Visiting Cochabamba was one of the highlights on our trip to Bolivia. At least it was for me. The city parks and walkways are straight out of a storybook: lovers walk hand-in-hand, bushes are manicured to look like gumdrops, lights illuminate gushing water fountains, and flowers at the foot of leafy trees offer the kind of aromatic shade that entices readers to finish just one more chapter before going back to work. We saw a lot of cityscapes like these as we clicked along in our bus that took us from our inner-city hotel to the neighborhood of Taquiña. The closer we got to our destination, however, the less frequent these parks became.
This is because Taquiña is an underserved neighborhood located in the foothills of the snow-capped mountain range that surrounds Cochabamba, the Tunari mountains. Even though this city is one of Bolivia’s largest metropolitan areas, this neighborhood is home to the city’s only Lutheran congregation, Redentor (as least for now, since plans are underway to plant another church on the other side of town). The worship attendance at Redentor averages about 20 people on a Sunday. The congregation doesn’t have a pastor; instead they rely on lay volunteers to sustain the congregation’s worship, programs, funds, and activities. Their small fellowship hall triples as a sanctuary and their only classroom.
The volunteers focus most of their energies on their afterschool program. Neighborhood children, often impoverished and burdened with responsibilities beyond their years, come to Redentor to do their homework and practice their writing skills with short pencils and frayed notebooks. Their teacher asks them to copy verses from Bibles that are marked up with pages missing. The children are also fed a healthy snack before they head up to la cancha to play fútbol (soccer). After helping them with their homework, we hiked a mile up cobbled roads, past clusters of modest homes, to reach the rather impressive, city-funded stadium that towers over everything around it.
Heading up to and hanging out at La Cancha!
The kids immediately established teams. Boys against girls! Age didn’t matter, although the 3 to 4- year-olds were more often found playing “kitchen” with discarded trinkets and sparkly garbage wrappers on the sidelines. We rotated out, the winning team gaining privileges to stay on the court until they lost again.
What a fun-filled afternoon it was! First of all, these kids are fierce when it comes to fútbol, and I’m talking both the boys and the girls. Per usual in Central and South American countries, fútbol is a BIG deal--their love for the sport being “the great equalizer” among nations. Secondly, we played our hearts out that afternoon. We stood bent over, out of breath, and pink in the face whenever we could spare a moment to rest. We became immediate friends. When it was the girls’ turn to sit out, the kids would ask me with huge grins on their faces to say certain words in English. We’d laugh and joke and they’d poke fun at my accent when I spoke back to them in Spanish.
Suffice it to say, these kids made my short time in Cochabamba really special. They offered us so much hope--not because they’re possible or future members of the IELB, per se. Rather, they are what motivates and inspires the people of Redentor to continue doing God’s good work in the world. Despite struggles and minimal resources, Redentor is making their community and their world a better place. I hope their story and their efforts work to remind us that we don’t need big buildings or a lot of resources to do meaningful ministry. Instead, with the Spirit’s help, the work of God in Christ is being carried out whenever our hearts and hands connect in love and service.
--Pastor Stacey Siebrasse
“I came out of the darkness and into the light.” These were the words proclaimed by a woman at the Iglecia Evangelica Luterano Boliviano (IELB) National Women’s Leadership Conference at the Jessica Crist Retreat Center in August 2015. With passionate testimony, she revealed the joy and peace she received when she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. The movement of the Holy Spirit through the room was almost palpable, as she shared her life-changing story of coming to faith.
Hers is not a unique story. Many of the women that we met shared similar experiences. Their lives are not easy. They have many responsibilities and few of the conveniences that we in the U.S. have. The social structure does not place women on equal footing with men. The IELB and their Pastor Presidente Emilio are trying to change that. That was a primary reason for the MT Synod WELCA accompaniment trip to Bolivia.
