Bolivia, named after its first president, Bolivar, is about 4,500 miles south and one time zone east of Kitchener. It is a beautiful country with lots of tropical foliage, including 1,200 species of fern and 1,400 species of birds. This land-locked country is south of the equator, which means that we need to look north to see the sun. In the distance are 6,000 meter (21,000 feet) mountains that settle down into the Amazon Basin. Weather is warm, with a tropical downpour every day or two.
I was invited to come here for a four-day Mennonite conference with delegates from Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, plus guests from four other countries, including 24 from Peru. There is a relaxed freedom here that makes singing, sharing, eating, swimming and learning together a pleasure. Attendees from diverse backgrounds shared insights and warmly encouraged each other.
I am now in the process of doing four follow-up workshops in surrounding churches. English language is limited at the conference and in the churches.
Ona and Lucy Leonides and their family are hosting me. Ona is the informal but respected “bishop” of the seven Spanish-speaking churches in this area. Margrit Kipfer Barron, a missionary from the Mennonite churches of Switzerland, is serving as my guide and translator for workshops in the different churches.
Bolivians are a very mixed people. Today I met Mennonites from every kind of background, including Spanish- and Quechua-speaking people, highland and lowland natives, charismatics and traditionals, Low-German Colony Mennonites and North American and European mission or aid workers.
About 65 percent of Bolivians (including the president) are of indigenous background, of which there are about 30 tribes. About 20 of the delegates at the conference were indigenous and participated freely with music and dance. Unfortunately, representatives from the Colony Mennonites, who number about 75,000 did not attend.
I've had to get used to a more relaxed schedule. One leader told me, “It starts when it starts and ends when it ends. I get tense when things are too planned.” South Americans say with pride that they are more relational than rational, more emotional than intellectual, more oral than written.
Yesterday I visited the work of Mennonite Central Committee. It is impressive! The 30 volunteer and staff people are involved in agriculture, peace, education and poverty programs. Several work constructively with the Low German people clustered in over 70 colonies.
Tomorrow, I will be moving on to Brazil, where I have been invited to teach a course on Anabaptist theology at the FIDELIS inter-denominational seminary. That will be followed by four days of ministry in the churches.
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 January 2015.
MCC volunteers and staff took part in a quarterly, two-day fellowship and planning retreat. They are a spirited group! (Photo by Cesar Flores)