Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/06/21

Bikers are Cool – Centuriones de Cristo

I guess I’ve known that bikers are cool for as long as I can remember. Three of the kids I grew up going to church with had a dad who was one. Still, one can’t help but pick up some of the negative stereotypes. In Quebec, Canada, organized crime and bikers seem to be pretty much synonymous. Memorial Day weekend I was fairly annoyed at bikers. How dare hundreds of thousands of them crash our romantic anniversary weekend in Washington DC. That many bikers in one place kinda get in the way.

In the last few months an unexpected ministry has ridden into town in Santiago, Chile. It wasn’t that long ago, during one of my trips to Santiago, that Brother Gustavo (our church planter there) was selling his motorcycle to raise a little extra cash and citing the dangers inherent in riding. But he’s riding again.

Bikers in so many places are plagued with bad reputations and the judgement of society. So when that first biker showed up and was welcomed by Community of Christ Santiago, it wasn’t long until others followed. There is so much power in open-minded acceptance of others, in celebrating the worth of all persons.

Santiago Community of Christ Pastor Rene Bravo welcomes bikers from various clubs meeting at our church building for a charity ride.

Community of Christ now sponsors their own biker club. They call themselves the Centuriones de Cristo and, wear a round church seal patch on the front of their leather jacket and their own distinct patch on their backs.

Those shield and swords remind us of Paul’s challenge to put on the full armour of God, “the shield of faith… and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” There’s nothing violent about these bikers. Ephesians 6:10-17

Our bikers in Santiago have been networking via Facebook and the Internet with Community of Christ bikers elsewhere. I carried a very special patch down to Santiago, a gift from USA biker Steve Palmer. There is talk of modifying the Santiago patch to incorporate the USA patch in the spirit of unity.

Ooops! I didn’t get a photo of the folks checking out Steve Palmer’s patch. Here’s a photo of the patch I grabbed on the Peace Riders Facebook page –

On the Saturday of my visit our biker club had banded together with other similarly minded clubs to deliver help to a single mum and her kids. Everyone rode out in a caravan to the town where this family lived, about 100km outside of Santiago, and delivered a new bed, new shoes and food items.

Pastor Rene Bravo secures a donated bed atop the family’s van that will follow the motorcycle caravan out to Peñaflor, Chile.

Celebrating new shoes.

Before the ride everyone met at the Santiago Community of Christ in Conchali for “choripan” (sausage on a bun). After the choripan and before the ride we gathered inside for a baptismal service. Luis’ life hasn’t always been easy. He’s even lived on the street. He found fellowship in the community of Bikers and now he joins Community of Christ. Before he is baptized he shares his testimony. It’s interesting to hear him talk about the parallels between Community of Christ and biker culture.

Brother Luis shares with the congregation before his baptism.


Witnessing Brother Luis’ baptism.

Luis talked about the bonds of community, charity, acceptance of others, making space for people, who have sometimes had difficult lives, to be themselves. But I might just summarize what Luis had to say by repeating: bikers are cool and so is Community of Christ.

Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/05/02

Baptisms at the beach are beautiful

Baptisms at the beach are beautiful. When I was baptized, in the baptismal font in the old Ottawa, Canada church, when I was eight years old, I seem to remember it being a solemn if not somewhat staid ceremony. Participants in the service as well as congregants would certainly have been well dressed, the men decked out in various suits and ties and the women in nice dresses. Things were conducted in formal order.

Baptisms at the beach in Cartagena have a nice family feel to them. It turns out I’m the only one wearing long pants. The official attire for today seems to be a combination of shorts, t-shirts and bathing suits. Should we have suggested, in some class sometime, wearing plain white for baptisms? Did we, and that advice has been wisely wiped from the congregational memory? The lack of white didn’t seem to ruin the good spirit of things on this Sunday morning.

A couple of kids playing at the beach join the procession out into the water.