We had the privilege of not only meeting, but communing with many women in Bolivia. We had heart-felt discussions, we ate together, prayed together, painted fabric, laughed and even danced together. We weren’t merely tourists. The Bolivian women have many of the same challenges that we have in the U.S., but they haven’t received the support of society like we have. One woman in Santa Cruz was trying to learn a native language so that she could teach in the school. She found it difficult to work and go to school while taking care of her family. A woman in Cochabamba opened up about her alcoholic husband, and another told of how her husband had quit drinking and her life was better. Some of the issues discussed were much lighter – like which songs were appropriate for worship services – the old standbys, or is it alright to sing popular songs? Sounds familiar! How about dancing? If the Spirit moves you, can you dance during worship? We thought that was just fine, and we learned a dance together. At least, we tried!
Women around the world seem to have similar interests and challenges. Some have more support and many more opportunities than others. I’m thankful that I was born in the U.S., as our society values and supports women more than many cultures. Let us all pray that the lives of women in other parts of the world will continue to improve.
Let us remember that Aymara woman’s passionate story of coming out of the darkness and into the Light. When we find ourselves in a place of darkness, let us not forget that there is Light. We are not alone. In a world of darkness, it is difficult to see beauty. It is difficult to feel peace. It is a heavy, dark place. When the Aymara woman heard the story of Jesus and felt his presence, her life changed. She came out of that dark place. She saw the light and felt the love that Christ brings. She now shares her story, to help others feel the love, peace, and joy that a life in Christ brings. She is an example to us all.
Textiles and fibers surround us constantly as an integral part of life. Our synod women’s group of ten intrepid travelers immersed ourselves in Bolivian culture last August, visually feasting on sights that truly exemplify the connections of fabric to daily life for many women of this vibrant country. Clothing and textile arts of Bolivia excel in color, pattern and craftsmanship. Exotic llama and alpaca fibers are the norm for clothing construction.
We explored market stalls crammed with jumbles of colorful fabrics. Llamas ambled among the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku. Women laughed and chatted together as they used drop spindles to spin superbly even yarns from llama fleece. Women, crowded into their tiny sidewalk kiosks, kept their knitting needles busy.
Short sturdy indigenous women wear multi layered petticoats, rainbow hued shawls, & in some regions, small bowler hats which sit precariously on their heads. Boldly striped and patterned woven rectangles of cloth, known as aguayos, function as carriers for babies and household goods, slung over one shoulder and knotted in front.
During our stay in Santa Cruz the members of our group were invited to join local church school ladies who met on Saturdays. They expertly painted delightful floral designs on aprons, napkins and table cloths. We quickly realized that they were expressing their hospitality by sharing this form of fellowship. We also realized that we had a lot to learn about the techniques which came so easily to them and also provided extra income through market sales.
The production of yarn, and creation of textile products is integral to the life and economy of Bolivia. Andean culture expresses a rich heritage of designs which are easily recognizable. Bolivian culture is truly evident in the textiles which are produced for domestic use and for export by the talented women of this vibrant country. Often these products are made by women who are the sole supporter of their families. Certainly their abilities have been a huge asset, for these women often have very limited resources. Their husbands may be employed in distant parts of the country, or may be unemployed due to mine closures. The women have had to develop an industry on their own, seeking markets for sales. Each worker must juggle home and family obligations with the need to spend long hours creating products to sell. They are among the ranks of an informal economy where each person must find their own way in the world of business.
While the concept of a flexible industry seems promising, and well suited to the needs of these resourceful women, the very independent nature of such an arrangement is also its weakness. Often each woman develops her own relationship with suppliers of her resources, as well as buyers of finished goods. In local culture, women are often excluded from commercial unions. As Melissa Crane Draper explains in the fascinating book, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, the majority of women lack necessary tools for economic success such as education, physical assets, and networking options. With so many home based businesses, the organization of their labor, with resulting protections and positive government policies is exceedingly difficult to implement.
During our trip we were gifted with beautiful leather hand bags, embellished with woven inserts. Almost identical bags are being offered by a major US retailer for over $100. This prompts the question of how much of that selling price is returned to the artisans in Bolivia. The global economy sets the rules, and in some cases even affluent Bolivian women dictate the manner of business, with little regard or sympathy for individual craftspeople of a lower social status. As women visiting from the United States, we were both dismayed by the hardships these women must endure, and a profound admiration for their tenacity to succeed.
