Weathering Life's Storms: Get Your Spirit in Shape

When Jesus invited Peter to step out of a boat and walk with him on water, he was asking Peter to trust him, even in the midst of a storm (Matthew 14:22-36).

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You and I experience storms in life as well: times when we're afraid, when those we love get hurt, and when we are worried about family and friends.

In this conversation, United Methodist pastor Myriam Cortes of Iglesia Metodista Unida Ebenezer in Nashville, Tennessee, candidly shares about a year of storms she endured. One was on a national level in the United States. Another affected the church she serves. The third was Hurricane Maria, a literal storm that caused her to worry about her family in Puerto Rico for weeks. Pastor Myriam shares the struggles and how her faith strengthened her in the midst of the storm.

Pastor Myriam Cortes

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This episode posted on December 5, 2018.


Transcript

Prologue

Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

When Pastor Myriam Cortes led chapel for us at the offices of United Methodist Communications, she shared a powerful message about a particularly difficult year in her life. Using the biblical story of Jesus inviting Peter to walk on the water with him, Pastor Myriam shared about how she got through several difficult events in her life. One was about government policy in the United States. Another deeply affected the church she serves. The third was Hurricane Maria, a literal storm that caused pastor Myriam to worry about her family in Puerto Rico when she could not reach them for two weeks.

Pastor Myriam’s teaching and example are a great help to all of us when we are going through the difficult storms of life.

Our conversation

Joe: I’m in the studio today with Pastor Myriam Cortes. Myriam, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Myriam Cortes: Oh, thank you for the invitation. I’m honored to be here, and I’m so happy. Always it’s good to share God’s story and the power of his transformation.

Joe: Before we begin, tell me a little about your congregation.

Myriam Cortes: We are a Hispanic congregation right here in the Tennessee Conference. The congregation’s name is Iglesia Metodista Unida Ebenezer. We are 7 years old. We are in west Nashville. And we are formed of 6 countries. What we have in common, that we speak Spanish. But there are 7 different cultures there. We come from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and the United States.

Joe: That’s quite a combination of bringing people together, but all speaking the same language. And the primary language in your congregation is Spanish, correct?

Myriam Cortes: The primary language is Spanish. And the worship service mostly is in Spanish. Now the peculiarity is that our children and youth, since they are born here, their primary language is English. So our worship service tends to be a mixture of culture and language sometimes, especially if the children and youth are leading the worship service. Then that day the language that you would listen to is English.

Joe: So more English on those days than others. When you were with us at United Methodist Communications, you shared a devotional that really captured my attention. I thought it would be really interesting to talk about a little bit further. The devotion was about the storms of life and some of the storms that you’ve gone through personally. Can you tell us something about that?

Myriam Cortes: Yes. That day we were talking about Matthew 14 when the disciples are in the middle of turbulent waters and wind storm and Jesus comes walking to them, and called Peter. As I listen to this Scripture and I listen to the Holy Spirit, I try to remind myself of the different storms that I had been around this past year. Some of the storms have to do on the national level with the different new policies and changes of policies. I remember the first one that I talked about was DACA. On September 5, 2017, the new Trump administration announced that DACA will be terminated. Right now it is on hold.

DACA is the way for children that are brought here to the United States have a work permission for 2 years. It’s a renewal every 2 years, but allowed the children that are growing here by the age of 18 they can apply and actually by the age of 15, and they can get a work permit. But it does not guarantee any citizenship. It just guarantees that you will not be deported if you get stopped, which have helped a lot of our young ones after they finish school to get a job, to have a family, to think about going to college, further education here. So that was the first thing that hit me last year.

Joe: Can I ask you a little bit about that?

Myriam Cortes: Yes.

Joe: When that’s in jeopardy or that’s kind of being talked about, about whether it will continue or not, what does that do to someone who’s been under that? How does it make one feel?

Myriam Cortes: Sad, frustration, vulnerable. First of all, these are children that were brought here when they were 2, 3 years old. The only country that they know is this one. The only culture that they know is parents and the one here. They have dreams. They have gone to school here. They want to continue furthering their education. They want to be part of the society, not only by living and sharing culture, but financially being able to be here and to produce. So when something like this is in jeopardy they are exposed to being deported.

