“Sometimes I arrive,” reflects photographer Ansel Adams, “just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”
We had only been in Salta some 18 hours when we were ushered into the personal conference room of the President of the Legislature of the province of Salta. Our mission partner, Andrew Leake, was about to give a key presentation on the effects of deforestation and how this has devastated the lives of the indigenous people.
I found myself sitting at the far end of the table alongside a woman about my age who (and now it gets seriously weird) recognised me from her visit to Christ Church, Aughton some ten years ago. Sheila explained that even though she had been living in Salta for 40 years, amazingly this was her first visit to the Legislative Assembly.
We could tell this was a key moment for Andrew in his long slog to protect the indigenous peoples of the Chaco. Sheila gave me a running commentary while Jacqui silently prayed for Andrew using the gift of tongues, just the right spiritual gift when you cannot understand what is being said.
Andrew later explained that because the meeting had been called at relatively short notice, Jacqui and I were the only members of the Church present, apart from one member of Andrew’s church who actually worked at the Legislature.
I was very conscious of being in role, that is I was there as the vicar of Christ Church, Aughton, representing our congregation’s support of the Leake family over the years. As members of the worldwide family of God, we share with them in their quest for justice for these vulnerable people even though they are on the other side of the world.
When Andrew’s grandfather, Alfred Leake, arrived here 90 years ago as missionary to the Toba people, one of the key roles for these pioneers was to protect these indigenous people from the ravages of the early Argentinian settlers. The forests then covered the area of France and Spain.
This advocacy ministry was continued by Andrew’s father, David, who served as the Anglican bishop here in Salta from 1963. Deforestation was not a big issue at time, for the simple reason that there was so much forest. The big problem for the indigenous people was that they were not recognised as citizens and so much of David’s ministry was supporting them in their battles with officialdom.
When Andrew began his ministry here in 1999, the forests had been reduced to the size of Italy. But as third generation he has had to adopt a very different set of skills to protect the indigenous peoples and to advance the policy of his diocese in creation care. All very hi-tech, for which he was awarded a PhD from University of Hertfordshire here in the UK.
Then in 2007 the country recorded the highest rate of deforestation in the world. This has had a terrible effect on the indigenous people who rely on the forests for their livelihood. So the need for advocacy is more urgent than ever.
So in his presentation this week, as Andrew explained to the politicians and then to the media his aim was to summarise the contents of his recent book. This he co-authored with his daughter, Cecila, studying law and the fourth generation of Leakes engaged in this drawn-out struggle for land rights for the Toba and Wichi peoples. They contest some very powerful people.
Here is their book:
My BRF Bible reading for this morning, from 2 Samuel 12, is when God sends the prophet Nathan to challenge King David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. He manages to ‘get under the wire of David’s defences’ through the use of a carefully-crafted parable.
“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought.”
Here Nathan could have been talking about this part of the world where there is a huge disparity between the few who are very rich and those indigenous people, close to the land, who have few resources.
The prophet continues: “Now a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveller who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
Again, this could be here in northern Argentina – the very rich exploiting the very poor.
As King David demands retribution he does not realise that he is condemning himself. And his family pays the price through their generations for David’s greed and terrible misuse of power.
In a word God is a God of justice. He intervenes to help the poor; he sends people to challenge the status quo.
“Stop doing wrong,” pleads Isaiah. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (1:16)
So Andrew made a powerful case defending the oppressed people before these key people. I could see he was on top of his brief and clearly had a clear understanding of the issues facing the provincial and national governments of Argentina.
Following his address he was interviewed by the local media – television, radio and print. Advocacy work is difficult, drawn-out and occasionally dangerous.
So pray for him and his colleagues as they continue to serve the Kingdom of God in this generation.
And finally, just in case you were wondering how Sheila had visited Christ Church some years back. A Zimbabwean, she with her husband had to flee her home country to Salta via Paraguay over 40 years ago. As it happens her brother married a girl from Liverpool and he finished teaching chemistry at, of all places, Maghull High School, along with my son-in-law.
And so her mother spent her final years at a residential home in Bootle. It was while visiting her mother that she heard that Andrew was speaking at our church – and so she travelled the ten miles or so to hear him.
Strange things and surprising coincidences happen in the Kingdom of God.