Mennonites to converge on Paraguay

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Hosts enthusiastic about hosting the global Christian community

Mennonites from around the world will converge this summer on Paraguay, a small, landlocked country in the heart of South America that is home to 32,000 Mennonites, for Mennonite World Conference’s Assembly 15, an event that will bring together Christians from 217 national conferences in 75 countries on six continents that trace their beginning to the Anabaptist movement. MWC holds international gatherings every six years; the 2003 assembly in Zimbabwe drew 6,000 participants.

While registration numbers are climbing, global economic uncertainties have impacted the event. Assembly 15 registration fees were set more than one year ago, before the economic crisis sent the Euro, Canadian dollar and Paraguayan Guaraní into a downward spiral, reducing the value of registrations paid in those currencies. MWC officials anticipate that higher registration numbers will help compensate for these losses. Host conferences, colonies, cooperatives and business people in Paraguay are contributing generously to make the event possible and affordable.

Given the financial stress many MWC constituents are experiencing, MWC officials announced in late February that they are waiving the late registration fee. Registrants who have already paid the late fee may redirect the fee as a contribution to the Travel Fund or have the fee credited toward their final billing. Anyone interested in attending the global gathering can find registration information online at www.mwc-cmm.org.

Paraguay 2009 will follow the two-part format of previous assemblies. Assembly Gathered, held July 14-19 in Asuncion, will feature times of corporate worship, workshops, service projects, recreation and local tours. Assembly Scattered will give international guests the opportunity to visit Mennonite congregations and communities in the region before and after Assembly Gathered.

An indicator of the enthusiasm with which Mennonites in Paraguay and neighboring countries are anticipating the world assembly is the “unprecedented” number of invitations to participate in Assembly Scattered, says MWC’s most recent Assembly 15 Update. International visitors can take advantage of 30 tours, 13 prior to Assembly Gathered and 17 following, that will introduce them to Mennonites living in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Uruguay, as well as Paraguay. Most tours include home stays and church and community visits, as well as visits to historic sites and tourist attractions.

Fitting location

Paraguay is a fitting location for MWC’s 15th Assembly because at least for Western Mennonites, Paraguay has a prominent place in the church’s history. With dramatic accounts of refugees, rags-to-riches accomplishments and inspiring acts of faith, the Paraguayan Mennonite story is a compelling one. 

German-speaking Mennonites have been migrating to Paraguay since the 1920s, some seeking a place of isolation from the world, others seeking a place to call home after fleeing Europe as refugees. The early immigrants who settled in western Paraguay’s Gran Chaco endured unimaginable heat, lack of good drinking water, decimating diseases and the heavy physical labor necessary to literally build a new life out of a wild, isolated frontier.

Immigrant Mennonites and their descendents account for about half of all Mennonites living in Paraguay. The other half of this country’s Mennonite population can trace their origins to the immigrants’ missionary work among indigenous people and Spanish-speaking residents. Mennonite Brethren played a significant role in Paraguay’s story, including initiating the Spanish-speaking outreach in Asuncion in 1955.

Political limelight

Almost 50 years later, Paraguay’s Mennonite community stepped into the political limelight when Nicanor Duarte Frutos was elected as president of Paraguay. His wife, Maria Gloria Penayo de Duarte, is a member of a Spanish-speaking Mennonite Brethren congregation in Asuncion.

The former first lady has high hopes for what the MWC global assembly can do for her country.

For one thing, she hopes it will put to rest any preconceptions that all Mennonites are blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

“People will be looking at us and they’ll see that being Mennonite is a faith issue,” she said in a 2006 address at the Mennonite Economic Development Association annual convention.

“When I introduce myself as a Mennonite, people ask me if I speak German, if I was born in the Chaco,” Duarte said. “People are often confused about this. The true evidence of being a Mennonite is the faith. I’ll be so happy in 2009 because then people in Paraguay will understand. When all Mennonites gather, from different cultures, they’ll understand the true concept of what it means to embrace the Mennonite faith.”

Past and future

Paraguay 2009 will also help the global Mennonite community understand and celebrate its past and present. “Mennonites in Paraguay represent a microcosm of the global Mennonite fellowship of the present,” says MWC executive secretary Larry Miller. “Paraguay is the Mennonite place where the past meets the future. The historic and ethnic roots of Mennonite identity are there, but also the young emerging churches from the south out of the indigenous and Latino context.”

Representatives of the eight Paraguayan Mennonite conferences, representing the three distinct cultural groups that comprise these conferences, have formed a national coordinating team for Assembly 15. Mennonite Brethren church leader and theologian Alfred Neufeld chairs the group.

The national coordinating team has selected Centro Familiar de Adoracion, a Pentecostal church facility built to accommodate 10,000, as the site for Assembly Gathered. The theme of the gathering, based on Philippians 2, combines the calls to unity and to service. Assembly Gathered will include daily services of prayer, singing, stories, drama, Bible study and sermons led by leaders from around the world that address the assembly theme, “Come together in the way of Jesus Christ.” Congregational singing will be led by an international group of musicians.

Throughout Assembly Gathered, participants can browse the Global Church Village, exhibits clustered by continent where member conferences will give visitors a taste of life “back home” through artwork, pictures, artifacts, food, tools, music, story and drama.

Assembly 15 participants will eat together and enjoy recreational activities; special activities are planned for youth and children. Local tours will take visitors to visit cultural and historical sites and to see Mennonite life and work in the greater Asuncion area.

U.S. MBs represented

The MWC General Council and the organization’s four commissions—Faith and Life Commission, Deacon Commission, Peace Commission and Mission Commission—will also meet. Lynn Jost, currently interim president of MB Biblical Seminary, and Ed Boschman, U.S. Conference executive director, represent U.S. Mennonite Brethren on the General Council. A variety of by-invitation-only gatherings of various Mennonite groups will also held in conjunction with Assembly 15.

Prior to Assembly Gathered, July 10-12, the Global Youth Summit will give young adults the opportunity to meet for intercontinental discussions on faith and life issues relevant to young people, to do community service and for intercultural interaction. Participation in the Global Youth Summit is open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 27; each MWC member conference is asked to appoint one delegate. Jessica Berg of Fresno, Calif., will represent U.S. Mennonite Brethren.

In May, CL Online will feature online-only pre-event coverage of Paraguay 2009. Posted articles will include a condensed history of Paraguayan Mennonites and an overview of Mennonite churches in the country.

News coverage of Assembly 15 for North American Mennonites will be coordinated by Meetinghouse, the association of Canadian and U.S. Mennonite and Brethren in Christ editors. Meetinghouse stories from Assembly 15 will be published in the September Christian Leader and will include reports from Canadian journalist Dora Dueck, who will be representing the Christian Leader and MB Herald on the Meetinghouse reporting team. Dueck is currently interim editor of the MB Herald, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren magazine.

Paraguay is home to home to 55 Mennonite Brethren congregations and 4,326 members. Victor Wall, general secretary for the International Community of Mennonite Brethren, is from Paraguay. ICOMB will be meeting in conjunction with Assembly 15.—Connie Faber, with reports from MWC

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