A personal treasured moment of connection with the women of Bolivia unfolded as I offered them one of my own weavings. Common language was not necessary as we communicated with animated gestures while sharing our love of creating unique textiles. Truly, through the mutual love of fibers we experienced moments of mutuality, an aspect of accompaniment with our companion synod. As equals we shared in the joy of creation and hope for future interconnected experiences. And dare I state the obvious? The women of the Montana synod are now more tightly woven together in faith with our sisters in Bolivia.
En tanto que somos una comunidad de mujeres creadas a imagen de Dios, llamadas a convertirnos en discípulas de Jesucristo, y fortalecidas por el Espíritu Santo, nos comprometemos a crecer en la fe, afirmar nuestros dones, apoyarnos las unas a las otras en nuestras respectivas vocaciones, involucrarnos en el ejercicio del ministerio y la acción, y promover la sanación y la integridad en la iglesia, la sociedad y el mundo.
As a Community of Women
created in the image of God
called to discipleship in Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit
We Commit Ourselves to
grow in faith
affirm our gifts
support one another in our callings, engage in ministry and action, and
promote healing and wholeness
in the church, the society, and the world.
My community of women increased on the visit to Bolivia. This was an experience of a lifetime in many ways: the opportunity to meet with and share experiences with women from one of our companion synods and the opportunity to share this experience with new friends from Montana.
This visit was unique only in that the delegation was comprised of all women. This was at the request of Pastore Presidente Emilio. Our itinerary and agenda were set to maximize meeting with women. We met with women in many different settings: worship, crafts, school and after-school programs and at a retreat attended by women from all over the country of Bolivia.
This retreat was special is many ways to me. For all that we learned about the women of Bolivia, we discovered much more about ourselves. This retreat was held at the Jessica Crist Retreat Center, a place that was on my bucket list to visit. Women from all over the country of Bolivia attended this retreat. While Spanish is widely spoken in most places of Bolivia, Aymara and Quechua are also spoken. Even without speaking any of these languages, communication was not a problem. At the retreat and in our last worship service in Bolivia, conversations and liturgy was translated from English to Spanish to Aymara or Spanish to Aymara to English. Laughter is the universal language. We had lots of laughter, especially when the ladies were trying to teach us how to paint on fabric. We are having our efforts made into a wall hanging to be displayed at the Synod Assembly. Some of us will be put to shame by the fabric paintings which were given to us as a gift. They also tried to teach us an indigenous dance. That was easier than the painting.
But what I learned most at the retreat center was how much we share, their hurts are our hurts, our faith is their faith, mothers wanting the best for their children, learning to do crafts for fun or to earn money, being proud to be a Christian and a Lutheran, what a comfort it is to know that we are saved by grace alone. Food, Fun and Fellowship abounded in Bolivia!
We were not tourists in Bolivia but every time we left our hotel we were immersed in the culture. Learning to cross a street (successfully), seeing a person ride a donkey – as a means of transportation – people bathing and doing laundry in a stream, sitting on a wall in the square, seeing the billboards welcoming the Pope, demonstrations and parades on the street., watching and listening to soccer matches outside our hotel room.
Two things left their forever impressions on me. The first was worship. Both Sundays we were in Bolivia Bishop was Crist was asked to deliver the message. We were welcomed as special visitors and made to feel at home. The other was the importance of education. The Evangelical Church in Bolivia fills a vital need. While education is mandatory, there are not enough schools for all the children. Without the IELB many children would not have the opportunity for an education.
Ten years prior to our visit to Bolivia, the Montana Synodical Women hosted two ladies from Bolivia at our Biennial Convention in Billings. We were able to reconnect with one of these ladies – Berta at both the retreat center and during a visit at our hotel.
Do I want to go back to Bolivia? Yes. There are still places I want to visit and events I want to see.
Bolivia is a land-locked country in the center of South America with 8 different regions and very diverse geography. In the north is rain forest with tributaries to the Amazon River. The south is very dry with salt flats, the east has palm trees and the west has very high mountains.
