Mary, did you know that you might be a feminist revolutionary?

“In Paleolithic times, gynecology was just in the mind of God.” That may be my favorite sermon quote ever and I’ve been mining from services for years. Who knew I’d have to come to Peru for it?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I started attending Cristo Rey Iglesia Luterana with my friend David Romero, who runs the youth programming of that church. The following is a reflection following the thoughtful, humorous and engaging sermon by Pastor Pablo Espinoza, which contained the opening quote.

The sermon explored how Mary is characterized in the current narrative of the birth of Jesus. He explained that in Paleolithic times, ignorance of reproduction led women to hold a higher place in most civilizations. As folks learned that it required the man as well, society moved towards ownership of women as men started to claim that their seed was the gift to create a baby.

He chose a general narrative without any citations, but it admittedly is a familiar story and one I believe. Mary’s conception challenges this narrative because it lacks a man. In fact, the story is kind of revolutionary in a respect. The only mortal involved in the birth of the most important baby in history was a young, betrothed teenage girl. The only thing a man did was not mess it up because he paid attention and did not have his fiancé stoned.

So how has the traditional church gotten around that? Well our Pastor, who just continued to nail it, pointed out that the honorific of “virgin” is admittedly more depressing than respectful.

“What’s virgin mean? One who never had sex. That’s kind sad. It’s part of life,” he said.

Highlighting her virginity reflects an overemphasis on purity as the greatest achievement of a young woman. It’s just another dimension of the manplainy, condescending, back handed compliments of patriarchal society.

Why do we ignore Mary’s even more notable accomplishments? For example, she showed immense bravery in the face of a society that would obviously reject her. And then, you know, she raised Jesus. Mothering is among the toughest jobs for human beings. So, our pastor asked, “Why isn’t she recognized as Mary, the mother of Jesus? Or Mary, God’s chosen?”

The point is, these titles recognize Mary as a hero or at least central to the story. Of course, a virgin can also be a hero. These titles just reflect our characterizations of Mary. Just ask yourself whether our culture calls virgins heroes with admirable traits. No, we don’t. They are usually agentless and put on a pedestal.

Pastor Pablo’s sermon inferred that we should emphasize Mary’s agency. Instead, we should look at the story as challenging narratives wherein women are objects of reproduction. This post is by no means exhaustive on that interpretation, as there needs to be some considerable work done to explore how we should characterize God’s choice to create Mary. Has God made her a pawn? Is she treated as only a possession?

I suspect the answer lies in the fact that our relationship with God is not the same as the relationship between men and women, which should be egalitarian, but is not. We are not God’s equal, so God’s actions towards us are not to be viewed as they would between two humans. For now though, I’m unclear on where to take that next or if it is truly necessary. The point is, Pastor Pablo offered some remarkable reflections on a retold story that were refreshing in the depth and, I admit, feminist leanings. I’ll definitely be back for more.

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Some sarcasm and reflection on loneliness at the holidays

In a stark change from my standard holiday routine, I plan to spend Christmas Day as a Jewish stereotype. Specifically, I am looking into getting Chinese food and going to the movies as I’ll be spending the majority of the day by myself. Admittedly, that last part doesn’t match up with the stereotype of a Jewish family, but hey it can’t match up perfectly.

Part of it is just Peru. Peruvians celebrate Christmas Eve and lounge the entirety of Christmas Day, which is a little different than my normal.

Christmas is kind of a big deal with the Coombs/Gorman-Coombs/Burnett clan. Around this time of year I’d be caroling with high school choir friends and scrambling to get last minute gifts together. Christmas Eve would bring me, my brother, my sister-in-law, my parents, my mom’s parents, Bev, and her mom together to spend the night after a service led by my parents. We’d spend Christmas morning opening presents and munching on my grandma’s Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread.

What better way to spend my first Christmas away and only the second in the last 15 years that we’ve done differently than with Chinese food?

