An ecumenical group of church leaders in Venezuela — led by a Mennonite, Erwin Mirabal — describes its educational mission with a metaphor of the gospel of Jesus as a healthy infection.
They say they are “infecting the churches of Venezuela with a sana doctrina (healthy doctrine).”
In several locations throughout Venezuela, a network of Mennonites and others inspired by the way of Jesus are sharing and teaching the Anabaptist theology that has strengthened their own understanding of the gospel.
Mirabal and his wife, Haydee, have devoted much time and effort to ministry in Venezuela. Mirabal was introduced to Anabaptist theology in the 1980s when he attended a class taught by John Driver, a Mennonite mission worker. At first, Mirabal didn’t understand much. But he kept the materials and continued to study and learn.
In recent years, on Isla Margarita, the Venezuelan island where he and his family live, Mirabal and an ecumenical group of leaders have offered workshops and seminary classes with help from the Colombia Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
On the mainland, a network of Christians also nurtured by Mennonite missions has helped to expand the seminary classes’ reach.
In 2014, 72 committed students participated in the seminary classes in Venezuela.
A seminary student, Marielis Barrios, said: “God has given Erwin a gift to teach in a way that helps all of us, that we can understand God’s Word much better, to help us to be more involved with the people around us.”
Last November, during a partnership delegation of Central Plains Conference, Colombia Mennonite Church and Mennonite Mission Network, students described why they prize the seminary classes.
The delegation visited Ecuador first, where the three groups also partner. Recently, Colombia Mennonite Church invited Central Plains and MMN to also partner in Venezuela. It was a natural next step.
Representatives from the three partners visited Isla Margarita and other locations to learn how Christians in Venezuela are ministering, “infecting” those around them with healthy biblical teaching on the way of Jesus.
Linda Shelly, MMN’s director for Latin America, said that while theological education programs commonly welcome students from other churches, it is less common to teach those courses in other churches.
“In Venezuela, Mennonites recognize the value of helping others, especially [churches not affiliated with a denomination], to develop a healthy, holistic theology,” she said.
The classes strengthen the churches. Independent churches are generally outside accountability structures and can be vulnerable to erroneous Bible teaching or even abuse.
Maria Elena Rodriguez, a businesswoman who now serves as a church leader on Isla Margarita, said, “When I began to take these courses, I realized that I had had a lot of twisted formation. . . . I told God that I felt like I was lacking something. I had looked for it in pastors.”
Now, she and the reflection group she leads search for direction from Scripture, resulting in changed lives and relationships.
Another member of the Isla Margarita group, Omar Rodriguez, described how he has sought to live out Jesus’ call to service through ministry to drug addicts and alcoholics. He maintains a space next to his house to offer food and activities.
He compared Christians who ignore suffering people to Pharisees, saying, “Many people have been converted, but it doesn’t make any difference in the way they treat the needy people on the streets. They just pass by.”
Others provide food but do not invite the people on the streets to enter their churches, he said.
“Where it says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ it means everybody,” he said.
The Isla Margarita group has organized workshops about family violence and neighborhood outreach. They implemented a campaign against war toys and taught collaborative games. Plans are under way for a program, “A Hug for Peace,” serving children on school break.
To the mainland
Confident in the Isla Margarita group’s ability to carry on the work of the seminary on the island, and wanting to strengthen the group on the mainland, Mirabal and his family plan a move to Caracas for 2015. They hope to plant a church that would also serve as a mainland headquarters for the seminary.
In February, Mirabal and a group of Christian leaders found a property with space for church services, ministries and seminary courses, as well as an apartment.
The partnership of MMN, Colombia Mennonite Church and Central Plains assisted for a two-year rental agreement in support of these new ministries.
Mirabal, quoted in an MMN article last year, said: “In the Venezuelan context of polarization and violence, where every group tries to manipulate us with their slogans of ‘Revolution and Justice’ on one hand and ‘Democracy and Liberty’ on the other, the message of the cross, of reconciliation with enemies and following Jesus, should be proclaimed with all of our strength.”