Snapshots from my faith journey

My earliest memories revolve around First Presbyterian Church in York, Pennsylvania, where my dad was a pastor from the time I was four years old until I graduated from college. I know that many ministers' kids feel as if they've grown up in a fishbowl, but my experience as a PK was positive. I felt as if there were hundreds of people who cared about me and supported me throughout my childhood.

In high school, all of my closest friends were from my ninth grade commissioning class. Our youth minister, Gregg, began taking us on weekend backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail, and over the next four years our group of young people wrestled with all of the big questions we could think of. I was sixteen in 1980, and the hostage crisis in Iran was a huge issue on our minds. Gregg, and the volunteer couple who stuck with us all four years through high school, treated us as if we were thinking teenagers in the process of becoming adults. They offered no easy answers, and as we grew closer and closer, they didn't try to hide their own imperfections, doubts and struggles. Simultaneously, they modeled what it means to give yourself completely and entirely to Christ, and to seek constantly to find and live out God's will in your life.

In college, I was a member of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the "Seekers", a program for college students and young adults at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs. Craig Barnes, the teacher for that program, was one of the best teachers I've ever had. Craig nurtured the habit I had developed in high school of eyeing each life-decision through the lens of Jesus' life and ministry. Much of the academic material we covered in our classes was covered again each Wednesday night and Sunday morning in our classes at the church. During my second year in college I began volunteering each week with ESM (Ecumenical Social Ministries), supporting families at risk as they sought help with food, clothing, lodging, utility bills and bus vouchers. This was an important time, because each week for almost a year I was in contact with real people who were living on the underside of the local economy.

The most important class I took in college was called "Powerlessness in the Inner City." During the class, our group of twenty students blended into the population of homeless folks living on the streets of Denver. We ate at soup kitchens run by the Catholic Worker and Veterans of America. We stayed in the "Jesus Saves" mission and the old warehouse where the Episcopalian Church provided shelter. One night, I stayed in the park in front of the State House. That experience, connected with the reading we did, helped me to develop an analysis of structural inequality. Later, in a class on Theology in Latin America, I was exposed to theologians who linked that analysis to the Gospel of Liberation, and to the heart of Jesus' ministry.

In 1985, I graduated from college and went to Princeton Seminary. Within a few weeks, I began to sense that God was calling me to prepare for a different kind of ministry. While I was indeed comfortable there, I realized that I felt too comfortable. Over the course of the semester, I spent a lot of time in prayer, fasting each week and journaling as I wrestled with who God was calling me to be. That sense of call remained undefined, but what was clear to me was that I needed to take risks as Jesus took risks, to put myself in unknown, uncomfortable positions. I wanted to focus on those questions about justice and to be with those on the margins of society, to deepen what I had begun to experience and question in college. With the support of my parents, as well as my sponsoring congregation and Presbytery back in Colorado, I decided to leave after the first semester to become a Volunteer in Mission for the Presbyterian Church.

In 1986, I worked as a full-time Volunteer in Mission with the Council of Churches in Santa Clara County, California. My job was to coordinate the food and clothing projects for low-income families. I found myself (with about a twenty word vocabulary in Spanish) working with families who were first or second generation Mexican and Mexican American in and around east San Jose. My greatest learning that year was that my upbringing and background as a white, Anglo person of privilege had helped me to go through life without confronting my own racism. I learned that racism isn't just prejudice based on the color of one's skin. In fact, my parents and my church experience had prepared me well to avoid that kind of racism. However, it seemed like I was going through life with blinders on. Somehow, I had missed the connections between my privilege and the color of my skin. I was fortunate to be confronted with those questions while I was among friends who were solid, thoughtful Christians. Once again, the Church supported me as my eyes were opened a little more to who God wanted me to be in the world.

Also in 1986, I had the good fortune to make my first trip to Central America with a group called Witness for Peace. I stayed with a family in Esteli, Nicaragua for five nights during the trip. On the last night, deeply moved by my direct experience of the effect of war in Nicaragua, I had a long conversation with my host father (with the help of a translator). I told him I believed that God was calling me to learn Spanish and to move to Nicaragua to be a part of their struggle for justice. Gently, but firmly, this Nicaraguan peasant told me that I had misunderstood God's will. "We Nicaraguans are quite capable of building a new society," he said, "but we can't do it while trying to fight a war against the most powerful nation on earth." My job, he believed, was to go home and work with people in my own country to help them understand the impact of our actions on the rest of the world. I vowed on that trip home that I would start by learning Spanish, and that I would do my best to honor his words. That conversation has been the north star of my faith journey ever since.

Since 1987, I have spent almost all of my career as a mission worker for the Presbyterian Church (USA) dedicated to creating an organizational vehicle that could bridge two worlds: the church of privilege doing its best to be faithful in the United States, and the communities of poverty and marginalization immediately south of the U.S./Mexico border. In terms of my faith journey, the best of my seventeen years with BorderLinks, the organization I helped to found and now direct, has been the experience of creating an ecumenical, binational organization and having the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues on both sides of the border. Who I am as a Christian cannot be separated from the friendships I've built with migrants and refugees and the laborers of the global assembly line, because from them I've learned to read the Bible far more honestly, and with far more humility, than ever before.

In the summer of 2003, in response to a profound sense of despair after our country's war on Iraq, my wife Kitty and I spent a month in intensive training to become reservists with Christian Peacemaker Teams. CPT does nonviolent, direct, Christian motivated intervention in hotspots of entrenched violence and conflict. Right now, CPT has teams in Colombia, Hebron, Iraq and Northwestern Ontario (working with First Nations Tribes). What surprised me most about the training was the way it grounded me in a new appreciation for my own spirituality. Together, we worked on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and fasting. The experience deepened my dependence on God. I know that I must be in tune with how God's Holy Spirit is at work in my life in order to be a truly nonviolent presence at work in a suffering world.

From 2004 to 2006, I had the good fortune to serve as the Moderator of the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). For two years, I traveled twenty days each month to churches, college campuses, seminaries and mission sites throughout the United States and around the world. I focused on learning from those communities of faith that have made a clear commitment ot challenge their members to cross borders for the purpose of building God's global beloved community. I continue to focus my efforts on strengthening local churches for the purpose of transforming the world.

I am grateful for all those who have intersected with my life in this faith journey. I have learned from each of you. Thank you. Rick