Jun 5, 2007

Pentecost in Petare

La Paz bannerOn Pentecost Sunday Luz Maria and I attended La Paz (Peace) Lutheran Church in Petare, a part of the Caracas metropolitan area. La Paz celebrated the 32nd anniversary of its founding this year.

Petare itself was founded in 1621 by Spanish landowners who built a church and provided a Franciscan friar to minister to their Indian laborers. For a long time Petare was a quiet farming community but during the last half of the 20th Century became a hotbed of Dumpster diving in PetareVenezuela's explosive urban growth. The population of Petare increased from around 180,000 people in 1961 to nearly 660,000 in 1990 to more than 1.5 million in 2000. This rate of growth has proved too much for the community to cope with effectively and many residents of Petare live in extreme poverty with no public services. Petare today is known for its street markets where many things are sold at heavily discounted prices, including many quite illegal products and services. Due to these factors, street crime is a serious problem in Petare.

La Paz Lutheran Church was originally established in a quieter, more secure district of Caracas, but the decision was made in the early 1990s to take the Gospel where it was needed most. The congregation supports a preschool named Preescolar Caterina Lutero, after Martin Luther's wife. There are about 30 children enrolled in the preschool.

During that weekend of Pentecost, there were thousands of people marching in the streets throughout Caracas. They were protesting the Venezuelan government's decision not to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV, Venezuela's oldest (on the air since 1953) and perhaps most respected television network. RCTV (the letters stand for Radio Caracas Television) also has been, of all the national news media, the most critical of President Hugo Chavéz. The government claimed RCTV had become an organ of partisan propaganda and was no longer serving the public interest. Its license would be allowed to expire at midnight, May 28, and in the future it would be replaced by a government-owned network similar to Great Britain's BBC.

The government's decision was appealed to Venezuela's Supreme Court, but the court ruled in favor of the government. The international organization Reporters without Borders has prepared a report about the situation and is submitting the document to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the European Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The governments of Spain and the United States have urged the Venezuelan government to reconsider its decision.

Luz Maria and I had planned to go out and see a movie in Caracas on Saturday, but we decided it would be more prudent to stay indoors. There were marches and speeches all day and after sundown you could hear the noise all over the city for over an hour as people deliberately and repeatedly set off the alarm systems in their cars.

As the U.S. Embassy repeatedly states, there have been no documented incidents of politically motivated violence against U.S. citizens. However, no one can predict what might happen when proponents and opponents of the government here square off in the streets, so North Americans are advised to stay away from areas where demonstrations are planned.

I regularly receive warnings via e-mail from the U.S. Embassy about planned demonstrations in Caracas (the capital city is ground zero for political turmoil in Venezuela). Normally we avoid traveling to Caracas at these times, but we both had obligations this time.

Rosie Gilbert, Elsy de Machado and Luz MariaLuz Maria had agreed to spend the week in Caracas helping lead a seminar for deaconesses along with Elsy de Machado and Rosie Gilbert, a deaconess from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The seminar drew nine women from across Venezuela.

I was obliged to travel on to Ciudad Guayana for a week-long seminar on the Holy Spirit. It is an eight-hour ride by bus from Barinas to Caracas and another 10 hours by bus from Caracas to Ciudad Guayana in the state of Bolívar.

Ciudad Guayana actually is two cities, Puerto Ordaz and San Félix, and indeed may be thought of as the Twin Cities of Venezuela. As Minneapolis and St. Paul are located where the Minnesota River joins the Mississippi, Puerto Ordaz and San Félix are located where the Rio Caroni joins the Rio Orinoco. The area is a center of mining (primarily iron ore and bauxite) and hydroelectric power generation. As I was riding around Puerto Ordaz with Ricardo Granado, director of the Juan de Frias Theological Institute, I saw something I had not seen in some time: a freight train. I explained to Ricardo that every little town in the United States has a railroad depot, which is something you do not see in Venezuela.

One of the reasons why the United States has such a powerful economy is the amount of time and resources that have been invested in infrastructure: railroads, highways, telephone and electrical lines and so forth. Venezuela does not have the benefit of this development. There is no transnational railway. Ther e is one road comparable to an interstate highway that runs from west to east across Venezuela's northern tier, then curves south toward Brazil. Since Venezuela has roughly the same land area as Texas and Oklahoma combined, imagine one interstate highway crossing both those states, starting in the Oklahoma Panhandle at the New Mexico border, running east to Oklahoma City, then curving south to Dallas-Fort Worth and on through Houston down to the Gulf Coast.

If you have ever driven through the wide open spaces of west Texas, imagine all of that with two-lane paved roads at best and you will have an idea of what most of Venezuela is like.

