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After all my travels, I arrived back in the States on November 6. I had an overnight in Miami on my way home to Texas, so my grandparents who live in Florida came to have dinner and celebrate my return. It was wonderful to see them and so special to have a warm welcome home!

Dinner with Grandpa and Grandma Gorr, who met me in Miami

The next morning I arrived in Austin, where my mom and youngest brother greeted me with balloons, a sign, and hugs. We went to pick up my dad, then headed to lunch for some Tex-Mex of course. I really enjoyed being in Austin with my family and friends. We had time to look at pictures, share stories, and be together. My parents helped me host an open house for family, friends, and folks from my home church. This was a great opportunity to catch up and share my Zambia and travel experiences with those in Austin who have been praying for me and following my journey.

Mom and Matt greeted me in Austin, welcome home!

I also travelled to Michigan to visit my brother and sister-in-law, Steven and Darcie. I missed their wedding last December, so I was really looking forward to seeing them. They were planning to come to Texas for Thanksgiving, but were expecting their first child on Christmas Eve so I went up there instead. I stayed with them for almost a week and we had lots of fun together.

Steven and Darcie (and Raelin)

I returned to Texas for Thanksgiving with my family and friends. As we gathered together I remembered how two years ago at Thanksgiving I had been struggling with whether or not to apply for this fellowship, knowing it would mean being far away from the people I dearly love. I am so thankful for this opportunity and the amazing experiences and people that have come into my life during my time in Zambia and New York. Although it was very difficult at times, I am glad I was able to follow God’s call and step out in faith.

Thanksgiving day with mom, dad, Greg, Matt, and me

I am excited to be back in New York City and with you at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. New York City is an extraordinary place, especially during the Christmas season. I do miss my friends and colleagues in Zambia, but I must admit I am enjoying the conveniences of being able to shower every day, drink water straight from the tap, and eat raw fruits and veggies without playing intestinal roulette. On my days off I am having fun exploring the city.

It's Christmas time in the city!

I’m looking forward to sharing my stories with you and being among you for these next months. As I sit here in my study I can hardly believe I have been half way around the world and back again. Thank you for providing this opportunity which has shaped me, in more ways than I can count, to continue in pastoral ministry for years to come. See you around MAPC! 

The MAPC crew, ready to celebrate Christmas

Posted December 31, 2012
La Paz, Bolivia

I spent the last week of my travels in beautiful La Paz, Bolivia. This place enchanted me from the moment I arrived. La Paz is high in the Andes Mountains and literally built on the mountain slopes. With altitudes ranging from 10,000 to over 13,000 feet above sea level you often have to stop and catch your breath as you climb the steep streets.

Beautiful La Paz

During my time in La Paz I stayed with PC(USA) mission co-worker Sarah Henken. Sarah is the PC(USA) Regional Liaison for the Andean region. This means that she keeps up with what is going on with partner churches and organizations of the PC(USA) in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. She also oversees the PC(USA) mission co-workers working in these countries and helps foster relationships between PC(USA) congregations and our partners there. I enjoyed spending the week with Sarah, getting to know her and her work.

With Sarah Henken

I also had a chance to visit with PC(USA) mission co-worker Chenoa Stock. Chenoa had been a part of my mission training before going to Zambia, so it was great to see her again. Chenoa works with the Joining Hands Network, which is known as UMAVIDA in Bolivia (UMAVIDA is short for Uniendo Manos por la Vida – Joining Hands for Life). We were able to visit Chenoa’s colleagues at UMAVIDA, Miguelina and Cleo, one afternoon which was a special treat. UMAVIDA is currently working to address water safety and environmental concerns, which are a serious problem due to mining that has been taking place without proper regulations. They also work with youth, conducting a water school and sending youth to the international youth congress in the region. Cleo coordinates the local efforts and is heavily invested in the work of UMAVIDA. I was very moved by her passion to protect the resources of Bolivia and equip the next generation to take better care of their environment. Cleo is also a dedicated advocate for women’s rights. In Bolivia, 8 out of 10 women have been victims of violence – that is a staggering 80 percent. Cleo strives to speak for these and to restore the hope that has been lost for a better future among Bolivian women. I was honored to meet this woman who loves her country and fellow Bolivians. Please pray that UMAVIDA would find the resources it needs to continue their good work.

