Paraguay’s lessons in diversity

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Assembly brings Paraguay’s Mennonites closer

By Paul Schrag for Meetinghouse

Experiencing the variety of Paraguay’s Mennonites proved instructive for visitors attending the 15th Mennonite World Conference assembly and valuable for Paraguayans, too.

In the eight conferences hosting the MWC assembly — three Germanic, three indigenous and two Hispanic groups — MWC general secretary Larry Miller saw a reflection of the worldwide fellowship.

“In your history, your diversity and your vitality, you incarnate the past, present and future of the global Anabaptist church,” he said during the evening worship service July 18.

In interviews, conferencegoers from Paraguay said the assembly made an impact by bringing the country’s Mennonites closer.

Jakob Warkentin saw benefits both for indigenous and for German-speaking Mennonites.

“It is important for the indigenous people to see that to be Mennonite is not to be white, but also black or brown,” he said. “It is a matter of belief, not of culture and heritage.”

And for German speakers, Warkentin said, worshiping in Spanish at the conference meetings taught an important lesson.

“Here we are in step with the indigenous people, because Spanish is not the mother tongue for either of us,” he said. “So we adjust to that, we learn from that.”

Walter Neufeld, speaking in Spanish, said the assembly “encourages the Mennonite churches to realize that we are part of a large body of people in the world, that the opportunities don’t finish in Paraguay, that we can work together with others.”

In a workshop, indigenous Paraguayans told of being drawn to the Christian faith and later to a Mennonite identity.

Since the first baptisms of seven Enlhet men in 1947, the indigenous churches have grown to include 8,300 members in three conferences: United Enlhet, Enlhet Mennonite Brethren and Nivacle Mennonite Brethren.

“We’re very grateful for the work of the missionaries and the courage they showed,” said Cornelio Goossen, a Nivacle whose parents worked for a Goossen family and adopted their name.

He said his people learned to put their confidence in God rather than witch doctors.
“There were many things we had to leave behind because of our faith in Christ,” Goossen said.

When the Enlhet first came in contact with the Mennonites in the 1930s, the nomadic hunter-gatherers were “very much afraid,” said Cesar Cabanas. “But the Mennonites said we could live together.”

The indigenous people began to learn the German language, and “the word of God, like a seed, entered into hearts,” Cabanas said. “After the seed was growing, it gave new life. And the indigenous people decided to follow Jesus.”

Among the results of their new faith was an end to the practice of infanticide, which had been common when families felt they could not care for more children.

Today, many indigenous churches are third-generation congregations. Still, for some, a Mennonite identity is relatively new.

“No one told us we had to be Mennonites, so it’s only in the last generation that we realized we are part of the Mennonite faith,” said Victor Perez. “Mennonite has less to do with the color of your skin than your faith.”

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