For someone who has never been in another country since they were two, imagine how that feels—someone telling you, You’re going to be deported to Mexico or Honduras. And you go, “What is there? I’ve never been there.”

Then at the same time they’re not able to have jobs or continue education. So it’s like there’s nothing out there after I finish my high school. What is out there? And that is a lot of the questions that I got either by phone calls or by emails and texts. A lot of the youth that we ministry to in our community are calling asking, “Pastor, how can this happen? What is going to happen to me? I’ve worked so hard in school. I have done good in my grades, but what is there. It leaves them vulnerable.

Joe: It’s interesting to hear how that affects individuals, on a day-to-day basis. So often we hear of those things, those of us that are not in that community, as an issue that’s out there, not how it affects us in day-to-day living. So it’s good to hear how that’s affecting a community.

You mentioned also another storm of kind of those issues coming home and right into your church. Can you tell us about that?

Myriam Cortes: Yes. One of the other storms that hit us was families being separated. Not only what we hear in the news and social media about families at the border being separated, children kept in cages, but for our church family a couple of years ago one of our members was stopped and, of course, not being able to present the documentation, it brought a new process of being detained in jail for 30 days. And then a bail bond and everything. But since you don’t have the documentation… In his case he started the deportation process. And we worked at the church and with other lawyers that the family hired to stop the deportation process. But years after we couldn’t. And we have to say good-bye. He was deported to his home country, Honduras.

I remember that last 6 months we wrote letters to our senators, to our representatives. Other friends from other congregations, sister United Methodist congregations, that we have been in a relationship and covenants, that they have known us already, that have relationship with this family. They got involved. So by writing letters, by advocating in their own Sunday school classes, being very engaged. But in the end the deportation agent made his decision. And his decision was to be deported.

I remember the last way that I spoke with him. And I said, Are you ready? And I think in my mind everything that can be going through his mind. I’m leaving my wife. I’m leaving this country. I’m leaving my children here. Who’s going to look after them when I’m gone? And he said, “I’m in peace. I gave the good fight. I did everything in my power legally to stop this process. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have a church community that prays with me. And since things did not go the way that I wanted them, then with courage I’m gonna go back knowing that God has a plan. And even though that deportation is going to break my heart, saying goodbye to my loved ones and to the church family, I will be in peace because I know that there were people here that acknowledged that I was a human being, that I was a person, that I was created in God’s image, that gave me love, that were able to support me by prayers, by letters or by their presence. They hold me in their arms. They gave me hugs.”

I remember one of the Sunday school classes that gave him a prayer shawl. They have prayed for it. And I pray for him. And I anointed him and I sent him my blessing. And I remember going back home and say, this is an example of what faith is. You’re in the middle of this storm, but at the same time you are grounded, that God did not leave you. He will not forsake you, no matter if it’s here or back in your country. His presence will always be there.

I need to learn from this gentleman what faith is and be strong and optimistic. He laughed and said, “I know I’m gonna see my family again. I know God I will find a way out. I cannot see it now, but I know this.”

And the beauty of all this, and even he, back in his country, will still have communication. And the same ministry that he was doing here, he started gathering children where he was there, and started doing the same thing. So, you know, that works miracles. So, in the middle of the pain, in the middle of the storm he can still bring light and new beginning.

But for us at the church it made us stronger, not only in my local church, but the relationship with the other churches, sister churches. That was the first time that a lot of our sisters and brothers from other congregations saw firsthand what the social media has talked about—the separation. They were there. They saw the years of fighting the system. So it was very interesting.

Joe: You said it was a multi-year process?

Myriam Cortes: Seven years.

Joe: Seven years.

Myriam Cortes: For this family it took them 7 years.

Joe: And this was a person who was very involved in your congregation. What were some of the…. You talked about he had a ministry with children?

Myriam Cortes: Yes. A Father, husband, faithful member, leader. He led the soccer ministry.

