When driving to San Antonio for a meeting with our bishop and for a hospital visit, I had to stop at the permanent border checkpoint just outside Eagle Pass. The agent had me roll down my backseat window and asked the usual questions: “Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What is your occupation?” When I said, “Lutheran pastor,” he looked at me rather incredulously and said, “Lutheran? Shouldn’t you be in Minnesota or something?” “No, we’re here, too,” I replied. He just shook his head and had me drive on through.
I know the stereotypes about Lutherans: we eat jello and sing boring hymns. We never like to change and we say cutesy things like “ya sure ya betcha.” Here at San Lucas, I love discovering differences to these stereotypes. Here Lutherans cook up enchiladas instead of hotdish. Our music has all sorts of beautiful Latin rhythms.
Being Lutheran is not about what you eat or what kind of music you sing. It’s about God’s grace. As a community of faith, we gather around scripture and share God’s meal together. That’s what makes us Lutheran. Actually, that’s what makes us Christian.
I’m slowly starting to get settled into the parsonage in Eagle Pass. It will be a slow process to get the books shelved, the pictures hung, and the clothes unpacked.
Today was my first actual working day as pastor of San Lucas. I’m still getting used to functioning more in Spanish, and learning about the congregation, its context and my role. Here are some highlights from mi primer día:
I snooped around my office in the morning, getting a feel for the administrative stuff. I’ll do most of my writing and computer work from the study in the parsonage, but will be present a few hours a week in the church office, likely the same hours as the food bank, Tuesday and Thursday mornings. The food bank at San Lucas serves about 160 families from the community every month, and the congregation has a strong team of volunteers who helps it run smoothly. Today I ate tacos with some of the volunteers.
In the afternoon, I rode in the church van with two volunteers to pick up some food donations from Wal-Mart. They make the trip three days a week. Wal-Mart has been very generous to San Lucas. We took the food back to the church to sort and put it away. I’m starting to learn the nuances of recording and reporting the activities of the food bank.
After some more office tasks, including a call to check in with my bishop on this first day, I had a meal of soup and tostadas with a family from the congregation. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the learning I need to do, but it is a good start to an exciting ministry.
As I get ready to start as pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation en la frontera that is heavily dependent on financial mission support from partner congregations, the synod, and denomination, I name and claim things that intimidate me and those things that invigorate my eager anticipation.
Cosas que me dan miedo—Things that really freak me out:
Preaching in Spanish: It’s not my native language. Though I can usually get my ideas across, there’s always the worry I might embarrassingly conjugate a verb incorrectly or say the wrong noun. Just the other day, I was lunching at a seafood restaurant with San Lucas’ interim pastor and a lay leader, and I almost ordered pecado instead of pescado—sin instead of fish.
Crossing the border: I know there’s a perception of danger. Though I’ve heard that cartel issues aren’t as peligroso in Piedras Negras as in Juarez or Nuevo Laredo, there is still a risk in crossing the border. Also, ever since my one and only speeding ticket eight years ago, I start to feel nervous around cops and folks with badges and uniforms. I’ll soon get used to border checkpoints. My family is a bit concerned, too. My mom always worries about her kids. Just a few days before I moved to New York for internship, Law & Order was on TV, and an address of a scene of some sort of violent crime flashed on the screen. “Mom, you know that’s just three blocks from where I’m moving.” I’m sure she’ll have similar concerns once I’m in Eagle Pass.
Fundraising: Much of San Lucas’ income comes from outside the congregation. As I wrote to my previous congregation informing them of this new call, it doesn’t make sense to leave one congregation and go to another with an even more precarious financial situation. Not knowing the future of my salary is somewhat daunting. When I was a kid selling Boy Scout popcorn or orchestra candy bars, I hated asking people to buy stuff. I know stewardship is different, but it’s still out of my comfort zone.
Cosas que me dan animo—Things that inspire and excite me:
Preaching in Spanish: I know that I’m not the erudite homiletical craftsperson in Spanish that like to think that I am in English. My sermons won’t be as good in Spanish, yet I’m really looking forward to not keeping God in my own English-speaking box, and encountering what the Gospel is like in another language. It’s also bad stewardship for me to have skills and abilities that I don’t use. I’m afraid that if I don’t keep speaking Spanish, I will forget what I’ve learned. Also, what better way is there for me to become a better hispanohablante than to have to speak in Spanish?
Crossing the border: My response whenever somebody comments about the possible danger on the border is, “Well, that’s exactly the place the Church needs to be.” I keep on praying that prayer from page 128 in the green Lutheran Book of Worship, “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” I don’t know what ministry on both sides of the border will be like, but I trust God in the midst of it all.
