Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

From New Congregations to the Ancient Church

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

From New Congregations to the Ancient Church

Article excerpt

My parents were Amish-Mennonite farmers from Waterloo County, Ontario. (1) Because my father and mother applied to work in Argentina under the Mennonite Board of Missions without submitting to the necessary validation of "ordination by lot," they were excommunicated by the bishop of their congregation. They eventually arrived in Argentina in 1925, beginning a lifetime of service in South America and a long series of cross-cultural adaptations of the gospel that were to have an indelible imprint on my journey in the Christian faith.

In Tres Lomas--a very rural town of 3000, where I was born--there was no church until my parents planted one. As my family moved, I grew up in other similar "young" churches made up entirely of new converts. The uniform dress in the style current among North American Mennonites at the time was not required, partly because poverty would have made it an impossible demand for at least part of the congregation. It would be years before I understood how different this was from American Mennonite ways.

Mennonite missionaries in the early days of the Argentine mission vigorously taught nonresistance, even though the concept of conscientious objection to military service was completely alien to the Argentine culture of the time. Argentine law in my growing up years required every male citizen to register at age 18 and to serve in the military at age 20. "The year of military service" was simply a fact of life, an Argentine rite of passage. It was widely credited for producing the high rate of literacy in the nation and was generally regarded as a good thing--the boot camp without the war. You went in a boy and returned a man. A lottery determined who would go into the army for one year (the higher numbers, the majority) or into the navy for two years (the lower numbers, a minority). The very lowest numbers were exempted altogether. From the earliest days of the mission in Argentina, I remember hearing members' first-hand accounts of the lottery, as well as earnest prayers being offered for the young men of military age. When, in response to their prayers, these young men drew the very lowest numbers, the congregation rejoiced.

From the time of my religious conversion at the age of six, I understood myself to be called to the ministry, and in time this sense of vocation was narrowed down to a specific call to Argentina, following in my father's footsteps. From the spirituality breathed in the air of my home, I absorbed the rock-solid foundation of my own spirituality, which is that when God calls one into Christian service, one ought to obey without rebellion, knowing that the pursuit of that call might ultimately result in martyrdom.

When I arrived in Goshen, Indiana in 1945 to begin college and seminary studies, many of the "problems" we discussed there, in class and dormitory, seemed to be, if not frivolous, at least disconnected from "real life" as I expected to encounter it again after my return to Argentina. Before coming to America I had known that "we" were Mennonites, but this label had only the vaguest significance for me, and I thought it, too, was simply an unchangeable fact of life--like the name, indigestible to Latins, Swartzentruben At Goshen College it became clear that I was inexorably expected to think of myself as an American Mennonite, a double challenge. Yet among Mennonites I felt like an alien. The sacred sociology of the Mennonite community that I studied under G. F. Hershberger seemed (a) a form of self-congratulation by an ethnic, rural and religious minority group in America and (b) a totally unrealistic cultural freight within the context of my "real" world in Argentina. The forms of common life developed by a persecuted (and deliberately separated) Germanic community over four centuries simply carried no conviction with a congregation of new converts in the third world.

Goshen College and Seminary offered me both a liberal education (which I regarded as good) (2) and special training in how to be an American Mennonite (which I regarded as nonessential to the redemption of the world, just as it had been nonessential to the evangelization of Argentina). …

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