I should also mention that, although there has been massive migration from Venezuela's rural areas to the cities, because of a higher overall birth rate, rural populations have not declined, as in in the United States, but remained stable. However, the economic problems of rural Venezuelans have intensified as more resources have been allocated to urban areas where the greater concentrations of people are found.

We discussed some of these socio-economic issues at the seminar I attended at la Ascensión Lutheran Church in San Félix. Over the course of five days we discussed I believe everything that could be discussed about the Holy Spirit, from filioque controversy, which was one of the issues which led to the division of the churches of the East and the West in 1054, to the meaning of the Holy Spirit for the work of the church today, especially in Latin America.

Leopoldo Sanchez and Edgar PoitoDr. Leopoldo Sánchez was our teacher. A native of Chile who grew up in Panama, he served for a time as a missionary in Ciudad Guayana. He now is a member of the faculty of the Center for Hispanic Studies at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.

Socio-economic issues came up when we talked about the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians, especially in light of verses like Romans 6:13:

"And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God."

Later, in chapter 8, the Apostle Paul explains that we are set free from lives of sin and enabled to live as children of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But it is important to understand what that means to a Christian in Latin America where the phrase rendered in English as "instruments of righteousness" is translated into Spanish as "instrumentos de justicia". In Spanish, "justicia" means both righteousness and justice -- and justice is a loaded word because there is so little of it here.

One error is to think of the work of the Holy Soirit and the mission of the church in overly "spiritual" terms -- the proclamation of salvation in the afterlife and the inner peace that comes from that assurance -- without application in the here and now. Surely that flies in the face of our Lord's command to minister to the whole person: to provide food, clothing and shelter for those in need as well as spiritual comfort for all in times of trial.

The other error is that of the men who would have made Jesus their king after the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-15). This is to make the mission of the church simply that of satisfying material needs. In the United States, the phrase "social gospel" is often used to refer to the idea that since Christ commanded us to help the poor, supporting public policy aimed at redistributing wealth more fairly is the realization of the church's mission. In Latin America we have "liberation theology", which is the "social gospel" on steroids.

"Liberation theology" teaches that a Marxist interpretation of history and the redistribution of land and other wealth, even if that means violent revolution, is the true application of New Testament principles. This school of thought became popular among some Roman Catholics in Latin America after the Second Vatican Council, but was decisively rejected by the Roman Catholic Church after John Paul II became pope. As Lutherans,we might agree with most of John Paul II's reasons for rejecting liberation theology. But the decision has proved costly for the Roman church. Many would say that the Catholic church has lost a lot of credibility in Latin America over the last 30 years because it has come to be perceived as having too much invested in the status quo and nothing to say to the poor.

Furthermore, "liberation theology" continues to provide "inspiration" for much of the political rhetoric in Latin America today and remains a political reality.

Really the preoccupation with "justice" in material terms may be seen as evidence of an unacknowledged spiritual hunger. For generations in Latin America, most people held to a fatalistic view of life: Things are the way they are, and for most of us there is no hope of anything better, either now or in the hereafter. More and more, however, there is the desire for a better life, but it tends to be a vision of happiness in this world: plenty to eat, a nice house, guaranteed medical care, national pride and self-determination. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in and of themselves, but neither do they bring lasting joy in and of themselves. The real hunger is for the peace which passes all understanding, which the world cannot give.

It is difficult to live as a Christian in the midst of injustice and corruption. But also there is little hope of social transformation without the personal transformation that comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit made possible through Christ's suffering, death and resurrection.

Those are some reflections on a seminar I thoroughly enjoyed, although I had to leave early. The protests in Caracas continued throughout the week and there was gunfire exchanged between police and some protestors. There were no persons injured, only property damaged. But Luz Maria prevailed upon me for an early departure from Caracas f
or the two of us. Friday night Luz Maria´s daughter, Wuendy, and her husband, Jesús, were both working as late as they could. They were reluctant to go home because of the danger in the streets.

In closing, I would offer the words of this Spanish version of the ancient hymn, "Come, Holy Spirit":

Ven Espíritu Santo, ven a iluminar,
Nuestra inteligencia, y a preservarnos del mal.

Tú, promesa del Padre, don de Cristo Jesús,

Ven y danos tu fuerza, para llevar nuestra cruz.

Tú, llamado "Paráclito", nuestro Consolador,

Ven y habita en nosotros, por la fé y por el amor.

Haz que cada cristiano, bajo tu inspiración,
Sea testigo de Cristo, con la palabra y la acción.

Guiados por el Espíritu hacia Cristo Jesús,

Caminemos con jubilo, al país de la luz.

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