I’ll admit, it kind of sucks. I’m trying to keep sarcastic light tone to this, because I’ve always known this would be the case. The program doesn’t let me go home for Christmas due to visa issues and the emphasis on Living Simply and finding joy where you are. Plus, I bet there’s some fear a YAV wouldn’t come back from the comfort of home. And I don’t know whether I’d choose to come back from that given how tough this YAV year has been for both my own failings and those beyond my control, as well as, my slow transition into some form of community while living alone in Lima.

Likely deriving from that, I haven’t really been in the Christmas spirit this advent. It’s not due to a shortage of Christmas tradition around Lima. There’s house light shows galore and plenty of options to eat Paneton, a delicious fruitcake, which comes from an Italian tradition. Plus, I helped put on a party for about 50 kids in the district of Chorrillos whose families cannot afford a large party with many gifts.

That party helped me process some. Of course, I am in a place of privilege. Even my ability to struggle this Christmas in a beautiful country that oftentimes feels worlds away from home. I will still have a safe Christmas.

Still, I can’t fall into the First World Problems trap. My issues with this Christmas are not critical, but they are problems nonetheless. Plus, they are problems these families will most likely not face, as they will hopefully have the chance to be together. They do live in poverty and face struggles to have a happy home life due to the frustrations that come with that life, but still they can be together.

My own experience this holiday season has only reinforced how much I hope that their poverty does not create undue stress that ruins their home life for this holiday season. I realize now how critical this top-of-Maslow’s-pyramid need is to my own happiness and well-being.

Thankfully there are wonderful moments surrounding this Christmas. I will spend Christmas Eve with Jed and Jenny, who have graciously invited me into their home. They leave early Christmas morning, but later Christmas night I will be expecting AJ who will come in from Moyobamba. Then, us three YAVs will head out for some vacation adventures in Puno and Arequipa, Peru.

And that’s going to be great. I’ve always kind of hoped that I would rally after the holidays. I’m still clinging to that hope, but I’m also pushing myself to do what I can to feel invested here. I’ve found a new church, I’ve started attending Salsa lessons, and I’m seeking other communities by the minute. I doubt I can turn this Christmas around completely, but there’s still plenty of hope for my YAV year. And even if it isn’t the most joyful of Christmases, it will be one I’ll grow from considerably.

Life update: Apartment life, new church and salsa dancing

It’s been awhile since I did just a standard life update. While there are numerous super important ideas I have about climate change, including stories from a week of conferences and a march, I figured it’d be good to keep you all in the loop on what’s going on.

So let’s start with the biggest change: I moved into a small apartment a week ago. Well really it’s a small room with a private bathroom and basic kitchen shared with four other tenants. It is nice in some ways, but also kind of a bummer in others.

Specifically, this is not ideal for a YAV year. The Peru YAV program boasts a strong host family experience as part of the program. It’s one of your main ways to access community on the “living simply” budget. Due to various challenges around finding a family that met program requirements and budget, I’m in an apartment. It’s not unprecedented, but it’s also not ideal.

Likewise, the move-in process was surprisingly fast. As in, we found the apartment, checked it out, signed the lease, and I moved in all within one day. Jenny said that was fast even for Peruvian standards, but added that the rental market moves fast in Lima, a consequence of the shortage of adequate housing and high in-migration.

The speed of the loop definitely threw me for a loop at first. I had not been expecting the move out of Jed and Jenny’s to happen be such an abrupt moment. After I had some time to acclimate though, I could see some benefits.

Specifically, I am getting to control my own food consumption and budget using program funds. This found me navigating a market with Jenny, learning how to check for quality of fresh fruits and vegetables. I’ve been through markets with families before, but I’ve always been able to take a backseat role. It’s interesting how much more quickly I learned the vocabulary when I was solely responsible for what I’d find on my plate that week.

There were no major revelations, but I did learn some market vocabulary. For example, “un mano” (hand) of something is the equivalent of five of it. We have a similar phrase in English though it is far less common than it seemed to be, here in Lima.

Mainly, as I continue grocery shopping, I am sure I will have far deeper reflections on the economic and social dynamics of a Limeño market, which I always dig.

On a positive note, Jenny and I have several options in mind for a possible host family. So I might be moving again, but it will be to a place with a family, seeking to involve me in their own community.