Miguelina, Chenoa, and Cleo at UMAVIDA

I enjoyed seeing the sights in and around La Paz. You have seen my two previous posts about El Día de los Muertos and Lake Titicaca. The city of La Paz itself was also amazing. We explored the city - visiting the oldest church, walking through the markets, enjoying lunch out at a few of the cafés, and enjoying the view from several scenic overlooks.

On the top of the oldest church in La Paz, Iglesia de San Francisco

Waiting for the bus

My last day in La Paz was a Sunday and we joined a local Presbyterian church for their worship service. The congregation was small and meets in an apartment. The folks were full of joy and very welcoming to me. Even through the language barrier I could understand their warmth and love. Please pray for this little congregation and their pastor, that they will continue to seek and follow God faithfully.

The Presbyterian congregation I visited on Sunday

As I left La Paz I was sad to go so soon, but also excited to return to the States and to spend some time with my family. Thank you for coming along with me on this journey, I hope you have been able to share in my adventure! Stay tuned for one more post as I return to the States and Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Adios, La Paz!

Posted November 10, 2012
Lake Titicaca

On Friday, Sarah and I headed to Lake Titicaca. We tried to catch a bus in the morning, but they had all left early because it was a holiday weekend and lots of people were traveling. Fortunately, we were able to get a bus just after lunch. The three and a half hour ride out to the lake from La Paz was beautiful. We traveled along the flat, rural altiplano until we started to get into more mountains. As we approached the lake, winding around the sides of the mountains, there were spectacular views. At one point we even had to get off the bus and ride a ferry across a straight to get to the town where we were staying, Copacabana.

View of Copacabana from our hostel

We arrived with just enough time to walk around a bit, then enjoy dinner as the sun went down. Copacabana is a nice but touristy town, as many tours to islands and different parts of the lake depart from there. There were also many local families enjoying the holiday weekend at Copacabana.

Locals enjoying the holiday weekend

On Saturday morning we climbed Cerro Calvario, a hill next to the town. The climb was difficult as we were at about 14,000 feet above sea level but we slowly made our way to the top. In the 1950s, stations of the cross were put along the path up the hill and it is now considered a pilgrimage site. We would pause at the foot of each cross and even stood with a family who prayed the Lord’s Prayer at one of the crosses.

The cross where we prayed with the family

The view from the top of Cerro Calvario was stunning. It was a cloudy day and we could see rain over parts of the lake and every now and then the sun would break through. At the top, women were selling candles to light at the summit – supposedly to bring you health, money, love, education, etc. I bought two to light in memory of loved ones who have died, my best childhood friend Cameron and my grandfather Frank.

At the top of Cerro Calvario

Many people lit candles - the two in the middle are in memory of Cameron and Frank

We stayed at the top of the hill for a while, just enjoying the view. Then we made our way back down to the town, visited the church, and had lunch before catching our bus back to La Paz. It was a great little trip and I’m glad to have seen this amazing part of our world! 

Rain over the lake

Lake Titicaca from the top of Cerro Calvario

Enjoying the view

Posted November 4, 2012
El Día de los Muertos

This week I am in La Paz, Bolivia and my visit has coincided with the holidays of Todos Santos (All Saints Day) and El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). These traditional Catholic holidays have been adopted and adapted here in Bolivia to include traditional beliefs as well. On the days leading up to these holidays people have been preparing for the visits of their relatives who have died. The traditional belief is that the souls of deceased family members come to visit from noon on November 1 and return to the realm of the dead at the same time on November 2.

Buying breads and cookies in prepartion for the holiday

On November 1, Todos Santos, many families prepare tables with pictures of their loved ones, favorite foods and drinks, and other special objects in their homes for the deceased to enjoy when they come to visit. On November 2, El Día de los Muertos, many families go to the graves of their relatives. While visiting they clean the graves, leave food and drink, offer music and prayers, and even share a meal together at the graveside.

A table set up with sweets, fruits, flowers, and other treats

Today is El Día de los Muertos and this morning Sarah and I visited the biggest cemetery here in La Paz. There were so many people in the neighborhood and a market had sprung up around the cemetery. As we entered the cemetery I could sense the meaning and importance of this day for the Bolivian people.

