Ernst Bergen: challenges, rewards of public service

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Former adviser to Paraguay’s president tells of four years as Cabinet official

by Celeste Kennel-Shank 

When Nicanor Duarte Frutos, then president-elect of Paraguay, asked Ernst Bergen, a successful Mennonite Brethren entrepreneur, to join his Cabinet, Bergen was astounded.

“I replied quickly, without thinking much, ‘You are completely crazy, Mr. President,’” Bergen says.Duarte—whose wife is a member of a Spanish-language Mennonite Brethren church and friends with Bergen’s wife, Lucy—then spoke passionately about how Mennonites in Paraguay criticize the government and think they have better solutions.

Bergen agreed to reconsider the request, and, after consulting his family, business partners, friends and church, became minister of industry and commerce in August 2003, and then minister of finance in May 2005.

By the time he left office in July 2007, the Duarte administration had achieved many of its goals for Paraguay’s economy, including increasing exports, reducing external debt and investing more in public works.

Prayers and service

When Bergen joined the Paraguayan government, it was a new experience for Mennonites of the Fernheim Colony in the Chaco to have one of their own at a Cabinet-level position.

“Normally what had been done in those communities is to do what the Bible tells us, which is to pray for government,” he says.

Yet, as Duarte pointed out, Mennonites criticize the government, so, “we must be willing to accept the challenge of public service,” Bergen says.

Bergen felt the prayers of Mennonites as he and several other Mennonites served in top government positions. Yet, for the community “it was also a lesson in humility, that not everything turns out right because Mennonites are in power,” he says.

Giving back

Bergen made a rule of not appointing any fellow Mennonites to government roles. “I didn’t want to give the signal that Mennonites thought they would reform or take over any segment of government,” he says. “On the contrary, my goal was always to be as close as possible to the general Paraguayan population.”

Remembering the kindness the Paraguayan people had shown to Mennonite immigrants coming from Canada and Russia in the 1920s and ’30s, Bergen says, “God showed me clearly that I was a person who had the privilege now to give back something to the Paraguayan people by means of serving in this role,” he says.

While none of the Mennonites in the Duarte administration had been involved with political parties, Bergen says that the cooperative structure in Mennonites colonies is a political system. However, Bergen says he would “be very hesitant” to take part in any military actions.

“I am profoundly convinced that human beings do not have the right to take away or terminate another human life,” says Bergen, who also opposes the death penalty and abortion.

"Not my duty to judge"

Yet his time in government led Bergen to better understand members of the military. “They have different convictions than I do,” he says. “I, for my part, had the joy of discovering it is not my duty to judge others.”

Bergen also learned that lesson through the prison ministry of his congregation, Concordia Mennonite Brethren Church in Asunción. During visits to the prison, he found many of the prisoners no different in nature than he.

“Many of them were there because they committed an error at one moment of their life suddenly, under stress, and we in society condemn them and harm them greatly,” Bergen says. “God showed me that I, too, could commit errors and be there.”

Bergen brought that lesson to his work in government. “One of the experiences that has formed much of my thinking is the deep awareness that I am not perfect,” he says.

Model for leadership

The apostle Paul has been a model of leadership for Bergen. “He talks about his weaknesses, but nevertheless he continues to strive ahead,” Bergen says. “The important thing is that our mistakes do not distance or separate us from the heart of God.”

Bergen believes God provided him with coworkers in government who had strengths where he had weaknesses. They exceeded him in public speaking ability and had extensive academic study while he has what he considers to be little. He studied business administration at Columbia University in Asunción and has a technician degree in agromechanics.

Despite what he names as his weaknesses, Bergen’s success in his businesses, including one that supplies most of Paraguay’s electric engines and motors, has made him one of the wealthiest people in his country.

Bergen does not think it is wrong for a business owner to earn a great deal of money. Yet he believes growth for all parties involved is key, while “not growing excessively at the cost of others, not in the sense of seeking to destroy the competition.”

Defining success

A top principle for him has always been to question the reasons one is earning money. “Every family has to find their journey before God, and also in relation to the church,” he says. “If one has excessive ambitions and one sacrifices principles because of those ambitions, one is on a wrong path.

“Whereas one who has healthy ambitions, simple ambitions and can live by Christian principles, for me what is important is why one wants to gain more,” says Bergen.

Bergen questions how society defines success. “People who three months ago were considered successful on the global level, today we see them differently, and they have to see themselves differently,” he says. “Some of what we consider success might in God’s eyes be loss.”

Bergen also shares an observation for the United States. “After elections and facing an economic crisis,” he says, “my advice would be to rediscover some of the transcendence of a relationship with God and understanding of God’s will for public life and public responsibility.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a reporter for Mennonite Weekly Review, for Meetinghouse publications. Meetinghouse is an association of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ publications. Translation for the phone interview with Bergen was provided by Alfred Neufeld. The story of Bergen’s time in government is told in the book Jumping Into Empty Space written by Phyllis Pellman Good based on interviews with Bergen.

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