Global church gathers in Paraguay

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15th Mennonite world assembly draws 62 nations

Paul Schrag for Meetinghouse

“Are you a Mennonite?” a policeman asked Ditrich Pana as he approached the huge church in Asuncion, Paraguay, where some 6,000 Anabaptists from around the world had gathered.

In Paraguay, Mennonites are known as fair-skinned, German-speaking farmers and ranchers who live in isolated colonies and produce much of the country’s cheese.

Pana doesn’t fit that profile. He is Enlhet, an indigenous group that—as much as it might surprise most Paraguayans—includes 6,000 Mennonites. The Enlhet churches—and those of another indigenous group, the Nivacle—grew from mission work by Mennonite immigrants of Germanic and Canadian background who made Paraguay their refuge from war and worldliness beginning in the 1920s.

Pana, a radio evangelist, told how he answered his uniformed questioner: “Through the Holy Spirit I said, ‘Yes, I am a Mennonite.’ ”

His story of claiming the Mennonite name as a label of faith rather than of ethnicity captured a leading theme of the 15th Mennonite World Conference assembly, held July 14-19 in Asuncion. In a sermon to the global Anabaptist gathering—which drew Mennonites and Brethren in Christ from 62 countries—Pana praised Christ’s power to bridge the world’s divisions.

“This gathering unites us with glad hearts,” he said. “We belong to each other and to God this week as brothers and sisters and friends.”

In that spirit of unity, Paraguay’s 32,000 Mennonites hosted a weeklong reunion of the global Anabaptist body. Mennonite World Conference is a global fellowship of 217 national conferences with Anabaptist roots from 75 countries on six continents, including U.S. Mennonite Brethren. MWC assemblies are usually held every six years but may be less frequent in the future.

The 2009 gathering in Paraguay followed the two-part format of previous assemblies. Assembly Gathered, July 14-19 in Asuncion, featured corporate worship, workshops, service projects, recreation and local tours. Assembly Scattered allowed international guests to visit regional Mennonite congregations and communities before and after Assembly Gathered.

Of the 6,200 people who registered for the Asuncion conference, 3,476 came from Paraguay, 592 from other Latin American and Caribbean countries, 766 from the United States, 730 from Canada, 370 from Europe, 90 from Asia and 180 from Africa.

U.S. Mennonite Brethren were represented at meetings of the MWC’s governing body, the General Council, by Ed Boschman, U.S. Conference executive director, and Lynn Jost, president of MB Biblical Seminary, Fresno, Calif; by Lisa Washio of Clovis, Calif., at the Global Youth Summit, a gathering of young adult representatives from across the globe, held July 10-12; and by Greg Quiring of Fresno, Calif., at a business consultation hosted by Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

For Assembly Gathered, attendees gathered twice a day in the Centro Familiar de Adoración (Family Worship Center), a Pentecostal church with a three-level, 10,000-seat sanctuary in the final stages of construction. The “platform language” was Spanish, so English speakers and others listened to translators through headsets.

They heard sermons and Bible study messages under the theme, “Come Together in the Way of Jesus Christ” that emphasized living in unity and working for equality and justice, especially within the Anabaptist fellowship.

“Our conduct must reflect a change of thinking and attitude evidenced in how we relate to one another,” said Danisa Ndlovu, bishop of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe and the new MWC president, on Saturday night. “This is a clarion call for mutual respect, acceptance and, above all, unity in the household of faith.”

While sermons needed translation, music crossed language barriers—and turned a sudden difficulty into a joyful moment. During Thursday morning’s service, the windowless sanctuary went dark while Clair Brenneman of Palmer Lake, Colo., was telling about the building of Paraguay’s Trans-Chaco Road by Mennonite Central Committee Pax workers in the 1950s and early ’60s. Songleader Paul Dueck of Canada and his team of musicians bounded to the stage and led the congregation in “Alabare,” “Grosser Gott, wir loben dich,” “We are walking in the light of God” and other songs until power was restored.

A poignant moment with historic overtones occurred Wednesday morning when MWC President Ndlovu embraced Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, after Noko spoke of Lutherans’ plans to ask for forgiveness of Lutheran persecution of Anabaptists in the 16th century. Worshipers gave Noko a standing ovation. Remarkably, Noko and Ndlovu are both from Zimbabwe. “Divine providence has brought these (two leaders) together,” said Larry Miller, MWC general secretary.

Another gesture of reconciliation took place Sunday morning when Helmut Isaak of Paraguay read a statement of forgiveness to the man who killed his brother. “More than 50 years ago, your clan and tribe were resisting us, but now we aren’t enemies anymore but brothers in Christ,” Isaak said to Jonoine, a chief of the Ayoreo tribe. The chief came to the stage carrying the spear used to kill missionary Kornelius Isaak in 1958.

About 8,500 people attended the Sunday morning service as local Mennonite churches closed and encouraged their members to participate.

Two workshop sessions were held each afternoon on topics such as violence against women and children in Congo and the shared convictions of global Anabaptists. Special-interest groups, such as women theologians from Africa and Latin America, held meetings. Many conference goers spent their free time at the Global Church Village, an outdoor area featuring displays organized by continents.

Meals were served in the church’s underground parking garage. Due to health concerns, especially the need to guard against the H1N1 (swine flu) virus, some conference goers wore cloth coverings over their mouths, and volunteers sprayed disinfectant on people’s hands before meals.

Activities for youth, including music and sports, took place in the “Teen Zone,” a fenced field across the street from the church. Before the assembly, the Global Youth Summit drew more than 700 participants, including 48 delegates from 32 countries. MWC’s governing body, the General Council, also met before the assembly.

The words of a young Nivacle woman may have summed up the week for many. “I learned that God has different gifts for each of us,” said Mirta Perez of Paraguay, reporting on the Global Youth Summit during a worship service. “My dream is that the Mennonite family can remain in unity, because before God we are all the same, we are all valuable.”

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