With over 10 million people, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world with the average worker earning just $2.00 US per day. Most of the people are concentrated in the major cities.
Although Bolivia is 95% Catholic with Spanish influences, Lutherans have been in Bolivia since the early 1900’s as German immigrants moved to escape various political regimes. After WW2, many German & Italian refugees settled in South America. In 1531, the Spanish conquered the Inca’s, taking over the Alto Peru which included Bolivia. In 1825 Bolivia became independent from Spain. In 1938 the ElAlta Church was founded by the Missouri Synod and became ELCA in 1970.
There are 110 ELCA churches, 40 ordained pastors of which 2 are women. There are over 1100 pastoral volunteers. Pastor’s are paid by offerings, so most pastors have other jobs as well.
In the rural areas, many have medical training as hospitals are far away.
The poverty level is high, even with an abundance of natural resources such as iron ore, rubber, natural gas, silver gold and cocoa as the government owns the mines and controls the wages.
There are also language differences as 61% of the people speak Spanish, 21% speak Quechua, 15% speak Aymara and 4% other. Quechua & Aymara are indigenous peoples languages.
According to Bishop Emilio Flora,The church seeks to educate, strengthen infrastructure of clean water and food security, strengthen human rights , to work for sustainable incomes as well as preach the Gospel and offer Grace & Forgiveness. Women coordinators develop community and make aware the needs of the people and families. Daycare, after school programs, sanctuaries for troubled youth, counseling for domestic violence and justice issues. And as Bolivia is the 3rd leading producer of Cocaine, there many issues with trafficking and drug usage. Much like here in the USA.
Church schools provide needed education, structure and values, but also address the needs of the whole community. Priorities according to Bishop Emilio are Scholarships for the schools in AlAlto which are $30. US per month and in Santa Cruz are $22.per month. Office computers , music and fencing for the new mission churches in Santa Cruz and CoChabamba as well as building funds. The water project in the north is progressing.
Bolivia is a paradox of ancient ruins and somewhat modern cities. We look up to the splendor of the beautiful mountains and blue sky and look down at the heartbreak of homelessness, squalor & dust.
The housing of unique traditional Spanish architecture with gorgeous cathedrals and modern Spanish buildings compared to the adobe huts and half-built brick and concrete 3 room apartments that might have running water & a bathroom.
A paradox of rarely seen wealthy people in fancy foreign cars and crowds of indigenous hard-working people, walking or waiting for a bus, living day to day to care & provide for their children.
The countryside of very small farms, striving to feed livestock & themselves, Helping each other, living off the land, washing clothes in the streams.
City living with wild packs of dogs destroying garbage pickup sites, spreading germs & debris. Traffic jams with very few rules, narrow side streets on one way traffic. Pedestrians DO Not have the right of way and Aggressive driving skills are the norm.
Outdoor markets & sidewalk venders selling everything from oranges to I-Pod covers.
Constant Busy –ness, noise from protests marches ¶des & discos & soccer games until late at night.
And those beautiful Andes Mountains and those warm- wonderful - giving people.
Would I go again ? -- you bet. Bolivia and its people will always be in my heart.
Now that we have had Thanksgiving dinner, we are officially launched into the holiday season with its emphasis on get-togethers with family, friends and colleagues while enjoying delicious food and warm hospitality. The ten women who went on the Montana Synod's trip to Bolivia certainly experienced these hallmarks of the holiday season when we were there in August. In each of the three cities we visited, we had many food adventures and were welcomed with warm hospitality.
When a person prepares to go to a foreign country, one usually wonders what the food will be like, what you will be eating. And questions about the food are often of the first ones asked by others when you return. Bolivian food did not disappoint.
In Santa Cruz, the first city we were in, some of us were introduced to a national dish called salpancho, which was on the menu in many restaurants. It is a layered dish with rice and different kinds of potatoes topped with a pounded-thin beef steak that is itself topped with diced tomatoes, peppers, other fresh veggies and two fried eggs. It was served on a full-sized plate, enough to feed four despite being for one person. We quickly learned to share what we couldn't eat with our Bolivian friends who could take the rest home.
