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Setting Out

Maggie Lowe
Sun, Jul 14

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

“So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.” What a charge! Can you imagine it? Let’s try to put ourselves in the disciples’ position. You get to pick the diseases that Jesus, the Buddha, Allah or your Holy Intuition sends you out to heal. Perhaps it’s climate change or gun violence. Of maybe economic injustice, the student loan crisis, prison reform, peace in the middle-east, or alleviating the daily despair of so many in our midst. Simple problems, right? (ha) Overwhelmed? Frozen? Don’t know where to start? Feeling guilty? Now, we can imagine just how the disciples felt.

And yet, they set out. Just as Maria Elena Bonilla did; a woman I met last January as part of an HDS student delegation studying liberation theology in Nicaragua and a woman who came to mind as I reflected upon this scripture. Commanding but joyful and gentle, she began her story. “At sixteen,” she recounted, “war raged all around me. A brutal dictatorship ravaged my neighborhood; best friends, brothers, fathers died and disappeared. What to do? What to do? Yes, yes, she said, I will support armed struggle, the guerrillas, the Sandinistas.” And then, sweet victory: July 19th, 1979 – what is still celebrated as the Day of Triumph. Flushed with new hope, infused with – as it says in the scripture -- “the power and authority” of a faith-filled disciple, she set out into her kingdom of God: And what did she find? Not triumph but her poor, poor neighborhood – ransacked by war and earthquakes and all manner of the diseases and demons of her nation, she especially found the insidious demons evoked by personal and political trauma -- bone-chilling fear and despair. Who to trust? What to do?

Clipboard in hand she “took little else for the journey” as she set out to face those demons. Yes, some bread, perhaps a bag but no education, no money and no concrete plan. No staff and certainly not an extra tunic. But she knew this neighborhood and she knew its women. She was not alone. She was among her twelve – a few women, just like her – acting on a deep-abiding faith. As in Luke, “so they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.” No need for introduction or invitation, this was their neighborhood. They entered the houses and as Jesus commanded, and stayed and stayed. Asking, listening. Ever had a check-up? A pap smear? Did you have your babies at home? Where do you get your water? How many miscarriages? Does he hit you? No, no, Maria Elena didn’t reveal that she lacked health care, that sometimes her husband also hit her. No, she didn’t let on that she and her twelve had set out on the journey with nothing.

Well, not nothing - only if you consider stepping forward in faith nothing. Maria Elena preached the gospel of deep listening, inter-connectedness, compassion, humor, kindness; the gospel of breaking the silence – and of collecting the hard data. Soon, she had her “community diagnostic” – the most basic information any funding agency would require.

“No,” she told Oxfam, “I don’t have the completed grant application. (She didn’t tell them she was illiterate!) No, no references but let me tell you my story.” Well, you get the drift by now. Soon, Maria Elena was hiring doctors, scheduling appointments and literally building with hammer and nail, board by board -- what now stands as a full-fledged health clinic – still in her neighborhood, right next to the city dump, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Managua. Since 1992, the clinic has provided everything from routine check-ups to tubal ligations. But that’s not all. It has a small in-house pharmacy, a lending library, a lab for simple testing, and space for the gamut of workshops they offer each week. Even beauty classes but as you can imagine even with this small glimpse of Maria Elena, those beauty classes had a larger purpose. They trained women to be independent entrepreneurs in their own homes.

So, how did Maria Elena do it? How did she say yes, I’ll be one of the twelve? How did she say yes, just as we’re asked to say yes, I will go forward despite overwhelming obstacles and resistance? The trick here is not to romanticize her. No we must resist putting Maria Elena on a pedestal – though tempting. Yes, it’s very tempting, just as it was tempting for the disciples to imagine that some other group of twelve was more prepared, more gifted, more ready to set out; to leave their homes, to preach and to heal. Those who do such incredible “good works,” miracles really, can’t be just like us. They must be more inspired, more intelligent, creative and certainly braver than us. These are perhaps our demons. The demons that whisper it’s too much, I’m too small, all alone, the problems too entrenched, too large.

What allowed Maria Elena and what might allow us to take that step? Faith -- not certainty -- but faith. No, they – Maria Elena and her friends -- just like the twelve and just like us, had doubts, plenty of doubts and heartbreaking fear. Still, amidst those doubts; they stepped forward in faith – all sorts of faith: faith in the moment, faith in their mission, faith in each other, faith in their nation; and most powerfully faith in God’s all empowering love. Yes, they had just enough faith to take that initial first step. Just as they chose faith; just as they leaned in hard, so can we. Jesus asked his disciples “to visit the houses and to stay.” In doing so, they, like Maria Elena, did heal the sick. She and her co-disciples may not have “driven out all the demons.” But what they accomplished is nothing short of a miracle. They did uplift their neighborhood; they did and still do God’s good work. Jesus invited the disciples into the unknown. Maria Elena followed and so can we – whatever our cause – wherever the Divine Creator calls us -- whatever the demons and diseases we hope to alleviate, we too can dust off our feet and let our lives be a testimony to the transformative power of just doing the next right thing; of just taking that first faith-filled step – even and perhaps, most critically when we do not know where it might lead.

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