When Mennonites of Argentina planned a mission conference to mark the 100th anniversary of Anabaptist witness in their country, they received an unexpected gift: free use of the Palacio Municipal (municipal building) in Malvinas Argentinas, a suburb of greater Buenos Aires.
That generosity came due to a tragedy that grabbed the nation’s attention a year earlier when a 24 year-old award-winning scientist named David Varlotta was killed in a carjacking.
What made this young Mennonite’s death national news was not only Varlotta’s extraordinary ability as a scientist, but the reconciling response of his parents. Their forgiveness and love prompted the mayor of Malvinas Argentinas to open a government building for the Mennonites’ 17 September 2017 centennial gathering.
David Varlotta first garnered international attention when he helped to develop a low-cost solar-powered water purifying system for use in rural Argentina. NASA, the American space program, named an asteroid in Varlotta’s honour.
A national youth leader in the Argentinian Mennonite church, Varlotta was also taking theology classes.
Although Varlotta gave no resistance when youths tried to take the car in front of his parents’ home, a 17-year-old assailant shot anyway. Varlotta’s mother, Mirta Soto Varlotta, who with her husband Jorge Varlotta serves as a Mennonite pastor, witnessed the crime. When the accused stood trial months later, the parents testified.
It is common for survivors in such circumstances to speak vindictive, hateful words to the press and the court, but Varlotta’s parents offered forgiveness. They expressed overwhelming grief, but also concern for the well-being of the accused. The love they showed was evident, and became a witness to the nation.
Mennonites are a fraction among Argentinian evangelicals (some 5,000 among 3,700,00) – who themselves are a minority in the Catholic country. Small but vibrant Mennonite congregations throughout Argentina combine concern for social issues of poverty and drug abuse with fervour for mission.
When several hundred Mennonite delegates gathered at Malvinas Argentinas, there were many reports of mission outreach in the cities, towns and indigenous communities of the nation.
Before the mission conference, Mennonites held an outdoor celebration in central Buenos Aires, at a park adjacent to Puerto Madero. That is where the first Mennonite missionaries from North America, J. W. and Erma Shank and T. K. and Mae Hershey, got off a ship in 1917.
God continues to work healing in the wake of tragedy. David Varlotta’s mother Mirta now is taking chaplaincy training to equip her for prison ministry with young people accused or convicted of crimes.
—a Mennonite World Conference release by president J. Nelson Kraybill