A book that caught my attention recently is Mission and Migration (2010) by Costa Rican theologian and historian Jaime Prieto. It is the Latin America volume of the Global Mennonite History series produced by Mennonite World Conference. Prieto took on the task of writing the history of Anabaptism in Latin America from its beginnings in Argentina in 1917 until 2009. The book is a jewel for anyone interested in Latin American Anabaptist history and identity. So, with much enthusiasm for Prieto’s insights on my own Anabaptist identity, I approached him for an interview.
How do you see the role of women in the Anabaptist churches?
The feminist movements that fought for women’s rights and equality with men in Latin America emerged in the 1970s. However, in the development of the church, women played an important role from the beginning. Women missionaries were active in organizing the church, Sunday schools and women’s societies, and they passed this spirit of leadership to the women of the neighborhoods where churches were built. For example, Elena Lehman told Bible stories for children with a flannel board in the space where adults were simultaneously. I remember a leading member of the church was upset because he thought women should not teach in public, but she was never intimidated.
You mention the multiethnic character of Latin American Anabaptism. What should people know about this?
Just as Anabaptism emerged from diverse cultural and social groups in Central Europe in the 16th century, Latin American Anabaptism also has great cultural and ethnic diversity. Several Mennonite mission boards sent workers, and ethnic Mennonite colonies from North America and Europe arrived here. Latin America at the beginning of the 20th century was already a multi-cultural continent. Indigenous people mixed with populations of African origin who settled in these lands during the time of slavery. We have European cultures that descended from those who came here in colonial times and mestizos born from the intercultural crossing, as in the case of the Miskitos in Nicaragua.
Anabaptism was brought here by missionaries from North America, perhaps in a colonialist way. How do you assess that encounter?
There were cultural encounters and mis-encounters. A beautiful intercultural encounter happened between North American Mennonite missionaries and the Toba people in Argentina. Normally, evangelical missions are zealous with their doctrinal principles. The Tobas, because of their cultural traditions, assumed a more pneumatological [concerned with the Holy Spirit] perception. The Toba decided to organize the United Church, which had the support of various Christian denominations, while keeping their own culture at the center of their theology and daily life. Mennonite missionaries Lois and Albert Buckwalter were involved in the organization of the United Church and the translation of the Mocobi language. They believed this missionary work should not bear the Mennonite name because at the heart of it flowed the gospel, pregnant with the life, languages, culture and traditions of the Toba.
What are the challenges for Anabaptism in Latin America?
There are gigantic challenges. Entire families are thrown into migratory trails in search of survival. They are trying to cross borders, as we have seen recently with more than 10,000 Haitians and Central Americans moving between Mexico and the United States. I believe the challenges require us to ask ourselves if we are really following Jesus. Nature is having birth pains and awaits the day of deliverance (Romans 8:22-23). The Earth expresses the pain of our mismanagement as God’s stewards. We must recognize that God gave us the Earth to take care of.
Mission and Migration closes with a beautiful prayer based on the disciples’ words in Luke 24:29: “Stay with us, because the evening is falling and the day is ending.” As I reflect with Prieto on that passage, we agree that, yes, the darkness is present and we need Jesus to walk with us, shelter our hearts and illuminate the path of our footsteps as we follow him.