The ten minute walk from Pastor Yaneth’s home in the Canapote neighbourhood to the shores of the Caribbean Sea is a time for visiting and occasionally breaking out in song. Last Sunday, choruses of “Caminando en la luz de Dios” (Walking in the Light of God) began in Spanish but flowed into Bemba, French and English. Singing in English naturally led to reviewing primary school English lessons with the children.
“Repeat after me: Hello! How are you? I’m fine, and you? What is your name? My name is…”

Kids hold hands, sometimes with a parent but just as often with another adult or child from the congregation. Lines of legal kinship blur and bonds of brothers and sisters in Christ become dominant.

Prayer is offered and choruses sung as we form a circle on the shore. We become the centre of attention as the beach is already populated with Sunday sun seekers. Vendors try to figure out if we might or might not be potential clients for their wares.

Unfortunately the mango vendor lost patience with us and wandered off before our service was over. A mango would have been great at that time.

It’s Wilfredo’s first visit to Cartagena as mission centre president. These are his first baptisms in Colombia. He baptizes Snyder and Valentina. Snyder has several family members in the Community of Christ already. Valentina lives across the street from the house church we have at Sister Amarilis’. Her Mom said it was ok if she wanted to be baptized. Her Mom even came out to church on Tuesday night and we all got to meet her. She asked for prayers for her family. She says that her daughter loves the church and the church family.

One frequently finds fishermen working the beaches in Cartagena, always followed by hopeful birds.

After the baptisms, on the way back to shore, Snyder and Valentina can’t resist taking their first swim as newly baptized disciples.

People on the shore cheer them on.

Baptisms at the beach are beautiful.

Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/05/01

Kids’ Faces in Sacaba, Bolivia

I’ve blogged before about the Sacaba, Bolivia children’s group.

The sign hanging over the Simon Copa living room and main meeting place for the kids’ group boasts about the twelve years that this ministry has been going on. I’ve already written about how the kids’ group has now expanded into a youth ministry and about how the youth are ministering to the kids while also learning important life skills.

I continue to be impressed by these great ministries. On this trip to Bolivia it was wonderful visiting with Sister Agripina about how participation in the youth group has changed the kids’ lives. So many kids are forming into couples at younger and younger ages and so many girls in the neighbourhood are becoming pregnant, but not the kids who have grown up in the children’s group and who have now moved into the youth group.

But after my latest visit to the Sacaba kids, I thought I’d just share with you some of the faces. Truly, there’s nothing I like more than taking pictures of children’s faces. 🙂

Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/05/01

Are We Such a Community?

After Sunday afternoon’s ordination service people found their ways to Internet connections and computer monitors. Our little group maxed out eventually at about thirteen, including the kids who came and went. We had a DSL connection at mission centre financial officer Darwyn Copa’s home. We hooked his laptop up to his television and had great seats for President Steve Veazey’s address to the church.

We loved the diversity of musical expression and even sang along at times.

Others gathered at Duane and Marlene Anderson’s home. Still others watched via a cell phone modem a few doors down from where we were.

The church seems to have just about perfected this technology. Even on our low bandwidth connection we enjoyed great video, live from the Independence Temple. We smiled as Steve Veazey’s grand-daughter hopped onto Grandpa’s lap. Everyone thrilled as my daughter Tiona was spotted several times in the crowd of local kids participating in the service.

We followed the message intently, reliving President Veazey’s story of Peter and Cornelius perfectly interpreted into Spanish with Sister Guillermina’s golden tones.

I’ve learned so much about what it means to be a welcoming community from my brothers and sisters in Central and South America. May we all learn from each other as we strive to respond to God’s call.

Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/04/25

Brought together and Blessed

Sunday the 16th of April of 2012, Simon Copa brought us together for his ordination to the office of Evangelist, and we were blessed.

The world in which Brother Simon lives is pretty much stuffed full with gorgeous diversity, crying out to be brought together for blessing.

Apostle Carlos Enrique freed up a weekend in his busy schedule and arrived from Honduras. I was able to join him for the trip, coming in from Independence, Missouri, USA, where I live.

