Latin American leaders seek hope, a common identity
Churches urged to be a Christ-centered movement responding to human need
The Seventh Consultation of Anabaptists in Latin America was filled with energetic singing, lively worship, a wide range of plenary sessions and intense discussions on the theme, “Toward a Ministry of Hope.”
The consultation 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 first consultation of Latin American church leaders in 1986, much has changed since then.
“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 Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia.
Sandra Campos, president of Asociación Iglesias Cristianas Menonitas de Costa Rica, celebrated the active presence of about 30 women at the consultation, most of whom had gathered several days earlier for a “Women Doing Theology in Latin America” conference.
A significant number of youth also attended.
Plenary addresses challenged participants to a renewed commitment to a Christ-centered 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.
In the opening session, Gilberto Flores Campos, associate conference minister for Mennonite Church USA’s Western District, described the church as “a pilgrim people living in relationships — with Christ, with each other and the society around them.”
This means its theology must always be improvisational and dynamic, said Flores Campos, who spent many years as a pastor and church leader in Guatemala.
“The church engages the world not as its owner but as its guest,” he said, invoking an image that would recur throughout the consultation. “The church is a witness to the Good News, but we do not possess it.”
Jenny Neme, director of the Colombia Mennonite Church’s peace and justice organization Justapaz, noted 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. 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.
Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary professor 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.”
The Argentina native challenged Mennonites to think of discipleship as citizenship in the world and to be attentive to the ways God is at work outside the formal structures of the church.
César García, general secretary of Mennonite World Conference, spoke largely out of his context in Colombia. But participants from many other regions expressed appreciation for his analysis of contemporary religious currents feeding into Anabaptist-Mennonite identity in Latin America.
García highlighted ecclesial models — focused on reason, justice and experience — before describing an Anabaptist-Mennonite alternative understanding of the church rooted in Scripture, discipleship, worship and peacemaking.
The goal, García said, was 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.
Fernando Pérez, a pastor from Mexico City, spoke about the importance of diversity in community. Ofelia García, a church worker from Mexico, led a session on forgiveness.
Expression of unity
One expression of unity was a growing enthusiasm for the work of MWC.
In 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.
García also described preparations for the MWC assembly in July 2015 and responded to numerous questions regarding participation in that event.
After García’s presentation, an impromptu gathering of leaders whose groups are members of MWC took a significant step toward the formation of a Latin American regional caucus.
Carlos Martínez of Mexico City shared a summary of Anabaptist affirmations emerging out of the gathering.
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.”
Sponsoring organizations were Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite World Conference and Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Guatemala, with the primary organizational leadership coming from SEMILLA (Seminario Anabautista Latinoaméricano).
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