I spent one year of seminary in Argentina and three months of that year’s summer break visiting a Lutheran church community in Peru in what was called a Villa Miseria, a village of misery. Here in NYC, if you are poor and can’t afford housing, you are likely to become homeless. In the city of Lima, Peru, people who could not afford housing had another option. They could build homes on the dusty, desert hills around the city. Since it never rained, so you could use very simple materials to build with. The homes of the families in the church were made of cardboard or straw mats.
Church services were at night since most people were down in Lima during the day trying to make some money so they could eat. There was no electricity in the Villa Misera and the church was lit by kerosene lanterns. Some of the congregants came in, sat down and quickly nodded off. The pastor didn’t mind this and told me that he was glad his weary church members could enjoy a moment of quiet rest. There was no running water available either so all of the community’s water was trucked in once a week, if that. People saved one pail of water for cooking and one pail for washing. The water had to be used over and over for washing- bodies, dishes, whatever.
This may have been called a Villa Miseria and poverty is miserable, but miserable would not be how I would describe the people I came to know there. They were loving, resilient, hard-working and generous. Near the end of my time with them, one family invited me to their home. I had grown close to their son, 10 year-old Julio, who taught me to sing and play new songs on the guitar, songs I’ve taught others to sing in churches I’ve served in the Bronx and in Manhattan.
I was from the United States and they wanted to do everything they could think of to be hospitable to someone from the US…and so, they spent all that day’s hard-earned money for one thing, for me– a large bottle of Coca Cola. Peruvian-made Inca Cola could not be good enough for me. The Coke was produced with great pride and flourish along with a plastic drinking cup and some crackers. I watched as the mom took the dusty cup, (because everything gets dusty when you live on a hillside of dust) and swished it back and forth in a pan of dirty water before filling it up for me to drink.
Oh dear God! I thought. If I drink from that dirty cup, I am going to get deathly sick. Oh dear God! I thought, if I don’t drink from that cup now I may as well be dead. I will certainly have sacrificed my soul on the altar of scrupulous hygiene. Ten year-old Julio had the honor…”This is for you,” he said, holding out the cup. It was delicious. I didn’t get sick. Someone whom I told about this said “Well of course you didn’t get sick! Coca Cola kills everything!” Perhaps, but I think it was more than that.
Jesus knew there was a time and a place for purity laws and traditional ritual washing practices. Jesus also knew that there were times to set those things aside for a higher purpose. Because God knows that it’s not only people in a Villa Miseria who cannot get things sparkling clean.
We are all complicit in actions and structures that spawn misery. In his epistle, James writes: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Ironically, keeping oneself unstained by the world, sometimes means allowing ourselves to get down and dirty, to bear many stains for love’s sake, to prioritize love over rules. Love over judgment.
Thankfully, that that is the kind of God Jesus shows us. And sometimes that God looks like a smiling 10 year-old boy on a dusty hillside holding out a cup of Coca Cola and a plate of crackers. A holy communion of extravagant generosity, of radical grace, a moment that overcomes seemingly impossible divides. “Take and eat,” he says. “Take and drink.” he says. “This is for you.”