That being said, my social life has started to have a pulse recently.

I attended Cristo Rey Iglesia Luterana with a friend I met at a climate change conference, David Romero. David works there as the director of youth. There were a lot of fantastic moments at that church.

For example, the church took a moment to sing a welcome for its new members. Likewise, they recognized new visitors (i.e. me) and sang to them and numerous folks came and shook our hands as we stayed seated in the sanctuary.

The youth in the church were clearly celebrated and it truly enriched the service. There was an adorable and spot-on dramatization of the angel’s visitation of Mary, which youth put together during Sunday School with David. An almost five-year-old read to us about joy before lighting the fourth candle on the advent wreath. Later on she presented an especial of “Jingle Bells” played on the recorder (and just one verse, so it didn’t slip into grating).

That’s not what grabbed my attention so much about this church. No, that was the incredible sermon by Pastor Pablo Espinoza wherein I heard my new favorite church quote: “In Paleolithic times, gynecology was just in the mind of God.”

The sermon explored how Mary is characterized in the current narrative of the birth of Jesus. I learned a considerable amount of reinterpretations, if not new facts.

Church wasn’t the only new part of my Sunday. I also started free Salsa classes. They’re offered by two of the youth with the Joining Hands Network, Norman and Angel, in a local park.

I went with Jenny, but Norman kept us from dancing as a couple. Apparently our mutual inexperience was not helping any of us and he could not bear to watch our struggles. Instead, I danced with the highly experienced and good-humored Elisia who helped walk me through the steps and was happy just to be dancing.

And truthfully, I’m not good at Salsa. Still, I think I might someday get the hang of it if I keep at it. We stuck to simple steps for the first day and while I was far from the best dancer, I had an idea of some of the steps.

Amusingly, we danced in a circle, which added a switching of partners dynamic. Of course, that makes it more fun, but moreover, it allowed every woman there to see me struggle to keep pace. Though, I also got experience dancing with many different partners, which is useful for applying Salsa skills outside of a small park in Lima. Dance is a social activity and that’s exactly how I am learning it.

Overall, it’s been a good few days and admittedly, much needed. Maintaining the fortitude to stay committed to this YAV year has tired me a bit. Plus, I’ve been on the lonelier side without a host family, especially now at the holidays. Plus, I’m a flexible dude, but it’s been a considerable amount of changes.

The point is this past weekend was the sign of some bright lights on the horizon.

Jeffrey Sachs: Is the World Limited?

It’s been a bit longer than I intended to get this post up, but due to how much it has been filling my thoughts, I wanted to share it.

Our delegation attended an interreligious conference concerning the international state of climate change at Antonio Ruiz Montoya University. This conference opened with economist Jeffrey Sachs receiving an honorary professorship before offering a keynote on his own experiences working for climate change.

Having read some of his work, and heard him both lauded and dismissed by instructors over the years, I was very excited to hear what he had to say.

The majority was not groundbreaking. He spoke about the negative effects of climate change and how corporations and excessive consumption are to blame for that. He cited (at a Jesuit university) Pope Francis’ statement that greed will destroy the world and private property laws are only admissible within a certain moral framework, one that does not support allowing billions to starve while others revel in their excess. Sachs continued that the solution must from not just from every stakeholder from corporations, to everyday citizens, to religious groups. Also, he praised recent steps taken by the U.S. and China, and religious organizations to curb carbon emissions.

What caught my interest was his staunch support that the world is in fact limited. He spent time on a story, familiar to my ears, about how his college professors argued down the theories of Thomas Malthus and others that the world is limited. He admitted to believing these professors, as a young undergraduate at Harvard.

At Macalester I heard a similar story. This was balanced with the understanding that oil would run out and climate change was real. Still the majority of the time the ultimate lesson aligned with what history taught us about Malthus: “The World is Limited” is a technologically neutral argument, while technology itself is unlimited.

One of my major goals for this year is to reconcile these points of view. Jeffrey Sachs seemed to indicate that he has since come to believe that the world is in fact limited and personally, I think he is wrong and/or pandering when he says that. I do not mean that I think arguments around limited resources are false, but I think that argument focuses on the negative rather than progressive solutions.

