Base Communities: A Vessel for Healing and Decolonization – Francisco Herrera, M. Div., PhD student, LSTC

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Communion Of Saints by Elise Ritter

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)

To give a brief overview of what a base community is, you have to go back all the way to 1956 in Rio de Janeiro – all the way between the ear and the soul of Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Agnelo Rossi, in the impoverished district of Barra do Pirai, as he listened to the frustrations of “a humble old woman.” Since her local parish couldn’t pay for a priest for Christmas services, it stayed “cold and dark,” whereas local Protestant parishes were “lit up and full of people”(Boff, 3). So these laments provoked the newly-minted bishop to action

With help from his deacons and some Jesuits, then, they created a lay-education program that soon took over all of Latin America. Grounded in the reading and interpretation of Scripture through each community’s context, that community’s joys and burdens, these new outposts for God’s kingdom were called comunidades eclesial de base or “base Christian communities.”

Quickly, however, they would evolve into something far more glorious.

Because the roots they sprouted went so deep into the soil, their first green shoots of growth were shelters to protect abused women and food banks to feed their children.

Because the love they inspired had such potency and flavor, their blossoms and fruit included legal aid societies, literacy programs, and labor unions.

And because their fragrance and seeds were so luscious  and fertile, they scattered through all of Latin America, bringing forth 30, 60, and 100-fold servants of Jesus, the community having such good soil.

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Demonstration in favor of land reform in Brazil, ca. 1970’s – supported and lead by base communities.

And as the 1950’s and 1960’s became the 1970’s and 1980’s they were ruthlessly persecuted, as one oppressive regime after the other – often with full support from the government of the United States – brutally tore up as many of these communities as they could, grinding their leaves and petals into the earth and turning root beds into mass graves.

But in the end the love of the base communities won, sustaining a vital solidarity and hope among the persecuted as dictatorship after dictatorship stomped and burned and raged itself to ash.

When #decolonizeLutheranism had its first official face-to-face programming meeting after our inaugural revival in 2016 we agreed, then, that this would be the model for organizing and mission that we should try. Our would-be reforming partners all over the country were looking for solidarity and direction, and the base community model seemed a good beginning.

Because workshops hadn’t made our churches more welcoming, not many.

Because ‘hard conversations’ had cracked some doors open, but few had taken the next step and walked through.

So we decided to appeal directly to the Holy Spirit and the power of God and wait to see what She did.

But since we didn’t really know how to create a base community, and after a few failed attempts at doing so, the Spirit finally intervened, carrying me into a random house in south central Los Angeles (last March) to share a potluck and lecture with some-time hero, Pastor Alexia Salvatierra. And how did I know la pastora had been given to us by the Spirit to lead us?

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Rev. Alexia Salvatierra (ELCA) at an immigration rally in Los Angeles.

Because sometime during her lesson, after mentioning that she had done her CPE among base communities, in the Philippines in the 1980’s (then under the thumb of another US-proxy dictator, Ferdinand Marcos), she said this:

“When we are very young, we usually receive some kind of curse – often it is said by someone very close to us, even family. What I want to do now is talk about what those curses are – and to share as you’re comfortable – as well as find a line of Scripture that we can use to counter them when we feel their power working on us.”

This made it clear that spiritual direction was crucial to her community organizing work.

Two weeks later I asked Alexia if she would teach #decolonizeLutheranism about forming base communities, and she said yes, but quickly added, “Call Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and ask if she could help out, too. You need someone who can truly lead someone to experience the Spirit and she does that better than anyone I know.”

After some conversation and email ping pong, (Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth agreed. Pastor Alexia wasn’t kidding when she said that Dr. Conde-Frazier was a master of bringing people into the Spirit’s presence. And how did I know, on top of Pastor Alexia’s recommendation, that the Spirit had roped her in too? When she said this:

“It’s a glorious moment when we get our liberation, but we have to be careful.  we carry a lot of anger after we get and if we’re not careful, it will spoil everything we touch.”

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Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier – Dean of Esperanza College, Philadelphia.

And she was right to point this out – because thanks to the grace of God #decolonizeLutheranism had received a grant to pay the full cost of attendance to every person of color, every trans and non-binary attendee, and every person with a disability that qualified them for public benefits. And these leaders – beautiful and perfect and devoted to the Gospel – for all their power, likely would need healing before doing or talking about anything else.

And that’s how our base community training – #decolonizeTheBase– would begin.

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So on the first night of the training Pastor Alexia and Dr. Conde-Frazier greeted every attendee with a flower, a piece of chocolate, a small bottle of water, and a choice of fruit – delivered from baskets on their arms – walking throughout the meeting space and giving blessing.

It was at that point then, that I realized that my heart’s image of this day (Revelation 7:9) was incomplete. For though a multitude did come – from every tribe and nation, of every gender and sexuality and ability and disability – as the weekend progressed, right there in the middle of Augustana Chapel, Tree of Life itself sprouted and bloomed before all of us (Revelation 22:1-3) “with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” – and the gifts of chocolate, water, flowers, and fruit – were the very first fruits of that tree.

But the Scripture of the weekend? John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (NRSV)

And it was upon this truth – not the colonizing lashes of racism, the colonizing echo of being mis-gendered, the ominous rumble of the colonizer’s institutions and apathy and violence – that we built a community and welcomed the Holy Spirit among us that weekend, both as liberator and healer. And all-together, with nothing but longing for the power of God in our lives to lead us, the Spirit grafted us all unto Jesus, the true Vine, the Liberator, and his promise of abundant life.

