Guatemala City, Guatemala – In a context of widespread poverty, violence, and competing religious currents, where do Anabaptist-Mennonite churches in Latin America find hope?
On 10-14 February, 137 Mennonite church leaders from 19 different countries gathered at a Catholic retreat center in Guatemala City for conversations around the theme “Toward a Ministry of Hope: social reality, faith, word and pastoral action.”
In addition to energetic singing, lively worship, a wide range of plenary sessions, and intense group discussions, the “Seventh Consultation of Anabaptists in Latin America” (VII Consulta Anabautista Latinoamericana) marked a significant step forward in forging a stronger regional identity for Anabaptist-Mennonite groups in Latin America.
According to several participants who were present at the very first consultation of Latin American church leaders in 1986, much has changed in the intervening years. “I was very impressed by the fact that all of the presenters were Spanish speakers, deeply rooted in a Latin American context, and by the depth of theological teaching,” said Tomás Orjuela Gutierrez, president of the Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia.
Sandra Campos, president of the Asociación Iglesias Cristianas Menonitas de Costa Rica celebrated the active presence of women at the consultation. About half of the participants were women. A significant number of youth also attended.
Plenary addresses challenged participants to a renewed commitment to a Christ-centred view of the church as a movement responding to human needs rather than a theological abstraction, an institution or a personal project of a charismatic pastor.
“The church,” insisted Gilberto Flores Campos in the opening session, “is a pilgrim people living in relationships – with Christ, with each other, and the society around them…. This means that its theology must always improvisational and dynamic.” Flores, from Guatemala, is associate conference minister in the Western District of Mennonite Church USA.
“The church engages the world not as its owner,” he continued, invoking an image that would recur throughout the consultation, “but as its guest. The church is a witness to the Good News, but we do not possess it.”
Jenny Neme, director of the Justapaz in Colombia, noted that only a small portion of the violence in Colombia – as in most countries in Latin America – is directly linked to armed combatants. The majority of violent deaths are associated with domestic disputes, street crime, and narco-trafficking that often reflects the structural realities of poverty, unemployment, and despair. In the midst of this suffering, hope emerges in the wholistic Christian witness of shalom.
“We are a people with gifts, talents and ministries, gathered in the name of Christ to share a message of nonviolence and hope,” she said. Neme spoke of the challenge of helping young men in Colombia find ways of resisting mandatory conscription into the army. She also called on Mennonites to integrate peace into every aspect of their daily lives, and to be open to forming alliances with other peace-minded Christians.
Daniel Schipani reminded participants that “God has hope in humanity,” and is “always inviting humans to a life of transformation into the image of Christ.” He also challenged Mennonites to think of discipleship as citizenship in the world, attentive to the ways that God is at work outside the formal structures of the church. Originally from Argentina, Schipani teaches at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.
Ofelia García, who works with Mennonite Central Committee in Mexico, highlighted the liberating gift of giving and receiving forgiveness as an expression of the Spirit’s presence. Fernando Pérez, a pastor in Mexico, called on congregations to challenge the divisive forces of culture by becoming truly integrated communities.
César García, general secretary of Mennonite World Conference, spoke largely out of his context in Colombia. But participants from many other regions expressed deep appreciation for his analysis of contemporary religious currents feeding into Anabaptist-Mennonite identity in Latin America.
García highlighted ecclesial models focused on reason (fundamentalist emphasis on doctrine), justice (liberationalist emphasis on social transformation), and experience (neo-Pentecostal emphasis on personal health, wealth and success), before describing an Anabaptist-Mennonite alternative understanding of the church rooted in scripture, discipleship, worship, and peacemaking.
The goal, García emphasized, is not to defend a distinctive identity out of arrogance or as an end in itself, but out of faithfulness to the Gospel in ways that seek to break down boundaries.
One expression of unity among the various groups represented at the consultation was a growing sense of enthusiasm for the work of Mennonite World Conference.
In the first of two sessions devoted to the organization, César García reviewed the history and vision of MWC, introduced the work of the four MWC commissions, and called on the churches of Latin America to take a stronger initiative in sharing their voice in a global context.
In a second session, García described preparations for the upcoming MWC Assembly in July 2015. An impromptu gathering of leaders whose groups are members of MWC following García’s presentation, took a significant step toward the reorganization of the Latin American regional caucus.
Several participants described the event as a landmark moment in an emerging Latin American Mennonite identity. César Montenegro, pastor of Casa Horeb, a Mennonite church in Guatemala, expressed appreciation for “the sheer fact of the gathering, and that so many groups were represented with a desire to share freely with each other.”
“Gatherings like this,” said Egdy Zambrano, pastor in the Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Ecuatoriana, “remind us that we are not alone.”
Edgardo Garcia, a Baptist professor of church history who attended the first consultation in 1986 and has affiliated with Mennonites in Guatemala ever since then, echoed a similar sentiment. “We are not a perfect church, and all of us still have much to learn,” he said. “But the fact that leaders from so many different contexts can come together for conversations about faith and life, eager to put into practice what they have learned, is a reason for hope.”
The consultation was sponsored by Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite World Conference, and the Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Guatemala, with the primary organization leadership coming from the Seminario Anabautista Latinoamericano (SEMILLA).
Article by John D. Roth, who teaches at Goshen College in Indiana, directs the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, and is secretary of the Mennonite World Conference Faith and Life Commission.
Grounded in hope, we are learning from our diversity
We convened [at the consultation] with the hope that moves us – the hope we have lived in our contexts and the hope we want to proclaim in Latin America. The lectures, the small group discussions, the sessions, as well as informal conversations, guided brothers and sisters in the challenges of thinking together on how to build committed faith communities in the different realities we live in our continent.
We are communities of diverse faith, in different contexts, so our concerns and pastoral practices range from working in urban to rural areas. Some are in solidarity with the struggle of indigenous people and others with the issue of undocumented immigrants. Violence as a product of youth gangs and armed conflict is the topic that concerns many. The pastoral response to, and inclusion of, sexual minorities and the full recognition of women and their gifts on an equal basis with men are also topics of interest to other brothers and sisters.
Yet, despite the different concerns, practices and emphases, we were able to celebrate and learn from this diversity during the week of the consultation. Could it be that above all these issues, our priority is our identity as an historic peace church?
Reflection by Luis Ma. Alman Bornes, a member of the Pastoral Council of the Anabaptist Mennonite Church of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He and Daniela Boyajián are in charge of the online AMLAC (Agencia Menonita Latinoamericana de Comunicaciones) Newsletter (www.amlac.org.ar). Bornes indicated that AMLAC will share the full text of the presentations at the consultation to make them available “to all brothers and sisters for communal discernment.” At the close of the consultation, Carlos Martínez of Mexico City shared a summary of Anabaptist affirmations emerging out of the gathering (click here). The affirmations were approved by those present.
Concerns about the situation of migrants in the USA was brought to the consultation, as there is a large Latino population in that country. Haroldo Nunes, from Brazil, but currently living in the USA, leads us in a prayer. Photo by Luis Ma. Alman Bornes
After each presentation participants divided into small groups to discern about the topic that was presented, and then share what they had talked about with the plenary group. People in the photo (from left): Daniel Schipani (with hand lifted; USA/Argentina), Tomás Orjuela (Colombia), Carlos Moreno (Colombia), Jamie Pitts (USA), Martha Gomez (Colombia) and Karen Flores (Honduras). Photo by Luis Ma. Alman Bornes