When Blessing Comes Carrying a Suitcase

Just after I promised to not have these long gaps between posts, we made a kinda-sorta spur-of-the-moment trip to Snohomish, Washington, to visit our son, who’s student teaching, bless his heart, in the government schools for which both he and I are profoundly grateful. We spent some time with family and friends, headed back last Tuesday, and I got ready for a long-anticipated visit from my dear friend and sister in Christ, Lupita Rocha Quintana.

Lupita is my age and is the past director of the Evangelical Methodist Church’s seminary “Instituto Biblica Vida y Verdad,” or “Life and Truth Bible Institute.” Until this past summer, she had also worked as a missionary in Spain, ministering to immigrants, mostly from Central America, in Cartagena, Spain. Serving the Lord Jesus in Spain had been her dream for as long as I’ve known her — almost 12 years now — and she and her ministry flourished there as she and a married couple led Bible studies, evangelized, and established a network of house churches. But her late father’s illness called her back to her hometown of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, and she took care of him round the clock until his death shortly before the New Year.

You may have heard of Ciudad Juarez. It is, in short, the most dangerous city in the world, and particularly for women. Lupita, who pastors a small church called “Good News Temple” through the EMC, lives with another Christian woman in the tiny, teetering house her father built on a patch of dead soil in a vibrant colonia in the hills above downtown Juarez, and she is at risk every minute of every day as she ministers in a city saturated with violence and choking on distress and fear. It’s not just the drug lords who are dying — it’s people who have the misfortune of walking by a crime scene and whose sudden status as possible witnesses renders them immediately a threat and thus summarily executed. Church services, funerals, birthday parties, weddings, and family dinners are regularly sprayed with machine gun fire because of the suspected attendance of a drug-market rival — or the possible presence of terror-stricken witnesses who’ve somehow escaped immediate assassination before. Police are powerless in their terror or beholden to the bad guys in their corruption, and the presence of the Federales has evidently caused things only to escalate.

And in a nation of 32 states and numerous cities of a million or more, some sixty percent — six out of ten — of orphans in Mexico are from Juarez. I’ve never met a child who’s lost both mom and dad to violence. I’m guessing you haven’t either.

Words can hardly convey the suffocating fear and numbness that settles in daily as Juarez’ two million residents somehow make peace with the fact that they live in a war zone not of their making. I can understand the words Lupita uses to describe what life in Ciudad Juarez is like; I speak Spanish well, and she paints a clear picture of the never-ending chaos, danger, and fear that accompanies every person in the city during their daily lives. But I can’t comprehend the things she says; I can’t put my mind, my imagination, in that place. I wonder at times if I can fully discharge my compassion toward that place. There are, I think, things we can only know by experiencing them, even as the terror they invoke assures us that we won’t, then, end up understanding because we won’t end up going. It’s a luxury I have — a responsibility to my children and my husband to not be stupid by visiting a battlefield. I feel both faithful and relieved to say this. And Lupita, whose commitment to her congregation is only through July, could also decide to leave — to shed the filthy burden of fear that she and everyone else there carries.

I was in Juarez with her four years ago, and I remember a town darkened by suspicion and fear, a town where this Irish-looking woman attracted attention not at all welcome and, at times, more than a little disturbing. I’ve been to her house and to the church she serves, and I’ve walked the two miles or so from her colonia to the center of town, trying to figure out if the close quarters of the bus would’ve somehow been safer than the naked exposure of walking with another woman. The murders of some 3- to 400 women in Juarez over the past five years or so have gotten lost in the furor and disbelief of the explosion of drug violence in the city. There is no one in Juarez who is safe, immune somehow from the random violence every morning brings, but women are prey in ways that men in Juarez won’t experience. Someone there is determined to kill lots and lots of women, and he is succeeding tremendously.

Lupita says not one person in her congregation of a couple dozen has escaped the violent loss of a family member, and yet the Lord has protected these sisters and brothers so far — none from “Buenas Nuevas” have been harmed in the half-decade during which the city has become a war zone. My dear friend, a single 50-year-old living alone much of the time in a house that’s already been stripped by burglars looking for copper in electrical wires and scrap metal to be sold for their families’ food, leaves her house every day to serve the men and women and children the Lord has entrusted to her, visiting them in their homes, discipling them and assuring them that the Lord has protected them so far, but never promising what she simply can’t — that they will survive the next day or week or year, because in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, people who claim Jesus as Lord are dying all around them.

I mentioned earlier that Lupita’s contract with the denomination ends in July. I am a selfish woman; I want her to leave then, to go somewhere else and serve, to leave this cesspool of violence and never look back. I don’t want to lose her. I can’t even begin to think of bearing a loss that great, and in my worst moments, I don’t feel terribly comforted by the assurance I have that if she becomes a victim, either of bad men or madmen, she will be, immediately, in the presence of the Lord Jesus. I believe, Lord. Help me — not in my disbelief, but in my fear-driven selfishness.

