Made in God’s Image: Finding God in Quezalguaque, Nicaragua

Preacher: Melanie Hsu Chernin
Date: August 19, 2018

Scripture: Luke 17:20-25

          For those of you who don’t know, Mary McConnell is a long time member who always goes out of her way to welcome newcomers. (She’s right over there.) I used to think Mary was God. Maybe it was because of her important place at United Parish, or maybe it was her wise, all-knowing nature. Maybe it was because when I was only four and didn’t feel the need to stand up when the congregation sang hymns, she would interrupt me and my friend, Priya’s tic-tac-toe game to tell us, “You’re old enough now, you’re going to have to stand up.” And when God tells you to stand up, you stand up. Growing up at United Parish, going to choir and Sunday school every week, believing in God was sort of handed to us as a given along with our goldfish at snack time. From such a young age, we heard bible stories about God, we sang songs about God, and we shared stories about how we saw God in our lives. God was always there, no question about it.

          Most kids like to make everything as concrete and straightforward as possible. As a kid, I always thought of God as a person. Whether that person was Mary McConnell or an old man with a beard, it was always a physical human being sitting up in heaven watching over us. Whatever you’ve been taught as a child, whatever the people around you believe, you’re almost always going to believe it yourself. Because it’s the only thing you know to be true. Since I grew up going to church every week where God was the most popular and expected thing to talk about, I believed in God. Simple as that. However, as I grew up and started thinking for myself, I often stumbled upon things that didn’t make sense. For example, I didn’t understand how God could possibly keep track of everyone’s life. It has to be too much if not impossible to keep track of, let alone make all those people’s lives better. Katy McGraw, my Sunday school teacher at the time likes to tell a story that when I was in her class, I once asked, “Who really is Jesus’ father? Is it God or Joseph?” Things like these made me wonder if God was real. I’ve since realized that everyone has their own interpretation of God, and my own interpretations have moved away from the image of God being a person, and towards the idea that God is a spirit within us that connects us to one another.

            In April, I traveled to Nicaragua on a high school trip with 10 other girls, 2 teachers, and our tour guide and director of the Sister City Project, Richard (who’s sitting right over there.) It was my first time traveling to Central America and I had an unforgettable experience. When Kent asked me to speak about my trip at summer worship, I had a lot of stories to tell but I didn’t exactly know what there was to say about God. I did not go to Nicaragua looking for God, nor did I expect to see God on my trip. And honestly didn’t think about the ways I might have seen God, even after I got home. It wasn’t until I was asked to write this sermon that I realized God was there during all of it. But not in the way you might think. I didn’t feel that God was there watching over us, making good things happen, or keeping us safe. I felt that God was there within each of us and in the people we met.  It was God’s presence that allowed me to make connections with people from a place that couldn’t be any more different from where I live.

          When we first arrived in Nicaragua, we had to take a van from the airport in Managua to Brookline’s sister city, Quezalguaque. Despite the air being thick with humidity, the ride was amazing. The colors seemed brighter than the sun. Pinks, oranges, yellows, and greens blurred around me, on the walls of houses and on the street signs. Kids ran on the sides of the road playing baseball with peaches. Cows and goats grazed freely along the roadside. Spanish words whizzed past me, too fast for me to try and comprehend. We were playing get to know you games inside the van, but my eyes were glued to the window. I was in a different world, and everything about it excited me.

          After our first day in Quezalguaque of touring the city, and meeting the mayor, our group was hanging out at the park. We ran into some little kids we had met earlier in the day: David, Josè and Jackson. We started playing in the playground with them, and soon enough there were more than a dozen other kids playing with us. Some of my friends on the trip are native Spanish speakers so they helped translate between the kids and us when we couldn’t understand. They taught us policia y ladrones which is basically just tag, and we taught them Capture the Flag, using bandanas as flags. We raced around the plaza and laughed together - unaware of any differences between us. The language barrier wasn’t even a problem because who needs to talk when you’re playing tag? I was having so much fun I didn’t even realize the sun was starting to set. I was sweating bullets, yet the kids we’d just met didn’t seem to be sweating at all. What I remember most from that afternoon was the huge smiles on the faces of our new friends and we were all smiling too. We hugged goodbye and gave the kids our bandanas that we used to play capture the flag, sad that we had to leave. I hope they’re still using them today. That fun filled, spontaneous afternoon in the park is one of my favorite memories of the trip. From that small glimpse into what those kids’ lives are like, I saw so many differences between us, yet it was the similarities that seemed to stand out. Everything about the environment that they lived in was different. No phones out, no parents nearby, no fancy toys. Yet, they were just kids, like us. They laughed and joked and played together, just like any Brookline kid does. Was God helping us see past our differences and just hear laughter instead? I wonder.

          During our stay, we visited three high schools, each one very different from the last. The first was called Las Mercedes. It definitely wasn’t the warmest welcome I’ve ever received. There was a lot of pointing, laughing, whistling, stuff like that. We were a diverse group of students, including a red head, so we got pretty used to the staring and pointing by the end of the trip. Almost all people we met, besides the occasional tourist, were Latino and many had never met an Asian or African American before. So our arrival at the school caused a bit of a commotion. We nervously took our place standing in front of close to 80 students sitting on the blacktop outside their classrooms. The students had prepared questions to ask us. We expected to hear things like, “What sports do you play?” or, “What do you eat for lunch?” Instead, we were asked, “What does freedom mean to you?” or “How do you deal with teen pregnancies?” “What do you think about racism?” That took us back a bit. We did our best to answer even though we weren’t quite sure what to say. It felt to me that freedom is too big of a concept to explain in a sentence or two. We weren’t sure what their experiences with racism had been and what they were really asking. And we for sure didn’t know what it was like to be so heavily affected by teen pregnancy. These very real and blunt questions showed me the tremendous differences between us and the students at Las Mercedes. But it was cool that they had the guts to ask, and we had the confidence to try and answer their questions. Looking back, perhaps it was God’s presence that allowed these courageous conversations to take place.

            Our last two days in Nicaragua didn’t go as planned. When we arrived in Granada, we were already on edge because we had heard about the protests.  But we went out to eat anyway because we didn’t expect the violence to be so close by. It wasn’t until later I learned that people were protesting against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s decision to change the nation’s social security system. We walked around the plaza for a bit and finally chose a restaurant. We were sitting down at an outdoor table when we heard the yelling. People came sprinting around the corner, protest signs swinging by their sides. Police were on motorcycles revving behind them. We ran fast from our table filled with fear, no clue what was going on. We took a sharp turn into the nearest restaurant. Our group had split up in the chaos of things. I looked around and realized I was surprisingly in much better shape than everyone else. My friends around me were crying, gasping for breath, but for some strange reason I remained calm. I hugged them until they stopped. Could it have been the God in me that helped me be this person?

           We peeked around the corner, outside. People were running from the police, and gunshots rang out like fireworks on the fourth of July. Once we were all together again we quickly and quietly walked back to our hotel. The next morning we woke up at 3 AM to avoid the next day’s protests. We traveled by van to Managua where we stayed at our hotel in lockdown until our flight left for home. We may have made it out safely, but many in Nicaragua are not safe now. That was only the first day of civil unrest. Since then there have been over 300 deaths on the streets and the protests are still going on today. On that Thursday of our trip, I was trying to decide whether to buy a blue or purple hand woven hammock to bring home. And on Friday, I was struggling to understand what about Ortega’s social security system made people so angry and violent.  The mood changed very quickly. I think about the people I met and the friends I made a lot. I hope things get better for them.

          There was something inside of the people I met in Nicaragua that made it so easy to connect with them - something that showed us what we shared and had in common. Together we felt a common passion that seemed to be sparked from nothing except from having met. And I believe that was God. I also had the chance to become close with a group of girls from my own school that I probably would never have even talked to in the halls of Brookline High if we hadn’t traveled together.

          During my time in Nicaragua, I wasn’t looking for God at all. In fact I didn’t see God anywhere and say, “Look here it is!” or “There it is!” like Jesus told the Pharisees in today’s scripture. It wasn’t until Kent asked me to speak that I had to think about whether I believed that God was there at all.

        Nobody likes homework, and those of us who go to school know how annoying it can be. But this “assignment” pushed me to really think about the ways I see God in the people I meet and know, and even in myself. So, how can all of us be on the lookout for God in each person we meet? I’m not really sure, but maybe you could start by giving yourself this assignment from time to time and answer the question that I was asked. “How have you seen the image of God today?”

       So what I’ve learned in the end is that maybe my 4 year old self wasn’t so off after all. Because God is in Mary McConnell. God is in David and Josè and Jackson in the park. God is in Quezalguaque and here at United Parish. God is in me, and in all of you.