Brief historic journey, profile, tendencies and challenges of Mennonites in Latin America

These reflections are a brief summary linking the historical development, profile and tendencies of the multiethnic Anabaptist communities and Mennonite churches in Latin America that belong to MWC, and present the challenges faced by Mennonites in their mission work, ministry and witness for peace and justice as they follow Jesus in a multiethnic continent.

1. Multiethnic character of Anabaptist and Mennonite communities and churches 

Argentina. In 1917, the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in Elkhart, Indiana, sent missionaries Josephus W. and Emma Shank, and Tobias K. and Mae Hershey to Argentina; in 1919 they planted the first Mennonite church in Latin America in the town of Pehuajó. This missionary effort led to church-planting among the Tobas in 1943.  

Mexico. Ever since the first decades of the past century, the Mennonite presence in Mexico was characterized as ethnic due to migration. An example is Old Colony Mennonites, originally from Russia, migrating from Manitoba and Saskatchewan (Canada). It was located in the city of San Antonio de los Arenales, Mexico, from 1922 to 1926, founded with the migration of around 6,000 people.

Paraguay. A total of 1,763 Mennonite settlers from Canada emigrated to Paraguay between 1926 and 1927, establishing Menno Colony. Fernheim Colony, which was also located in the Paraguayan Chaco, was made up of 2,000 migrants from: a) Molotschna in Russia (1930–32), b) Amur, a region near Harbin in China (1932),c) a small group from Poland. The third colony called Friesland was founded in 1937 due to the breakup of Fernheim Colony and was located in eastern Paraguay. It was from this colony that missionary work began among the Enhelt in 1937, which led to a new indigenous Mennonite church organization in Yalve Sanga (Lago Armadillo). 

The Mennonite Anabaptist history in Latin America must be seen as the encounter between the evangelical brothers and sisters sent by North American mission societies and the Latin and native peoples of this continent. On the other hand, Mennonite colonists (with many ethnic and cultural customs inherited in Europe in the 16th century) settled in the territories of native, Afro-descendant and mestizo peoples. The encounter between culturally diverse people occurred in very different historical contexts and countries; through mutual aid and cultural, ethnic and social tensions, churches that emerged today are a part of Mennonite World Conference.

In the Mennonite-Anabaptist communities and churches, conversations and praises to God can be heard in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole-English, Creole-French, but also in Qom, Guaraní, Bribri, Enlhet, Cabécar, Kekchí, Tupí, Garífuna, Quechua, Emberá-Wounmeu and many other indigenous tongues. The dynamics of the interaction between the various cultures in the formation of churches and faith communities was fostered since the very beginning by Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite voluntary agencies, education organizations, Mennonite seminaries and universities (largely from the United States and Canada, but also from Europe). They provided vitally significant input on the practice of following Jesus.

Throughout the history of constant migrations, tension can be seen between those who prioritize the growth of communities and the building of temples – without challenging the social structures of their times – and those who emphasize the struggle for peace and justice as a priority of the gospel. On the basis of these migrations – of Mennonite groups of German origin, as well as internal and external migrations by indigenous peoples – Anabaptist communities and churches emerged.

Regarding the beginning of this movement in Latin America, the presence of Anabaptist-Mennonite churches and communities in almost all the countries is characteristic of the last decades (1980–2015). When MWC’s 2015 statistics are compared against those of 2013, the countries that show the greatest Anabaptist growth are located in Cuba (150%), Haiti (70%) and Bolivia (80%). Here, we observe that Mennonite communities marked by intercultural encounter and an understanding of the purpose of ministry and evangelism share significant aspects linking them to their past.