Because Lupita is going to continue serving her flock after this July and probably after the next. She’s leaving my home in a few hours to return to the most dangerous place on this Earth, and she says she just doesn’t feel that her Savior wants her to leave Buenas Nuevas. Lupita has no will of her own. She lives only to worship and serve her Lord, and she acknowledges that she’s afraid much of the time. She’s not a Stepford evangelical, devoted to her faith and yet utterly without personality or humanity, virtue or flaws, the kind of automatron-for-Jesus whose fervor nurtures in you a fervent desire of your own to hear her curse when she drops an ice-cream cone. That’s not Lupita. She’s a pastor, a teacher, an evangelist, a servant; she’s an aunt, a sister, and one of my two or three dearest friends. Her bravery comes not by living in Juarez — there are a couple of million brave souls there now — but because she doesn’t have to be there. She is a slave of Christ Jesus’ entirely free to take off after her commitment on paper is fulfilled, and no one would fault her for it.

We don’t see many martyrs in our lives, and we probably, really, would rather not. It makes it hard to bitch about the mess our kitchen remodel has caused us.

And so she stays in Juarez, confident only that her Savior will do what he knows best, and that is to bring her safely to Heaven, whether a victim of violence or a wizened old woman whose candle simply went out. This could be the last time I see her this side of eternity; it makes me cry. She cries, too, and I don’t doubt that the mist in her eyes comes from the terror of leaving Moscow for Juarez. Would you? Would you choose, in fear and trembling, to walk through a minefield every day to deliver the Gospel of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation to a city held hostage — literally — by evil?

I . . . haven’t. Lupita has, and while she takes with her our prayers daily for her protection, she leaves me with a view of courage, a fragrance of purpose and passion, I have not known before this visit. I am not condemned for not going to Juarez. Neither are you. But Lupita has been called to, and she is obedient.

Yeah, it’s not “obedience” unless it’s about the hard stuff. I just wish that her obedience didn’t have to involve such a treacherous road to such a horrible place. I ask your prayers for my friend and your sister. And I’ll keep you posted, you know, if there’s ever any news.

Mercy, Lord.

6 Responses to “When Blessing Comes Carrying a Suitcase”

  1. lucyzoe says:

    Thanks, Keely, for introducing me to Lupita. Oh! that God would use her to baptize many in His name.

    Great post. Very inspiring. I’d love to see more posts like this.

  2. Lucy, it’s so nice to hear from you! I’ll introduce you to Lupita for real if she comes up here again.

    I know you understand that even as I write passionately about this Spirit-driven woman and sister in Christ, I have readers who insist that she is operating in sinful disregard of what they see as Biblically-mandated gender roles. It’s because of this that I continue to contend for Biblical egalitarianism in addressing the role of women and men in the Church. I appreciate what I think is your support, at least, of my describing Lupita’s work, as well as of her work itself.

    Please continue to comment, and thanks for reading. We ought to have a beer sometime — my treat!

    Keely

  3. lucyzoe says:

    Hey Keely,
    The issues of men vs. women in the church were not part of my thought process in responding to your post.

    I was moved by her willingness to sacrifice all to follow Christ. In the big scheme of things, gender roles are such a non-issue when it comes to doing what Christ called us to do.

    Shes willing to die to follow Christ’s commands – that’s all that really matters. All the rest just gets in the way and takes our focus off the important stuff: feeding the poor, loving the lost, caring for the least of these.

  4. I agree with much of what you say, except that the prevailing idea that women can’t serve in the very capacity in which she’s serving — willing to die, as you correctly point out — prevents women called to the pastorate, to the missions field, or to teaching/mentoring from fulfilling what the Lord Jesus has asked from them.

    The fact that you and I agree that Lupita is doing the right thing, truly wondrous things, doesn’t negate the fact that very many of my readers, as well as your associates, disagree that she even ought to be doing it in the first place. She’s pastoring, giving her life for the Gospel. Doesn’t it make you sad that many people think she’s in sin for doing what she’s doing?

    Keely

  5. lucyzoe says:

    Really? No. God sees her heart. And asking the question simply distracts – makes the issue about something other than Lupita and her love for God. I prefer to focus on that.

  6. But, Lucy, that’s the point — people really DO ask, really DO object, and really DO argue that she can’t possibly be called by God to do what she’s doing, is disobedient for doing it, and is even part, as a female pastor, a “judgment” from God. I pray, long, and contend for the day when no one will challenge a brother or sister’s call on the basis of their gender, but evaluate that call solely on the basis of the fruit evinced in that person’s ministry. By that and any other standard, Lupita has shown herself faithful, to the glory of the Lord Jesus.

    Those who would criticize her or her denomination would do well, I think, to examine the fruit of their own callings rather than malign her.

    Keely

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