother said to me.  They, like others, are finding their voice in a culture where silence sometimes is a bit too normal?  Their voice will be mostly heard in their own context but they speak equally to the rest of us, reminding any and all of us that at Jesus’ table, there are none who are voiceless, none who are not equally acknowledged and everyone is equally welcome.



… communication … an accident …

My old friend, Bill S., with whom I worked in Fairview College up in Alberta for a number of years, used to say that ‘communication is an accident.’  We connect with each other in words, notes, gestures … but whether we understand and communicate with each other through those connections is, Bill said, often an accident … so great is the possibility of misunderstanding. A memo written with the best intentions includes an unnecessary adjective or adverb and sends a message of alarm or hyperbole when none was intended. A name is missing in a list of people and someone takes offence. A name is included that should not have been, and information becomes more public than was intended.WQnEC%EwSOa2rjQwQ1AZ6A

When Canadian governments enacted privacy legislations about 15 years ago or so, MCC, as everyone else, to be compliant, built protocols and added a little paragraph below our signatures about how we protect information that is considered private. Probably that was important and there is plenty of information that does harm if it becomes public. But the other side of that coin is that government, like our institutions can now find it easier to disclose almost nothing, which in effect tends to render them kind of unaccountable. Decisions are made, cryptic memos go out and little is disclosed. In other words, rather than risk the unfortunate accidents of communication, which is the other side of my friend Bill’s axiom, organizations simply communicate less.

Not for the same reasons as those that generated privacy legislation, as institutions, governments, political parties become bigger, older, and more experienced, rather than simply communicate, they set up communications departments. They help organizations create, streamline and manage what ‘goes out’ with efficiencies and with a view to minimize risk of ‘the accidents’. But as with privacy regulations, those departments can also make it less likely that relational communication, the kind where people are encouraged and free to connect with each other despite the risks … will happen.  Both communications and privacy departments with their protocols, all of which are important and intended to keep an organization running smoothly and effectively, make those who work there a little more nervous about connecting and communicating. Those protocols have teeth. I have sometimes worried that even in an organization like MCC, where we intend to work together relationally, our communications departments, solid and productive as they are, did not make us better at communicating …  at least not the kind that my friend Bill was talking about?fullsizeoutput_418f

We low german speaking Mennonites (LGMs) are curious people. Some would say we are even inappropriately curious at times; we show up where it wasn’t our place and we ask or comment when looking away would have been the more polite approach. I’m guilty of both and sometimes, as soon as I’ve written a note, I realize that, hmmm, it would have been better to not have pressed ‘send’.  I recently heard a comment about something that happened in one of the colonies where a woman had been excommunicated. It sounded surprisingly strange and the person who told me reminded me he wasn’t sure that it had happened as he had heard it. The next day, at a mennonite store, I discovered, through conversation, that the owner was related to people in the colony about which I had heard this story. I asked if he suspected this story to be true. I know of that situation, he said, but almost for sure, he said, that story did not happen. A bit of ‘research’ of the un-scientific kind, and a story that I won’t repeat. Both sides of my friend’s axiom apply to us low german people. Trust each other enough to share information and hope to be understood and to understand.  But take another minute to try to avoid the unfortunate accidents.

Wherever they live, the LGMs have ways of communicating that require significant trust, despite the risks. They will send loads of grain to elevators with drivers who receive payment and return it to the farmer. They send important messages and important materials by taxi, over miles and miles and days of not very good roads … simply with the name of the colony, the name or number of the village, and the person.

Early in April, Lucas and I travelled to Yanahigua, a colony about 3 or 4 hours north.  We visited several people there. Maybe 2 or 3 hours later we were in a second colony, and had stopped to say hello to the ältesta. Another minister was with him and as they invited us in, the minister said to us, ‘we knew you were here. You were in Yanahigua a few hours ago.’ And then we visited for a while.

This past week, I visited a number of colonies. I had sent word two or three weeks ago with a store owner that I might be in his colony on Tues or Wed and would he pass that word along to my cousins, who live there.  He ran off without writing it down, and I didn’t think too much more about it, except that I did plan to stop there. Monday, I stopped at the highway, having just left another colony. A truck and tractor were parked and two men were chatting.  I opened my window to get some directions and recognized one of them. We had not seen each other in at least 20 years or so. His wife was in the truck and they had just come from the colony where they had been with the cousin I was planning to see; they knew all about my plans. More, in fact, than I knew. Your cousin, they said, and his family are expecting you tomorrow, Tuesday, they said. Oops. I had said, Tues or Wed but if they assumed Tues, I would try to be there. Along the highway later that afternoon, I stopped a tractor.  I wanted to know where a particular colony was coming up along the road.  I identified myself, got my directions and kept going. That man, it turned out, was on his way to the colony of my cousins and somehow, word got to my cousins, again, that I was in the area. The next day then, Tuesday, I drove to the colony and stopped to visit a woman who is teaching spanish to 15 other women, every Monday at her house. I had heard about her and wanted to meet her. As soon as I introduced myself she said, your cousins are waiting lunch for you, which meant I had about half an hour with her before needing to run. How did she know?  Another cousin’s daughter, also a spanish teacher in that colony, had stopped by that morning to pick up some materials for her own classes and had mentioned my coming.ZJOMnVJKTMqdUkrIqkIDBQ.jpg

The colonies have many rules. Their activity, as in any of our major institutions and governments, is probably overly regulated.  Some use cell phones freely, some use them when no one is looking, and many don’t use them at all … but communication happens constantly, with or without the phones. They are curious. They pass messages along with each other for their neighbors … and despite often evident mistrust among them, they have enough trust and enough interest to be each others’ messengers. That interest and curiosity can be annoying but it’s part of any functioning community. Accidents and unfortunate rumours undoubtedly happen, but I wonder … if my friend Bill were here and saw the lengths they go to to connect, would he still say that communication, when it happens, is an accident? Bill was a smart and wise man, and I often miss him; it would have been an interesting conversation.






… the system …

Earlier this week, a visitor from one of the Mennonite Colonies stopped at Centro Menno to pick up the Mennonitische POST for their colony.  It’s written and compiled in Steinbach, Manitoba, printed here in Santa Cruz, and distributed to stores in most of the colonies in Bolivia, where local people pick it up.  During a brief conversation this gentleman told us they are having trouble getting title for the land they are living on. It’s a common story, not just for Mennonites but for others also. In this case, he said … we have paid for our land twice over and we still don’t have title. A church leader once told me that some colonies work 30 years to obtain title to their land.

Years ago, Kathy and I travelled to Argentina where there was a newly started colony. They are still there, and apparently doing well, but at the time, they were having serious difficulty with their debt load because they had been swindled by the realtor.  I don’t quite know how it ended up, but we were told then, that by the time it was all done, they would likely have paid for their land several times over.

A bishop in another colony told me they have 17 villages, but will most likely lose a couple of them. They had not known when they made the purchase, that a Brazilian person was in fact occupying the land that they marked as one of their villages, and the second piece, he said, was being taken over by squatters; they would likely just let them stay, he said, rather than have to deal with evicting them.

Two months ago I visited a newer colony about 5 hours north of here. They had been there only 2 years but already had cleared a lot of land and were harvesting corn. I stopped to say hello to a farmer and his sons who were accompanying the semi trucks waiting to be filled – right off the combine – to take the corn to market.  How does this work, I asked the man. We fill the truck and the driver takes it to the bins to sell and brings us the money. Seriously, I asked? And you trust him to do that for you?  Well, yes, he said. So far, it has worked for us. It’s known that some farmers, knowing they cannot own their own trucks, may purchase them in the name of a Bolivian whom they know, so that the truck is always at their disposal, but it’s not legally theirs. I have not heard of such an arrangement going bad, though, if it did, the farmer might not be talking about it loudly either.mpUdoMOyTtmlJ0WEBApUvg.jpg

Another visitor at Centro Menno not long ago told us he had come from a long way (two days journey) and had been lured into a car by a couple of men who said they urgently needed his advice on some health matter, and while he was in the car, they somehow picked his travel bag, and he lost 4000 bs.  In total terms that isn’t so much money (about 600 USD) but for him, it was all the business money he had come a long way to work with.  He would go home, he said, having been able to do nothing. He was safe, but quite miserable.