Cuba. In the 1950s, the Brethren in Christ came to Havana, Cuba, to evangelize together with Quakers and Nazarenes in Cuatro Caminos. In 1954, the Franconia Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (USA) sent missionary Henry Paul Yoder and his family to plant a church in the province of Las Villas, in the town of Rancho Veloz. The revolution headed by Fidel Castro against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 brought about a great exodus of North American missionaries who left the island in succeeding years. During the revolutionary period, the leadership of Juana M. García was fundamental to maintaining the church work that the Brethren in Christ had begun in the town of Cuatro Caminos, in Havana. On August 19, 2008, new missionary work was begun by Mennonites in Cuba. Pastor Alexander Reyna Tamayo and his family had served before as pastors of the Iglesia Evangélica Misionera (evangelical missionary church). In 2004, he met Janet Breneman from the USA and Jack Suderman from the Canadian Mennonite church, after they had given courses on Anabaptist tradition in the Iglesia Evangélica Libre (Evangelical Free Church). In agreement with the Iglesia Evangélica Misionera, Alexander Reyna contacted the Canadian Mennonite church and formed this new organization that works in small home cells in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Olguín, Granma, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos. The tremendous growth experienced in Cuba, especially in the last decade, reflects the new political situation on the island – which has recently renewed diplomatic relations with the United States – and the religious openness it is experiencing.

Haiti. The poorest country in Latin America with a population originally from Africa, Haiti has suffered its governments’ political and economic crisis as well as a devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010. Haiti is another example where Anabaptist churches have a multiethnic profile and service tendencies.

In the case of Cuba and Haiti, we need to carry out a detailed study in order to explain their great numerical growth as well as the current cultural profile of the life and mission of the members of their communities.

Bolivia. This country received the greatest migration of conservative Mennonites of German background to Latin America in the last two decades. From 1980 to 2007, a total of 53 new colonies have been established in the provinces of Pando, Beni and Santa Cruz. These colonies originated from the internal division of other Mennonite colonies in Bolivia, Belize, Paraguay, Mexico, Argentina and Canada. In 2007, altogether these new colonies had a population of 30,618 people (including adults and children).

In civil society, one of the reactions to this situation seemingly is that agrarian reform still hasn’t come to Latin America to strengthen the most disadvantaged groups, such as the native peoples or those of African origin. Our questions once again are oriented toward: a) the relationship that arises between the Mennonite colonies and the surrounding native population; b) the role of missionary societies and the founding of churches whose purpose is to follow Jesus based on their own cultural and ethnic roots. The challenges of the gospel amid the mis/understandings between such diverse communities are just as strong as at the time of the first ethnic migrations of Mennonites in Latin America. 

2. Statistics of Mennonites in Latin America

I. Central American Region (including Mexico):

Country: Membership:
Mexico 33,881
Guatemala 9,496
Honduras 21,175
El Salvador 909
Nicaragua 11,501
Costa Rica 3,869
Panama 820

II. Caribbean Region

Country: Membership:
Bahamas 25
Cuba 8,664
Jamaica 733
Haiti 5,566
Dominican Republic 5,780
Puerto Rico 798
Belize 5,405
Grenada   8
Trinidad & Tobago 300

III. South American Region 

Country: Membership:
Venezuela 596
Colombia 3,664
Ecuador 1,340
Peru 1,524
Brazil 14,748
Bolivia 26,661
Chile 1,452
Paraguay  34,574
Uruguay 1,464
Argentina 4,974

Grand Total: 199,912

Statistics from Mennonite World Conference, Membership, A Community of Anabaptist related Churches, Membership, June 2015.

3. Pastoral challenges

These brief reflections lead us to consider the following pastoral challenges in light of the multiethnic reality of Latin America.

Renewal in the Spirit. The experience of the Spirit, like that of our ancestors in the 16th century, should mean enlightenment and strength so as to recreate our Anabaptist identity in order to take on a) a critical view of the state, b) a theology and pastoral practice in favour of the poor, c) a contextual biblical hermeneutic of nonviolence, d) a commitment for peace and justice, e) a great tolerance of the diverse forms of understanding the profound mystery of God in the multiethnicity of Anabaptist churches and communities, and in the civil society.

Movement of Latin American Women Theologians. The meeting of African women theologians that convened in 2003 at the MWC Assembly in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, marked a great challenge for Latin American women. From this meeting arose the “Movement of Latin American Women Theologians,” which has carried out various meetings in Latin America with the support of the MWC project “Global Gift Sharing.”

