“The winds of Anabaptism are blowing!” These enthusiastic words from Chilean Mennonite church member, Felipe Elgueta, are an apt description of the dynamic life of emerging Mennonite churches in different regions of Chile. While most Mennonite churches in Latin America originated either by migration or mission, the Chilean Mennonite churches arose as a result of members’ own ingenuity, much like the Pentecostal churches did throughout the 20th century. As Jaime Prieto concluded in Mission and Migration (Global Mennonite History Series – Latin America, 2010), “Chile is an example of a country where Anabaptist initiatives have developed and grown internally as Chileans have embraced Anabaptist faith and practice.”
How did Anabaptism catch on in Chile? Some credit is due to Chilean-Canadian Jorge Vallejos, a church planter and pastor who, in the 1980s, suggested to his Chilean church friends that they adopt the name “Mennonite.” Early on, Daniel Delgado, now president of the Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Chile (IEMCH), was moved when he heard the story of Dirk Willems, a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist martyr. He was also impressed by the holistic service of Mennonite Central Committee workers in neighbouring Bolivia, who showed no partiality with regard to religion, ethnicity, social class or gender. Carlos Gallardo and Mónica Parada, upon learning about Anabaptist ecclesiology in a course on the Radical Reformation taught by Titus Guenther, suddenly felt a kinship between their own understanding of the life of the church and the historic vision of the Anabaptists.
The Chilean Mennonite congregations, some almost 25 years old, emerged from quite different backgrounds. Most grew out of a Pentecostal background. One congregation, Iglesia Menonita Puerta del Rebaño (The Door of the Sheepfold Mennonite Church), arose in the context of a university community in Concepción, developing its Mennonite identity as a result of influence from visiting Mennonite teachers like John Driver, César Moya and Delbert Erb. As mentioned above, this group is led by Carlos Gallardo and Mónica Parada, two former seminary students. Importantly, these churches arose some distance from each other, within different social contexts. These differences made for difficulties in relating to each other. However, recent developments – including joint involvement in the staging of the 2013 Southern Cone conference, a gathering of Anabaptists from six South American nations – has helped to reduce the “distance” between the groups.
All these churches minister in situations of chronic poverty. Their community outreach focuses on family, women’s and youth issues. Women carry the bulk of the responsibility for these ministries – as much as 70% of the workload, according to one male leader. They prepare food, visit the sick, support families in need and walk alongside people with addictions. A vivid illustration of this point comes from Gladys Delgado (Daniel’s wife). One day, an abandoned youth – the child of alcoholic parents – showed up at the Delgados’ church. Gladys invited him into their home. Four years later, he still lives with them, and is now actively involved in the life and ministry of the church.
These Mennonite churches also demonstrated their care for the suffering in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Chile. Though of limited means themselves, these believers nevertheless loaded up three vans of supplies and delivered them to the people hardest hit by this natural disaster – not just the Mennonites, but those from other evangelical churches as well.
The identity of these Chilean Mennonites is captured well in this brief anecdote from Daniel Delgado. When asked by a police officer, “What does the Mennonite church do anyway?”, Daniel replied, “We are doing the work you are hired to do, but we do it for free.”
In addition to their social service work, the Mennonites of Chile show a keen awareness of the need to share the gospel with their neighbours. Samuel Tripainao, pastor of the Peñaflor church and secretary of IEMCH, captures well the sentiment shared by most Mennonites in this country: “When we go out on the street, our witness is accompanied by a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” And their service is not limited to their immediate communities only. From time to time, pastors travel to more distant places, including neighbouring Argentina, to fellowship with and strengthen sister congregations and to lend a hand in local evangelism. When Samuel heard about the conflict over land ownership in the region where many Mapuche (aboriginal) people live, he declared that “this would be a good place to start a church,” as an effort to bring peace and healing to this community.
A report on Mennonites in Chile would be lacking without a reference to the Anabaptist renewal occurring within the sizeable Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Chile (UBACH). Omar Cortés – a worker in both the Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network U.S. programs, as well as a Baptist seminary professor – has played a central role in this movement. Through his teaching on the Radical Reformation, Omar has helped the Baptist Church to rediscover its Peace Church roots. In 2008, UBACH and Mennonite Church Canada entered into a sister church relationship. Whether this will continue under UBACH’s new leadership, remains to be seen.
Our personal experience visiting a new church community, started by two Baptist seminary professors, suggests that there is much vitality in this renewal movement. These Christians are vitally interested in Anabaptist ecclesiology and practice, and are very inclusive, emphasizing the themes of peace, justice and compassion in their songs and liturgy.
Two further church initiatives in the south of Chile should be mentioned. One was started in Valdivia by three women – Wanda Sieber, Marlene Dorigoni and Waleska Villa – from the Argentine (Patagonia) Mennonite Church. The other, also in the Valdivia region, is led by Eastern Mennonite Mission workers Mike and Nancy Hostetter.
Until recently, the Mennonites of Chile often felt isolated from the larger Anabaptist movement, but such sentiments are starting to change through the visits of Mennonite Mission administrators and teachers from North America and neighbouring countries. Members’ participation in the biannual Southern Cone conferences and the 2009 Mennonite World Conference assembly has also significantly combated these feelings of isolation. As a result of these connections, IEMCH recently became the one hundredth member-church in the MWC family.
Another milestone in the life of the Chilean Mennonite churches occurred this year, when they hosted the Southern Cone conference for the first time. This event brought together men, women and youth in the daily tasks of cooking, serving and cleaning, as well as in organizing and presiding over the program.
Given their multifaceted, holistic ministry, the Mennonites of Chile face a number of challenges. First, there is a need to prepare new and younger people for leadership roles. Most current church leaders are older; a new generation will soon need to arise to take up their mantle. However, at present, most young peoples’ preparation for future service is limited to helping in the ministry with children and youth.
There is also a lack of biblical and theological knowledge and training among the leaders. What’s worse, there is little evidence that the emerging generation has access to further formation in this regard. La Puerta (Concepción), with one student enrolled in a seminary theology program, is the exception.
A third challenge relates to the retention of members and individual congregations. Currently, almost as many members leave as are gained. A fourth issue is gender equality, which continues to be a challenge for many of these congregations, especially in the area of pastoral leadership. Participation in the wider church helps to overcome their isolation and open them up to the larger Mennonite family. This will hopefully result in greater openness to other faith families.
Nevertheless, the winds of Anabaptism continue to blow through the Mennonite churches of Chile. These Chilean believers are strengthened through the support of Mennonites from around the globe, and in turn the Chileans are opening other Mennonites’ eyes to what it means to be Anabaptist. These encounters are a wonderful opportunity for the sharing of diverse gifts that complement each other. The older churches, grounded in a more biblical-theological formation, can share their wisdom and experience, while the younger Chilean churches offer their brothers and sisters the benefit of fresh insights derived from reading the Bible with new eyes.
-Titus Guenther, Associate Professor of Theology and Missions at Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), and Karen Loewen Guenther, a retired ESL teacher and freelance writer, are currently in Chile on special assignment with Mennonite Church Canada Witness.