A long time ago, Ona, a leader in the Bolivian Mennonite Church made this off-handed but pretty accurate comment: in Bolivia, everything is negotiable, he said. I’ve pretty much found that to be true even now, more than two decades since he made that comment.  For example … there are traffic lights now, but no one steps off the curb for a green sign without making sure the traffic is, in fact, stopping. They don’t always stop; it’s not uncommon for drivers just to keep driving through … until it’s been red for a while … and then, as if at the end of a stretched-out elastic, they do finally stop. The lights are not ignored, but you still negotiate your way through an intersection, making eye contact, offering a hand signal or often still, the beep of a horn.  It’s a sort of honor system based on trust and distrust at the same time. Drivers are very defensive, trusting no one, and that keeps them relatively safe in the congestion. But they are also aggressive, because, unless they are, the congestion will simply intimidate them to curbside. They seem to trust each other to understand how this all works, but distrust is the fundamental glue to the safety of ‘the system’.  Something like that, I think. AbL8eQbTQLmjQi3gwg11PQ.jpg

And what does that have to do with anything?  Maybe nothing, and maybe, pretty much everything.  Much of the economy is still informal, based, I think, on the same dynamic that keeps people safe, driving through an intersection. There are plenty of laws and regulations, but arrangements still often depend on having the connection. A friend of ours told me this morning when she needed her money out of a local bank, she got it because she had a friend inside the bank. In Canada, we like to think that the formality of all our systems no longer requires us to deal with human relations; the system and regulations will protect us even if we don’t quite have our wits about us.  In Bolivia, the glue to how things work still seems more relational.

The 100,000 Mennonite colonists know how this works and they know how to work with it. Inside many of the colonies they have a lot of rules about how they are to maintain their tradition-based lifestyles.  The rules vary from colony to colony, but for the majority, one of the more visible traditions/rules is the use of ‘steel’ wheels on all self-propelled equipment.  Others include not owning cell phones.  Not having electricity on their farms.  Not having air-conditioned cabs on their tractors and combines. Only 50 ha of land per family. Not learning too much Spanish … .  In short, rules regulate their lives. But that same culture of regulation has found a way to work with the relational and informal system that is still so strongly Bolivia. My guess that it’s all a bit like surviving an intersection in Santa Cruz.  It’s based on trust that we all understand how this works, coupled with the same distrust and defensive ‘driving’ that is so important to surviving an intersection.b334FLAlSUu%ZOQ3G%Tb8A

About an hour and a half north, there are two colonies bordering each other. The one forbids telephones and the other permits them. What happened was that a farmer in the ‘have’ colony kept getting visitors from the ‘have not’ colony who needed to use his phone. The interruptions were becoming problematic, so he did his research, and installed a ‘pay phone’ inside an old refrigerator which became then, a sort of telephone booth.  He buys the air time he wants and leaves a box by the phone so that whoever comes to make a call can tell how much time he used and what the cost is.  It’s in constant use, he said, and mostly, he added, this informal system works for him. He is rarely short money, he said.

They live life with rules, most of which are strictly adhered to and enforced, but in the relationships and arrangements that are not so prescribed, they have learned over many decades to live with significant flexibility and informality, sometimes at high risk.  I’m not at all sure I understand the paradox within which they live, but I wonder if part of the reason they adhere so strictly to their own internal rules and traditions is because that is the security from which they are able to accommodate the everything-is-negotiable life in the Bolivia where they have chosen to live.