Growing up under the influence of pastors and Sunday school teachers in Presbyterian congregations in Los Angeles gave Sarah Henken a pretty clear career goal: “I knew I wanted to live my life in the church.”
But it was the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she says, that “really transformed my life.”
Her year as a YAV in Uruguay (2002-03) led her to McCormick Theological Seminary and then to mission assignments in Colombia and Bolivia.
This summer the 33-year-old mission worker, now the Rev. Sarah Henken, begins a second three-year term as Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for the Andean region, which includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
While in Cuba to attend the Sixth General Assembly of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), Henken sat down for a conversation about her life and call to mission service. She also spoke about opportunities for relationships between churches in the United States and the Andean region of Latin America.
Henken says the YAV program enriched her appreciation of the global church. It also demonstrated the importance of having a faith that is engaged in the world — something she learned early on from one of her pastors in Los Angeles.
As a result, she and Paige Stephan, another YAV alum who also ended up at McCormick Seminary, began seeking ways to put their faith into action.
They wanted, in Henken’s words, “not just to be at home praying — though that doesn’t mean praying is not important — but to put our whole lives and bodies into it.”
The two women volunteered to serve as accompaniers in a program established by the PC(USA) ― through the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship ― and the Presbyterian Church of Colombia in 2004 in response to violence and threats of violence against Colombian church workers.
Henken describes accompaniment as a way “to be present with our church partners, to stand with them and learn from their experience what it means to be church in a situation where violence has become the norm.”
In 2007, Henken became the U.S.-based coordinator of the accompaniment program. In nations and communities torn by violence, she says, the church can have a powerful impact by “showing a better way.”
Henken still sees herself as an accompanier in her current work as a regional liaison. She spent her first three-year term based in La Paz, Bolivia, and will move to Barranquilla, Colombia, in July. She is a key link between the PC(USA) and its partner churches in the Andean region.
She is also the contact person for U.S. presbyteries and congregations that want to explore mission partnerships with Christians in this part of Latin America.
“I get to enter into all sorts of spaces of encounter between U.S. Presbyterians and our church partners in the region,” she explains. “I get to accompany people in the joys and stresses of trying to be partners, learning from and with each other.”
She also enjoys the challenge of serving as an interpreter, having become fluent in Spanish while growing up in Los Angeles. She has learned, for example, that it is extremely difficult to find a Spanish word for “partnership” that captures the full meaning of the term as used in conversations about Presbyterian world mission.
The importance of partnership is another thing Henken learned about as a YAV. Her YAV mentor, Hugo Malan, a pastor in Uraguay’s Waldensian Church, made a point of getting out into his largely Catholic community to build partnerships with people whether or not they were members of his church.
“He told me that ministry is about human contact. It’s about that person-to-person connection,” says Henken, recalling how Malan reached out and touched her hand to emphasize what he was saying.
Partnerships with the U.S. church are extremely important to the churches in her region, Henken says. “Every time there’s a visit from a U.S. church group, it’s very memorable. I still hear stories five or more years later.”
She says the Christians in the Andean region welcome the opportunity to show visitors around their communities and to talk with them about the challenges they face.
Henken would particularly like to see more partnerships between Presbyterians in the United States and Venezuela, where churches are eager to cultivate relationships. She believes Christians in Venezuela could teach U.S. Christians “about being the church in a place of political polarization.”
For Presbyterians seeking to make a difference, Henken says, there are opportunities in the Andean region to address all three of what Presbyterian World Mission has identified as critical global issues.
For example, the Joining Hands networks in Bolivia and Peru are making headway on issue No. 1 — addressing the root causes of poverty — and are making new connections between poverty and environmental issues.
Efforts such as the Colombia accompaniment program are addressing issue No. 2: seeking reconciliation amid cultures of violence.
Issue No. 3, sharing together the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, has helped spawn a new partnership between San Fernando Presbytery in California and a presbytery in Colombia promoting pastor exchanges and new church development.
Henken admits that there are challenges for a single woman living overseas — personal safety issues, for one. “People in the U.S. often say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’
“There are fears of the unknown, but I think the call is so much stronger,” she says. “If this is what God is calling you to do, then there’s a rightness to it and a goodness in it — even if it’s not always easy.”
Eva Stimson, former editor of Presbyterians Today magazine, is a freelance writer and editor.