When Henri Nouwen was seeking meaning in his life by service, he decided to go to Latin American to live among the poorest of the poor. He wanted to serve. He wanted to help. What he found, instead of needy people, was grateful people—people who always shared what little they had, people who looked out for the most vulnerable among them. He went to Latin America thinking that he had so much to share. And he learned that he received so much more than he was able to give. So he wrote a little book, Gracias!, about his experience.
The eight people from the Montana Synod who spent nearly two weeks in Bolivia visiting our companion synod could echo Nouwen’s experience: we received so much more than we gave. We shouldn’t be surprised. That’s what accompaniment is all about. It is not transactional. It is not about how much money one party has, nor how much need another has. It is about relationship, walking together.
We were invited to Bolivia to walk with them through their celebration of 80 years as a Lutheran Church, and to meet Lutherans from across the country. As we walked together, we found common interests, common challenges, common goals. We spent a morning talking about lay ministry. In our conversations over the years, we (Pastor Presidente Emilio and I) have discussed our joint interest in lay ministry. Last summer when he visited from Bolivia, we spent an afternoon meeting with LPAs and learning about their ministry. Last week, we spent a morning going into more detail about our program, including presentations from 3 LPAs—Cynthia Thomas, Dave Scholten and Alex Tooley. We also heard about their lay ministry program, and brainstormed about how we might cooperate. We are richer for the conversation. Gracias!
We spent time in Cobija, on the border with Brazil, and returned to the Galilea Centro, where lay pastor Luis works with children. Because he has done such a good job with children with special needs, the public school has asked him to take on more and more high needs children into the after-school program. And because he has incorporated these children, volunteers have come along. And the church is growing. Luis’s top concern has always been the children. At one point the entire leadership of the church consisted of children. Now there are adults, too. Because Cobija is a border town, it is full of drugs, and children are routinely recruited to be drug runners. Luis used to be outspoken against drugs. Because of threats to his life, he is less vocal. Instead he provides alternatives—computers, music, woodworking, sports, traditional culture. We were blessed to be in the presence of Luis and the children. Gracias!
The ministry in Cobija is supported by a cattle farm that was given to the church. Five years ago, at the request of the church, our delegation included a cattle expert, who was asked to diagnose the problems with the cattle and design a solution. A year or so later, the Montana Synod used our Assembly offering to help out with the problem, which turned out to be lack of water. Our offering helped repair water damage in the Centro, and set in place a system that will allow pumping of water from the stream to the cattle. Gracias!
We spent time in the opposite end of the country, in Tarija, not far from Argentina. Tarija is a lovely, temperate city, that is so expensive that thousands of people have to live in the unincorporated barrios on the outskirts of town. The IELB has a new ministry in 3 of the barrios—in one they are helping women grow food in greenhouses. In another there is a ministry among children, with cooperation from the barrio. A lay pastor (formerly a philosophy professor) oversees the ministries, teaches the children, helps with the greenhouses. The plan is for these ministries to attract local leadership, generating more lay pastors, serving more of the community. As we left the gathering of adults in the barrio, they said to us: “Don’t forget us.” We won’t. Gracias!
The church in Bolivia is very grateful for the partnership with the Montana Synod over the years. Pastor Bob Nilsen was the anchor in the relationship for many years, covering changes in leadership in both churches. He was instrumental in raising scholarships for schools, and for raising money for the Jessica Crist Retreat Center. The MTSWO started a scholarship in honor of Diana Hedegaard. Many congregations and individuals have made contributions, large and small, over the years, to projects of the church in Bolivia. Gracias!
And the church in Montana is very grateful for the partnership with the Bolivian church. We have been able to walk alongside a Lutheran Church that is entirely indigenous and completely natural about it. Gracias! We have learned about different models of lay ministry. Gracias! We have worshiped in a multilingual church in a plurinational country. Gracias! We have seen a church working with partners—churches, NGOs, government entities—to improve the welfare of the most marginalized people. Gracias! We have prayed and broken bread with people who are proud of their Lutheran identity, surrounded by Catholics, Pentecostals and traditionalists. Gracias!
Accompaniment is relationship. Gracias!
Jessica Crist, Obispa
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Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA