We attended a Peruvian Evangelical Church in the Comas region, to the north of Lima this past Sunday. This church is not new to the YAV program and had clearly been touched by Blake, a YAV who worked with their weekday youth program during the last year. All the children wanted to know if I had spoken to Hermano Blake recently and how he was. If the YAV Coordinators are reading, please pass along to Blake that he is loved and missed.
As soon as we walked into the church, most of the congregation paid us a substantial amount of attention. Most members wanted to shake our hand. During the service, we were welcomed and asked to come up front to introduce ourselves.
I expected this warm welcome because of my past experiences in Guatemala and Bolivia. It’s exciting to have anyone new in your church, especially a bunch of gring@s. So in the past, I haven’t been overcome with joy or found some deep connection with community. The welcome is a standard, heartwarming aspect of crossing cultures inside and outside of the church. This time, however, felt different.
I know that’s a cliché way to put it. The experience is not a unique one, but somehow it felt pointedly genuine. And upon thinking it over, I think the difference was not in the service, but in how I perceived it. I was open to a heartwarming welcome and able to directly receive the messages offered to our group. It fits in well with the general spiritual and theological awakening I’ve had so far.
Throughout the service, I was struck by an odd familiarity. Not just the order of service, but in the functioning of the church. Moments felt like I was right back in Trinity Presbyterian Church. Perhaps it’s because the congregation was full of personalities, which felt oh so similar to my upbringing.
From the moment I sat down, a few old church commented that they wanted to cut my hair and make it their own. Of course, the “old church lady” is a universal church staple, and the familiarity ran deeper than that.
A talented church band with drums, a keyboard, and the song leader on guitar led the congregation in song. Just like often occurs when Selah plays at Trinity, the song leader seemed to have a different script than the projected PowerPoint. And just like at Trinity, the congregation felt the rhythm in their hearts calling for claps on beats one and three.
That may have been because the children led the clapping, which brings me to another familiar scene: a congregation that made children a central part of its worship. The kids sat up front for the service and then attended a Sunday school class halfway through the service. Several members of the congregation kept the children from roaming around too much during the service, but did not shame the children if they had too much energy. The church’s philosophy for its children is best summed up by a sign on the wall informing parents to love their children, not treat them like belongings.
In addition to sharing child-rearing philosophies, Trinity and this church shared a philosophy about the church’s role in the community. Written on a banner in the congregation was the Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote, “The Church is only church when it exists for the others.” While there are elements of that quote I do not like, I did like how this church interpreted it. This church, like Trinity, serves others and makes good changes in their lives, to help those on the outskirts of society.
Yet warm familiarity was not the only thing that drew me in. I was also moved by several moments throughout the service. Chief among these were the “especiales” offered by several members of the church. These were short displays of talents in honor of God. This week there were four in honor of us: a song by a women’s group and three men singing. I recorded the three men, but unfortunately did not realize what was happening until after the women had sung.
The songs, which I put in a video below, were songs in support of the work and challenge of serving in mission. They were reflections on the challenges of trying to live out the will of God, while you are discerning it. The last song also added a reminder that we should not worry because the “blood of Christ has sanctified our hearts.”
I have doubts about my role as a mission-oriented volunteer. These doubts ranged from the role of religion in assisting others, to the historical baggage of claiming a mission, to my confidence that I can make much difference. Whether or not they realized it, the especiales spoke directly to my own apprehension and provided me a sense of comfort I had not expected.
Takeaway from the sermon
In addition to the especiales, I took away several important messages from the sermon. The sermon was preached by a pastor of the Evangelical Church of the Pilgrim. He let us know that that placed him somewhere between the Presbyterian and Pentecostal tradition. As he put it, that meant he could talk for quite a long time and that he would follow the spirit during his sermon.
So he packed a lot into a sermon, which was based on 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-25. The passage offers instructions for those in the community about being Christian. This includes prayer, joy, thankfulness, as well as reaching out into the community. The pastor touched on the fact that all of these must be done in Christian community, stating that he is dismayed when Christians “walking on eggs,” so as not to bother anyone and keep themselves pure and holy. It’s not a new message, but one I appreciated all the more from my position as a YAV.
He also added that we should use our brains while we are faithful. As he put it, there will be some who claim to speak in the name of the lord, who are not truly speaking the word of the Lord. It is our place to discern what is true and what is not.
Recently, I’ve been struggling with the framing of religion as an “opiate of the masses.” We’re called onto follow the way, the truth, and the life, but does that mean giving up our autonomy? Does that mean following a theological message that calls us to do actions against our will? I would not want to be a part of that, and this has been a root cause of my discomfort at openly claiming religious affiliation in recent years.
Yet, the pastor’s message reminded me that claiming faith does not mean abandoning your ability to critically analyze and scrutinize. In fact, intelligent critical analysis is imperative to leading a faithful life. The Bible does not offer a clear message at any point and it is our job as an individual and member of the community to step in and work out the rougher details. Following a message blindly goes in direct contrast to 1 Thessalonians 5: 21-22, “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” We are called to test and discern what is good and what is evil.
It was a critical message for me to receive and one I thought I’d share with all of you. It may be just what you need to hear as well. Overall, it was a powerexperience at the Peruvian Evangelical Church. I was able to key into and allow to move me in several unexpected, but needed ways.