Almost a century ago, Mennonite missionaries T.K. Hershey and J.W. Shank undertook a dangerous 27-day sea journey during World War I with their families, facing the threat of submarines and floating mines from New York to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It was the beginning of Mennonite missions to the Spanish-speaking world, as told in a new book, Historia del Menonitismo Hispanohablante: 1917-1990 (History of Spanish-Speaking Mennonites) by Rafael Falcón, professor emeritus of Spanish at Goshen (Ind.) College.
“I had to do my own research, because there wasn’t very much at the time,” said Falcón, who taught Spanish at Goshen for 32 years. “I thought it was about time to have something, a book with material that talks about Spanish-speaking Mennonite churches, that covers everything.”
And when he says “everything,” he means everything. The book covers the history of Spanish-speaking Mennonites in South America, Central America and the Caribbean islands, North America and Europe.
Knowing common roots
Falcón said he wants his book to be useful to all Spanish readers, but particularly to Spanish-speaking students of history.
“There’s a lot of information about Anabaptism, but not very much in Spanish,” he said.
At SEMILLA — Seminario Anabautista Latinoamericano (Latin American Anabaptist Seminary) — in Guatemala, rector Willi Hugo Pérez said that while he hadn’t yet seen Falcón’s book, it sounded like a resource that could be helpful.
“Studying the history of Spanish-speaking Mennonites is very meaningful to know and understand the common roots, traditions, beliefs, convictions and experiences of the Anabaptist-Mennonites in Latin America,” Pérez said in an email interview. “Studying their history can help students to affirm their Anabaptist identity and sense of belonging as Mennonites. . . . Furthermore, to know the history and the missionary work of our ancestors can help inspire the place and mission of our Mennonite churches in the present context and time.”
Growth of evangelicals
Falcón said there were approximately 100,000 Spanish-speaking Mennonites worldwide in 1990.
“I’m sure now it’s more — especially in Central America it’s growing,” he said. “That’s the place I see a lot of growth, more than the Caribbean area, South America and so forth.”
Falcón said in countries such as Bolivia, Paraguay and Mexico there is more interaction between the German-speaking and Spanish-speaking Mennonites, while in other places, he thinks the German-speaking colonies like to keep to themselves.
Evangelical groups are growing in Latin America, he said.
“The main group that is growing is Pentecostals, more than Mennonites or Baptists or Methodists,” Falcón said.
One of the main reasons, he said, is that “the music matches the Hispanic culture a little bit more. The Hispanic culture is more spontaneous, and I think Pentecostalism is the same way.”
Theologically, Spanish-speaking Mennonite churches struggle with the “challenges of pacifism — some places, they have a problem with understanding that,” Falcón said.
Another area of disagreement is the place of women in leadership. “A lot of Latin America — they’re more conservative with that; progress is moving very slow,” he said.
Pérez listed several challenges facing the Latin American Mennonite church, including affirming Anabaptist identity, discipleship as followers of Jesus, commitments to peace and justice, faith formation among children and youth, promoting biblical and theological studies, and equipping pastors and church leaders.
He said another book about Mennonite history “could help more [of] our churches and congregations to know and appreciate their Anabaptist historical roots, traditions and experiences of faith.”
“We incorporate a lot of stories, so it’s more interesting to people,” Falcón said. “History can be kind of heavy.”
Historia del Menonitismo Hispanohablante: 1917-1990 is published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and available at amazon.com. All profits from the sales are given to Academia Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite Academy), a Mennonite school in Puerto Rico founded by missionaries in 1947. Falcón was a student, teacher and director there.