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Helping hands – remembering a friend.

For me, as the chief coordinator of the weekend, this abundant life showed itself most powerfully in the way chapel staff (especially Morgan Gates, bless you friend) taught us how to run the sound-board along with printing, folding, and stapling bulletins – and the way random attendees would help fill in the holes in my planning. The music and worship team provided abundant life too – in the form of last minute changes and shifts, learning four new songs that weren’t in our original hymn booklet, and regularly meeting with the Pastor Alexia and Professor Conde-Frazier to make sure that every bit of information was shared in an atmosphere of constant intercessory prayer – like the smell of charcoal that always filigrees Frankincense. They, too, showed abundance in the fact that our leaders regularly met with attendees to make sure that each part of the training tailor-fit their needs – often shortening or lengthening, or even cutting out, entire parts of the day to make sure that no one left overwhelmed, confused, or lost.

And the gathered community, too, showed abundance to each other. In the way we loved each other, carried one another’s pain, challenged each other’s weaknesses, and prayed and sang and embraced each part of us into this abundant life.

“Your experience of this transformation, this change, will be what teaches you more than anything,” Dr. Conde-Frazier mentioned more than once that weekend, “and these are things you can’t put on paper and take away with you. And it is this that you take home with you, and this is how you will begin your communities and your ministries.”

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Hermanas en la lucha – sisters in the struggle, Prof. Conde-Frazier and Pastor Salvatierra.

And from all of this a marvelously gentle and beautiful vine sprung forth, both connecting all assembled more completely to each other as well as to the world around us. For our teachers, our tias, knew that if we wanted to create community that could change the church – let alone the country, or our hearts – we had to do it right there and then, too, experience it right there and then. So much so that by the end of the day, it seemed that all we cared about doing – all we could do, was find more ways to love each other.

And that’s pretty much it.

And I know this post doesn’t give a lot of information about the training itself, because in the end, it wasn’t the most important lesson.

And yes, we did things – we made plans, shared visions, wrote things down and affirmed ourselves, but everything we did essentially had one main goal and everything orbited this goal: to teach each other how to heal and love each other.

To grow those roots like our kin in Latin America in the darkest days of the last century’s tyranny, living water bursting forth from the baptismal fonts in all of our hearts, with richly green leaves for the healing of the nations, with fruit fertile and fragrant as to feed the soul and bring forth a rich harvest, with shade to provide rest and strength for the weary and determined.

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Getting ready for the Eucharist, Jaffa Castañeda Carrera working his pipes and Putting a Praise On It (Tasha Cobbs).

Because when you’ve been healed by the love of God, well, the devil might tempt and try you, but he’ll be hard pressed to stop you – and this is what we need if we’re going to decolonize our church.

And this may sound naïve and sentimental, even foolish, but it isn’t.

For didn’t someone say something about fools for Christ and what that entails (1 Corinthians 4:10-13) – how those most despised by the world were the key to its salvation? Because when you spend your whole life fighting the church you’ve been called to serve, you need all the love you can get. And therefore, praise be praise be for this, God will GIVE you all the love that you need and more.

And if you’re curious to see what it’s all about? Come next year.

Come and see what it is like to have a heart where “nothing accursed will be found… anymore,” to be so filled with the love of God that you “need no light of lamp or sun” since “the Lord God [is your] light” (Revelation 22:3, 5) – and then to be blessed to go forth in service of the body of Christ, knowing that you have just that many new friends praying for you, working with you, helping you to solidify and guide your call and your mission.

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“Because they say that communion is perfect and eternal, but we know communion to be messy and awesome.” Rev. Joseph Castañeda Carrera, from Los Angeles mission start ADORE-LA.

Come see what that multitude of every tribe and nation, gender and sexuality, ability and disability, height and size and woof and warp looks like.

From their bounty, come and take some of their healing leaves for your soul, your body…

…and taste the sweet fruit that is the love of God, given to you from their loving, faithful hands.

RESOURCES

If you’d like more info about future base community trainings, are interested in donating to our work, or just want to chat with #decolonizeLutheranismand see what we’re about, email us at decolonizelutheranism@gmail.comand let’s start talking!

The Gospel in Solentiname – Ernesto Cardenal “In Solentiname, a remote archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, the people gathered each Sunday to reflect together on the gospel reading. From recordings of their dialogue, this extraordinary document of faith in the midst of struggle was composed.” An excellent read into the inner workings of a base community in Nicaragua during some of the darkest days of their struggles in the 1970s.

Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World – Rev. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel A wonderful mix of reflection and praxis, much of what Pastor Salvatierra talked about during the training was also mentioned in this book. So if you want to get a bit more insight into how she leads base community trainings, and the kinds of things base communities do, this text is a good place to begin.

A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation – Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and S. Steve Kang A popular work co-authored by Dr. Conde-Frazier’s, it mixes research and data with personal stories about working in and creating multicultural spaces. Both her and S. Steve Kang have much to share.

CITATIONS

[1] Dr. Angela Cowser, professor of sociology of religion at Garrett Evangelical Theological School in Evanston, IL lectured on congregationally-based community organizing in the Methods for a Public Church l course on Tuesday afternoon and introduced this concept using Nehemiah, 1-8.

[2] I Cor 3:6.

 


11062145_10152973497325213_4921417369076653093_nBefore coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)  in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and travels the country as one of the central leaders of #decolonizeLutheranism.

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