Carlos Enrique preaches the ordination sermon in Spanish, translated into Bolivian Quechua by Brother Simon.

Wilfredo Carlos, the new mission centre president came from Callao, Peru, making his first trip to Bolivia as the new mission centre president.

Mission Centre President Wilfredo Carlos brings greetings to the gathered congregation.

Our ordination service had no sooner begun than people arrived from the Tiquipaya congregation after their cross Cochabamba trek. The service is suspended as people must be greeted. The ordination would take place in Sacaba, the eastern community of the Cochabamban metropolis of a million people. Tiquipaya is on the western side of the city.

Unlike some people, Bolivians aren’t really huggers. The typical Bolivian greeting consists of a handshake, outstretched arms patting respective shoulders and a second handshake.

The founding families of Community of Christ in Bolivia, Brother Simon and Sister Victoria and Brother Hermanegildo and Sister Fernanda Copa and all their children often find themselves divided, living in different homes and in different parts of Bolivia. But today they were all together.

Young and old were brought together.

This little one seems to enjoy her mother’s and the congregation’s singing from the Bolivia church’s traditional hymnal.

The teenagers of the Sacaba congregation prepared the snack that would follow the service.

For years Brother Simon and Sister Victoria have hosted international guests in their home. One of those guests who kept coming back from the USA and volunteering in the congregation, completing studies for her degree, eventually fell in love with Brother Simon’s nephew Jhonny. Jhonny Copa and his new wife Jana Taller also joined the service on this splendid Sunday.

Former mission centre president Brother Steve Bootman was in attendance as were Duane and Marlene Anderson who first came to Bolivia for the Peace Corps more than forty years ago and have lived in Bolivia for most of their lives.

Simon’s daughter lives outside of Bolivia and would not have been able to attend were it not for the miracle of modern technology. Via Skype video conferencing she was able to see and hear the entire service from her living room.

Brother Simon and Sister Victoria visit with their daughter following the worship service.

Dressed in hand woven traditional clothing, Simon and Victoria honoured their heritage while bringing all these people together. Today we lived out Unity in Diversity.

Perhaps the greatest need in the diverse nation and church of Bolivia is the blessing of unity. This is the challenge before our Brother Simon. But if this ordination Sunday is any indication God is ready to pour out a blessing of unity through our Brother Simon.

Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/03/10

Delegates to a mission centre conference

The Northwest of South America mission centre was formed in 2007 out of the South America mission centre after it seemed that including all of South America in one mission centre made for something that was just too geographically vast to manage. Three countries, where the church is established in the north and west of the continent, came together to form a new mission centre. The first three mission centre conferences were organized in each of the three countries of the jurisdiction. At the third conference it was agreed upon that to reduce costs delegates would now only meet in a full, face to face, conference once every three years. So when delegates gathered in Callao, Peru on the first weekend of March, 2012, it was the first time this mission centre had sent delegates to a conference since October of 2009.

A Sunday afternoon visit by conference participants to the main town square in Lima.

Conference host delegate Rocio providing Apostle Carlos Enrique Mejia with his conference credentials during opening ceremonies.

It would take several days and travelling through arguably dangerous territory for delegates to travel by land from Cartagena, Colombia to Callao. So when people from that outpost of the Community of Christ set out for conference it was by air. Delegates flew on Avianca Airlines from Cartagena, on the shores of the Caribbean sea, to Bogota, the national capital and on to the Jorge Chavez International Airport that serves Lima, Peru and is located in Callao, just about five minutes by car from where our conference would take place.

Rosa and Amarilis leading worship at conference.

Sister Rosa of Colombia all dressed up for the opening ceremonies where she'll share a traditional dance from her home in Cartagena.

