What does it mean to be naked?
To be nude, bare, unclothed, stripped. This might be the first definition that comes to mind. Being naked can also mean honesty, as we really are, unedited, raw. When we are naked, we are unprotected and exposed. When we are naked, we are at our most vulnerable.
From July 17-22, BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz held its first Summer Conference in Mexico. The theme for the week was “¿Cuando te Vimos Desnudo?: Arropándonos con Esperanza” or “When Did We See You Naked?: Clothing Each Other with Hope.” Over the week, 217 people representing 12 countries gathered to explore community through the lens of vulnerability; how do we become unafraid to share our vulnerabilities with one another and what does it look like to stand with and offer protection to the most vulnerable in our communities, countries, the world?
“This theme of ‘clothing ourselves with hope’ is something that speaks to us about how we clothe ourselves in our own communities and how desperate a need that is for us,” said Lázaro González, who is Zapotec and a retired professor with the Baptist Seminary in Mexico City.
Held at Misión Mazahua near the city of Toluca, the gathering accomplished a goal BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz has envisioned since its beginnings as an organization.
“Since BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz was founded as the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America in 1984, our mission has been to support the peacemaking efforts happening in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the United States,” said LeDayne McLeese Polaski, executive director of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz. “We’ve struggled with that. When we made the decision to add ‘Bautistas por la Paz’ to our name, we knew living into it would be a challenge, but it was a statement to the Spanish speakers in our communities of where we want to be and our commitment to becoming that.”
“This conference took years of careful and intentional planning, and it would not have been successful without the dedication of so many board, staff, and members who believed in and supported this work,” continued Polaski. “I especially want to thank Ximena Ulloa Montemayor, our 2017 Summer Conference program manager, for her vision and implementation in making this conference exceed what we had imagined possible.”
With participants also coming from Central and South America and the Caribbean - Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, and Chile to name a few – there was some talk about BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz expanding its name even further.
“I’d like to see us grow,” said Anna Burkett, a longtime member of the organization and current Spanish teacher. “Maybe change the name to BPFA - Baptist Peace Fellowship of the Americas - and continue this year’s example of how we’re stretching out our arms.”
Also referred to as ‘Peace Camps,’ these conferences have been taking place annually since 1985 and provide a space where peacemakers come together for a week of worship, music, workshops, and fellowship.
“Sometimes those who dream about peace are very isolated,” said Ricardo Mayol, missionary with American Baptist Churches International Ministries. “I think these Summer Camps, besides getting inspiration and finding a community where you feel in tune, it’s always renewing and it’s an opportunity for strengthening relationships and working for peace.”
“Turning Over the Tortilla”
The week’s content centered around various ways to clothe and empower society’s most vulnerable. Examples include the work of the Baptist Seminary in Mexico City and the Mayan Intercultural Seminary in Chiapas, both of which are working to empower Indigenous communities and reclaim Indigenous identities.
“My job is outreach for young people,” said Aurelia Jiménez, who is on staff with the Mayan Intercultural Seminary. “I started looking at what they need individually and as part of a community, and I started preparing worship for them based on these needs. Using theological points of view and using the Bible as it fits into their realities… I focus on [Indigenous] cultures, nonviolence, and the injustices faced in their daily lives. This makes the young people see hope.”
Luz Amparo works in Cali, Colombia with Red de Mujeres Comisión de Paz / The Network of Women Peace Commission (CELECOL), an organization working to end violence against women.
“We think that one of the best ways to start building peace is through the empowerment of women,” said Amparo. “We try to train women to see their bodies as territories of peace, so if they have that awareness and think of their bodies that way, they’re less likely to accept violence against them and less likely to think that it’s natural and inherent. Another important component is to be able to give women resources so they can raise themselves up economically. So the resources to start a business or the resources to know what they’re worth economically. Many women will accept violence against them or become involved in a cycle of violence because economically they’re dependent on another person.”
Many of those present came to collaborate efforts and share stories, resources, and tools with those doing similar work in other communities and countries. The goal – To create a larger, coordinated network that may have more impact on a grander scale.
“When we talk about peace, we talk about turning over the tortilla,” said Mayol, “The tortilla doesn’t flip over itself, someone has to flip it over. And when we talk about peace, we’re also talking about violence. There are many types of violence - physical, militarization, taking away resources, economics, discrimination, people being destroyed in their humanity. Understanding how this is being played out intercontinentally and how these types of violence cross borders is a concern. How can we mobilize our voices together in each country?”
