31 July 2011
The 7th Sunday After Pentecost
On this Sunday morning following Kate Cudlipp’s sudden death, the temptation is surely to skip our sermon on “feeding the 5,000” and go straight to our grief for her, but there will be a memorial service for Kate in September and today we need to remember that we are part of God’s larger story as it weaves in and through our lives.
The text for today begins with the shock of John’s death, and Jesus’ withdrawal to a deserted place, presumably to tend his own grief. But the crowds followed Jesus, needing more from him. Mark says in reporting this same story that “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and so Jesus began to teach them that they too were part of God’s realm. But the real lesson came when the people began to get hungry and restless.
The disciples came to Jesus and said “Send them away, so they can buy food,” but Jesus answered: “What do you have?”
“Does he mean we are to go and buy food for so many people?”
And again Jesus said, “What do you have?”
I can imagine that the disciples were a little smug when they returned with a measly offering of five loaves and two fish — barely enough for a single family, not the multitude seated all around them. But Jesus didn’t flinch. He took the five loaves and two fish, held them up for everyone to see and gave thanks to God for what they had, then gave the food to the disciples to distribute … and it was more than enough.
When we go to Guatemala each summer, we work with an organization called PAVA which does not hand out charity, but asks again and again, “What do you have?” Their focus is on calling forth the gifts of leadership and creativity in the villages of Chimaltenango, a district in which a whole generation of indigenous local leadership was wiped out by the 30-year civil war which only ended in 1996.
For the past ten years, Seekers Church has been supporting PAVA through international giving. Many of you have also been participants on these work-pilgrimages, to supply money and some outside energy for building schools that were promised by the peace accords. Today you’ll be hearing from David and Peterand in the near future, you’ll be hearing more from Leslie, Steve and Annie, who were also on this trip.
On my recent trip to Guatemala – both the Seekers pilgrimage and, for me, the preceding week in the city of Xela – I saw several instances of poor, indigenous people, and those alongside of them, working with the little bread and fish they had to feed the multitudes. And there truly is little for most Guatemalans. 49 percent of children are chronically malnourished – the fourth highest rate in the world. In indigenous Mayan communities, the rate is closer to 70 percent. Yet through dedication and leadership, indigenous Guatemalans are making a difference in their communities. I’ll describe three examples that I saw.
Many of you are acquainted with the Miguel Asturias Academy of Xela, which Seekers has supported for years through our international giving. I had the privilege of visiting it earlier this month. The Academy, a pre-K through grade 12 private school, was founded 17 years ago by Jorge Chojolan. Jorge was a poor Mayan who was the object of racism and discrimination. He used to teach Spanish at the language school where I spent a week studying. But from his experience, Jorge had a dream of helping poor Guatemalans – ladino and indigenous – overcome the many barriers to even a minimal level of economic security. He founded the Academy not only to subsidize education for poor families – a high percentage of them pay little or no tuition – but also to provide the students with a vision of a more just society. The curriculum in part aims to help students learn about and question the social reality in a culture in which sexism and racism are often the norm. Classroom learning is organized around monthly themes such as gender, ecology, and human rights. Leadership is stressed. Last year, the Academy graduated its first class, and many foreigners now contribute time and money to help. But 17 years ago, the school was little more than a dream in a community of little bread and fish. Jorge’s vision and hard work, his leveraging of a 2000 Ashoka Fellowship, and the continued support of Seekers and other donors have helped to feed the multitudes in an impoverished community in Guatemala’s second largest city.
Four days after my visit to the Academy, I was with more than 20 other pilgrims in the small Mayan village of Paxixil, two to three hours northeast of Xela.Quite a difference, although much was also the same. Here, too, the indigenous are “people of corn” – you might say that corn is the bread and the fish of the people. And like the poor educational system in Guatemalan cities, the schooling in Paxixil is far from what we would consider minimally acceptable. We were there to help build a school addition that Seekers and the pilgrims funded. On that first day, we learned how the addition came to be. As many of you know, PAVA, the Guatemalan NGO through which the pilgrimage operates, helps build community schools, water systems, latrines, and other projects. The operative word here is help – PAVA furnishes assistance only when the village requests help and commits to provide the land, labor, and some materials for the project. At the ceremony to welcome us and celebrate the start of construction, there were the usual series of speeches, including one by the mayor of the municipality, which is made up of a number of villages, including Paxixil. The mayor’s sincerity and commitment to the project shone through. He was born poor, he said, and he understood the importance of education in bettering people’s lives. Later we learned from PAVA that, during a conversation about another project in the municipality, the mayor had told PAVA representatives that a new school addition truly was needed in Paxixil. Village leaders also planned and organized for the addition. And after our one week of our work alongside the villagers, it will be the villagers who complete the building. Once again, the loaves and fish are increasing.