Likewise, while the scenery and experience would be spectacular, it would take three days for delegates from Cochabamba, Bolivia, the centre of activity of the Community of Christ in that country, to reach Lima by bus. (But if you ever get a chance, I highly recommend the experience. Why not catch a bus in Cochabamba for La Paz, Bolivia, spend some time in the 14,000 ft high culturally rich Andean capital before travelling onward to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, up to Puno, over to Arequipa and finally on up to Lima.) To save time, delegates from Bolivia would also have to travel by air, leaving Cochabamba on Aerosur Airlines to the tropical, agro-industry capital of Bolivia, Santa Cruz and then on via Chile’s giant LAN Airlines to Lima.

Nelson, president of CEDESPAR, attended opening ceremonies in traditional Bolivian dress.

Rosa and Amarilis, conference delegates from Colombia, had never travelled outside of Colombia before. Only Rosa had been in an airplane, once before and she was too young at the time for her to remember the experience. Mission Centre Financial Office Darwyn Copa, on his way to conference from field travel in Honduras, spent a few days in Cartagena bringing ministry before accompanying them to Lima. They would have to return home after conference on their own. Rosa had never left her two children for a weekend before. Amarilis would be separated from grandchildren for the first time. One would think that for Rosa, whose regular job is managing an alligator farm, a little trip to Peru would be a piece of cake. Well, it was. But there were challenges from ears popping in the airplane to strange foods on the table in Lima.

Does anyone remember what these were called? Stuffed "somethings"? They were sure good!

Our first meal together in Lima was what the people in Huanuco, Peru call “pachamanca”. Pachamanca in the Quechua language comes from “pacha” meaning earth and “manca” meaning hole. The food is prepared on white hot rocks in a pit. But neither the pieces of roasted pig that were served nor the potato and sweet potato that went with it were what Rosa and Amarilis were used to eating. They picked at their plates and went to bed hungry. A few pieces of bread and jam with tea and coffee for breakfast were a far cry from the arepas or patacones that they were used to either and after one look at some strange soup on the table at lunch and Rosa had raced back upstairs to ask us about possibly finding a grocery store somewhere so that we could buy some real food.

Amarilis from Cartagena, Colombia contemplating another meal in Lima.

A quick lesson on culture, international travel and the adventure of trying new foods and we’d convinced Rosa that the Peruvians who had gone to Cartagena in 2009 had actually been through the same thing and that she really needed to make an effort to eat. One bowl of soup later and Rosa was on her way to a brave new world of culinary delights. She did great at eating the rest of the weekend.

Rosa and Mirtha taking pictures of the food.

Delegates from Bolivia included retired transformation 2000 minister Simon, former Outreach International community facilitator Edgar, the Bolivia church’s non-governmental organization CEDESPAR’s president Nelson and Carolina who works managing a tea packaging and distribution plant in Cochabamba. This group had travelled before. Simon and Edgar had been to various church and Outreach events in different countries, even attending world conference. Carolina and Nelson had attended mission centre conference previously and had both served in other South American countries through the World Service Corps.

Delegates from Bolivia: Edgar, Carolina, Nelson, Darwyn and Simon.

Simon Copa addresses the conference after their unanimous support of his call to serve as an evangelist.

Jhonny, one of Peru’s delegates, walked from his home on Av Quilca, Callao to the Lauritian Sisters’ retreat centre where our conference would be held. Jhonny, outside of his day job with Diners Club, is the computer whiz behind the Peru Community of Christ, publishing schedules and announcements and keeping the church’s Facebook page up to date. Other delegates from Peru included Rocio, who in addition to being a student and holding down a full time job, also operates a cybercafé in the first floor street level of her home. Doris and Maribel, young adults, joined as delegates from Monte Sion (about an hour away) and Orland, a school principal joined us after a nine hour bus journey across the Andes Mountains from Huanuco.

Maribel and Doris of Monte Sion, Ventanilla, Peru enjoying a break in conference business.

