Mt 5:8 CEB “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.”
“Hola! Mi nombre es Anita. Yo estudio en seminario de Vanderbilt. Soy de Michigan, pero yo vivo en Nashville, Tennessee en Estados Unidos. Traigo bendiciones de la iglesia bautista glendale.”
This is how I introduced myself all last week at the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~ Bautistas por la Paz Summer Conference in Toluca, Mexico. Today, I am going to blend this week’s beatitude text “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” with some reflections from a trip some Glendalers made last week to Mexico.
First, as a reminder, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~Bautistas por la Paz, is an international organization that works to support peacemaking efforts around the world. We have a four-nation identity, with the majority of our membership coming from the United States of America, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. I say the majority of our membership comes from these places because there are people living on continents other than North America who find a spiritual home with us from as disparate places as Indonesia, Kenya and Ukraine. We have members who represent the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, American Baptists, National Baptists and many other denominations–some are not even Baptist but are Methodists, Anabaptists, Quakers, and others, but they, again, find spiritual friendship among us. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think all of us were amazed at what we experienced this year.
So, let’s get to the good stuff. This year our summer conference, fondly called “Peace Camp,” took place at an old Spanish mission built in the 1700s that has been rehabilitated into a retreat center and community center in the region northwest of Mexico City that was and still is the home to the indigenous Mazahua people (you’ll see some photos and hear more stories soon at one of our Wednesday night programs). Though the BPFNA has existed for almost 30 years and has called itself a 4-nation organization for almost that long, this year was the very first Summer Conference to be held in Mexico. The first one. All the other conferences have been in the USA or Canada. And it was the first one where programming was almost completely in Spanish. The theme of this conference was “Arropandonos con esperanza/ clothing each other with hope,” the latest in our 5-year plan to work our way through the story of Matthew 25, following “when did we see you in prison? Breaking social and structural injustice” and “no longer strangers: crossing borders for peace.” So, now, I invite you to get comfortable, whether that involves closing your eyes or not, and imagine with me.
Picture this: Waking up at 4am to drive to the Nashville airport, taking 2 connecting flights and changing land altitude about 9,000 feet over the course of the day. Riding in an old, rickety Suburban over 70 speed bumps (called “topas”) between the airport in Toluca, Mexico and Campamento Mazahua, the site for Baptist Peace Camp. Not knowing how to ask for something so simple as a fork so that we can eat your yummy lunch–which, coincidentally, we also were not sure how to name. Losing a suitcase at the airport in Monterrey, Mexico AND not having a local phone number AND not speaking Spanish AND not being sure how we were ever going to get it back. Using headsets with headphones during plenary sessions, workshops and worship times, so people whose first language is English could understand all the programs and speakers who mostly spoke Spanish. There being no English translation to song lyrics or Bible passages projected onto the screen for worship, but you’re pretty sure you’re saying something about loving Jesus. Finding a scorpion–yes–a scorpion on your pillow in your dormitory with 20 bunkbeds.
So, after all that, after all those things that were less than perfect, I’m not so sure that my heart is pure (I seem to be lodging a lot of complaints)…but I have seen God at Peace Camp this year.
Picture this: 217 people from the USA, Canada, Puerto Rico, México, Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Honduras, evenly split between USA/Canadian participants and Mexican/Central- and South-American participants. Brushing teeth at night time in our communal bathroom while trying to carry on a conversation between an English-only speaker and a Spanish-only speaker concerning how we see God with our hearts. White-haired Canadian women dancing salsa with young Mexican guys while a veterinarian from Mexico City sang dressed in his mariachi outfit. Sitting with pastors and seminarians from across the Western hemisphere who tried to fashion a new theology of the cross that doesn’t involve atonement. A certain pastor who loves to weave examining the handiwork of weavings made by a local indigenous woman. A wacky and touching talent show that involves both a Mexican seminarian miming and a farmer from Ohio who sings, “De Colores” backed up by a collection of twenty musicians from all over North and South America. Lying in hammocks and sharing trail mix snacks with youth and young adults from Mexico and the USA, talking about our hopes for the world and the fear that the USA’s government instills in people on both sides of the border. Attending workshops about the separation of church and state, a historical Baptist concern, and how this idea has impacted the political landscape of both the USA and Mexico. Praying with our feet as we walk the trails of the beautiful Campamento mission land, learning words and plant names in Spanish as we pointed to different objects.
What we have been picturing, what I have described, felt like the kin-dom of God. Last week’s Peace Camp truly felt like nothing I have ever even dreamed of.
You see, as a board member, I was privy to conversations planning this conference. I heard the hesitation when our executive director announced that she thought it was time for us to have Peace Camp in Mexico. “But most of our membership is from the USA and Canada–won’t they be uncomfortable if everything is in Spanish?” “But how will we have that many translators?” “Can the camp handle that many people?” “Will people from Mexico even come?” Over and over again, board members and membership and people who heard about this idea of having Peace Camp in Mexico for the very first time said,”We can’t. This won’t work.”