A little bit of our church. We started in the soccer field. We didn’t have even a building. We were only 5 adults and 7 children. And we didn’t know… we just got together for devotional on Wednesday night and thought, How can we engage in the community? And the soccer came about. We said, “Let’s play soccer, and let’s sit down with the parents and share devotionally.” So that’s how we started. And the fruit today of every family within the church, they sort of got engaged in the community through the soccer ministry. So he was a vital point of our ministry there in the community.

Joe: He was part of the founding group of the church?

Myriam Cortes: He came about a year and a half after…. His son and nephew were part of that first soccer team. He saw what we were doing. For him it was interesting the way that we reach out to the community. We love you where you are. We find you where you are. So his finally started asking, Can you tell me a little more about this Methodist Church, and the way you engage? Like, you’re not telling me, ‘come to the church.’ The church comes to me, and be present with me in the middle of everything that is going on in the community. And I said, “Our main focus is loving our neighbors. In this hurting world we need to love each other.” And then coming to church will come after. But right now our main goal is to be present with you as a neighbor.

So, that for him was very touching, appealing. That new way of being a community was very different from what they were used to before. And he got engaged through the ministry, and eventually got engaged at church, became a member. His children were baptized at the church. So his whole family….

Joe: That’s something all of us can do, in a way, just gather people together around a common interest, and wonderful things happen and people’s lives are changed. What a fantastic ministry. We might not all start a church from it. But we can do all kinds of other things.

Myriam Cortes: Relationships.

Joe: Relationships. Very good.

How can the average person get involved? What can we do to help with some of these issues? Are there ways we, who are not Hispanic, support Spanish-speaking people in our communities, in our areas? What are some things we can do?

Myriam Cortes: It’s a question that comes daily. At least 3 or 4 times a day people ask me, “How can we be more supportive of your community?” And I’ll say, “It depends on the gifts and talents in people.

Some people have gifts to be advocators, and there are so many institutions and nonprofit organizations around our city. Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Nashville Community Defense, Moral Movement Tennessee. You can get involved in advocating through, for a better immigration reformation.

But I like to say, I have a call not only to be engaged and advocate publicly, but I have a call to bring a face to what immigration is. And that means I advocate a lot, by listening to the stories. Listen to the stories of these children. Listen to the stories of these youth. Some of these youth have done the journey that takes them sometimes 20 days, 30 days from their country to be here, to be reunited with other families. Listen to the parents. What made them decide to leave their own country, to the uncertain journey, to the dangers, to the knowing that you are not able to come back if your mom gets sick?

I have so many friends in the community where the parent had died without them seeing them for the last time. They’ve been here 10, 12, 15 years and can’t go back.

Listening to the story you’re acknowledging that I am present here. You acknowledge that I am a person worthy of dignity, that I’m created in the image of God. You are inviting me to be in a space with you. Sometimes people say to me, “I love your people.” And I say, “What people?” And they say, You know, I see you guys are so hard workers. I see the landscaping guy. He’s a hard worker. I see the lady who cleans. She’s a hard worker. They all got my heart.” And I say, “What are their names?” They don’t know their names. And I say, “Let’s start by knowing my name, by sitting at the table across from me, by looking into my eyes. Acknowledge that I’m a person here. I’m no longer in the shadows. And as the church and I feel in the middle of everything, no matter where you stand on the immigration issue, at the political standards kind of view. But being present with a person at the church, then we are the body of Christ. I think where a call at least beginning by acknowledging that we’re equal in God’s eyes, that we’re created equal and that Christ calls us to love our neighbor. And it starts by being at the table, having the conversation, allowing at least to know your story before I decide anything at the national political view. I listen and know who you are.

I see that through the ministry of Christ. He was present with the people. He took the time to listen and be present, to be love, to be compassionate, to minister out of compassion. And I think that as members of a church of Christ we are called to be present. And as I listen in the middle of the storm to the voice of God, I say, “God is calling us to sit at the table, to be present, to listen to each other.”