Before I get into the admittedly stupid task of challenging Jeffrey Sachs, I need to clarify how I define “technology.” In my economic training, “technology” is the way inputs such as labor, capital and land are put together in order to produce output goods. In econometrics, “technology” accounts for the additional output that cannot be explained by the combination of labor and capital alone.

Sure, assembly line machinery and internal combustion engines count as that kind of “technology,” but so can the weather, if it leads to a particularly good crop, or the political climate. “Technology” goes well beyond machines that use gas.

In that sense, I think “The World is Limited” is still technology neutral.

Let’s look at the world when Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. While he argued that population grew exponentially while agricultural output grew linearly, the world was undergoing the big shift into the Industrial Revolution and a technological upheaval that allowed agricultural growth to outpace population growth for the first time ever. Malthus thought he was correct for several decades, before the 19th century rolled around and technology wrecked his argument.

Now look at the modern world. Yes, oil will eventually run out at the pace we use it. Worse, our production processes pollute the environment with carbon gases, deplete the ozone, and destroy biodiversity. Does that mean that the world is limited? I don’t think so.

Within our current production system and technological combination of inputs, the world is certainly limited. Yet, couldn’t we also be on the cusp of the changes that inspired the Industrial Revolution and showed that Malthus was wrong? Couldn’t we be on the cusp of technological advances with an eye for more sustainable, but equally robust productivity? Couldn’t we find new ways to recombine inputs, tap into new resources (the sun, wind, geothermal), and reuse waste products (i.e. biodigestors)?

There may need to be some limitations on this, such as what new technologies are a good idea. There’s lots of arguments out there for and against genetically-modified organisms. We could likely create crops that use the least amount of water and fertilizer possible, of course some are ethically opposed to such a notion. To me the issue with GMOs lies in the unfair advantage this provides to companies like Monsanto who own patents and can sue for unlawful use of their seeds. To me, that is outside the moral limits of progress. And moral limits will need to be taken into account with all new technological advances that can pull us out of the tailspin we’re currently in.

Sure, this is more challenging, but saying that “the world is limited” does not open us up to this kind of thinking. It just tells us to restrict ourselves within poorly defined limitations and hope for the best. Living more simply may be a part of that change and recombination of inputs, but it certainly cannot be the only one.

Now, I bet Jeffrey Sachs would agree. He might argue that I’m a dreamer and a limitations-based argument is more feasible, but at the end of the day, I bet he thinks something similar is possible. Of course, this would be a far more complex speech to give, especially when it needs to cross a language gap. Plus, he did it without notes, so I can’t discredit his genius, but I can touch on a recasting of the solution.

Hope: A realistic, multi-pronged solution

This weekend, I had the privilege to visit the work of various community members and the NGOs, FILOMENA and CEDEPAS, in the Andean cities of La Oroya and Huancayo, Junin. The trip was part of my work in support of the Joining Hands Network Peru (JH-Peru), which is hosting a delegation of Presbyterians from the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, which supports JH-Peru, and various other interested members of the PC (USA). The trip provided the delegation a view into some of the work done by members of JH-Peru in addressing climate change as a root cause of poverty and hunger.

There was a considerable amount packed into these two days and naturally we didn’t get to do it all because of delays. Naturally, I felt a lot of sympathy for Jed and Conrado who took point on planning that so much beyond their control fell apart. Thankfully, though, our group maintained a positive attitude and were flexible, understanding, and most importantly, grateful for the opportunity.

Despite late starts and delays leading us to cancel various meetings, we still heard from notable members of the area communities. We learned about the sources of poverty in the area, the damaging consequences of unaccountable mining companies, and how the root causes of that poverty grows out of the a complex history of social, economic, political, and environmental factors. That is BOH’s MO, so it was no surprise, yet I was still amazed at the comprehensive connection between the push & pull migratory factors during the political violence of the 80s and 90s and the sale of land during the 20th century exacerbated inequity and fostered a system that allowed for unaccountable mining processes.

