Global Christian Forum

Ministry during COVID 19: Nate Bacon

You can view a video of this conversation at https://youtu.be/oj3VVHb-X7M

Nate Bacon serves as full-time missionary with InnerChange—an ecumenical, incarnational Christian Order among the poor. He has lived in Guatemala since 2009. Embodying the spirit of “missional ecumenism,” Nate is an ordained Permanent Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, Archdiocese of San Francisco, California, though his ecclesial path began in the Lutheran Church and eventually led him through numerous Christian traditions including: Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Vineyard, almost-Anglican, almost-Orthodox, with a bit of Anabaptist flavoring. 

What is the ministry like in your context right now?
Our ministry of InnerChange (an ecumenical missionary order among the poor) is rooted in marginal neighborhoods and relationally focused. Our missionaries live where we serve. COVID-19 has brought many changes.  While we are not set up to be (normally) a relief oriented community, the needs of our friends and neighbors have obligated us to seek food and rent relief for many in the four locations (3 in Guatemala, 1 in Honduras) for which we are responsible as Central America Regional Directors. Tutoring programs are no longer face to face, but more individual utilizing WhatsApp for the most part. Some in-person Bible studies and groups are occurring on a limited basis, with proper mask-wearing and social-distancing procedures observed. In places like Guatemala City, the pandemic has actually helped to move the needle on collaboration with other NGOs and in our neighborhoods, which is a blessing. Narco-traffic elements, however, have wreaked a bit of havoc on that unity, causing some of the precautionary hygiene checkpoints to be abandoned. Many of our prayer and staff related meetings are now online rather than in person. The upside of that is that some of those meetings now include all of our folks from Central America together, which has actually helped boost morale, and foster unity among us.

What relationships or partnerships are being formed across denominations or faith groups?
There has been an increase in willingness on the part of some to stretch across the historic divisions (particularly between Catholics and Protestants) in order to collaborate in serving the people most in need.  There have been surprises here. In one location one of our Protestant missionary couples helped organize a city-wide effort to collaborate and not duplicate aid to the neediest families. It turned out that most of the Protestant pastors, sadly, used the time to exacerbate divisions with the Catholics rather than focusing on the work at hand. Curiously some of the Catholic folks were more reasonable, and as a result our Protestant missionaries have now established new relationships with these Catholic sisters and brothers, and are working more closely together! At an individual level, there has been a high degree of willingness to chip in and help on the part of a number of Christians, without regard to denomination. Monetary help coming from the US and the UK has also transcended ecclesial barriers, as people just know there is a need, and that Christ calls them to love, solidarity, and generosity.

What are the lessons you have learned about faith and your people that will outlast this pandemic?
One lesson, or perhaps more of a reinforcing reminder, is that when life and death matters come to the fore, it can bring out the best in people, and sharpen the focus of responding in the love that flows from true faith.  Also, accompaniment (though hindered by restrictions and health precautions) becomes even more important, as people are isolated and grieving many kinds of losses. At times, the inability to visit sick relatives or bury their own dead creates a deep grief that begs for accompaniment.  This requires initiative, phone calls, and reaching out, because typical visits (either by those needing help, or those offering) are severely hindered.  People are too often suffering in silence.It is clear that governments are not dependable, and often make empty promises. Waiting for promised government aid is often futile and frustrating. Neighbors helping one another, checking up on each other, and making their needs known, as well as offering what they have (even if it is scant) is the most dependable way of seeking the common good.Often there is inspiring initiative from people who don’t claim faith at all, that can put faith communities to shame! In those cases, we have sought to lend our hands and feet to their efforts, often informally sharing that for us it is a faith response, but that we are grateful this brings us together across so many lines of division. Love of neighbor wins the day.

What has the COVID-19 pandemic revealed about global realities, particularly for the most vulnerable populations? 
Predictably, yet painfully, one sees the same social divisions played out in the effects of the pandemic. The indigenous peoples, and the poorest are (with few exceptions) even more vulnerable and unable to secure medical assistance, employment (so many live off daily labor in the informal economy), food assistance, rent assistance, etc. that are necessary for basic survival. Money promised by the government to help the most vulnerable almost never gets to them. Food assistance is often a one-off, or perhaps two-off bag of basic goods, and then disappears. Hygiene conditions cause the poorest to sometimes become infected with COVID-19 and die as a result of seeking medical help for other maladies, catching the virus while exposed to infected patients in clinics and hospitals. Corruption seems to only see a pandemic as yet another opportunity to steal from, or use the poor for personal gain. The pandemic reveals those who are committed to the common good, and those who are indifferent, or who are all too ready to add insult to injury in the pursuit of their own personal good.  And one sees wealthy nations (like the US) become inwardly focused and often forget about a commitment to those most in need across their borders.  Shutting down and shutting out, and even deporting children and infected persons in a time that demands more compassion. In contrast to governments, however, churches and generous individuals shine whose commitment is truly to love beyond artificial human boundaries.

How can we shape the post-pandemic future to look more like God’s kingdom for those people?
This pandemic should cause us to take a hard look at our political, economic, and social priorities, and to find ways of defunding or dismantling those things that are unnecessary or harmful (excessive military and police costs, benefits for the uber-rich, racial injustice, xenophobic and nationalistic idolatries, etc.) and bolstering those things that can create an adequate safety net, and an environment which promotes human flourishing in all its dimensions, as well as that of the environment and Creation upon which we all depend, and which is our common home.  Churches should take a harder look at how we have so often been co-opted by political and economic narratives which have little to do with the Gospel, and foster our prophetic ’salt’ to be transformative change agents who are not complicit by our silence. As historic racism is being unmasked, and the long-term damage and disease from a colonial past, we must courageously re-learn and re-teach history, humbly recognize our sin, and our complicity in structural sin and injustice, and re-commit ourselves to seeking first God’s Kingdom, rebuilding broken foundations, healing social wounds, and repairing the enduring effects of centuries of injustice. God willing, this fresh burst of Kingdom work can help us to see how much more we have in common than that which divides us, and beckon us toward a ‘missional ecumenism’ (to borrow John Armstrong’s phrase) that helps us move beyond our divisions as God uses us as catalysts toward the omega point of history:  the ‘reconciliation of all things in Christ’, the ‘new heavens and new earth’, the ‘Beloved Community’, and the Transfiguration of all Creation.