An interview with Jo Charles and Ruth Richardson

As part of this month of reading Nothing in My Hand I Bring and thinking about Roman Catholicism, I thought I would interview a couple of women who have had experience in ministry with Roman Catholics. The first, is Ruth, who up until recently lived in Spain, the second is Jo, who is currently living with her family in Chile.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Ruth: I am a married mother of two teenagers working part time as a physiotherapist and also being part of ministry team alongside my husband in a local church.

Jo: I grew up an MK in PNG and Indonesia, married Michael in 1988, studied Science and Physio. We are blessed with 4 children: Sam (12), Caleb (10), Emma (8) and Lola (6). We currently serve (since 2004) with CMS in Santiago, Chile where Michael teaches at a Bible College.

In my spare time I love to read. The only things I don't like to read are gory crime things (can't forget those details...) and daggy romance. Pretty much anything else is fair game. I love to read out loud to my kids - great literature that moves me is my favourite (they put up with my weeping and my 'Oh! What an exquisite sentence!' exclamations). We do Tuesday Teatimes (tea and something yummy to eat and we all read a poem) to foster this in my kids. Having taught two of my children to read in English, whilst they were learning Spanish, having watched the rest of us learn Spanish, and having experienced a very different education system here in Chile, I am now much more interested in language acquisition, reading acquisition and education in general.

Jo, Can you tell us a bit about your ministry in Chile?

Jo: Michael and I came to Chile for Michael to teach at the Centre for Pastoral Studies. We have discovered that there are many opportunities for me to serve as well. Apart from my primary ministry of caring for Michael and the kids I also home school the children (this is a finite venture, and will probably soon end) and am involved in ministry with wives of students and female students. I lead a Bible Study group, teach Sunday School and give seminars on Child Raising and Conflict Resolution. We have also found ourselves doing pre-marriage counselling as well, and have been asked to do some post-marriage counselling too, but haven't found a spare moment to fit them in! I bravely fight a constant battle to protect our family time, as it is easy for it to get swallowed up. In theory I love a clean, tidy house, so I also fight bravely against the smog-grime on my windows...

Ruth, Can you tell us a bit about your ministry in Spain?

Ruth: We returned last year after 8 years working with a small church in Spain. Most Spaniards in southern Spain would call themselves Roman Catholic, but in practice have little to do with the Catholic church or agree with many of its doctrines (Spain has the lowest birth rate in Europe…for example). Even atheists are Catholic! The social fabric is still very closely linked with Catholic sacraments. Our children came home from primary school asking whether it was true that they could not get never get married as their peers claimed (because that is the reason parents give for children to go to Catholic religion classes and do their Catholic first communion rites). To be religious for Spaniards in the south of Spain, one participates in the local festivals that venerate the local patron statue, usually a named statue of Mary, in our town called “Mary of the mountain”.

What are the experiences that stand out for you as examples of how Catholicism is practised in Chile and Spain?

Ruth: While over there we were supporting a local pastor, teaching the gospel, encouraging the local Christians, being a part of the local community and seeking in whatever ways we could to break down the barriers in people’s minds to the gospel. The idea that faith in Jesus' work on the cross gives one a real relationship with the living God is a very foreign concept and something that people have been actively “innoculated” against. Only the church can give the possibility of salvation, and only for those who jump through the churches “hoops”. Even for the faithful, no one can ever be sure of their salvation. The way religion works there in practice is that God is seen very far away and very severe. To get his favour one needs to pay homage to the local Mary statue, making pilgrimages to her on the hill, for example, by foot or on ones knees even better, kissing her hands, giving her presents, repeating set prayers to her, so that she might have a word in Jesus, her son’s ear and he might talk to the father who might do what one hopes for (eg. allow an exam to be passed or a sickness to be cured)…. Hard as it is to believe in modern Spain, this type of religion is thriving and growing, although formal religion is not so popular.

Jo: We came to Chile to work with the Protestant church, so most observations are from a distance. But Catholicism really does affect the whole way of thinking that we encounter - both on the streets and in church.

The saddest time of year for me is when pilgrims crawl or drag themselves 50 km, often carrying a heavy burden such as a cross, in order to beg a favour from God (or the Virgin). It is heartbreaking.

There are three main effects of Catholicism (that we see) that flow out into society. Relativism, works, and an incredible dichotomy between stated beliefs and lifestyle.

The relativism says we are all OK. 'No, you wouldn't send your kids to a Catholic school,' said an acquaintance the other day, 'if you aren't stuck to all that stuff. Why would you? But I adore the Virgin, I love her, so of course, my daughter is at a very Catholic school.' But neither of us is right or wrong. This makes it very hard to ask the hard questions that challenge them in their thinking. I sound so harsh and judgmental.

Works says that my faith is what gets me in. 'I've got heaps of faith!' is a common phrase, even in our church. And just being Roman Catholic is what gets them right with God, even if they never go to Mass.

The dichotomy between beliefs and lifestyle means that even if people go to Mass, most people don't relate that to what goes on during the week. This is even evident in the Protestant church where Sunday is emotion and drama, and we claim to be people of the Word, but reading the Bible during the week is just not even considered as important, and business practices, language, dress, use of money, childraising, TV intake are indistinguishable from the world. Family relationships tend to be disastrous, but are hidden by a veneer of respectability. The other way this is shown is that if people do make a lifestyle decision that is apparently correct, it is usually based on selfish motives, or as a talisman to protect against God's vengeance. A lady at Bible Study was explaining to me that she was considering starting a business driving a school bus. However, she explained to me that if she did, she would have to get a proper licence 'to make sure that God will keep me safe, so I don't have an accident.' This tendency is fuelled by prosperity doctrine, where they look for blessing to show that they are OK with God. People are left despairing when the difficulties or tragedies of life strike.

Ruth, What can we pray for the Christians in Spain?

Ruth: Pray for Spanish pastors. There are few and they are always under enormous pressures, thought of as sects, have little financial security, many jobs and little time… Pray for the seeds that have and are being planted, especially over the long summer (July/August September) break with many beach mission style outreaches. And for Christians to stand firm, be real about their faith…and be united.

Jo, What can we pray for the Christians in Chile?

Jo: Please pray that Christians in Chile will understand God's marvellous mercy and grace. That the gospel will be preached untainted by relativism and works, and that the response will be lives so changed by God's Spirit that others long to know the same freedom. Pray for a lifestyle that matches the words! Pray for us Christians to not vaguely talk about God (easy!), but specifically talk about Jesus (not so easy!). Pray that there will be a hunger to know God better through serious study of his Word. There is a tendency for Protestants to think that because the Bible is opened during the service, and the sermon is loosely based on the text that they are Bible based; but it is rare that the teaching goes beyond general exhortations to be good and follow (or not follow) the example of the protagonist.

And what can we pray for the Roman Catholics in Spain?

To have their eyes opened to the Jesus of the bible and put their faith in him…

What can we pray for the Roman Catholics in Chile?

Jo: Please pray that they will be unsatisfied by the veneer of religion and that God will mercifully open their eyes to the freedom of his grace. Pray that discontent with Roman Catholicism will not be replaced by materialism, but by a relationship with Jesus.

Pics: Photo 1: A nun and a young boy look at a statue of Pope John Paul II outside La Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. Manu Fernandez -- AP
Photo 2:
Pilgrims in Santiago, Chile, from el mercurio.