Instead of recreating each presentation, I will give a quick picture of the gravity of the situation up here and one particular presentation that stuck out. If you’d like to learn the story behind each of these issues, find out more about La Oroyainvestor-state disputes,  and the effects of climate change on mining in Peru. Largely, they are all stories of negative externalities, or costs to society beyond those felt the private entity that takes an action.

In La Oroya, a mining company, Doe Run Peru, engaged in contaminating processes via its mining. It’s a complex situation, but in summary, the group exploited poor enforcement of regulations and openly challenged the right of Peru to enforce those regulations. Joining Hands Peru conducted a study with students from the University of St. Louis to show that 99.7 percent of the children had more than 10 milligrams per deciliter of lead in their blood, which is well above the World Health Organization recommendation for the highest levels. The rocks are burned and scarred with acid rain. The river runs rusted brown with various contaminants from the mining process below a sign asserting that Doe Run Peru does not contaminate. While Doe Run does not carry the only blame, they were a major contributor and have worked to stay unaccountable to that.

Then we encountered the sad beauty that is viewing a glacier from an area that within recent memory was covered by that same glacier. We drove up the mountain Huayllata Pullana, which is capped with what is left of a glacier, which is forecasted to have totally melted within 15 years.

It was an unquestionably beautiful landscape. During the hour, each of our group started to shiver, feeling the cold of the high altitude seep in, mocking us that no matter how cold it got, it would never be cold enough to fix the irreversible process of glacial melting.

It was on top of that mountain though, that I found some hope. I’m hesitant here with this story. I generally abhor cliché stories about finding hope in the most hopeless of situations and I’m sure you do as well. Still, I am hopeful that you will entertain that statement for a few lines, as I explain.

The leader of the statewide Office for the Management of Natural Resources, Walter Lopez, spoke to us at the top of the mountain with the diminished glacier at his back about the existing plans to combat climate change. He stated that his plan is in accordance with national public policies, as well as that of the state of Junin. Instead of taking an overly pessimistic to the irreversibility of climate change or unrealistically optimistic approach, the plan was highly comprehensive.

The plan sought to bandage what could be bandaged, cut off major sources of climate change, and advance systemic changes to prevent climate change in the future. Additionally, the plan recognized the importance of addressing the political, economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change, as well as, the possible solutions.

Walter spoke about how climate change worsens the effects of natural disasters. He also explained that Junin’s plan includes reforesting different areas, communicate to businesses about the harmful effects of greenhouse gases, and many other initiatives.

Within this plan are studies of the areas and peoples (read: poorest) most affected by climate change, so as to focus on them. Likewise, he stated that they are looking into ways to ensure economic losses are at a minimum for businesses and individuals when the changes are implemented. While we are all implicated in the effects of climate change, the costs of most plans are not shared equally among the population or with a greater burden on those who most contribute to climate change. Generally, the richest are most able to whether changes to combat climate change, because technologies like solar panels are expensive. Informed action can reduce this effect and lead to a more comprehensive and just solution to climate change for all.

Walter admitted that the biggest limitation was funding. He said he has pushed the government to make climate change a budget priority and added that the COP 20 has helped advanced his cause on a regional, national and international level. Still, without funding these policies would just be words.

Instead of losing hope though, I looked to our experiences that morning in the community of Chaquicocha (literally dry lagoon), which contains several pilot projects by CEDEPAS. We visited the house of Don Gregorio who has a solar shower to make up for the lack of heated water without adding to greenhouse gases. We also saw a biodigestor, which transforms the methane produced by cow dung and transforms into usable gas over the course of several weeks. While this eventually results in the creation of gases, it reduced the consumption of natural gas by extended the use of a typical waste material.

It was an amazing contraption, with a cost of about $700, but an amazing one that made this small home, most likely carbon neutral and possibly carbon negative. It’s not cheap, but creative approaches like that give me hope.

Leaders like Walter, who stand up to fight climate change, also give me hope.

And yes, a lack of funding is a clear indicator that it’s not all worked out. Yet if it was, then I wouldn’t really need hope, would I?

