By Deborah Malavé Díaz
In April of this year, I had the opportunity to go for the second time to the Republic of Georgia; a team of six American Baptist women traveled there on what we have called a “spiritual pilgrimage.” My experience the first time we went in 2014 was marked by a blessed uncertainty as personal circumstances almost prevented me from going. It was an intense pilgrimage marked by the everyday discovery of the Georgian people, history and culture, breathtaking Caucasus Mountains, rivers and the Black Sea. None of these compare to the amazing hospitality we enjoyed throughout our stay. The people of the Republic of Georgia, as an intrinsically religious people, treat their guests as God instructed in the Old Testament: as messengers of God, as angels. So there we were, far from our homes but, unbeknownst to us, received as “angels.” I asked myself, if we are treated as messengers of God, what message are we to deliver? Our journey lead us to discover how over the last 20 years the Georgian Baptist Church, a religious minority under pressure to survive, has been able to build bridges of friendship among other religious groups and the nation—not by preaching and the Gospel, as we Westerners are used to, but by transforming themselves into vessels of service to reach out and help others in need just as Christ did.
On our way to Georgia, I was looking forward to reconnecting with the Baptist and Muslim friends we had met the first time and with whom we had kept in touch by social media. I was excited to meet more Georgian women. I wanted to listen to them, share, laugh, learn, and pray with them. I wanted to see and walk in their shoes. In a society dominated by men, this mission proves at times to be challenging: In a sense, I couldn’t find their shoes, their real shoes.
As I trusted our blessed pilgrimage, we spent time talking to young adult Muslim women, all of them theologian college students; and we stayed overnight with a group of Muslim teenagers where we shared quality time with them. We stayed with Georgian families, spoke to Baptist women from different churches, accompanied the deaconesses of the Baptist St. Nino’s Order as they visited the sick and needy under their care, went to the U.S. Embassy and to the Public Defender Office in Tbilisi, the capital city of the Republic of Georgia.
I found the women’s shoes… but they were too heavy to wear and hard to walk in as I had naively wished at the beginning of this journey. I saw their struggles and experienced just a tiny fraction of it. Each day, Georgian women wake up to raise their children to become better than they are, have beautiful homes and at the same time make ends meet because their economy is in dire circumstances. They live surviving alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, navigating a society where women are expected to be hard workers, devoted wives, mothers, and daughters, and to do it all in silence. They all carry the same burden and yet the Baptist and Muslim women we met did all they could to make us feel at home and welcome. Their hearts are a big as the Caucasus Mountains. The way these women love and help others is the unseen key to the ongoing transformation through service and love led by the Baptist Church and the Muslim groups.
On our way back to America, I found myself thankful for each day, the good and bad ones too, for friendships, the hospitality, and the lessons learned. I went back to my initial question: what message did God have us deliver to Georgians? As I reflected on what I had heard, shared, laughed, learned and prayed about with our fellow Georgian brothers and sisters, I discovered that we were not delivering messages from God. We were the ones receiving a message from God: to build bridges of friendship, breaking barriers in new ways, not only by preaching but by transforming ourselves into vessels of service to reach out and help others in need as Christ did.
Deborah Malavé Díaz is a member of the Primera Iglesia Bautista de Caguas in Peurto Rico. A life-long Baptist, Deborah grew in leadership through Baptist youth boards, camps, and rallies, in Christian theater and singing ministries. She is actively involved in Mujeres Bautistas de Puerto Rico (AB Women’s Ministries of Puerto Rico), having served as MBPR coordinator of Young Adult Women’s Ministries and coordinator of her region’s 2013 and 2014 Annual Assemblies. Deborah is the nominee for AB Women’s Ministries national coordinator of events, 2015-2018; elections are held at the AB Women’s Ministries annual meeting at Women’s Day, June 26, 2015.