MB leader prepares to serve global Anabaptist community
by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest for Meetinghouse and Mennonite World Conference
This month César García, a Mennonite Brethren pastor and conference leader from Bogotá, Colombia, begins serving as general secretary-elect of Mennonite World Conference, a global community of Christian churches rooted in the Anabaptist movement. After a transitional period starting in August with current secretary Larry Miller, García will begin his term as general secretary Jan. 1, 2012.
As one amateur Mennonite historian likes to point out, the only real Mennonite name is Menno Simons. From there on down through history, the rest of the family names are just “add-ons.” After a series of Mennonite World Conference (MWC) secretaries named Dyck (1961-73), Kraybill (1973-90) and Miller (1990-2011) the name of García stands out as an historically recent addition to the Anabaptist family.
César García’s personal story with the Mennonite family began in Bogotá, Colombia, when his mother took him and his sister to several churches in search of a new church home. Eleven-year-old César chose Iglesia Hermanos Menonitas Dios es Amor (God is Love MB Church) as the place they would settle.
That choice was the first step on a continuing journey for García, who has come to treasure Anabaptist theology and history and has given his life to scholarship, to mission and to shaping the church from an Anabaptist perspective.
A drive to understand Scripture and have a reasoned faith has characterized García’s walk since what he calls his “first conversion” at age 19. After rejecting God and the church as a teen, García found himself depressed and unfulfilled by the existentialism and other philosophies he was pursuing. “The sense of vacuum was huge,” he says.
Under pressure from his mother to come back to church, García attended a Dios es Amor youth meeting where he was touched by the speaker’s assertion: “God doesn’t see us as a problem but as a possibility in his hands.” Half-believing that he was just “talking to the walls,” García told God that he wanted to experience that hope.
“The next day my life was different,” he says. “I decided to read the Bible, come back to church and start looking for responses to my atheistic arguments.” Not satisfied with a personal emotional experience, he also began a lifelong pursuit of theological study, mission and church ministry.
García worked for six years at a Christian radio station where he interacted with Christian leaders from charismatic, evangelical and mainline denominations. “It was a time of growing theologically,” he says of those years teaching and counseling in his radio ministry and serving as youth pastor and elder at Dios es Amor church.
More formal education at Seminario Bíblico de Colombia, an interdenominational seminary in Medellín, earned him a Bachelor of Theology and Bible with an emphasis on missiology and gave him the tools for studying Scripture. Well versed in Protestant theology, García was now ready for his “second conversion”—to Anabaptism.
Juan Martínez, then president of the SEMILLA Latin American Anabaptist Seminary in Guatemala, challenged García to complete his education by studying Anabaptism. When García and his wife, Sandra Báez, moved back to Bogotá for church ministry he took up the challenge, starting with John Driver’s book, Eclesiología Radical. “It was amazing,” García says, “like candy for a child.”
A year later, he and Sandra were commissioned as MB church planters in Bogotá and seized the opportunity to weave their newfound theology into every aspect of Iglesia Hermanos Menonitas Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower MB Church). “I was excited about participative community, restorative discipline, servant leadership, communal hermeneutic. It was so clear that I wanted those kind of values for our new church,” says García. The spirit of community drew new believers, and the church grew and flourished.
As much as he values the ideas and principles of Anabaptism, García also cherishes his relationships in the global Anabaptist community. Fellow leaders in Portugal and Venezuela are now counted among his closest friends because of their work together in the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB).
Other new friendships have developed among Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Church leaders in Colombia. After some periods of little interaction or cooperation between the three denominations, “Mennonite Central Committee helped us to realize that in reality we were not so different and that many of the suspicions between us were only that,” says García.
“There are differences, but that doesn’t mean we have to fragment,” he says. “The body of Christ is a living organism that demands diversity, but also requires love and unity.”
One of the bridges García is determined to strengthen is the one between people with a long Mennonite pedigree and those who have come to Anabaptist faith more recently. At the same time, he knows from experience the value of coming to Anabaptist faith by conviction rather than heritage.
“It gives the opportunity to have a passion—to fall in love with the tradition,” says García. “We need to value Anabaptism by conviction, but we also need to maintain our historical tradition and to learn that those things are related and not opposed,” he says. “We are thirsty for identity. In Anabaptism we find a body that offers that—not just theologically, but also historically.”
Few who know García would consider his new appointment surprising. Recognizing his unique gifts of learning and leadership, many have invested in his education and preparation for ministry. Perhaps least surprised of all is García’s mother, Evelia. She was 45 years old when she became pregnant with this son. The doctor advised her that, because of her age, the child was at risk. She pleaded with God for a healthy child and, like the biblical story of Hannah and Samuel, consecrated her son to God for ministry.
With a wry smile García remembers how aggravating it was to hear his mother recount that story during those rebellious teen years. But today he finds it reassuring—a reminder that God’s gifts and blessing are on him from before his birth. And with this call to ministry comes God’s spirit to guide and give strength for the task ahead.
Cesar García is quick to point out that his appointment as Mennonite World Conference (MWC) general secretary is just a continuation of a long history of Mennonite Brethren activity in MWC. Pulling his copy of A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church by J. A. Toews off the shelf, he opens right up to some well-used pages highlighting such things as the first MB participation in 1930, a host of MB participants in the 1948 Assembly held in Indiana, and the MB General Conference’s official approval of MWC membership in 1951.
García counts himself as following in the line of Mennonite Brethren leaders C.F. Klassen and P.C. Hiebert who held MWC leadership positions in the early years. He also points to current MB leaders Paraguayan Alfred Neufeld who is president of MWC Faith and Life Commission and John Fumana of Congo who is part of a Global Anabaptist Service Consultation task force.
According to García, the value of MWC comes in the diverse points of view it brings together, with each participating church body bringing something of value from its own tradition. Mennonite Brethren, he says, contribute a strong pietistic emphasis on prayer and worship and a commitment to evangelism. Other traditions bring in other emphases such as the Holy Spirit or discipleship or peacemaking. “It’s a mixture that I like,” he says. “If we want to evangelize we have to be peacemakers; if we want to be peacemakers we have to rely on the Holy Spirit.”
García’s calling to global church leadership is rooted in his own MB history. MB Mission missionary Galen Wiest remembers Garcia participating as a fifth grader in Sunday school at Dios es Amor MB church in Bogota, Colombia. “He was really engaged in Sunday school,” says Wiest. “You could see there was fire in his eyes.”
That fire has continued to burn as Garcia has served with passion in many MB leadership roles including president of the Colombian MB Conference and representative to the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB). Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary Dean Lynn Jost remembers being assigned to work with García on a study guide for the ICOMB Confession of Faith. “Before I had a chance to even start thinking about the article,” says Jost, “it arrived from Cesar fully written in Spanish and half-translated to English, full of anecdotes of Colombian peacemakers.”
García says his appointment also brings back the memory of an event. At a 2005 Colombian prayer gathering held by MB Mission, one participant spoke a word of prophesy to him: “God is going to call you to global leadership,” was the message. “I was skeptical at the time,” García remembers, but he is seeing this prophetic word fulfilled in this new assignment with Mennonite World Conference.—KHW