Mayol is currently leading an effort to create a network called the Continental Christian Network for Peace (or CCNP), which will include a virtual platform to support the sharing of resources and intercontinental networking for peace.
“Much of the suffering and violence in the South comes from the North,” he said, “So if we really care about peace and justice work, then we need to connect those in the North and those in the South and understand together how the violence is being carried out. For example, those resisting the mining companies in Latin America are being killed, and we know that many of the mining companies are from Canada. So how can we find people in the United States and Canada who are involved in these issues and how can we network? I know they are there, I don’t know who they are, but I know they are there.”
Jodi Spargur, pastor of a largely-Indigenous congregation in Vancouver, Canada, was enthusiastic about the opportunity to connect with those in Mexico who are also working to empower Indigenous communities.
“The sharing of resources and the sharing of connections between Indigenous communities is huge,” she said. “Indigenous communities have fewer resources, how do we leverage those? I’d like to see the sharing of knowledge across communities that are Indigenous or those affected by colonization because I think there is a strong link… A cross-pollination of Indigenous communities directly would be really exciting. And I think it benefits us all. Some people think we’re separate in our work, but actually when we do this work well it bleeds out into all these other aspects of our lives and theology and our frameworks.”
Holding the 2017 Conference in Mexico was also a symbolic statement to contradict the harsh and divisive narrative coming from the United States regarding immigrants and refugees.
“We are here together in Mexico, from many different places, despite some voices trying to build walls between us,” said Rev. Rebeca Montemayor, co-pastor of Iglesia Shalom Bautista in Mexico City.
Becoming ‘The Stranger’
With past Conferences being held in the United States and Canada, there was some concern over how the week would go and if US-centric issues would dominate even in a Latin American context. However, many in attendance were pleased with the tone of the week.
BPFNA Board President Mayra Picos Lee said this conference “stayed in Mexico.” “It wasn’t just a gathering in Mexico that was still focused around the United States.”
Others from the United States were also happy to see the dynamics shift where those from the North were now ‘the stranger,’ something that many -- from the United States especially -- may not be used to.
“This was a historic gathering [and] a transformative week of living, learning and worshiping together,” said longtime member Beth Jackson-Jordan who also serves as director of spiritual care and education for Carolinas Healthcare System in Concord, NC. “All services and workshops were conducted in Spanish with interpreters provided for the non-Spanish speaking attendees. It was an immersion experience for many participants coming from the North. We were invited to consider faith through the lens of a culture that values ‘we’ over ‘I’.”
And to some like Anna Burkett, it was evident that everyone had something to learn.
“I volunteered to do the youth program, and I already notice that there’s such an incredible cross-cultural exchange and camaraderie,” she said. “I paired them up for an activity and tried to make sure there were Spanish speakers and English speakers paired together, and seeing them having to work out how to communicate, even where they didn’t have words to, was really powerful and a good example for adults in the world. Adults get so nervous about not being able to talk to people, but I think people would be surprised - when you sit down and actually try to have a conversation with someone, even if you don’t speak each other’s language, you can work out a lot of stuff.”
Clothing Each Other Better
What does this mean for the future of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz? For many, the hope is that the week in Mexico presented the opportunity to create deeper connections and invite more voices to the table.
“It would be very important for future conferences to have space for Indigenous groups to come together and talk about things that are of importance to them,” said Suriana González, who is Zapotec and Nahuatl and runs the Administration and Open Education program at the Baptist Seminary in Mexico City. “We need to make sure that there are Indigenous participants at our Camps. BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz needs more representation and participation from Indigenous peoples because, for us, it is even a question of being able to decide what it means to be ‘clothed’ better and what that looks like and how it takes place. It’s a discussion we need to have. We had the opportunity to be here with people who really need to be embraced and clothed, so we need to ask ‘What would that mean for you?’”
“The work is ongoing,” said Polaski, “but holding this conference has allowed us to turn a corner we’ve been trying to get around for a while. Now that we’re here, we know we can’t go back – we don’t want to go back – but we also have to be intentional in where we go from here to keep this momentum moving forward.”