I had a great meeting today with my bishop, Greg Rickel, and am very excited about some upcoming stuff (which I will update in a timely fashion this time!) about amping up my virtual presence in keeping the Diocese of Olympia informed of what I've been up to and what's up next with Brazil, round 2!
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at my local church, Saint John the Baptist Episcopal Church in West Seattle, and though it was somewhat sparse due to the random whopping snowstorm that whipped through and was gone in less than 24 hours, I heard much good feedback -- but I wanted to share it with all of you who were not there!
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…amen… or, as we say in Brazilian Portuguese, em nome do Pai e do Filho e do Espírito Santo, amém.
It is wonderful to be here with you all today, and to be back in Seattle after a year abroad. My name is Nina Boe, and I have been a member of this parish since 2005. In 2012, I applied to the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps, or YASC – an international program of the Episcopal Church of the United States for young adults the ages of 21-30 to spend a year in another country – a year of service, a year of community, and a year of giving of yourself—as well as receiving the gifts that this incredible experience will inevitably give to you. In my year there were 13 of us; this last year saw almost 30 applicants. Placements range from Asia to sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America, and after interviews, prayer and discernment, an offer was made to me: Brazil. The bustling city of São Paulo, to be precise—working in support of the national provincial office of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil. My work would turn out to be heavily communication-based: a lot of translation, writing, editing, and administrative support—things that the provincial office sorely needs. I also had incredible opportunities to travel and visit six of the 9 dioceses and 1 missionary district that comprise the Church—and experience the beauty that is Brazil, from north to south, central to coastal.
From today’s reading from Corinthians, a line in particular sticks out in my mind. “I came to you in weakness and fear; with much trembling…no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” How can we be that salt of the earth or city on a hill if we do not walk forward to what God has beckoned us, to come to the Corinthians of our calling? I’m always up for an adventure, and I love traveling, but to do something like this for a year…it’s kind of a big deal. I had never been anywhere in Latin America before, and a year ago, I had no idea what lay ahead of me. Yes, I was excited to go, and I very soon felt at home—but in retrospect, I see that there was much I had to learn, strengths on which to improve…weakness and fear, while perhaps not the words I’d choose—but on the other hand, I can completely resonate with them.
In piecing this reflection together, despite feeling like this is perhaps one of the biggest revelations I’ve ever had, it still feels like a strange, Sunday school sense of deja vu—I’ve learned this before, haven’t I? And yet I’m learning it all over again…what exactly happened in Brazil? I met God, face to face.
Jesus is in the pews as much as he’s also – perhaps sometimes more so – out of them as well…in the happy smile of a baby turning a year old, and in the joyful spirit of service of the 94 year old who is the oldest deacon in the entire Anglican Communion. God in the love and sadness in the notes and placards at the nightclub in Santa Maria, where 242 youths died in a tragic fire last year. God in the eyes of the prostitutes on the corner, in the homeless you walk by every day and likely don’t look in the eye. God walking even with the kid trying to rob me once, shouting vou te matar! I’ll kill you! Jesus amongst the crack addicts and slum-dwellers, the ones who go scrounging for garbage, cardboard and salvage scrap metal. I saw God even in the places I know I should see him, but didn’t want to see him–if I’m honest, I probably avoided bumping into God at least just as many times, but with time I at least became – hopefully – a bit more sensitive and open to the idea and tried to pay attention more.
I think that a lot of times when we say we know God is there, it’s like some stupid spiritual pact of coexistence. God is not there so we don’t have to be. We have to be there because God is there. Jesus doesn’t just hang out at polite Episcopal gatherings with a few glasses of a nice wine. He’s just as much there when you give in to your first real cultural immersion of watching Brazil beat Portugal in a World Cup qualifier, accepting a cheap beer, fried yucca and some beef cubes, sitting on a grimy bar stool and engaging in an incredibly odd sort of cultural communion as you yell at the TV when it doesn’t work out right—or when it does.