My third example is from San Juan la Laguna, a village across Lake Atitlan from where we stayed following our work on the school. We spent several hours in San Juan in large part because PAVA now plans to help establish community libraries, and San Juan has the only public library on the lake. But our entire walk through this well-kept village was fascinating. We saw a coffee cooperative and several weaving cooperatives, and learned that these cooperatives were formed 60 years ago. When Marjory asked how San Juan fared during the civil war – a number of villages in the area suffered terribly in the violence – our guide told us that San Juan’s pacifist political leadership managed to keep both the guerrillas and the Army out of the village. And this political leadership was in large part an outgrowth of the leadership of the cooperatives. The loaves and fish of the cooperatives have multiplied across San Juan, as they have at the Asturias Academy and in Paxixil.
One core element in the story of Jesus feeding the multitude was getting all those people to care enough about each other to share what they had. I’ve seen that kind of caring sharing happen in some wonderful ways recently, both here and in Guatemala. Let me offer a couple of examples.
In Paxixil, the highland village where this year’s PAVA Pilgrimage village was helping the residents build a school for their children, the site for the new building was on ground that had been leveled many years ago with almost a meter of fill dirt. As we dug the foundation trenches one afternoon, the village elder I was working with showed me old charcoal in the soil at the bottom of the trench. It was a sign that there had been a “casa” there, he said. And from the look on his weathered face, there was a strong memory in his heart as he helped make way for a school where once had stood the home of someone he knew and cared about.
In order to put the footings in solid ground we had to dig a meter into the soil below the fill. So the foundation trenches were DEEP – over 5 feet in some places! But when we arrived on Monday work was well underway, and by Tuesday evening the pilgrims had helped the men of the village get almost to the bottom all the way around. All that was left before they could start positioning the reinforcing rods was to hone the bottom of the trenches to make 18 good, solid bases, each a meter square at the bottom of those 6-foot holes.It rained during the day on Tuesday, and we’d worked hard. By the time we crawled into the bus and tried to kick the mud off our shoes, we weren’t paying much attention to our muddy clothes. We rode home, exhausted, and discovered the next day that it had taken Hernan, our dedicated bus driver 4 hours to clean his bus after we got off. We sure didn’t want to burden him like that again.
It rained hard in Antigua that night, and as we dodged the worst of the storm we hoped that it had missed the work site in Paxixil. No such luck. When we arrived Wednesday morning there was about 2 inches of water on top of 6 inches of soft mud all over the trench! The young pilgrims jumped in with a vengeance, bailing with buckets and bare hands. By noon lots of us were muddy, but half a dozen of us were filthy … mud up to the waist, front and back. Little Claire had even jumped in at one point to bail with both hands, and was muddy to the armpits. We were a mess, and needed to find some way to get home without putting Hernan through another cleaning ordeal.
I had some 40-gallon trash bags in my pack, and thought we might have enough to have the muddy folks turn them into tunics for the ride home.(Sort of like this… [Don the trash bag.]) The kids weren’t all that excited with my suggestion, so we kept digging.
Aeren, who was our incredible, unstoppable on-the-ground logistics coordinator, came up the road from the place where we’d be eating lunch with a smile on her face. She said: “I’ve learned that it’s usually better if you can start with a question than a suggestion.” (NOTE TO SELF: Lesson here…!)
“What’s up?” I said, hoping she heard it as a question.
“I saw the kids covered with mud, and told the ladies who are cooking lunch for us how they looked. I asked them if they had any ideas. They said ‘What size are the kids? Maybe we can give them some clean clothes.’”
