Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Feed the Hope

When I was little, my favorite Christmas craft was the paper chain. No sooner had we put away the Thanksgiving trace-your-hand-turkeys than I was gathering the construction paper, planning the color order and cutting the strips. As I reflect back now, it may have been that I loved this simple holiday project because of my, shall we say, limited artistic abilities. But at the time, I would have told you that it was because the paper chain was essential to the Christmas countdown. There was something magical about watching the paper chain get shorter and shorter that meant that Christmas was getting closer and closer. Excitement and emotion grew with every link that was removed, and for a child, this is the intrigue of Christmas; the waiting, the wishing, the hoping.
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The energy and enthusiasm among the in-country partner organizations and churches for the Joining Hands El Salvador Network makes one feel almost like a kid at Christmastime. There is so much passion and commitment to working with and for the impoverished people and communities of El Salvador, and their spirit of organizing is impressive. I remember thinking to myself in my first meeting with the Coordinating Committee, “They really understand the issues, they see the big picture, they’re ready and raring to go; building this network is going to be easy.”

As the meeting went on, it became clear that each partner institution had a different idea about which steps should be taken first, how to truly bring about change, even about the change that they want to see. Everyone had their own idea about how we should move forward. “I can lead workshops in all of our churches, I can facilitate development projects in our communities, I can sponsor training programs through our organization, and I can organize protests with our students, I have connections; we can even meet with the President while we’re at it.” All good ideas. I wanted to respect everyone’s opinion and point of view, and I certainly did not want to offend anyone by suggesting that we pause to clarify our objectives. But I couldn’t help but wonder, were we rushing the process or was it just me?

I know it can be hard not to let oneself get carried away with eagerness and anticipation. It becomes even harder when you are the “new kid” and you want to encourage the energy of the group. Maybe I was the only one who felt out of sync. Maybe I couldn’t see or simply didn’t understand the method behind the madness. But this didn’t feel like eagerness and anticipation, it was like we were under the gun; like we were running out of time.

Not having been directly affected by 12 long years of civil war like every one of my colleagues around the table, and currently living in relative suburban comfort in comparison, I was not faced everyday with the need that is so real, and the inequality and injustice that are unmistakable. I knew I needed to look through a different lens in order to appreciate the pressures of a context in which the daily reality presents such urgent needs and conditions that cry out for immediate attention. What then could bring people with such diverse personalities, beliefs, experiences and backgrounds together, to make decisions and take actions of one mind? Hope.

I thought perhaps we could create together a mission and vision for the network, to shift the focus back to the change we anticipate and highlight our hope in positive outcomes. I thought for sure that could
help to bring everyone onto the same page, as well as foster camaraderie in the process. During the extremely dynamic brainstorming session that followed, a number of beautifully worded, thoughtful and poignant phrases were taking shape. I was particularly taken by one suggestion and repeated it out loud: aliviar los efectos de la pobreza y alimentar la esperanza, to alleviate the effects of poverty and to feed hope. Then came a response that I hadn’t anticipated; “I don’t want to ‘feed hope.’ I want to fight the injustices; we need to feed people, not feed hope.”

There was that kid at Christmastime feeling flooding over me again, only this time it was the disappointment and frustration of the kid who had just realized that by cutting all the links off the paper chain she could not make Christmas come any sooner.

It is true; Joining Hands is about fighting injustices, transforming the systems that prevent God’s people from rejoicing in the abundant life for which they have been created. It is about working through peaceful means to change local and global conditions. We hear in Mary’s Magnificat that this too is the message of Christmas – to bring down rulers from their thrones and lift up the humble, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.

Joining Hands is also about celebrating community, building solidarity, and thoughtfully and patiently participating together in the long, and sometimes slow process of actively expecting with confidence in the Peace, Joy and Love that is to come; the message of Advent. Joining Hands is also about Hope.

Shelley Douglass, in an article for Sojourners Magazine, writes,  
“In Advent, Christians remember that God not only hears the cry of the poor, but God was born one of the oppressed…Jesus lived among suffering people. This was not God enthroned, listening from a distance to wails of suffering. No, God-with-us was with the wailing crowds, healing, comforting -- and challenging…This is our hope.

Hope is not optimism. Advent hope…is not the belief that everything will work out for us if we just believe. Advent hope…is that the power of the empire will be overthrown and the poor will be able to live their lives in peace and plenty. Advent hope is not that a pretty baby will appear in the manger and sales will rise and the economy will resurrect. Advent hope is that empires will fall: all empires, with their idolatry, their gluttony, their pollution, their wars, their intrigue, their murder, and their weapons. Advent hope is that we will transform our minds - which will then require us to transform our world.”
As we prepare to celebrate the long-awaited coming of the Messiah, born into a world filled with violence and greed, hunger and extreme poverty – not so different from the world we live in – we reaffirm our belief that God still wants for us the change God sent Jesus to preach: a world without war, a world without discrimination, a world where the needs of others come before our own interests. Just as Christmas is not the end, rather the beginning of the story, we too must begin our story with hope.

Through this process we were able to embrace a hope that guides us and gives us purpose, a hope that inspires us to work together to build the world in which we would like to live, and a hope that invites us to live for the day when the nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

May the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love of this Advent Season fill your homes and hearts. And as we “fight the injustices” may we always remember to also “feed the hope.”