Building up mission partners: Instead of thinking about it as fundraising, I frame it as developing relationships; it’s about more than money. It’s about connections and community. I’ve seen “mission trip” situations become messy and insensitive. Far too often, it becomes “the rich white people help those poor brown people.” This arrangement is one-sided and embarrassing. I’d like to avoid this. However, I think San Lucas already has a good handle on this. Several congregations have been strong mission partners, making several visits to Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras a year for years. It’s a long term relationship, being Church together. I want to be a part of these friendships and mutuality!
I want to acc-cent-chu-ate the positive. There’s more that inspires me!
Oodles of kids: When I visited San Lucas on a Sunday, I counted about 120 folks in worship; probably 25 of these were under age ten. Having a critical mass of children in worship gives the liturgy a wonderful energy.
Adult learning: San Lucas has a midweek class on Bible study and Lutheran doctrine that between 25-30 people come to. I love teaching, and I love learning with a group. I’m usually not a big numbers guy, but to have nearly a quarter of Sunday worship attendance at a midweek learning class is an impressive statistic that I haven’t seen very often in Lutheran congregations.
Living in a neighborhood: One thing I’ve missed while living in suburban San Antonio has been a walkable neighborhood. I’ve been in a gated apartment community on the freeway. Somebody at San Lucas told me that when I give directions to the church, I need to have a reference point. Nobody knows what the street address means, but everybody there knows what “Down the road from Panchito’s” means. I look forward to having an independent mini-supermercado like Panchito’s near my house. I won’t need to drive two miles just to get a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.
I know that the grass isn’t always greener. I know there will be challenges, yet I await this ministry with hope and a sense of adventure.
On a recent preliminary visit to Eagle Pass, I took Highway 90, mostly so I could drive through Hondo and take a picture of the famous sign, “THIS IS GOD’S COUNTRY. PLEASE DON’T DRIVE THROUGH IT LIKE HELL.” Alas, the sign was not there. Maybe it’s down for construction; it wasn’t there a few months ago, either.
At any rate, the wording on the sign raises a good question: What is God’s country? Medina County? Texas? The United States? The whole earth?
I could chalk this up to a sort of Texan pride and Lone Star hubris. Since moving to San Antonio two years ago, I’ve noticed that Texans are rather proud of their state. Take, for example, my continental breakfast at a Galveston hotel last month:
What other state does this? I’ve never eaten nor seen an Iowa-shaped waffle. I have, however, encountered Colorado- and Wyoming-shaped waffles, but I don’t think they were designed with any cartographic intentionality; they were just squares.
To be fair, I grew up hearing the quotation from Field of Dreams, “Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”
Is God only in Texas? Is Iowa really heaven? Is God specific to one specific place? Where is God?
Sometimes we Christians send mixed messages about where God is. We talk about God’s presence with us. We pray, “Come Lord Jesus, be our Guest.” We sing hymns with lines like “Here in the place a new light is streaming.” Yet we also pray, “Our Father who art in heaven…” So what is it? Is God here or there? I’m going to cop out and be very Lutheran, saying, “Yes. It’s both/and.”
In the Bible (2 Kings 5), Naaman is a high-up Syrian military commander who gets healed of his nasty skin disease, then wants to praise the God who made it possible. Thus Naaman asks to have two mule-loads of Israelite dirt trucked back with him to Syria. He is assuming that the God of Israel can only be worshipped in Israel, and so he needs to build a “mini Israel” on the trip back home to keep praising God.
The Israelites in exile have the same question: How can they worship God when they aren’t in Israel? “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4). I just read a new and wonderful book of sermons and writings by civil rights leader Joseph E. Lowery, Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. In the title sermon, Lowery draws upon Psalm 137 and notes that “a strange land is more than geography. Any situation or environment, any system that denies the sovereignty of God and the dignity of his children, is a strange land” (67-68). These strange and foreign lands of oppression and injustice might be foreign to us, but they are not to God.
I don’t need to truck mule-loads of Iowa humus or Texas loam with me to worship God. I don’t need a bottle of Jordan River water to have a baptism. God’s presence transcends all our human boundaries. In this new call, I will be an international boundary-crossing pastor. San Lucas has started a mission, Cristo Rey, across the border in Piedras Negras. I will have worship at 11 a.m. every Sunday in the United States and at 4 p.m. in Mexico.
What is God’s country?
God’s country is any place where people are longing for wholeness.
God’s country is any place where love is shared.
God’s country is any place where suffering happens.
God’s country knows no human boundaries.
God’s country is Texas. It’s Mexico. It’s Iowa. It’s all sorts of places we can’t imagine, but God loves.
Welcome to God’s country.