So as we finished bailing out the trenches the kids went off behind the room where we were eating to try to get clean. The women found clothes for Annie Smith-Estrada, and little Claire from Corvallis, and Mari, the mother of one of the other teens who had been down in the trenches all day and looked like a kid. Before long, they appeared in elegant, native Guatemalan women’s dress. With these three dressed in clean ‘traje,’ there were enough trash bags so the folks who were too big to wear clothes from the families in Paxixil to use the bags and duct tape to make hip boots to cover their muddy boots and pants. Maybe we could save Hernan from pulling an “all-nighter” after all.
When we got to the bus, Hernan had carpeted the floor with cardboard secured by more duct tape, and his luggage tarp was covering the back seat of the bus, so there was a way to get home without making a total mess of the bus. We’d all cared enough to share what we had – “traje,” garbage bags, cardboard, duct tape. And it was good.
The next day, with clean, borrowed clothes in clean trash bags ready to be returned with thanks, each of those who had borrowed the clothes bought a loaf of delicious banana bread from Dona Luisa’s to take back to the village. Since bananas are a favorite fruit in Guatemala, and there is no oven in the village, a loaf of fresh-baked banana bread was likely to be a welcome treat. From the looks on the faces of those who received their clothes and the gift of bread, it was well-received.
One core element in this week’s Gospel story of Jesus feeding the multitude is getting all those people to care enough about each other to share what they had. There it was, in the muddy foundation trenches for the new school in Paxixil.
The other image of this kind of caring enough to share what you have is the painful yet hopeful replay of Kate Cudlipp’s life. I’ve known Kate for almost 3 decades. One of her most precious gifts to the world was the warm, willing way she offered herself in support of so many as they stepped into an unknown future. Her quiet work behind the scenes has helped so many people – at FLOC, in the wider Church of the Saviour and here in this small community – find the courage to make some important change that leads toward a better future.
Kate served us here at Seekers Church as a member of our Servant Leadership Team since September 1993. Kate helped so many of us wake up to what we could do to care for others and share what we had. In addition to years of public service on the staff of environmental committees of the United States Senate, Kate served for seven years as chair of the Board of Directors of For Love of Children (FLOC) and Chair of the Ecumenical Council of Church of the Saviour. She had the gift of that quiet, steady leadership which is so important to help organizations through tough times. As one of use said in an e-mail late last night:
“Kate was the kindest woman l have ever met. She had a good spirit, she was a blessed woman. It was a gift l had from God to know Kate … l am thankful to Kate to be a person who changed many things in my life. “
Kate’s life was a model of giving, and she knew how to encourage the rest of us to keep looking for ways to care enough about others to share what we have. Reflecting on Kate’s life, I have a different understanding of that familiar passage from John: “The greatest love you can show is to give your life for your friends. “ (John 15:13) Kate spent her life in Christian servanthood. Our call says it well:
For us, Christian servanthood is based on empowering others within the normal structures of our daily lives (work; family and primary relationships; and citizenship) as well as through special structures for service and witness.
Thanks be to God for the gift of Kate’s life in this time. She showed so many how to transform caring into sharing.
Kate was not always on the Servant Leadership Team at Seekers. She arrived more than 25 years ago, shy about sharing her lesbian orientation, cautious about her theological questions but very clear about her social justice concerns. Over the years, she engaged deeply in different groups at Seekers, went to Wesley Seminary and let herself be shaped into the leader we knew in the process.
Kate’s path reminds me of how leaders were developed in San Juan la Laguna, the village David mentioned. That village was able to stay neutral during the war because of their “pacifist mayors,” our guide said. We learned that mayors serve for two years without pay and cannot succeed themselves. In other words, there were 15 mayors during the 30-year war.When I asked where that pool of leadership had been developed, our guide told us that they came from the coffee and weaving cooperatives which had been going for more than 60 years.Using a weaving metaphor, he said: “The cooperatives are the warp-threads of our village.”
And Kate has surely been one of the warp-threads of this community, quietly anchoring the many colors and patterns of others.
Jesus said to his disciples: “What do you have?” And when they thought it was not enough, somehow others were moved to share their food.
We too will be faced with those questions, but right now, I wantto give thanks for loaves and fishes, and close with the end-lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, In Blackwater Woods:
To live in this world/you must be able/to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
To hold it/against your bones knowing/your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes to let it go/ to let it go.