Post-retreat sentiment: I’m here with some fantastic people

Writer’s note: This is coming late because I struggled to get up to some undefined standard for post-worthy. Not sure if it ever got there, but felt it best to post all the same. As always, give me thoughts.

Last week, we got back from a retreat to Tarapoto and Moyobamba, Peru in the jungle state of San Martin. The purpose of the retreat was largely to debrief in community after the first two and a half months, or stage, or our YAV year. We sought to tell our stories, the good, the bad and the ugly, and look toward a better future together.

I went seeking a renewal after a highly challenging start to my YAV year. I am not baiting for compliments here, so I will not spend time describing these challenges. Just trust me that due to my own shortcomings, the shortcomings of others around me, and circumstances beyond my control, I’d lost any sense of purpose in being here.

At the retreat, I found a way to recommit to the year. This was an essential moment for me, so I’d like to speak a bit about getting there. Well, more specifically, the fantastic people I am here with who helped me arrive there. This is also a small attempt at thanks, even if it is slightly “behind schedule.”

First, there’s Jed and Jenny, and the amazing hospitality they display. I was in a vulnerable place upon departing Ayacucho and they opened their home to me. Of course, this meant access to a full mattress, stable internet, a dryer, and other perks, but most importantly it was a secure space where I felt safe. It was a place to process what had occurred and heal at my own rate, a privilege which so many do not get.

Privilege, of course, has been a large part of the process. I had the privilege to take a retreat to a fantastic lodge in the jungles of western Peru. A privilege that I only find defensible in that it helped me process such that I might continue to work for positive change in the world, as difficult and idealistic as that notion may be.

In addition to the amenities, the company on the retreat helped immensely. Obviously, it was a blast to just be with the YAVs and share stories of our years, but even more important was the empathy within our group. It’s not shocking, since our experiences are the most similar of anyone else on the planet.

More importantly though was the intentionality and creativity with which our group shows empathy. After sharing our stories, it became clear that I had the most objectively challenging first few months. Possibly predictably, there were words of support and empathy, and thankfully not of advice. Yet, I was truly touched by the creativity with which they express this empathy.

Specifically, AJ asked to do a laying on of hands for me. I was surprised and did not remotely expect this to occur, but I consented, as I felt touched by the gesture and hopeful that it might help. I have conflicted feelings about this particular practice. I have seen it as a powerful way to show solidarity and connection to another person through commissioning ceremonies, yet I’ve also seen and heard of it used to heal an individual “afflicted” with a sin like a premarital pregnancy or depression.

Somehow, that moment helped me relax more than I had not for months. I realized that though I’ve lost the excitement and positive attitude I had in September, there is still much of me that would like to be here to continue learning and helping in that process. And I saw the value of grace to forgive myself for the mistakes I made and things beyond my control, instead of losing myself to unrealizable reconciliation. As a result, I’m extra thankful to AJ for the gesture, which offered me another positive association with this particular ritual.

Another critical moment of the retreat was the optimism. We’re a bunch of jokesters and focus heavily on making one another laugh. Plus, I am always impressed by Rachel’s optimism and extroversion with which she approaches Peru. She has had her own share of challenges this year and yet, since finds a way to keep a notably infectious optimism. Watching that, I felt invigorated to give it all another shot, especially having grieved the challenges of my year and felt the supportive response of my fellow YAVs.

So hospitality, empathy, and optimism from my community here has helped me reclaim my call as a YAV and I am so thankful for that. And thanks to you, supporters for reaffirming that call through love and genuine interest in my year.

There has been incredible support via social media from both my friends and family, but I also received several letters of support. Letters from friends, fellow church members, and the deacons at Trinity Church helped bring a smile to my face. Yet a letter from one Sara LaLone, a former member of our community here in Peru, who had to leave following her own challenges helped me know I am making the right choice. She is member of both worlds, those who know the life of a Peru YAV and those living back home, providing her a nuanced view on all this. That nuanced view combined with a lot of care helped create a highly motivating and affirming letter.

So, I guess overall, I am thankful for the support I am receiving. Without it, I may have done more than just waver in my commitment to this year.