Peaceful waters: the Mennonite church in the Caribbean

Mennonites went down in the river to pray 19 January 2020 in the Dominican Republic on Anabaptist World Fellowship Sunday. With worship materials from Mennonite World Conference and baptisms, Iglesia Evangelica Menonita in Santo Domingo celebrated the Anabaptist family around the world and locally. Twenty-two people expressed their devotion to following Jesus and commitment to a local – and international – church family.

Across the Dominican Republic, people in the 75 Mennonite congregations remembered the 1525 baptisms of George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz alongside their own.

Beginning in the 1940s, Anabaptism was introduced to the Caribbean by American Mennonite missionaries. Today Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have national Mennonite churches belonging to MWC membership; Trinidad and Tobago’s four-congregation church is an associate member, and clusters of Anabaptist-identifying congregations exist on other islands.

Here is an overview of MWC member churches in the Caribbean.

Across the Dominican Republic, people in the 75 Mennonite congregations remembered the 1525 baptisms of George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz alongside their own.

Beginning in the 1940s, Anabaptism was introduced to the Caribbean by American Mennonite missionaries. Today Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have national Mennonite churches belonging to MWC membership; Trinidad and Tobago’s four-congregation church is an associate member, and clusters of Anabaptist-identifying congregations exist on other islands.

Here is an overview of MWC member churches in the Caribbean.

Cuba

  • Planting and propagating

In the early 1950s, Anabaptist missionaries from the USA arrived in Cuba: the Brethren in Christ in Cuatro Caminos, near Havana, and the Mennonites (Franconia Conference) near Cardenas.

The Brethren in Christ evangelized in the villages and began a Bible school and Sunday school classes. They were registered in 1954. The Mennonite missionaries outlined a strategy of economic self-support, self-administration and self-propagation of the gospel. They did not seek registration.

In 1959, with the success of the revolution, the 55 registered churches and many unregistered churches continued to operate, but only a select group of new registrations have been accepted since the late 1990s. After 1959, North American missionaries left the country, along with many Cuban church leaders. Other Cuban leaders like Juana M. García emerged to continue to serve the Brethren in Christ church (Iglesia de Los Hermanos in Cristo, Cuba) despite the challenges.

In 1992, the Cuban constitution was changed from an atheist state to a secular (lay) state. This shift resulted in the rapid growth of the church, especially the evangelical wing of the churches. Various groups came to Cuba as a result of this change.

Today, the Brethren in Christ Church is the only registered Anabaptist church in Cuba. Most of its 100 churches are house churches. More than 700 cell groups function alongside the organized congregations. They have a leadership training centre in Palmira, Cuba; MCC and the Be in Christ Church Canada are helping to provide leadership training for pastors and leaders.

Another Mennonite group, around Holguin and Santiago, relates to the Conservative Mennonite Conference out of Rosedale, Ohio, USA. The original work initiated by the Franconia Conference continues as well. Both of these Mennonite relatively small groups are active as witnesses to the gospel in their regions. Neither group is officially registered with the government.

  • Challenges

The Cuban Anabaptist-related groups are growing. They require leadership training and support; they are working at issues of Anabaptist identity; they have difficulty getting land designated for church buildings.

Brethren in Christ bishop Luis Bermudez Hernandez says the revolution gave a great gift to the church: it created the conditions to focus on house churches, which are easy to invite neighbours to visit. This strategy has resulted in dramatic growth.

Dominican Republic

  • Planting

The Dominican Evangelical Mennonite Conference was started as an initiative of the Evangelical Mennonite Church from Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA (today known as the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches). In 1946, they sent Omar and Laura Sutton along with Lucille Rupp as missionaries. When they arrived in a small community called El Cercado, Omar Sutton along with a few members from the nascent church and some other men built the first aqueduct in the city, thereby significantly improving the lives of the people.

Two other couples came to the Dominican Republic in 1949 to replace the Suttons. Other missionaries added to the work in the field, planting new churches.

The national leadership had become strong by 1970 since by way of an agreement known as the de Monte Río Accord which was signed in the city of Azua, the Evangelical Mennonite Church decided to hand over the work of the national church to the executive committee of Conferencia Evangelica Menonita Inc.

  • Propagating

There are a number of Anabaptist congregations in the Dominican Republic: Anabautistas en la República Dominicana, Faro Divino (a MWC member), Conservative Mennonites, The Mennonite Church of God in Christ, and the Conferencia Evangélica Menonita Dominicana Inc.

  • Challenges

One of the greatest challenges for the church is to remain faithful to the sound doctrine that has come from the radical Anabaptism of the 16th century where they were faithful to the Word of God in spite of the consequences. Another challenge is to continue sowing the Word of God amongst the Dominican population in honour of our national symbol since we are the only country that has an open Bible on the national flag, opened to John 8:32: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Another challenge is leadership development. Pastors study at the Mennonite seminary or take a bachelor of theology at Universidad Evangelica Dominican, but most work outside the church to earn a salary.

The most important contribution that the Dominican Anabaptists have made is through forming members that are willing to be true servants within the context where they live. For this reason, a strong presence of Anabaptist members can be seen in most of the Christian service organizations in the Dominican Republic.

Our vision and hope for the future: continue building the Anabaptist vision; build young leaders to take the baton from previous generations; strengthen our churches by conserving and increasing their membership.

Jamaica

  • Planting

General Conference Mennonite minister David H. Loewen and his wife Anna, from Manitoba, Canada, came to Jamaica. “The Lord said to us that a mission station should be opened in Jamaica or Cuba,” Anna Loewen said. The Loewens got the assurance that it should be Jamaica and they moved in 1954.

They did not receive support from their local church; however, Mahlon Blosser, Myron Augsburger and Warren Metzler of Virginia Mennonite Mission came across the Loewens on an exploratory visit to Jamaica and soon established a work there.

After preliminary discussions and planning, on July 10, 1955, the church received 15 members by confession of faith and 11 by baptism. This baptism held in Kingston Harbour marks the birth of Jamaica Mennonite Church.

In the late 1970s, foreign missionaries were no longer granted work permit, so all the churches are now led by local pastors and laity.

  • Propagating

Today, the congregations of JMC are engaged open air/evangelistic meetings are held in areas where there are no churches; operate a weekly 15-minute radio program “The Way to Life” that presents the gospel and words of encouragement; and offer periodic health clinic with trained medical professionals offering maternal and child health care, immunization, blood pressure and diabetes screening. With government approval, two congregations operate early childhood education institutes and four pastors serve as guidance counsellors in local schools.

Jamaica Mennonite Church (JMC) shares fraternal relationships with Mennonite Church Trinidad and Tobago (MCTT) and Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC).

  • Challenges

Jamaica has the most churches per square mile of any country in the world, with more than 1 600 churches representing 438 registered denominations for a population of about 2.8 million people. Yet fewer people are opting for theological training and church leadership

Urban drift seeking educational opportunities and employment depletes rural churches of their members, and influences from Canada, England and the USA sometimes conflict with what is best for Jamaicans.

  • Mission

Our mission statement: Jamaica Mennonite Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is committed to honouring and glorifying God in our worship and devotion, through the study of the Word of God, through our lifestyle and fellowship together; through evangelism and missions of peace. We seek to make disciples of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Puerto Rico

  • Planting and propagating

Convención de las Iglesias Menonitas de Puerto Rico, Inc. (CIMPR) is the organization that represents and leads the Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico. The CIMPR goes back to 1943 when the North American Mennonite Church sought opportunities to “serve and build” rather than participate in the Second World War. This was why a number of Mennonites came to the La Plata neighborhood in Aibonito in 1943 with the intention to work in agriculture, health and social work projects.

Their testimonies motivated many to give their lives to the Lord, and so the fellowship in La Plata came to be. The church spread the gospel through health clinics, evangelical services, Sunday school, Vacation Bible Schools and personal works.

Upon request, the Mennonite Mission Board based out of Elkhart, Indiana, USA, sent missionaries to organize the first churches. In 1946, Betania Church in the Pulguillas de Coamo neighborhood was born, followed by Calvary Church in La Plata de Aibonito in 1947, Esmirna church in the Coamo Arriba de Coamo neighbourhood in 1948, and Palo Hincado church in the neighbourhood of Barranquitas in 1949. 

A total of 16 churches were planted around the island with 900 members. Twelve of those are still active today.

  • Challenges

Today the Mennonite Church in Puerto Rico faces a variety of challenges, like planting new churches to ensure growth across the island. Also, the influence of other doctrines challenges the Mennonite family to discern and affirm our shared and united identity as a Christ-centred church. At the same time, the influence of some of these doctrines has enriched the life and mission of the Mennonites in a number of ways.

The Mennonite and Anabaptist church significantly contributed toward the development of agriculture, livestock farming and education. But by far, the greatest inheritance has been the spreading the gospel and the health clinics that were the seeds from which a number of current hospitals were born.

With God’s blessing and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Mennonite church in Puerto Rico will continue to show the way and overcome the challenges so that the gospel of Christ can continue to spread.

Members of the Chaguanas Mennonite Church, Trinidad,
distribute gifts and Bibles in their community
on Christmas morningas part of their
outreach ministry. Photo: Galen Lehman

Trinidad and Tobago

Mennonites first came to Trinidad in the 1960s with a radio broadcast and medical treatment for Hansen’s disease (leprosy). The first congregation of Trinidad Mennonite Church was birthed in 1974. Over the years, Virginia Mennonite Mission sent workers, but the 5 congregations that make up the church today are served by local leadership.

 

Contributors:

Juan Carlos Colón, moderador, Convención de las Iglesias Menonitas de Puerto Rico, Inc.

William Broughton, president, Jamaica Mennonite Church

Luis Michel Silva Fernández, vice president, Conferencia Menonita en Cuba

Also: GAMEO, VMM

 

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2020. Click here to read other articles from this issue.

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