People would joke – or maybe ask seriously – why on earth was I there, just to do what I usually do? I mean, taking pictures at protests, go to the gym… does anyone remember the kids’ book, If you give a mouse a cookie? He’ll probably want some milk, and if he has milk, then he’ll ask for a straw, and then he’ll ask for a napkin…it’ll lead somewhere else, and inevitably somewhere else… for me, it’s more like: if you give a Nina a new country, she’ll inevitably live in it and make herself right at home...and who knows where that leads? I don’t need to do something miraculous, spectacular, or even all that unique –I just need to be. A number of Brazilians, clergy and lay alike, have told me that they practically consider me Brazilian by now.
Indeed, this last year in Brazil has been interesting, not just for me, but for Brazilians, too. Amongst the many experiences emblazoned in my own memory are the protests against a hike in transit fares last June—currently underway again in Rio de Janeiro—and these protests have been the biggest social movement that the country has seen since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s. This made it historical in and of itself, but it was a big deal because it was a struggle of the Brazilian people. My new home, my community, my country for the time being—my participation in and witness to these events was more than a matter of polite solidarity by association—it was my ability to say and show: I stand with you in your struggles.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us of our calling: “to loose the chains of injustice…to set the oppressed free...to share your food with the hungry, provide the wanderer with shelter—to not turn away from your flesh and blood.” In Brazil, I learned about new, similar and different forms of injustice and oppression. I tried to understand the ways in which people are hungry in today’s world. I realized that in some ways, I too was the stranger, the wanderer, and found myself sheltered innumerable times in so many homes, however different they were from my own. I realized that though Sao Paulo was a very long way from Seattle, these people too were my flesh and blood. I’m reminded of a quote I used in my sermon I gave last year before leaving for Brazil: when Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote, a revelation whilst on a street corner in Lexington, Kentucky of all places: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs.”
I have realized that at the end of the day, the fact is that Jesus – God – the Holy Spirit – love – is in every single person and place out there, from the pristine church to the back alleys that smell of human waste. And when I’m completely honest, I sometimes have problems with that at times—with one or the other side, or with the very fact that I even have a problem with anything in the first place. But I am so glad that I am fighting with myself over this, and not letting myself remain on only one side or the other. I read a book whilst abroad, a memoir of a Lutheran pastor in Denver. A lot stuck out to me, especially this anecdote of hers—ironically enough, a reminder from her husband who is also a minister: when you draw a line between yourself, your people, and someone else, God is usually on the other side. Well, damn. (Her words, not mine.)
There are those of us who might find it easier to see God in young people, older people, clean people, the homeless, the poor, or in wealth and generosity. I may find it easier to hug cute, dirty kids than to hug less cute, dirty adults, but until I can remember to shut up sometimes and be reminded, as Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu began each and every chapter of a particular book of his, with the words: dear child of God – I must keep fighting to remember to look at every single person through this lens. Because at the end of it all, a year, a day, a mission, a lifetime – it’s not about me. It’s not about us. It’s not even about the church, either.
It’s about God, and our mission is to see God in everyone out there, and treat them as we ought to anyone in such a position. Despite all of our stupid spiritual, social, political, religious, ethno-nationalist, sexist, racist bickering, Jesus is quite clear about what it means to do just that: love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, these experiences in Brazil changed me. It has more deeply and totally reaffirmed my conviction that unless we are truly acting, living and loving in this spirit—loving everyone in this spirit—then we’re still not quite getting it yet. I admit, I’ve had problems with this over the years, because I’ve never been very good at really loving myself. But this experience abroad helped truly make some progress in the process of reconciling me to myself—and to love myself as much as I love my neighbor. And as my friend and Bishop of Brasilia, Mauricio Andrade once said, “Reconciliation is part of our Christian vocation. If we do not believe in reconciliation, then we do not believe in Christ.”
These prophets of all the ages speak the words we need to hear. As poet June Jordan wrote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” We are the ones who are called. To love is our calling. To set the oppressed free. To not turn away. This and so much more is what I have been learning about—not just in Brazil, but through this time of service. To both give and receive…and to return to do just that, and learn how to continue doing so in service for the rest of my life. Amen.