At the MWC Assembly held in July 2009 in Asunción, Paraguay, 120 Latin American Mennonite women met to reflect on the theme: “Jesus’ liberating message for women today.” At the 2015 MWC Assembly in Pennsylvania, USA, the “Movement of Latin American Women Theologians” gathered with Anabaptist women theologians from all around the world to promote a global network. One of the major challenges of this movement is how to integrate women into leadership to represent the multiethnic character of Mennonites in Latin America. Based on this great diversity of peoples and cultures, our families, churches and movements will be able to bear greater witness in society and at the heart of MWC itself.

Witnesses for peace. The witness of those who work for peace, even risking their lives for other people’s well being, reminds us of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The testimonies from Mennonite organizations such as Justapaz in Colombia and Mennonite Central Committee during the revolution in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s remind us that it is possible to contribute toward peace. But this leads us to reflect on how shall we bear witness in the new scenarios in Latin America with the growth of the population, the destruction of ancestral cultures and peoples, racism, xenophobia, youth unemployment, environmental pollution and new forms of oppression and violence that destroy populations and life on our planet.

Pastoral models. It is necessary to carry out a more detailed analysis of what the Anabaptist and Mennonite witness has been in Latin America. In the 1970s, a method was developed which guided pastoral action in many communities: “see, judge and act”; in other words, with the help of the social sciences, analyze what occurs; judge this in light of of the Word and following Jesus, and finally respond through the ministry with concrete actions. Maybe it is time to acknowledge that this method challenges us once again to review our pastoral tasks, but not only in the sense of analyzing a situation of injustice on a macroeconomic and social level, but also based on the needs of a ministry that is attentive to the new expressions of family in the whole continent and the cries of new marginalized groups of our society which also include our indigenous, Afro-descendant and poor mestizo peoples.

The Afro-Caribbean expression. The Caribbean is the region in Latin America which has had the most difficulties in organizing itself due to its history, political complexity and great diversity of languages. At the MWC Assembly in Asunción, Paraguay, in the Latin American caucus, the representatives of the Caribbean expressed their need to also be organized as a region. The strengthening of the theological, social and pastoral reflections of the Anabaptist churches and communities in the Caribbean should be a priority for MWC. Afro-descendant churches in the Caribbean greatly enrich the multiethnic character of MWC, which will strengthen the dialogue between these sisters/brothers and the Afro-Brazilian churches and the Mennonite churches in Africa. 

Great ethnic and cultural diversity. Amid economic poverty, the Mennonite communities of indigenous peoples and those of African background in the whole continent, share with us their historical, cultural and spiritual heritage. Through their stories and myths buried deep in the rainforest, the seas, the rivers, the rocks and grasslands, they urge us to protect and look after Mother Earth. Their visions and dreams help us to see the disorder caused by economic systems that protect the economic interests of transnationals, or “promote development” at the expense of destroying cultural diversity. 

The visit of the brothers and sisters of indigenous peoples such as the Métis and Ojibwe (North America), the Quechuas (Peru), the Kekchíes (Guatemala), the Emberá and Wounaán (Panama) to the territories of indigenous peoples in the Paraguayan Chaco during the MWC Assembly in Paraguay (2009), is a beautiful sign of unity and fraternity amidst diversity. From this desire to learn from one another and to put our gifts at the service of others, this great ethnic diversity of Mennonites in Latin America can nurture the Anabaptist community; and, furthermore, make real our efforts to be instruments of God in the creation that waits eagerly in the pains of childbirth to be set free, thus we groan inwardly for the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:18–25).

—Jaime Prieto is from Costa Rica, married to Silvia de Lima from Brazil, and they are the parents of Thomáz Satuyé. Jaime has a PhD in Theology from the University of Hamburg, Federal Republic of Germany (1992), has been a member of the Costa Rican Mennonite Church since 1971, and now belongs to the Asociación de Iglesias Evangélicas Menonitas de Costa Rica (member of MWC). He is author of Mission and Migration, the volume on Latin America in the Mennonite World History series published by MWC.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2016