From Paraguay to Goshen, faith in many forms

Recent Goshen graduates visit diverse Anabaptists on 10,000-mile bicycle journey

May 5, 2014 by ,

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GOSHEN, Ind. — Across 13 countries and many cultural barriers, three Goshen College graduates found hospitality among different South and Central American Anabaptist groups during their 11-month, 10,000-mile bicycle journey from Paraguay to Goshen.

Michael Miller rides behind a horse and buggy in the Shipyard Colony in Belize, where Old Colony, Low German speaking Mennonites keep to tradition. — Abe Stucky

Michael Miller rides behind a horse and buggy in the Shipyard Colony in Belize, where Old Colony, Low German speaking Mennonites keep to tradition. — Abe Stucky

For 2013 graduates Michael Miller, from Waterloo, Iowa, Levi Smucker, from Akron, Pa., and Abe Stucky, from Pittsburgh, a pan-American journey came to an end last month in Goshen.

Together with Matthew Helmuth, a 2014 graduate from Goshen who joined the group for the first three months, the students made a dorm room dream into a reality. Sharing a love of cycling, their long-anticipated idea took shape after they enrolled in a three-week Anabaptist-Mennonite history class in Paraguay in May 2013, led by John D. Roth, professor of history.

“The Anabaptist-Mennonite history course provided a reason for a one-way flight to Paraguay,” Smucker said. “Our own dreaming provided the raw material for what became the learning experience of a lifetime.”

At the end of the three-week class, the students left their classmates in Asuncion, Paraguay, and headed north with nothing but their bicycles and saddlebags packed with essentials. They spent most nights with hosts along the way, using connections from church, the college’s Study-Service Term and online, as well as relying on the support of strangers they met on the trail and a fair amount of camping.

“Along our way, we visited those involved with Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Mission Network, Eastern Mennonite Missions, Central Plains Mennonite Conference, Mennonite Brethren Mission and Mennonite Disaster Service,” Smucker said. “In Mexico, we stayed with the extended family of a Goshen College student.

“Connections often led to other connections. On a bulletin board in a church in Palmira, Colombia, Michael spotted the phone number of Mennonite Brethren missionaries in Panama City. We called them up, and they were happy to have us.”

The cyclists met a wide spectrum of Anabaptists, from German-speaking Old Colony Mennonites to Spanish-speaking evangelical Latino Mennonites.

“One commonality we saw in the global Anabaptist church is a focus on community,” Smucker said. “We learned to value the huge diversity of gifts that each tradition brings to the faith.”

Worship in Mexico

“Going to the Old Colony church in Salamanca, Mexico, was unforgettable,” the cylists wrote in their blog, which can be seen at panamericacycle.wordpress.com.

“The simple, open building was filled with women on the left and men on the right under white hats hanging neatly from overhead racks. In front on a raised pew sit the leaders of the community: men in black shirts, including the vorsänger, songleader. The vocal music (instruments are not allowed) was unlike anything we had ever experienced. The community uses 85 melodies matched with more than 200 texts in High German from the black-bound, 18-century Prussian Gesangbuch written in Gothic script without notes. Melodies are stretched out and sung in unison in a chant-like, nasal style that they say has been passed down for centuries. Like Amish singing, the vorsänger leads every verse without pause.

“The preacher, dressed in a tall black tailcoat and shiny black boots, delivered a sermon in High German for a full one-and-a-half hours. Twice during the sermon everyone whipped around on their benches and buried their heads in the crooks of their arms in a confessional pose. Missing the cues, we were left clumsily turning around and catching a few smiles from the normally solemn group. Disturbances in the still ambience included horse whinnies from the lot of polished black buggies outside, breezes knocking hats off their hooks, and throats clearing at selected times. At the end of the three-hour service, everyone cleared out quickly, leading to a minor traffic jam on the dirt roads. Though it felt a bit stiff at first, by the Sunday afternoon lunch of homemade tortilla chips and ceviche de pollo things had warmed up between us and our hosts.”

Volunteer months

While the cyclists spent most days of their 11-month journey riding from town to town, they also took several months off to volunteer. Miller and Stucky spent about two months at Hacienda Ilitio near Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador, where they volunteered at an organic farm and animal rescue through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

“Our hands, once accustomed to the soft touch of handlebar tape, became worn and callused from bending wire, chopping down eucalyptus trees with machetes and pulling reeds,” Miller said.

During that time, Smucker spent three months completing an internship with MAP Internacional Sección, a nonprofit organization that works in community health and development around the world, based in Quito, Ecuador. This experience, he said, will come in handy as he begins medical school this fall.

“I participated in the research, promotion and education in three distinct indigenous communities in the Ecuadoran countryside,” Smucker said. “After this rich experience, I’m full of conviction and awareness, ready to return to my own context — perceiving, brainstorming and implementing these concepts of development and integral health.”

The countries the group traveled through, in order, are: Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guate­mala, Belize, Mexico and the United States. Wherever they went, they experienced open doors and warm meals, and left with a greater appreciation of each faith tradition they encountered.

“We admired the fervor and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal churches,” Smucker said. “The unconditional hospitality and openness of the Catholic Church challenges us to share our wealth with those in need. Members of many Evangelical Latino churches have services, Bible studies and youth events every day, which inspires us to a greater discipleship and commitment to congregational life. Attending a Quechua service in a small town in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia opened our eyes to see that we worship the same God across continents, and we share a Christian bond.”

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