Market outside the cemetery

As we walked through the pathways lined with tombs, my heart was heavy. The tombs were stacked on top of each other, six high on both sides. Some of the tombs were very well looked after while others have not seen visitors for many years. People were everywhere arranging flowers, cleaning the tombs, and leaving presents for their deceased relatives. In the tombs of older people family members left small bottles of soft drinks or alcohol, cigarettes, cookies and breads. In the tombs of children and babies there were bottles, toys, and candies.

The tomb of an adult (above) and a child (below) with gifts from their families

As we walked through the cemetery I had many different emotions. On the one hand it was sad to see people grieving and missing their loved ones. At some of the tombs the people were praying or even singing together, some lovingly touching the tomb as though it were the face or hand of their relative. On the other hand it seemed like a party. There were drums and pipes playing – one family was cheerfully singing happy birthday to their deceased relative. Some families had brought so many gifts for their relatives they were trying to figure out what to do with all the gifts, as they would not fit in the small tombs. Some people were weeping while others were laughing together. I felt the same way, remembering loved ones who have died – how I miss them but remember them fondly and with joy. There was something so sweet and beautiful about this day as the community remembers those who have gone before. 

A family at the tomb of their relative

Flowers for a loved one

Posted November 2, 2012
Buenos Aires

For the past week I have been in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have had a wonderful time here, even with a jet-lagged brain. My first impression of Buenos Aires was that I felt like I was back in New York City. Even on the cab ride in from the airport I was amazed how familiar it felt. Buenos Aires is a very metropolitan city, a major port, and home to people of all different cultural backgrounds. The major difference, of course, is that the language here is Spanish. I tried to use what little I know, but my brain kept overriding Spanish with Dutch (which I learned while living in Belgium). I could say about three words in a sentence in Spanish, then I could only think of how to finish it in Dutch. A couple nights I was even dreaming in this strange Spanish/Dutch combo!

Orchestra on the street

I stayed with a fantastic family – Dennis, Maribel, and Benjamin Smith (they also have another son, Lucas, who was away while I was visiting). Dennis is the PC(USA) regional liaison for Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. He is a long time PC(USA) mission co-worker, but fairly new to this position. He served for over 30 years in Guatemala before moving with his family to Buenos Aires about a year and a half ago. Maribel is Guatemalan and such a joy. I had so much fun with her this week, just chatting in their apartment or walking around the city together.

Dennis and Maribel

I had the opportunity to attend the board meeting of the Agencia Lationamericana y Caribeña de Comunicación, which is “an independent ecumenical news agency that focuses on Latin America’s churches and civil society (Dennis Smith).” At this meeting the board was approving their new strategic plan that emphasizes advocacy, investigative journalism, and the right to communicate. There were many important church leaders from Latin America there and I was glad to have a chance to meet them and sit in on their meeting.

The ALC board meeting

During my time here I also met with Katie Griffin, a PC(USA) co-worker who is a church history professor at ISEDET, a theological university/seminary. She has been teaching in Buenos Aires since 1998. We spent a great afternoon together which included a tour of ISEDET, a wonderful Italian style cappuccino at a nearby café, and conversation. We were able to share how God has lead both of us to where we are today. I was very encouraged by my time with Katie.

Katie in the library at ISEDET

On Saturday we attended a worship service at ISEDET in celebration of Reformation Day. It was a very ecumenical service with folks from many reformed traditions worshipping together. It was a sweet time to celebrate our heritage together.

Maribel reading Scripture at the Reformation Day worship

Sunday morning we attended an Anglican church, where the Smith family usually worships. I had also been attending an Anglican church in Zambia, so I was able to follow along with the liturgy. Also, they sang many worship songs that were familiar to me so I could understand what we were singing. After church we went out for lunch at a great Peruvian restaurant.

Communion at the Anglican church

I also had time to explore Buenos Aires with Dennis and Maribel. We spent two afternoons strolling through craft markets in different parks. We got around by bus, subway, and on foot. We passed by Starbucks and McDonalds, as well as street vendors and sidewalk markets. I enjoyed my time here and it made me more excited to return to NYC and explore my new neighborhood.

An afternoon at the market

Mates - cups and straws used for drinking the local tea - for sale

Sunday night we had a big thunderstorm and awoke on Monday morning to find that parts of the city of Buenos Aires had been seriously affected by flooding. In some places flash floods had piled cars on top of each others and some parts of the city were still underwater. Later that night, hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States, including New York City. I hope that you are all safe and pray that you will be granted patience and wisdom as you wait for the storm and its effects to clear. 

Posted October 30, 2012
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