Conference business included sustaining mission centre officer. Wilfredo Carlos is the new mission centre president and the first indigenous MCP for this mission centre. He and Darwyn Copa will serve together as mission centre officers. Wilfredo was set apart for his new role during our closing Sunday morning worship service when Brother Virgilio Herrera was also ordained as an evangelist. Earlier in the conference, delegates voted to support Virgilio of Peru and Simon of Bolivia for ordination to this same office. The conference also elected delegates to the 2013 world conference.

New mission centre president Wilfredo Carlos and financial officer Darwyn Copa visiting with conference delegates from Bolivia.

Virgilio Herrera and Simon Copa's calls to the office of evangelist were unanimously supported by the conference.

We formed a most diverse community. We were young and old, rural and urban dwellers, Spanish and Quechua speakers, musicians and preachers, seasoned travelers and first time flyers, timid eaters and gastronomic daredevils. But together in one spirit we enjoyed a wonderful conference together. Everyone is looking forward to the next Northwest of South America Mission Centre Conference, scheduled for 2015. Join us if you like.

Conference participants from Peru, Colombia and Bolivia.

No visit to Peru would be complete without a picture with an alpaca.

Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/02/25

We Share Apparently Unlimited Creativity

A Bolivian, a Peruvian, four Hondurans, two from the Dominican Republic, a Mexican now living in Australia, a citizen of the USA and a Canadian now living in the USA… A 22 year old, a 30, a 37, a 38, a 39, a 40, a 41, a 42, a 43 a 53 and a 56 year old… Seven women and four men… Nine ordained and two not ordained… A husband and wife who have had grandparents staying with their three teenagers all week in the city so that they could be here… A Grandma who has been away from her grandchildren all week… Parents and spouses who have been separated from their families… A school teacher who could only be here because she’s getting married on the 31st of March and is entitled to six days of “honeymoon leave” that she took now so she could be with us… This is our group of eleven people.

Gonzalo Mejia (Honduras), Angela Ramirez (Dominican Republic), Gleydy Tejada (Honduras), Maria Ramirez (Dominican Republic), Debora Mejia (Honduras), Delfina Lopez (Honduras), Vanesa Lemos (Peru), Edgar Copa (Bolivia)

We met last Sunday in Honduras to spend a week together writing materials for the discipleship formation guide for children in Spanish. If you haven’t yet seen the Disciple Formation Guide on the Community of Christ website () be sure to check it out. You’ll find a wonderful collection of discipleship formation tools for a variety of ages based on the identity, message, mission and beliefs of the church built around eight practices of discipleship.

Participants worked in groups of two or three for writing

While the English language material is great, our dream has been to produce materials more culturally suitable for the diversity of villages and cities of Latin America and the world. Last November a group of French speakers met in Tahiti and wrote discipleship formation materials for youth. This week we’ve been working on materials for children. Both sets of materials will be translated into English and then made available in both French and Spanish too.

Gleydy is a school teacher and newly ordained elder from the Gongora, Honduras congregation. Debora Mejia is the pastor of the San Pedro Sula, Honduras congregation. They were work partners all week and produced great results together as a team!

Gonzalo Mejia of Honduras and Edgar Copa of Bolivia worked together all week and also made a great team.

Vanesa of Peru, Angela of Dominican Repbulic and Delfina of Honduras also made a super team!

We are grateful to the generous donors who have made possible the development of the disciple formation guide and who have wholeheartedly supported the internationalization of the guide.

Amanda and Maria are part of the church's Spanish language resource production, translation and editorial staff. They worked throughout the week compiling, revising and doing the layout for the work that was being produced. Their target is to have a finished Spanish language manuscript completed within two weeks after our event finishes today.

While we’ve been focusing all week on the enduring principals and descriptions of Community of Christ identity taken from the resource “Sharing in Community of Christ”, I’ve discovered that in this group, not only do we share so many fundamental matters of Christian identity, but we also share an enormous creativity.

Steve Shields of the International Field Ministries team at Community of Christ international headquarters guided our process throughout the week. The chart on the wall behind him was used to track our progress.