So I would say start by listening to the stories. Get connected around. If your churches have other Hispanic congregations in the conference or in the district around you, get to know that pastor. Get to know the congregation. Do things together. Sit at the table. We may not speak the same language, but come on, who doesn’t love to sit at the table and eat food together? And that will start a lot of conversation just by placing food on the table.

Then after that, advocate. People have many gifts. There are lawyers in the congregations that can advocate at that level. People that are passionate to be publicly engaged in the changing movement. And of course there are other organizations that help provide. First Responders help provide for families that are going through losing their parents. What does that do for children, when you come home from school and you find out that your parents are being taken? They’re gonna need food. They’re gonna need shelter at that time. They may need a person to take them to school the next day. So get involved in an organization that ministers already because there are so many in place all around our cities here in the United States. We’re gonna go find them and get in involved.

Joe: When you did the devotional here at United Methodist Communications one of the other storms that you talked about was a literal storm in your home country, your hometown. Can you talk about that because I think that connects back a little bit?

Myriam Cortes: Yes. That was definitely a story. It was Hurricane Maria, September 20, 2017. I’m originally from Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria hit my country. It has been the biggest hurricane for the past hundred years. The entire island was hit.

I still remember that morning. I watched the news. And I was seeing the image of that monster, catastrophic image of the hurricane to my little island that it was gonna go through. And I remember praying for my family and the rest my fellow Puerto Ricans.

That morning I was called to preach in a chapel. And I was there in the middle giving a message and I remember my phone vibrating after the message. And we finished chapel, picked up the phone and it was a message from a friend of mine and another from the cousin saying, “We’re in the middle. It’s hitting us”.

After that I didn’t have any more communication for days. It took about 15 days for me to know from my cousin that my father was okay. It took us days for know about my father and family. They were left with no electricity, no water. I remember the weeks that I didn’t have any communication, didn’t know if they were fine or not.

My home town is at sea level. So they took a big hit there. And it was weird how my mind and my heart reacted. I woke up early in the morning to take a shower, and I was taking a shower and I go, like, I have water when my family doesn’t have water. Every time that I went to eat something, I didn’t even know if they had anything to eat. And it was hard as an island to get first responders there. And I didn’t know that it was gonna take weeks and months. And it took them almost 5 months to get electricity and water back.

I have so many friends and family members that are people dependent on oxygen or are insulin dependent. I knew it was gonna be hard for them. And it’s still today a year after, and there’s so many places in my home island that don’t have electricity.

When I went 5 months after, as the plane was getting close to the island all the houses with the plastic blue tarp on it. It was unbelievable. My biggest shock. I mean, how can this happen so many months after?

I got there and I started going to the mountain. And it was devastation after devastation. I saw families who got frustrated because help was not getting there. They picked pieces from their home had been blown off. And their pieces were scattered afar and they were picking them up and rebuilding as much as they can to provide a roof over their head for the children. I saw families putting children to sleep on the same mattress that was wet 5 months before. I said, “How can this happen?”

It was a storm that lasted not only those 12 hours or 10 hours; it has lasted for a while in my heart after I see this. But at the same time, we can never be so far out that God’s grace will not cover us. And as I stay focused on Jesus asking what God is calling us to do. And once again, it is being present and organizing here a moving my local church and friends to send food, to send some type of relief, helping families to rebuild a roof or a little piece of half side of their home that is still missing. Those little things have brought comfort not only for them, but for the families here that were able to help.

Talking about it. I’m so grateful that other sister churches have asked about it, have invited me. And I’ve been able to show pictures. And they’re being able to engage in ministry through UMCOR, to go to Puerto Rico. So I have say we have a voice. God is calling us not to stay on the sidelines and see whatever is going on in the social media and say, “Oh, poor brothers and sisters is Puerto Rico, this happened.” Well, we need to get past that and say how can we be engaged?

Joe: Right.

Myriam Cortes: How can I be engaged? And that’s the real calling that in the middle of this storm God is asking to listen to his voice to what he is calling us to do, to be present with the ones that are afraid, with the ones that are crying, with the ones that are being oppressed or marginalized, with the ones that don’t have food, electricity, or water, or with the ones that don’t have a voice and live in the shadows in our cities. God is always calling us. There’s always an invitation for us to be the hands and feet of Christ, to bring hope, to be that light in the life of others.