In Cochabamba, the second city we visited, after we met with some of the mothers of the children in the after-school program run by the Lutheran church, we were treated to lunch that was prepared by the women. They served another very generous plate of boiled potatoes, large-kernelled corn on the cob, fava beans, and a highly seasoned pork cutlet. There was also a tomato, onion and feta cheese salad. It was also in Cochabamba that I had the most delicious quinoa soup in a market place, where many food vendors had small stalls where they cooked and served their selections to customers whom they had enticed into their area by calling out their menu to people as they walked through the narrow aisles.
In La Paz after touring Tiahuanaco, an ancient archeological site, we stopped at a very small place for lunch that had a hand-lettered sign advertising fish. As we crowded around a table, the woman proprietor fried a whole trout that she served on a bed of rice, with potatoes and green beans. Absolutely delicious! On our last day in La Paz, we attended church and had a lunch of chicken and vegetables prepared and served by the youth group. As honored guests, we were seated at tables while our hosts were sitting on benches, chairs, the concrete patio floor, and the ground in the church courtyard.
The generous servings of food were an outward sign of the warmth and depth of the hospitality of our Bolivian sisters and brothers in Christ. It is humbling to be on the receiving end of such generous giving of a people who have so little in worldly goods.
I will always remember the almost overwhelming welcome we received at the end of worship at Most Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in La Paz. We were lined up in the front of the sanctuary and all of the parishioners came to each of us and exchanged the traditional greeting of shaking hands, kissing the right cheek and shaking hands again. Often, we were warmly embraced while they gave us words of welcome. It was a profoundly moving experience.
Thinking about the hospitality that was showered on us in every place we visited, I believe that the true host of the trip was Jesus, who brought ten women from America and women and men from Bolivia together as companions, sisters and brothers in Christ.
During the month of October the Lutheran Church spends time remembering how Luther’s questions and concerns changed the church and the world with the idea that we are saved by grace through faith. While we stop to remember the church reformation of the past we also remember that the church is in a constant state of reforming itself.
As a member of the Women’s delegation to our sister synod, the Lutheran Church in Bolivia, in August we got to observe the continuing reformation of the church there. We spent most of our time with women’s groups. During the women’s retreat we heard how the words of grace are still being heard and believed for some people there on a first time basis. Learning of God’s love and grace for many of the women we heard, led to a big change in their self esteem. The women were eager to share their faith and continue to grow in faith and education. We tried to support the women as we listened and praised them for their work in the church. Bishop Jessica took time during the worship service in El Alto to really bring home the message that women and men are both made in God’s image and deserve respect and a place in the church.
The women and the whole national church have an emphasis on spiritual, mental and physical care and education of children there. Each church we visited had a school or after school program for the children. At the after school program children were welcome to come to a safe place and do their homework, do work that was created by the after school program and be involved in Bible Study. I had one kindergartener do his work while he sat on my lap. His work involved copying words in both printing and cursive. He did a great job. When we had a snack he saved some in his backpack for his family. I was reminded that one of Luther’s goals was for everyone to be able to read, so they could study the Bible for themselves. One young women helper at the school shared with tears in her eyes what this program had done for her.
Toward the end of our time together Pastor Presente Emilo shared with us his goals for the churches there. The first goal is to keep the churches and the schools they have functioning with thanks for the money we send for scholarships. The second goal is to be able to build a fellowship hall that will serve as a church and a school on the newly purchased property in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba in the outer areas where there are no churches at all. Since the school in El Alto includes a High School the government is requiring that the school include some vocational components. The school would like to add the components, languages, music, ballet and computer technology. This is the third goal.
The final goal Pastor Emilo shared with us is the need for the continuing education and training for the pastors. In Bolivia there are 110 churches with 40 ordained pastors including what we would call an LPA’s. There are also 100 lay pastor volunteers. The pastors are not salaried but rather are given a share of the churches offering.
