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In praise of artisans

A Presbyterian mission letter from Peru

July 17, 2013

LIMA, Peru

Jenny and I had been waiting in the coffee shop across the street from the United States Embassy in Lima for nearly three hours before Milagros finally emerged. Jenny jumped up from the table and ran outside to give her a hug. 

As the tears rolled down her face, Milagros said she fought as hard as she could, but in the end the consular agent would not grant her a visa to travel to the U.S. The reason she was given is that her "socio-economic situation" needed to improve. In other words, Milagros is considered to be too poor to be given legal entrance into the U.S. 

Milagros was invited by the Broad Street Presbyterian Church (BSPC) of Columbus, Ohio, to visit and worship with them in Columbus before travelling together with members of the church to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium (PYT), where she would be welcomed as a global partner. 

Jenny and I, together with the support of our friends from BSPC, had been working with Milagros for several months in preparing her for her big day at the Embassy: soliciting her first passport; guiding her through the online application in English; acquiring the necessary letters of invitation, itineraries, documents of financial support; developing a reasonable list of “proofs” that she had reason to return to Peru; shopping for new clothes for the interview; practicing her interview at least a dozen times (me playing the role of the officious consular agent!).

On the morning of her interview, before travelling together to the Embassy, Jenny gave her a touch of make-up and a pair of silver earrings — giving her that last bit of confidence to play the part of one ready to travel to the U.S. In the end, the answer was simple and direct. The answer was NO. 

I do not share this story to muster up sympathy for Milagros, nor to cast judgment on the U.S. Embassy in Lima. No doubt it was a day filled with sadness and anger — feelings that still reside within all of us who were so anxious for Milagros to travel to the U.S. and attend PYT.  

Rather, I share this story because our struggle together to try to get Milagros to the U.S. gave me hope.  It affirmed that we the Church are standing up for what is right — that we as a people of faith are conscientiously working to live “in” the world but not be “of” the world.

During her interview Milagros, a 19-year-old physical therapy student and president of her communitywide youth group, was asked by the consular agent what her parents do for work. Milagros proudly responded that her parents are artisans. 

The mere word “artisan” was enough to set off a red flag — a sure sign that Milagros most likely comes from poverty and that travelling to the U.S. would present her with too many temptations to want to stay illegally in the hope of providing a better life for herself and her family, despite the fact that she would be accompanied by the church 24/7 during her entire visit. 

Milagros could have lied. She could have said that her parents have their own business and make tens of thousands of dollars a year. But why? Why deny her identity? 

It is true, according to all relevant statistics and indicators in Peru, that Milagros’ socio-economic situation is considered impoverished. But there is so much more that defines Milagros beyond her family’s “socio-economic situation.” 

This was so very evident to our friends at BSPC who met Milagros a year ago when they came to visit us in Peru. They came to know not a “poor” young woman. Rather, they came to know a young woman, a leader in her community, who is organizing other youth and young adults to address the issues of unemployment, lack of potable water, environmental contamination, and other issues that plague her community. 

They came to know a young woman, with clarity of vision, hope for the future, and the loving support of her parents, who is already making a difference as a volunteer at a local clinic and as a DJ on her youth group’s local radio station. They came to know a young woman with commitment and dedication and faith, not looking to run away and escape, rather wanting to stay put and stand up and make life better for everyone in her community. 

They met a young woman who could encourage and inspire their church back in Ohio if only given the chance to meet them in person one day. They met a young woman who would be received and welcomed and loved at BSPC and throughout the Presbyterian Church, not despite the fact that she is the daughter of artisans, rather because she is the daughter of artisans. 

The reasoning of our faith is often radically different from the reasoning of the world. 

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the commandments carved in stone, he gave orders to the people to build a tabernacle. He called upon the artisans — those who work with yarns and linens, stones and wood, silver and gold. He called upon them, first and foremost, to lend their talents for this most important of works — to build a home adequate to house the Word of God. 

And the artisans responded. “All the skillful women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair” … because this was an honor and their talents were honored. 

So it has been for hundreds of years in Peru, even before Christianity arrived, and even before the great Incan Empire. The artisans played a special and important role in telling the story, guarding the history, claiming the identity of their people. Only in recent decades has this role been diminished and devalued. Only now are artisans unappreciated and exploited and quickly judged for their “socio-economic situation.” 

Perhaps this is the reason why artisans have a special place in the heart of our partners, the Red Uniendo Manos Peru, and the many churches, like BSPC, who support this gospel ministry we share. From our work with youth and young adults like Milagros, to our ongoing Fair Trade Artisan project, to our advocacy work around issues of trade and the environment, it is the artisans’ story and spirit that move us as we strive to honor the talents of all people and participate in creating a world fit for all people. 

Should you or your congregation be interested in visiting us in Peru and meeting faithful leaders like Milagros, I invite you to be in touch. If you cannot make it to Peru, perhaps I can bring a bit of Peru to you! I will be in the U.S. in March of 2014 ― it is not too early to put me on your calendar and invite me to your church or presbytery. 

Another possibility to meet face to face is Aug. 1-3 in Louisville at the World Mission conference at Big Tent. I will be there, along with other mission co-workers and global partners who have powerful stories of their own to tell. 

Lastly, I invite you to continue supporting this ministry we share, through your voice, your prayers, and your financial contributions. Together, and by the Grace of God, we will continue to transform this world in which we live. 

The Rev. Jeb Koball began  his service as a mission co-worker in January 2009, when he was appointed companionship facilitator for the Joining Hands (JH) network in Peru. He is accompanied by his wife, Jenny Valles.

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