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AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

A Central American migrant girl plays near Mexican National Guards near the Mexican shore of the Suchiate River in January. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

“Become like little children”

A pastor ministering to migrants in Mexico sees the wisdom of children’s faith

About two months ago, I interviewed a 55-year-old single woman who pastors a church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Mexico. My interview with her didn’t make it into a story, but my interactions with her left a deep impression on me as my church begins praying about how to help the marginalized in our community.

Virginia Ponce has been pastoring El Rey Ya Viene (The King is Coming Soon) Church in Anapra, Mexico, for more than 25 years. Anapra is close to the U.S-Mexico border, so when the migrant caravans started arriving at the border three years ago, many asylum-seekers from Central America spilled over into Ponce’s town. Her church—as tiny and dirt-poor as it is—opened its doors and gave them food, shelter, and legal help. It could only house 10 people, so sometimes Ponce invited migrants into her own house right next to the church. At any given time, the yards around the church and Ponce’s house were full of children’s laughter and squeals. 

And then the pandemic hit. If first-world folks in the U.S. are reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic shutdown, imagine how much more asylum-seekers and migrants in an already-poverty-stricken Mexico border town must be suffering. Before the pandemic, many were barely scraping by day-by-day, doing low-paid manual labor such as cleaning houses, washing cars, working in factories, and peddling snacks and trinkets on the streets. When local authorities enforced public health measures, migrants were the first to lose their jobs.

Despite lockdown orders, Ponce decided her ministry couldn’t stop. As often as she could, she piled her van with dispensas (baskets filled with basic staples such as dried beans, rice, milk, and some fresh produce and candy if Ponce had extra money) and drove door-to-door to the 50 families she knows. A coalition of American churches in Las Cruces, N.M., regularly sent funds to Ponce to provide for those basic needs. 

Ponce always took precautions. She would stay in her van and honk when she arrived. The family would come out to greet her, and Ponce would pass out the dispensa from inside her van, knowing if she stepped out, the kids would jump over to hug her. She would check up on each family, ask if they needed anything, and prayed out loud for them. God’s work need not cease due to the pandemic, even if it continues in a van. 

I was amazed at Ponce’s positive attitude and active love for her community during this time. This is a woman who had suffered her share of trauma in the past, a single woman who gives her all to serve the needs of others despite having very little for herself. No matter the obstacles, she finds ways to care for and love people in her community.

Here’s another way she’s serving her community: Schools are closed, and all classes are virtual. However, a lot of poorer folks—particularly migrants—cannot afford internet service, which means their kids have no access to education. So Ponce went to her local school district, asked for that year’s schoolwork, and printed out all the classwork. She then packaged the print-outs in plastic booklets and distributed them to each kid according to grade level, along with a Bible study curriculum she created. Each time she visits in her van, she asks the kids about their schoolwork, answers any questions they may have, and if needed, calls the teachers for help on solving a question in their booklet. 

Children are the heart of Ponce’s ministry. And I sensed a childlikeness to Ponce’s spirit as well, in the way she sees the world with childlike faith and trust. It is a purity of heart and soul that isn’t naïve—Ponce knows better than most of us Americans what fear, hardship, persecution, and poverty are—but her purity is one that is both childlike and mature. Her posture and perception don’t sink into today’s cynicism, conspiracies, and criticism. Instead, I sensed in Ponce a constant, daily wonder in the world God has created, a strong belief in the supernatural, and a trusting acceptance of God’s mysteries. 

And because of that childlikeness, Ponce doesn’t miss the opportunity to see God’s work. Every time I talked to Ponce, she praised and thanked God for every little thing that happened, then expressed delight in the people in her life—especially the kids, who unlike their parents, are not weighed down by cynicism. 

Ponce sees the difference between adults and children: The parents are worried and anxious. They watch the news on TV, hear things on the radio, and ask Ponce, “Is this a political attack?” “Are we being manipulated?” “Did God send us a plague to punish us?” And Ponce directs them back to God’s Word: “No, this is humanity. This is part of living in a fallen world. Let us look to God. Didn’t He promise to be with us, to strengthen and guard us? Trust in God to carry us through this.” 

The parents, momentarily encouraged, nod their heads and respond, “Amen, amen.” But whenever they watch the news or count the few pesos they have left, their hearts fail them again. That’s when their children turn to remind them, “Remember what the pastor said? We need to look to God!” 

I was reminded of Matthew 18:1-5, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus called a child into His arms and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” At a time when society dismissed children, Jesus uplifted them in front of all and publicly recognized their innocence and purity as something to be valued and celebrated. 

Ponce said when she first began her ministry, she cried out to God, “How will I know that I’m doing Your will?” And she said God answered, “Look at the faces of My children. When you see them smiling, that’s Me smiling.” 

