Ardys and I have been able to spend ten wonderful days together first in Asuncion, then at the world-famous Iguazu Falls and now in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ardys is now on her way back to Canada; I leave on Thursday for ten days of ministry in Chile. Weather has been in the 80's with an occasional tropical rain.
While I do not pose to be an authority, let me share five reflections from my contacts here in South America.
Reflection # 1: Admirable mission work
Soon after Mennonites of German descent arrived, some of the settlers felt that God had led them to the Chaco of Paraguay to share God's love and the gospel with the native people. For four generations these Mennonites of German descent have helped people from nine tribes to find employment, buy land, provide health care, build schools, and plant churches. The sensitive nature of the first workers resulted in a reciprocal trust from the indigenous people, which has resulted in 17 Mennonite congregations with a total of about 8,000 indigenous believers! Over 500 workers have been trained at the Indigenous Bible Institute. Currently, each German Mennonite congregation is challenged to relate to a tribal congregation or village.
The cultures of these German and native believers could hardly be more different, and certainly there are criticisms of how they have related and worked together, yet I commend the two groups for their diligence, hard work and generally positive attitudes. Would we have been or are we up to this kind of a challenge?
Reflection # 2: Creative business chaplaincy
In Asuncion, Paraguay, I was hosted by C. Paul and Hildi Amstutz, Mennonite Mission Network associates. Twenty-three years ago C. Paul was a pioneer chaplain in a business chaplaincy program formed by Mennonite business people. He now supervises and trains chaplains in a program that has grown to include a team of 52 chaplains (15 full time). More than 60 businesses and industries contract for chaplaincy services that include weekly practical spiritual challenges with opportunity for individual follow-up ministries. Over 8,000 factory and other workers are being served in this unique way.
Might this be one form of the church in the future? Simultaneously, Hildi has pioneered a vision in Paraguay for spiritual direction and spiritual retreats which often allow the two to work together in their ministries.
Reflection # 3: Healthy Mennonite churches
Mennonites of German descent who came as refugees after World War II have established many solid churches with modern facilities, choirs, and numerous service and outreach programs. Many have regular mission reports during their Sunday worship services. Some are now transitioning to Spanish or are establishing Spanish-speaking daughter congregations to serve new employees and neighbors.
Many of the new or mission-established congregations are quite Pentecostal in nature. I am also finding a warm welcome for the more discipleship-oriented concept of church that I am seeking to share in the workshops.
Reflection # 4: The splendor of Iguazu Falls
The Iguazu Falls, located at the coming together of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, are among the world's most spectacular waterfalls. Their shape, breadth and walkways allow for amazing vistas. At one point a boat took us directly under the falls, where we got soaked. At another time we were surrounded by 260 degrees of water pouring from three sides into what is called the Devil's Throat. Mists from the falling water rise to heights of 150 meters (480 feet) and then host large, beautiful rainbows. After seeing the falls a couple times, we walked through thick jungle to a bird park with over 140 species of rare, exotic birds.
We have discovered South America to be a place of great variety and beauty!
Reflection # 5: Diverse theologies and colours
Ardys and I have spent the last days with Jairo, Alecia and Malaina Roe. Jairo is a professor of economic philosophy and liberation theology in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is doing post-doctoral studies related to critical analysis of the various theologies being taught. While they are limited in speaking English, we found them delightfully engaging, as are so many others here in the Latino cultures.
South America seems to have as great a mix of peoples as North America. We see every shade of skin colour on the streets and in some of the churches. Divisions among people here are more by socio-economic class than by the colour of skin, though often there is a correlation. Churches are working to show God’s love to all people.
We are currently in Argentina, where 100 years ago there were basically only two classes of people: the very rich and the very poor. Today there is a healthy though struggling middle class. While the country is relatively stable, inflation is running at 30 percent a year, which makes saving for retirement a challenge! I had a lively all-day workshop with participants from ten different churches and was asked to serve communion on Sunday.
Pray for the next ten days of ministry in Chile. The churches are quite new, and I have been told I will experience a lot of diversity—from churches with a community-of-believers-style biblical reflection and discernment to churches with more Pentecostal-style worship.
Felipe Elgueta from Puerta del Rebaño in Concepción will be my guide and translator. Linda Shelly, Director for Latin America Ministries for Mennonite Mission Network, in conversation with Hippolyto Tshimanga of Mennonite Church Canada, has done an amazing job of putting this nine-week teaching tour together.
As a resource worker with Mennonite Church Canada, Palmer is spending ten weeks speaking and teaching in Mennonite settings in South America. As he visits Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile, his presentations are focusing on Anabaptist perspectives for Christian theology. Palmer sent this post in March 2015.
C. Paul and Hildi Amstutz serve in chaplaincy and spiritual formation ministries in Asuncion, Paraguay. (Photo courtesy of Palmer Becker)
A South America Mennonite Brethren church building in Asuncion, Paraguay (Photo courtesy of Palmer Becker)
Palmer and his wife Ardys enjoy the view and the moisture from Iguazu Falls. (Photo courtesy of Palmer Becker)