But it did. We paid for translators for the English-speakers, but so many people from all countries involved stepped up to translate one way or another. Half of the attendees were from primarily English-speaking countries and half were from primarily Spanish-speaking countries. Fabulous activities were planned that got people connecting in many ways besides spoken language; visual art, dance, music and games were offered alongside workshops about politics, theology and practical community-building skills. The camp administration and staff worked tirelessly to prepare food and clean for us, but many Peace Campers also stepped up to assist and support the staff by serving food, cleaning bathrooms and organizing rides back to the airport.
And we, on the board, learned an awful lot about trust. The organizer of the Summer Conference, a friend of mine, is a seminary student in Mexico City who has served on the board for six years. When it became clear that the spirit was moving us in the direction of planning camp in Mexico, it also became clear that my friend was the person to make this happen. But skeptics raised their voices, questioning her ability to understand English (when she’d been attending board meetings held almost solely in English for six years). What would we have missed out on if we had not swallowed our pride and buckled in our seatbelts to accompany the BPFNA on this wild roller coaster of learning to trust people who don’t look or think or speak like us? We would have missed out on the kin-dom of God that was near, so plainly alive among us. By letting fear and apprehension about new experiences and our desire for comfort fortify barriers between us, we would have missed out on purifying our hearts such that we would see God in each other, crossing borders and breaking down walls for peace.
Many walls are built between the countries represented in Bautistas por la Paz, built with the intention of separation and isolation and reinforcing the status quo. They are built with bricks labeled “capitalism” and “colonialism” and “Trump’s Wall” and have stamps from the US Immigration Custom Enforcement organization on them. The mortar that holds these bricks together is concocted from a thick mixture of “prejudice” and “fear.” But last week at Campamento Mazahua, it looked a lot like a whole bunch of white USAmerican and Canadian folks trying to put as many dents in those walls as possible. What tools did we use? How can we truly knock down walls glued together with the mortar of fear that is one thousand times stronger than Gorilla Glue?
Practically speaking, this took the form of being aware of how our bodies were positioned in the spaces we occupied. For me this meant I asked the following questions of myself: am I only sitting with people from my church or from my country or with my skin color? Am I spending most of my mealtimes conversing in English or am I challenging myself to bridge language barriers and try out my Spanish? How can I center non-white, non-American people when I serve food at my table/when I line up for communion/when I am walking through the camp? Breaking down the walls that systemically divide us involves the USAmericans and Canadians being uncomfortable–physically (accommodations this week were a little different from the cozy 2-person dorm rooms that we usually occupy when Peace Camp is held on university campuses); and intellectually. Speaking for myself, it takes a lot of energy to be in a place where I don’t easily understand what is going on around me. It is tiring to be the stranger who doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know the local customs. It is tiring to be an outsider. This is part of an important experience that many USAmericans and Canadians had at this Peace Camp, a turning of the tables and a lesson in seeing God in the life of those we often label Other.
But there was another tool, another way that we put dents in the wall. It had to do with the youth-led worship service that traditionally takes place the last night of Peace Camp. Some of Glendale’s youth were among those who dreamt up this idea for the worship service. Picture this: the sanctuary was split in half down the middle, with rows of pews facing each other across the gap in the middle of the room. There was a long table down the middle of the gap. Slowly, the youth build a wall on the table using chairs, so that soon all I could see as I was seated on one side of the sanctuary were slivers of friends’ faces through the bars of the chairs. Then the youth invited us to write what causes us to create walls in our own lives as a sort of confession.
And so we all wrote down on small, brightly colored pieces of paper, “race,” “class,” “fear,” “not enough time,” “I’ll look stupid,” and so many other things that perhaps we had never shared or named as creating walls. And we all placed the small colored papers on the wall of chairs, each of us moving reverently in silence. Then the youth invited us to say what gives us hope for breaking down walls, what builds community across borders, and they said, “Watch what happens.” As people called out in English and Spanish, “listening,” “learning about each other,” “being willing to be uncomfortable,” “making new friends,” “playing together,” the youth led us in removing the chairs that formed a wall between us. As people called out how they envision the kin-dom of God, how they envision a community where we don’t even cross borders but we eliminate them, the wall melted away and we could see the other side clearly.
So I have a question for you all: What do you envision as you imagine what the kin-dom of God is like? How do you hope to see God among us?
Friends, we have spoken these words aloud. We have called them into being. By listening to each other and hearing these hopes and dreams for the kin-dom of God, we have chosen to enter into relationship with each other and with God. I’ll leave you with words from BPFNA founding director George Williamson, who tearfully shared this sentiment at the closing worship on Wednesday of Peace Camp, “We can’t go back now, we need each other. This gathering is beyond our wildest dreams.”
Today, let us go forward in trust and hope, purifying our hearts of all those ideas and thoughts and systems that threaten to (and often do) divide us. When we break down barriers by hearing each other’s stories, learning what impact our bodies and our lifestyles have on other people, and embracing each other to clothe each other in hope, we are getting closer to picturing the kin-dom of God. We can’t turn back now that we’ve seen God.
This sermon originally preached July 30, 2017 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN.