Saturday, January 31, 2015

Give Us This Day Our Daily Tortilla . . .

I was nineteen when I ate my first tortilla. It was in Honduras where I had just begun a two-year term of voluntary service. This was before the day that you could find a Mexican restaurant on nearly every street corner. At least it seems that way in the town where I currently live.

The tortillas in Honduras are a bit different from the Mexican ones. They are made of the same corn “masa,” but are nearly a quarter-inch thick. I wasn’t too impressed with my first bite. They seemed rather flavorless. Several of my expatriate friends tried to make them palatable to our sensibilities by sprinkling salt on them. That was an anathema to our Honduran friends as it would be to today’s diet conscious folk—for different reasons.

Corn has been the staple of the diet of Mesoamerican peoples thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. It was a sacred food, and to this day the descendants of the great indigenous cultures that stretched from Honduras through Guatemala, all of Mexico and into Southwestern United States, have ceremonies to celebrate its planting and harvesting.

In the village in rural Mexico where my wife and I worked for Mennonite Central Committee, having a storeroom full of corn was more important than money in the bank. Inflation was running rampant and savings continually lost their value. To save up for a rainy day was to put more corn in your storeroom. At least you would have something to eat. 

The stone metate that has been used to since
ancient times to make the corn the
proper consistency.
Making tortillas is an intricate process. It starts by husking and shelling dried corn from your storeroom and soaking the kernels overnight in a bucket with a water and lye solution. The kernels swell up and become soft. Early in the morning the women carry one or two buckets to the local corn grinder and have the soaked kernels ground into a mushy paste called masa. This paste is than hand patted into a flat cake that is grilled over an open fire for the best taste. Many women use a “metate” to take what comes from the mill to make their masa just the right consistency to make the proper tortilla.

Of course, in the cities of Mexico, there isn’t enough time to go through the whole process, so you can buy tortilla “flour,” add water, and make your own tortillas more quickly. “Tortillerías,” or tortilla factories have cropped up in many places as well where tortillas are mass produced. True aficionados of tortillas look down on both of these modern ways of making tortillas. The taste just isn’t the same.

In the last decade before the turn of the twentieth century, the government of Mexico wanted to make Mexico into a modern, European-like country. They tried to promote the consumption of bread over and against the tortilla. The tortilla was considered backwards. Indeed the French under Napoleon’s protégée Maximilian, had ruled Mexico for a period in the mid nineteenth century. Bakeries had sprung up all over Mexico with lots of delicious breads and sweet breads.

Try as they may to make bread trump the tortilla, the government failed to convince the people to abandon their beloved tortillas. They were part of the collective soul of the people. It’s like trying to have modern medicine take over traditional ways of healing in Mexico. All levels of society continue to consult “curanderos” for their physical and emotional ailments. But that’s another story.

A typical Mexican family consumes nearly 2.5 pounds of tortillas a day. In rural areas the amount increases. For those living on fewer than $5.00 per day, tortillas account for nearly half of their daily calorie intake. The importance of the tortilla cannot be underestimated. Along with accompanying every meal like bread for many western countries, they appear in numerous traditional foods like enchiladas, tacos and tostadas. In rural areas they are also used as utensils in the absence of tableware.

Because of the importance of the tortilla in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, I tell my students that the Lord’s prayer in those countries should be, “give us this day our daily tortilla.” It would make a lot more sense in their context.

I learned to love the taste of tortillas. The thin ones from Mexico, the fatter ones from Honduras to the special blue ones from rural Guatemala—they all make my mouth water when I smell them cooking on the grill. Hearing the pat-pat-pat of woman forming them early in the morning in nearly every village of Mesoamerica makes me grateful for God’s provision for my brothers and sisters in these lands.

Give us this day our daily tortilla!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

How I Tricked the Town Gossip

I grew up in a small town of about 250 people. There were two main gathering places for people of my town. The hardware store and the grocery store. Both were within a block of where I lived.

Since there were no bars or restaurants in our town for communal interaction, to catch up on gossip we headed either to the grocery store or the hardware store. Along with the daily gossip the grocery store supplied nearly all the town’s food needs and the hardware store supplied basic needs for nails and screws along with a few other items.

At the town’s hardware store, the old men would gather around the pot-bellied stove on cold winter nights to smoke cigars and play dominoes. We kids would enter to warm up our hands between sledding forays on the street between the two stores.

If you really wanted to know what was going on in town, however, you had to stop into Oberholtzer’s grocery store. The proprietor and his son would carry on a conversation with everyone who entered. The son was the butcher and stood behind the meat counter at the back of the store ready to engage you in chit chat while slicing your luncheon meats. The father ran the cash register at the front of the store and kept an eagle-eye watch on anyone who entered and exited. In between he would strike up conversations with anyone who lent a willing ear. If he couldn’t elicit town news from normal conversation, he would pry and probe until he got what he wanted. He was the town’s news bearer.

From my eleventh year of life until my senior year in high school, I served as the town’s official news bearer. I was the newspaper boy. I delivered both the morning and evening papers. They were both published by the same company, but supposedly the morning paper had a Democrat bent while the evening paper was more Republican. If newspapers had voted, the Republicans would have won 45-25.

Faithfully every morning I got up at 5:30 am to fold the 25-some newspapers I was to deliver. The house of the grocery store owner was right across from the store. He was one of my first customers and I usually arrived to toss his paper on his porch at 6:45 am. He was always waiting for me.

“Why do you call this news?” he would ask nearly every day. “This all happened yesterday. It’s all old news.” He burst out in laughter every time he said it. He thought he was so clever, and he never tired of saying it. As you can imagine, it sort of got on my nerves. Some days he varied the routine by saying, “I guess you got up before breakfast this morning.” I got tired of both these queries, but the “old news” one especially irked me.

One December morning I unexpectedly received an extra paper in my bundle. For some reason I tucked it away in the back of my top dresser drawer. It wasn’t a special edition like the ones that I saved during Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, or the year the Phillies almost won the pennant. It was just a regular daily newspaper—with “old news” in it.

One day after being especially irked by the town gossip’s “old news” badgering, I developed a plan. I don’t remember how I thought of the old newspaper in the back of my dresser drawer, but I decided I would save it for a whole year and deliver it to him on the correct date but exactly a year late. I anticipated that day with great eagerness. “I’ll show him what ‘old news’ really is,” I thought.

It’s hard to imagine a boy of 12 or 13 having such patience. But I was a boy on a mission. The day finally arrived. I delivered that newspaper with great joy. I wondered what his reaction would be, and how long it would take him to realize that he’d been had.

The grocery store didn’t open until after I had to leave for school, so I had to wait until I delivered my evening papers after school to find out the results of my little prank. I usually stopped by the store for a snack when I was finished delivering; either a candy bar or a soft drink. Since there were about 45 papers on my evening route, it took me a bit longer to deliver them. I probably pedaled my bike faster than ever as I anticipated entering the store at the end of my route.

When I entered the grocery store, Mr. Oberholtzer greeted me warmly. I didn’t know if he understood the meaning behind the year-old newspaper or not. He couldn’t wait to tell me that he had gone through the whole newspaper without realizing it was a year old.

“I thought it was a little funny when I saw someone in the obituaries who I thought had already died,” he said. “But I didn’t think too much about it.” He continued going through the paper until several other items seemed funny to him. “I checked the date,” he said laughing. “It was the right date, but I didn’t think to check the day of the week or the year!” He kept on reading with his curiosity building. “Finally I checked the day of the week and realized it was the wrong day,” he said. “It still took awhile for me to realize that it was a year old.”

“You always told me that what I delivered was ‘old news,’” I explained. “I thought I should show you what old news really is.” He roared even louder when he realized he had been had by his own joke.

He was a wonderful sport about the prank sprung on him. He told every customer who came into the store how he had been tricked. The story took on epic proportions and I was hailed as a town hero for putting the town gossip in his place.

“I’ll never tease you about ‘old news’ again,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “You showed me what ‘old news’ really is, and it took me half the day to realize how old it was.” 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Alterna Community: Pointing to God’s Kingdom

After nearly 30 years of teaching at a private college, I am seldom blown away by a chapel service. You could say I am jaded; I have seen it all. Today was an exception. Anton Flores-Maisonet from the Alterna Community in Lumpkin, Georgia, was the speaker. While explaining the ministry of their community, he told stories of “Glimpses of Conversion: The Immigrants’ Rights Movement in Georgia.” 

I was impressed that Anton lives with his family in a community, that the community owes several houses on the same street where members live. I was moved by how the community worships together and works for justice among the marginalized immigrant population. I was captivated by how the community is made up of both marginalized and mainstream people. I also couldn’t believe that Anton had given up a tenured professorship to work in this community without remuneration. I was convinced that this community shows how God’s kingdom can be lived on earth, and as such is a sign of what could be to the world and the powerful.

What fascinated me about the brief encounter I had with their ministry, was how closely they lined up with Ronald Rolheiser’s definition of a balanced spirituality in his book The Holy Longing. Rolheiser’s categories were for individuals, but they could easily be applied to groups as well.

The first essential for a healthy spirituality for Rolheiser is private prayer. This prayer elicits a deeper relationship with God. It is more than a quick prayer before a meal, or a long list of demands for God’s intervention in your life. This relationship involves contemplative prayers, silence, retreats and spiritual direction. Anton talked about his own practices in these disciplines, and that without them he wouldn’t be able to sustain his life of activism. Most churches advocate some levels of this essential.

Anton Flores-Maisonet leading a prayer vigil
The second essential is social justice. Their whole raison d’etre is to work for the marginalized; particularly the undocumented immigrants in their community. Their work includes leading vigils and marches, visiting immigrants held in detention centers, legal advocacy, and visits to Central America to connect families who have been estranged for years because of their “illegal” status in the US. Far too few churches advocate for social justice as an essential.

The third essential is belonging to a community of faith. Not only do they belong to a community of faith, they live in one. They worship together several times a week, have meals together, and invite their neighbors to eat with them once a week. Most churches advocate worshiping together, but few emphasize living together as a community.

Rolheiser’s final essential is mellowness of heart. Although not specifically mentioned in Anton’s chapel address, I could tell by his countenance that he didn’t take himself too seriously. When you are involved in social justice, it is far too easy to wear the burden of the injustice you see all around on your shoulders. In addition, the community lists celebration as one of their ways to balance their spirituality. Most churches add rules and regulations that mitigate against mellowness of heart.

I would add that this community not only embodies Rolheiser’s four essentials for a healthy spirituality, but also that it embodies the principles of Anabaptism. They list their values as “generous simplicity, hospitality, reconciliation, community, environmental stewardship, nonviolence and a balanced spirituality.” It can’t get any more Anabaptist than this.

God’s kingdom is breaking out in many ways and in many forms as we move from a Christendom model of religion to a post-modern multiplicity of religious expressions. The Alterna Community is a fresh Christian approach to a movement that is as old as the early church, revisited by Waldensians, Anabaptists, Quakers, Franciscans and many other groups since. They are a sign pointing to God’s kingdom on earth. They are a witness to what could be if we, the church, took Jesus’ message seriously.