What a simple yet profound way to test and do God’s will. Let us never grow too old and too sophisticated to become like little children in God’s eyes. 

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AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Protesters rally near the White House on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on Thursday in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Protester disputes Metaxas account of RNC altercation

And a strange campaign season enters its next phase

UPDATED Thursday, Sept. 3: A man identifying himself as the protester in a video circulating on social media disputes Eric Metaxas’ account of an altercation on the streets of Washington, D.C., after the Republican National Convention last week. 

Metaxas claimed a protester on a bicycle came at him in a menacing way before a video appears to show him swinging at the protester. The protester says that isn’t true. In a note from the protester’s Instagram account, he wrote: “Bottom line, though, is he attacked me. I wasn’t threatening or intimidating them. Sure I was talking [profanity]. But I gave them no reason to attack me. He had to lunge at me to punch me from behind. Charges will be filed.” (The protester didn’t disclose his name in his response.)

Religion Unplugged reported on Thursday that Metaxas sent an email to executive editor Paul Glader, repeating his earlier claims about the protester, and saying that Metaxas did try to “knock him away.” Glader reported Metaxas wrote: “It just happened.”

Below is our earlier report:

Maryland pastor Harry Jackson had a close-up look at an incident Thursday night that has received broad social media attention: He says a protester confronting guests leaving President Donald Trump’s speech at the White House repeatedly rode his bicycle very close toward Eric Metaxas—a Christian author, radio host, and Trump supporter. And a video of the incident appears to show Metaxas taking a swing at the protester. 

Metaxas responded to WORLD’s inquiries about the incident on Monday morning via email, saying he had “chosen to go off social media till now and not to comment on any of this.” He added: “For context, just so you know, the guy came at me with his bike and was very menacing for a long time.” Metaxas said he had been escorting his wife and Maryland pastor Harry Jackson to an Uber ride. 

I spoke with Jackson Monday morning, and the pastor confirmed he had been with Metaxas and his wife that evening. Jackson said after they left Trump’s speech at the White House, they had walked down a D.C. street for about 10 minutes while protesters cursed at them. 

Jackson said they turned down a side street to meet their Uber driver, and a protester on a bicycle kept swerving close to Metaxas while cursing Trump and them. (Jackson described the encounter as the bicyclist “playing chicken” with Metaxas.)

Jackson said the encounter was intimidating enough that he wondered if he would need to use his walking cane to defend himself. He said the protester came within a few inches of Metaxas, but he didn’t know if he physically touched Metaxas. The video only shows about six seconds before Metaxas appears to hit the protester.

The protester posted the video on his Instagram account, showing officers detaining him on the side of the road after the encounter. He wrote: “I got punched by a member of the RNC and get detained by the Secret Service for absolutely nothing.” Another video shows the protester telling police he didn’t touch the man. 

The protester’s Instagram account identifies him by the handle antidote503, and with the location Portland, Ore. He posted a photo and video a few days earlier indicating he was traveling from Portland to D.C. for protests: “@portlandresistance and I have arrived! dc let’s get to it.” (UPDATE: Religion News Service [RNS] reported a man identifying himself as the protester disputed Metaxas’ account. He declined to give his name to RNS, but said: “He attacked me. I wasn't threatening or intimidating. I was on a rented bicycle! He clearly punched me from behind.”

The incident was a strange note in a chaotic night, as other videos showed crowds of protesters surrounding couples and individuals after they left the White House. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he feared for the safety of his wife and himself as a crowd pressed in on them and the police officers around them, shouting at them. Paul called for an FBI investigation into what he called “interstate criminal traffic being paid for across state lines.”

The virus and the violence

Just two months remain before the Nov. 3 contest, and two issues may take center stage in the campaigns: the virus upending the world, and the violence upending some American cities.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden is making Trump’s response to the coronavirus a centerpiece of his campaign. One of Biden’s talking points: He would have handled it better than Trump. 

Hindsight does give clarity, but on Feb. 29—the day that news broke of the first coronavirus death in the U.S.—I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other reporters in a Wofford College gym while Biden addressed a crowd of hundreds of people packed onto bleachers at a campaign rally. Two weeks later, the CDC advised against gatherings of more than 10 people.

It all happened fast, and Trump will have to defend his response—a poll in July showed 60 percent of Americans disapprove of how he’s handled the pandemic. But Biden may have more success at persuading voters that his plan going forward will be better than convincing them that he would have shaped a better outcome.

Meanwhile, Trump is making urban unrest a centerpiece of his reelection campaign. During his Thursday night speech, the president warned that Democrats would “demolish the suburbs” and “confiscate your guns.” 