I would ask that you pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ from Bolivia. Be assured that any offering that you give is being used wisely to share the good news of God’s love given through Jesus life, death and resurrection in what might seem like a far off place from us.
Pastor Alvina Olstead
From the ten women who made a companion synod visit to Bolivia in August-thanks for your prayers and support. Some of you followed us on facebook, some of you helped pay for our costs, some of you provided gifts to take along to the people we met. To all of you-muchos gracias!
Each month, from now until May, one of the women who visited Bolivia will write a piece for the News of the Week. You'll hear different points of view on the places we visited and the people we met. I'll provide an overview this month.
Our trip began in Santa Cruz, in the eastern part of Bolivia. Santa Cruz is at a relatively low altitude, and is warm, even in winter (remember-southern hemisphere, so August there is like February here!) There is one Lutheran Church in Santa Cruz-Fe y Esperanza
(Faith and Hope), with a small school connected to it. For many years generous donors of the Montana Synod have provided scholarships so that the children can attend the school. And we have supported the congregation there as well. Scholarship support continues to be a real need and is much appreciated.
The national church considers Santa Cruz, one of Bolivia's largest cities, to be a good mission field. People are migrating to Santa Cruz from around the country, and from neighboring countries as well, seeking work. So the IELB (the Evangelical Lutheran Bolivian Church) has purchased land where the migrants are moving, and intends to build a new congregation there with a significant outreach to impoverished children and youth. The fact that it is right next to a soccer field bodes well! This new congregation is the top mission priority of the IELB.
After visiting Santa Cruz, we moved to Cochabamba, another of Bolivia's largest cities with one small congregation. This congregation, Redentor, is staffed by lay volunteers and has about 20 at worship every Sunday. The real action here is the afterschool program, in which children come to do homework, learn Bible stories, have a healthy snack, and get some supervised exercise. This program is supported by ELCA mission dollars. Your weekly offering is making a difference here.
Because of the size of Cochabamba, the national church wants to invest in another congregation, and have purchased land in another part of the city. This, too, is a priority of the national church, after the congregation in Santa Cruz.
We spent the last days of the visit in La Paz, where the IELB is strongest (and where the altitude is 12,000 feet and up!) There are 6 congregations in La Paz, and another 6 in El Alto (up the mountain from La Paz). We had the opportunity to visit the Lutheran Institute in El Alto, a K-12 school that has over 170 students enrolled and is the pride of the church. Two years ago a significant gift from First Lutheran in Glasgow allowed the school to finish classrooms with floors and ceilings, build a computer lab, plumb some bathrooms, and build desks and chairs. Montana Synod Scholarships have been instrumental in helping low-income families send their children to this school. It is our hope that we will be able to continue to provide scholarships to both schools.
Because of new government regulations, the school will have to make some curriculum changes to come into compliance with new protocols, especially in providing educational resources that lead to jobs. The national church has listed this project as their third highest priority, and will be asking for assistance. And their fourth is assistance with pastoral formation.
Our group also visited the Jessica Crist Retreat Center on Lake Titicaca, to be part of a women's retreat. The center was built largely with the help of the Montana Synod. Those who have been part of that effort will be pleased to know that the center is up and running and hosts groups from all over the country.
You will be able to read more about each of these places we visited in upcoming months. We are assembling a team to coordinate our ongoing relationship with the IELB, including visits, exchanges and mission priorities. If you are interested in being a part of the team, please contact me at email@example.com. If you are interested in helping to fund the scholarships or any of the IELB's mission priorities, please send your checks to the Montana Synod Office. We send funds to the national office in Bolivia for them to distribute.
Finally I want to share a huge "Gracias!" from the IELB for the partnership with the Montana Synod. At our Assembly we collected funds for the water project in Cobija, where the water will be used to increase productivity on a cattle farm that supports a children's ministry to at-risk kids in the border town of Cobija. The funds have been sent to the church, and we expect that the project will begin. Thanks for your generosity.
It is a blessing to be in this relationship with our sisters and brothers in Bolivia.
Jessica Crist, Obispo