By Brian Keepers
“The Church of Jesus Christ is the place—that is, the space—in the world where the reign of Jesus Christ over the whole world is to be demonstrated and proclaimed.” – Dietrich Bonheoffer
When we drive up, they are waiting for us. A swarm of children spill out from the alley and into the brick-cobbled streets. Before the silver Toyota pick-up truck comes to a halt, they rush the vehicle, cheering and squealing, climbing up onto the tailgate where we are all crammed in the back.
We’re running at least thirty minutes late. But then again we are on “Nica-time” (Nicaragua-time). Time works differently down here. I suspect that had we arrived on time, these children would still be waiting for us, would still have rushed the vehicle to greet us. This is the first time they’ve ever had anyone outside their community come and spend a few days with them.
A team of us have come down to Bluefields, Nicaragua for the week to visit our mission focus partners— the Rev. Adrian and Dr. Bernadette Bobb-Kelly. I went to seminary with Adrian years ago. It is a gift to see him in his context. This is their place, their people—a place and a people they love. Together, they’re engaged in multiple ministries to the city and rural areas up river. And all these children are their children. Daily they provide lunch to some of the poorest children in the city (and the only meal many of these kids will get).
One of the things we’re doing while down here is put on a Vacation Bible School each day for a couple hours in the afternoon, after the kids get home from school. (They go to school in the morning while it’s cooler, before the sweltering heat kicks in). This is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Bluefields, ensconced behind sheets of scrap metal patched together to make a fence alongside the road. Crude little homes with tin roofs are bunched together. A few meager strips of open area, mostly dirt with scruffs of grass, for the children to play. Litter is everywhere. The children run around barefoot, so many of them, wearing the same clothes they wore the day before. But children are children. And these kids, in so many ways, are no different than children anywhere. They run and play and laugh and occasionally get unruly.
It’s the name of this neighborhood that strikes me. “The Beholdeen” (pronounced be-hold-en). I ask Olivia, our missionary host, what the name means. She says she doesn’t know. But I think about the word for what it sounds like in English: Behold.
I’m struck by it because three days before we left for this trip I submitted my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry. The dissertation is titled, “Playing Christ: Preaching and Performing the Drama of God’s Mission,” and it is offers a vision for missional preaching. I draw heavily from the work of Kevin Van Hoozer who (building on Hans Urs von Balthasar) employs the metaphor of theodrama for how to understand the triune God’s action in human history. Van Hoozer describes the local church as a “theater of the Gospel.” He insightfully points out the word “theater” (from the Greek word theatron) means “a place for seeing or beholding.” It is a place in which we “behold” the performance of a drama, where actors present themselves to others in space and time, where a story is made visible in the flesh.
That’s why the name of this neighborhood grips me. “The Beholdeen.” That’s what it’s become for me, for all of us here. An unlikely place, this neighborhood trapped in poverty, these beautiful children…a theater of the Gospel, a time and space in which we have “beheld” the reign of God. Together with these children, we are all being caught up into the divine drama. We are presenting Christ—playing Christ, really—to and with one another.
Pastor Adrian strums his guitar, his eyes closed and face radiant with joy, leading the children in singing—and they sing so loud in the small narrow room of the church it’s almost deafening. Behold.
Mary, a single woman in her late fifties, is holding a little girl (two years old maybe?) who is draped across her bosom, fast asleep. Mary is drenched with sweat, but she doesn’t let go of the girl. I see the tenderness in her eyes. Behold.
Eric, a college student, is on the floor buried beneath heap of rambunctious boys, rough housing. Behold.
Emily, a seminary student, is on the other side of the room coloring with two girls. Every once in a while the girls stop, glance up at Emily and smile, and then go back to coloring. Behold.
Merle, a retired RCA missionary, brought baseballs and gloves and is outside teaching a bunch of eager boys and girls how to throw, catch and swing a bat. Merle shuffles around in his Detroit Tigers jersey, sharing his love of baseball as his offering. Behold.
We finish off the afternoon with a cooler full of ice-cream treats, a kind of holy communion. News spreads and soon older kids and adults gather on the edges, looking longingly for a place at the table but are too polite to ask. We have extras and we distribute them to the onlookers, pulling them into the drama too, all of us delighting in the sweet relief such a treat brings from the stifling heat. Behold.
It’s a crazy beautiful thing to me. The two hundred plus pages I’ve written on this stuff for my dissertation. The thousands of pages I’ve read from the brightest theologians and missiologists and homiliticians. And yet here it is. Not abstract theory. Embodied. Theotron. A theater of the Gospel. The reign of God enacted in Bluefields, Nicaragua.
And I hear the Spirit say, “Behold.”
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.