Biden’s gun control plan doesn’t include confiscating all guns, but Democrats may have missed a moment during their own convention when it comes to violence: They rightly lamented some of the tragic deaths of black citizens during police encounters, but they didn’t respond to the violence gripping some cities in the wake of protests. 

Biden has pushed back on criticism that he hasn’t spoken out forcefully enough: He says he condemns all forms of violence. But the issue will continue to surface as the campaign continues. 

Agenda addition

We noted that Trump’s recently released second term agenda didn’t include priorities related to religious liberty, pro-life concerns, or judicial appointments. It seemed odd, given the importance of those issues to some conservatives.

Late last week, the list expanded with a section that includes priorities on life, religious liberty, appointing constitutionalist justices, and protecting Second Amendment rights.

I’ve asked the Trump campaign for comment on the new section (and the concerns that it wasn’t originally included), and we’ll report any response.

Republicans and religion

Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Republican National Convention raised some eyebrows on Wednesday night when he mixed Scripture and patriotic language. “Let’s run the race marked out for us,” he began. 

The phrase comes from the opening verses of Hebrews 12. But Pence continued, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all that she represents.”  That’s not in the book of Hebrews—the New Testament passage says, “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

Pence added: “And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom, and never forget that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom—and that means freedom always wins.”

The second half of that remark partially echoes 2 Corinthians 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” 

Politicians invoking Biblical language isn’t new: President Ronald Reagan famously compared America to the “shining city on a hill” from Matthew 5. Two weeks ago, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris said she was committed to “the word that teaches me to walk by faith, and not by sight.” 

As a writer, I sometimes fold Biblical phrases into news stories, but it does require care. When a listener is expecting to hear the word “Jesus” in a Biblical quote, it’s jolting to hear a reference to the American flag instead. It also risks mixing hope in an imperfect, finite nation with the Christian’s eternal hope in a perfect Savior of people from all nations. 

It’s a good reminder that during another tumultuous election season, fixing our eyes on Jesus is the one thing that can keep Christians grounded, even if they do find themselves sometimes divided.

Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story since its original posting.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Dong Yumei, left, harvests vegetables for volunteers in the Huangpi district of Wuhan in central China's Hubei province in April. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

A food crisis in China?

Severe flooding, insect infestation, and COVID-19 may be contributing to a food shortage

Outside the popular Hunan chain Chuiyan Fried Beef in Changsha, restaurant owners set up two scales and asked patrons to weigh themselves before entering. After entering their weight and personal information into an app, the customers received the restaurant’s suggested menu items: for women weighing under 88 pounds, a beef dish and fish head; for a man weighing more than 175 pounds, braised pork belly, according to CNN.

As news spread of the restaurant’s gimmick online, netizens accused the chain of fat-shaming.

Chuiyan Fried Beef apologized, noting the weighing in was voluntary, and the restaurant was promoting a nationwide government campaign to cut down on food waste.

Other restaurants have also begun their own initiatives: In Wuhan, the Wuhan Catering Industry Association called on restaurants to restrict the number of dishes to “N-1,” or one less than the number of diners in a group. Typically in China, people share food family style. During banquets, they pile dish after dish onto a central lazy Susan. Other restaurants have promised to serve smaller portion sizes, while state media has criticized livestreamed binge eating, a trend that began in South Korea. Livestreaming platforms said they would ban users who waste food on their broadcasts.  

The impetus of these moves is a speech President Xi Jinping made Aug. 11 calling for the country to stop wasting food—a problem he called “shocking and distressing”—in order to persevere the country’s food resources. “Despite several years of bumper harvests, China needs to maintain a crisis mentality for food security, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Xi said. A month earlier Xi inspected farms in Jilin province, urging officials to ensure grain-supply security.

The focus on food waste brings to mind similar instructions by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1959 at the beginning of the Great Famine, in which tens of millions of people starved to death. Some believe China may be facing a food crisis as it deals with the fallout of the pandemic, massive floods, and insect infestations. But observers don’t know its severity since the government has not released much information outside of rosy outlooks.

Several indicators reveal the looming problem facing China. In recent months, heavy flooding has inundated large areas of southern China and caused the 3,900-mile-long Yangtze River and its tributaries to rise to dangerous levels. While heavy rains are typical in the summer, this year’s rainfall has far exceeded the norm, causing the worst flooding at the Yangtze in four decades. So far, the deluge has destroyed 13 million acres of farmland, affected 63 million people, and caused nearly $26 billion in economic damage.

For the first time since 1949, floodwaters rose over the toes of the Leshan Giant Buddha in southwestern Sichuan province, a 1,200-year-old world heritage site that stands 233 feet tall. Water inflows to the Three Gorges Dam are also expected to reach its highest levels since the dam started holding water in 2003, according to China’s Ministry of Water Resources. 

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