Joe: You keep saying to be present. That doesn’t take any special skills. It doesn’t take a lot of money. It doesn’t take a lot of anything just to show up and to be present with someone and listen. Listen to stories of grief. Listen to stories of things you don’t understand how things got the way they are, all of those things. Just to be with people.

I noticed that you said several of those things happened within weeks of each other. That was quite a season to go through. How did you stay grounded? What sustained you through all of that?

Myriam Cortes: Knowing that Jesus is in the middle of these storms. Knowing that he’s the one that calms the winds and the waters. I took that in my heart. I know that his grace is still here. But how do I live his grace in the middle of all this when I myself am crying for my own family. And I’m crying for everything that is going on around me.

Having a small covenant group, I went to my covenant group and I cried and I cried. And they did what they do best, be present. They didn’t have answers for me on how to solve what I was feeling. But they did what they do best, which is being present. Their arms, they would hold me. Their words of affirmation. And at that time it was exactly what Christ does in the middle of everything that he has encountered. He was present. He was those arms to make people feel I’m here; I’m holding you.

The other one, at the same time, is taking my personal time to be silent. I have built a spiritual discipline to take walks in nature, in the middle of nature. I’m blessed to live very close to a lake. I go out to the lake. I write. As I walk and I sit down on the bend I write. I journal my prayers, my meditation, my reflection I journal. And that has kept me reminded constantly as I write and I read it again, this is God’s grace. He’s here. He’s telling me that he’s guiding me. I may not know why I’m going right now. Things may seem so turbulent around me. But I know his grace will sustain me. I know this because this has happened before in my life. It has happened in the life of other ones. God does not abandon his children. Never. We just have to know that the storms are going to hit us and it’s going to come out of everywhere, anywhere in the moment we least expect it. But his presence will always be there.

Joe: One of the things that I really admire that I hear you say is you never dismiss the storm and say, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” It’s bad. I mean, things go on and they hurt us and we can be upset and we can cry.

Myriam Cortes: Oh yeah. Storms hit us every day whether we want to admit it or not.

One of the things that Scripture reminds us is that Jesus sent his disciples knowing that the waters are gonna start rising, that the wind is gonna hit. But he sent them, not because he wanted to disturb their life or something bad for them, but to strengthen their faith, that who is with them in the middle of this storm?

So when the storms hit my life, I will say maybe I welcome them because now I’m like uh-oh. But at the same time I say, “Okay, let me pause.” I say, “God is present. How can I listen to his voice in the middle? What in this storm is going to allow me to grow?”

After it passes, you say, “it helped me grow in this and this, and I learned this lesson.” But don’t dismiss the storms in your life because the storm is where you find your strongest trusting and dependency in God’s grace and in Jesus being there present. I think we grow through the storms. If the storms don’t hit our lives I don’t think we can grow in faith because if everything is nice and pink all the time, and beautiful we will never grow.

We grow in the middle of the storms. And some storms are so heartbroken. But the beauty of it is, God doesn’t dismiss your brokenness at all. But from brokenness he mends it into something beautiful out of it.

Joe: I have asked you today to re-live some of that heartbrokenness. And I am really grateful that you are willing to do that and to share your story with us today. Thank you so much.

Myriam Cortes: I’m honored to share and especially because I know that we are…I love Henri Nouwen” saying, “wounded healer.” And I think that’s a big part of us as believers, how we live for Christian values and as the body of Christ we become wounded healers for others.

Joe: Thank you.

Myriam Cortes: You’re welcome.

Epilogue

Joe: That was Pastor Myriam Cortes of Iglesia Metodista Unida Ebenezer in Nashville, TN. Learn more about her and her church by visiting umc.org/podcasts and look for this episode, titled “Weathering Life’s Storms.”

As always, there are more links on the page to explore, along with other United Methodist podcasts you might want to add to yo ur queue. My email address is there as well so you can share with me your thoughts about Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Thanks for listening, downloading and subscribing. I’ll be back soon with another episode to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.