Our authors and editors have written one hundred and four discipleship formation activities based on combinations of thirteen aspects of our church identity taken from “Sharing in Community of Christ” and the eight discipleship formation practices of the disciple formation guide. They have further framed each of those discipleship formation experiences within lesson plans for possible use in church school or other settings.

Congratulations to all on a great week!!!!

At times I think I saw smoke rising from people’s heads as brains may have tended to overheat! 
May the whole church be blessed by the wonderful creativity and inspiration that has blessed our time together this week.

Posted by: Art Smith | 2012/02/24

Evangelists, “Evangelistas”, “Evangelistos?”

In Community of Christ in Central and South America we’re focusing on mission as never before. A new group of ministers will be there to help. Even though our church has been established in this area for more than fifty years the first indigenous evangelist here was ordained just two years ago. She is Sister Digna Altamirano of Honduras. Sister Fernanda Corsi de Carvalho of Brazil joined her in the order of evangelists in November of 2010. And now three others are preparing to be ordained as evangelists and to add their ministry to our field.

Evangelist Digna Altamirano

Evangelist Fernanda Corsi de Carvalho is on the right

One of the mission initiatives teaches us to seek peace. One of the first things that come to mind when I think about this initiative in our part of the world is how God has been leading us towards a fuller expression of the ministry of the evangelist here in Central and South America. There is indeed something wonderful about having some of our best, most mature leaders liberated from responsibilities of church administration to focus only on human relationships and bringing the ministry of blessing to people.

Sister Digna sharing with Community of Christ minister Yaneth Hernandez of Cartagena, Colombia

This weekend we held a field missionary leader’s training event in Honduras, on the shores of Lake Yojoa. Our three soon to be ordained evangelists met all weekend for an orientation to the specific ministries of their new office. Javier Bardales served for thirty-five years as full time minister and mission center president for the church in Central America. Simon Copa was hired as a “transformation 2000” missionary in Bolivia back in 2000. He retired in 2010. Virgilio Herrera of Peru was a young seventeen year old who met the early missionaries arriving in Peru years ago (as in like 50 years ago!). All three are preparing for their ordination as evangelists.

Javier Bardales of Honduras

Simon Copa with his wife Victoria in Sacaba, Bolivia

Brother Virgilio Herrera of Peru taking a turn piloting our tour boat out on Lake Yojoa in Honduras

Sister Barbara Mink came all the way from Dallas, Texas, USA to teach these new evangelists

This weekend was something of a homecoming for them. Evangelist Barbara Mink was in Honduras to lead the orientation for the new evangelists. She and her husband Darrell served as missionaries to Latin America for many years. In fact their first assignment in the area had them moving to Peru and meeting that seventeen year old Virgilio, way back when.

Brother Virgilio visiting with Sister Barbara Mink

Javier Bardales posing with Darrell and Barbara MInk

There’s a joke floating around our field that right now we already have two “evangelistas” (the Spanish word for evangelist) from Central and South America but that now we’ll have three “evangelistos.” (I’ve only got as much Spanish grammar as three weeks of intensive Spanish classes at Berlitz language school can buy you – not much! But I can tell you that in Spanish, some words have masculine and feminine forms. A cook can be a “concinero” or a “concinera.” A pastor can be a “pastor” or a “pastora.” But other words just stay the same. “Evangelista” doesn’t change form whether masculine or feminine so talking about our three new “evagelistos” always gets a laugh.)

Barbara Mink, the class instructor, with her husband Darrell, Evangelist Digna Altamirano and the three newly called evangelists from Central and South America

But be they men or women, five new evangelists serving in the church will surely be a great blessing to many.

It turned out that the paint was still wet when I arrived at the Colbern Road congregation of Community of Christ in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. After several years, the congregation had restarted their summer vacation church school program and it had been very successful. Their congregation doesn’t have too many kids themselves but they invited families in nearby congregations to participate and ended up with an large group of children and a very dynamic program running for a week of evenings in July of 2011.

