This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Low German Mennonite colonies growing fast in Bolivia

HESSTON, Kan. — Even though Buhler Mennonite Church Pastor Willmar T. Harder wasn’t preaching, he brought a pair of austere black boots to his presentation on the Low German Mennonites of Bolivia at the March 4 Mennonite World Review Inc. annual corporation meeting at Hesston College.

A Low German Mennonite family. The father, Benjamin Guenther, is a teacher.
A Low German Mennonite family. The father, Benjamin Guenther, is a teacher. — Willmar T. Harder

Inspired by a directive in Eph. 6:15 that your feet should be shod with the gospel of peace, the first thing an Old Colony Mennonite preacher does when he is ordained is get fitted for knee-high boots — typically made by a local Spanish Bolivian who handles such orders from several Latin American countries.

“He had a whole booklet of shoe sizes of the bishops in the Old Colony Mennonite church. How’s that for social history?” Harder said. “He showed me who had the biggest feet.”

Colonists knew he gave sermons, so Harder’s pair were a going away present at the end of the four years his family directed Mennonite Central Committee’s Low German Mennonite program in Bolivia, from 2010 to 2014.

Most of the roughly 70,000 Low German-speaking Mennonites in Bolivia living in about 75 colonies or communities are of Dutch background. They came through Prussia to South Russia, to Canada and then to Latin America in search of religious freedom and land for their preferred agricultural vocation.

An average family has eight children, and it is estimated the population doubles in 15 years.

“Over 70 percent of this population is Bolivian by birth,” Harder said. “That’s an interesting stat when tensions rise about foreigners and certain parts of the government point to Mennonites and say, ‘You foreigners take our land.’

“They respond, ‘The only documents we have are Bolivian.’ ”

While about 80 percent of the Low German Mennonites in Bolivia use horse and buggy and wear what appears to be a uniform of overalls for the men and flowery-print dresses for women, the country is also home to smaller groups who either broke away from the colonies or are of Russian background and come over the border from Paraguay. There is also a division between Old Colony groups that came directly from Canada and those who spent time in Mexico.

“It is still very hard to do anything together, and that’s part of MCC’s job, to get these groups to come to a table together,” he said. “ . . . It was fun, challenging, and it opened my eyes. I thought I learned a lot about Mennonites in Jim Juhnke’s [Bethel College history] class, but I didn’t learn about these Mennonites.”

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