Sister Laura Hurdman had motivated her Colbern Road congregation for years to focus on work to abolish poverty and alleviate suffering around the world. They raised record amounts of money for Outreach International and contributed to various special church projects in other countries. Every time I go up the stairs to the sanctuary in the Tegucigalpa, Honduras church I’m reminded of the generosity of Sister Laura and the Colbern Road congregation who had raised and contributed the money for the railing. (Usually some member of the congregation reminds me verbally of where the railing on the staircase came from!)

I had been invited to the last evening of the vacation church school to share with the kids a little about the Central and South America field. I showed some pictures of kids in different countries, taught a few words of Spanish and we wondered what it would be like to be a kid in rural Honduras or Bolivia.

The boys and girls had decorated little backpacks as gifts for some kids in the church in Honduras but the paint was still wet the night I was there to share and to pick up their gifts. They’d gotten a little carried away, had a few extra backpacks and had decided to paint them too, so the paint was still drying. A congregational leader dropped off 36 beautifully decorated bags at my office a few days later.

When church leaders in Honduras received the backpacks things got further out of control. Over the weeks to come I kept asking them if they’d handed out the backpacks to some kids yet. The answer was always no. Finally in January I received the promised photos of the bags being delivered to children.

The San Pedro Sula congregation had decided to turn the bags into Christmas/back to school gifts for kids in San Jose de la Cuesta, La Ramada and Gongora congregations. These are rural congregations where families are mostly farmers, quite a few of them managing at a subsitence level. The kids don’t have many school supplies, and much less toys. But the big city San Pedro Sula congregation had been inspired by the Colbern Road backpacks. They started a toy drive in the city. The idea was to put a toy in each one of the 36 backpacks.

But by the time the Christmas holiday had come they had collected 190 toys. Some of the most loyal, active children in these three churches received their toy inside a backpack. All the kids received toys and candy.

Inspired by the generosity of the Colbern Road church the San Pedro Sula congregation wants to do it again next year, bigger and better, even if they do it on their own. But being generous together with another church from another country had proven to be lots of fun. As I visit across the table about this with mission centre president Gonzalo Mejia and his wife Debora who’s the pastor of the San Pedro Sula congregation, Gonzalo gets a big grin on his face. “Next year maybe we’ll extend the invitation to help with cash donations to other friends in the USA,” he smiles. “Maybe $100 would be good as a suggested donation.”

I just love it when generosity gets out of control!

Posted by: Art Smith | 2011/10/17

Don’t Bump Your Head!

The other day, while traveling in Cartagena, Colombia, I had the chance to spend some quality time with one of our Community of Christ members there. I’ve known Ervelyne Bernard for more than ten years now. We first met when she’d just been hired as French language translator for the Church and was interpreting English/French at the International Youth Forum in 2001. I was there with the Tahitian delegation as I’d been living in Tahiti and serving there as a world church minister. Erv’s family is French and Tahitian and so there was immediately a special bond between Erv and our Tahitian delegation.

Erv serving dinner in her apartment in Cartagena. She invited Darwyn and I and folks from the congregation for an afternoon in her pool and to eat.

During the time that Erv lived in Independence, Missouri and worked out of Community of Christ offices there, she became a fixture at central mission and world church youth events and a friend to countless young people. She’s a special person.

Erv teaching a boy how to float on his back in the pool

Her first student is very excited to have her teach his friend the same skill.

Perhaps more than anyone I know Erv embodies a spirit of unconditional friendship, welcoming the stranger and community that are the ideals of my Christian faith. Talk to Erv sometime about the hundreds of people, strangers, she has welcomed into her home as part of her involvement with the international movement known as “couch surfing” that matches up travelers and spare couches or spare beds around the world. Talk to her about the friendships she has formed through this radical openness. Call her up on any weekend and find out how many nationalities are represented in her living room on that given day. If you want to see a tangible expression of the Holy Spirit at work, watch Erv. 🙂

Erv now lives in Cartagena, Colombia where she keeps connected to her translations job via the Internet. In her spare time she’s taken up SCUBA diving as a hobby. For some time now Erv’s been inviting me to try out SCUBA. Over time she’s dismissed all my reasons why I couldn’t do it, including what I thought was my show stopper excuse, that I’m not a strong swimmer (turns out SCUBA is more like floating in outer space than competitive swimming). So on this trip to Cartagena, with my good friend and fellow minister Darwyn Copa of Bolivia (you know Bolivia, that land locked country in South America that has no access to the ocean!) decided to accept Erv’s invitation to try out SCUBA.

Erv's Cartagena home combines the old and the new with a tantalizing undersea world thrown in too.

I could go on and on about learning to use the gear, about how to eliminate the risks, about the sea creatures, the sunken ship we explored and about how on that day in Cartagena a whole other portion of God’s creation opened up before my very eyes.

In about five feet of ocean we're getting used to our SCUBA gear for the first time.

But a big part of SCUBA for me turned out to be about overcoming fear. If you’re going to succeed at SCUBA you’ve got to be able to calm down, keep your wits about you, to manage the pressure in your ears and your lungs, to watch your gages and to remember to keep breathing, slowly and steadily, in and out, through your mouth.

Even remembering not to use the thumbs up sign in response to Erv asking how things were going took concentration. Thumbs up is the signal reserved in SCUBA for communicating the need to head to the surface.

On my first dive, after we’d gotten familiar with our gear and the sensation of being underwater with it, in just a few feet of water, Erv led us out a little deeper. I was following her closely, not really watching as much sea life as I was watching the ends of Erv’s SCUBA flippers. I started to feel a little more comfortable. There came a moment when I watched Erv double back behind me, apparently going to check on one of our other divers. I’d become comfortable enough under the water that I actually let her out of my sight.

A moment later I glanced back over my shoulder to look for Erv. She wasn’t there. Nobody was there! I looked over my other shoulder. No Erv! Nobody!

Where's Erv?! Where's anyone!?

I felt my heart start to race and my breathing increase. The little bit of water that had kept trickling into my mask suddenly bothered my nose more than it had been. I maneuvered my flippers, legs and arms to spin my body around in the water doing a full 360°. Still no Erv! I was really starting to panic.

A baracuda hanging out in a sunken ship almost sixty feet under the surface.

I’d recently preached a sermon, picking up on a text that I’d heard Steve Veazey preach in El Salvador, a story that starts in 2 Kings 6:8 about Elisha, Israel and the Syrian army. In the story Elisha’s servant gets up one morning to discover that the place they are staying is completely surrounded by the mighty Syrian army. He rushes to the prophet, waking him up urgently asking him “What are we going to do?!” and Elisha tells his servant not to be afraid and prays that beautiful, simple prayer asking God that the eyes of his servant might be opened. His servant comes to realize that God had not, in fact abandoned them, and that they had no reason to fear. But even after all the amazing experiences Elisha and his servant had been through with God, how easy it was for him, in a moment, to think that God had abandoned them.

Breathe in... Breathe out...

The thing about the world I walk around in normally is that if someone I’m following ducks away for a moment, a check over the left shoulder, or over the right shoulder or turning completely around, is sure to bring them back into sight. But the SCUBA world is different.

It finally dawned on me to look up. In a startling moment I discovered Erv, hovering at what seemed like a fraction of an inch above my head, just a little ways away from Darwyn who was also up there above me.

In SCUBA, if someone is missing, remember that they might also be above you. Here's a picture taken by Erv looking up at me with the sun shining brightly further above me.

I learned a little bit about SCUBA in that moment. But I couldn’t help but think about how this experience is like my walk with God. How easy it is to become frightened and feel abandoned when all the while God is so close that if one is not careful, one could bump one’s head. 🙂

Me, Erv and a fish enjoying Cartagena's tropical waters.

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