Uruguay Unplugged

Pastor Rene Baergen is at the Mennonite Study Centre in Montevideo, Uruguay to resource the Mennonite Churches there. Here are his reflections. Scroll to the bottom of the page for day 1; we will be adding updates at the top of the page as they are available.

Mon, Day 14

Today I go home and I’m already packed. I’m ready to go. It’s also Mira’s birthday. It’s 9:30, a.m. It’s going to be a long day.

This evening, on the way to the airport, I join a men’s group for an asado and a bible study. I’m going to bring the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Full of everything that makes for (stereotyped) masculinity: strength, violence, solitude… and, at the end, the vigour of the missionary. Spreading the word. But I’m going to notice, and I’ll try to take it to heart, that the want-to-be-disciple, before becoming the first missionary-to-the-other-side, is sent home. Jesus sends him home. Did you notice that? ‘Go home to your own.’ Take your wife out for dinner. Play with your kids. That’s where it all begins. The sea can be crossed tomorrow. The Decapolis is not going anywhere. Go home. I’m going to take him at his word.

Sun, Day 13

Three times in church today and I think I feel a bit of culture shock. The day began near the coast, in a large (I would say urban or maybe urbane) Mennonite church just east of Montevideo, first in German, think O Sacred Head Now Wounded, and then in Spanish with 8x the attendance and that much more in volume too from a 6 piece band. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many youth in a single church service. Communion in both services—mini-loaves and, wouldn’t you know it, the very same little glasses of grape juice we’ve used at First for as long as I can remember. It ended in a little quonset-like building, in the rain, in a town north of the city, another Mennonite church and another band—which made the previous one seem rather restrained by comparison. That’s not quite true. The day actually began with me lurching out of bed, my alarm having failed to do its job, barely making my first ride of the day at 8:00. And it ended with a memorable midnight ride in a 1972 VW bug (!) which I’ll not soon forget. I thought we’d fall apart with every pothole.

And in between I saw the passion and the participation which have come to define the Uruguayan Mennonite churches for me. Passion to be together. And I’d guess that applies as much to the early morning German service in la Cuidad de la Costa, which is dwindling and by most accounts headed in only one direction, as it obviously does to the Spanish service at which we ended the day, in Sauce, where we stayed for a good hour afterward in the rain and the cool amidst hugs and mate and running children. The participation included me this evening, which wasn’t a complete surprise. Enough of a surprise to get the adrenaline flowing, though, and maybe the Spirit too. I prayed for them, on our behalf, and they prayed for us. They prayed for Mira (whose birthday is tomorrow), which was touching, and they prayed for me.

The pastor of that church gets there by motorbike, along with his wife, which takes about 45 minutes. When it rains, they take two buses which means a considerably longer trip. He works a rotating shift at a plastic factory half an hour in the other direction. You get the picture. His son-in-law leads the music. His grandkids play among the pews. His parents pastor down the road. And I have no idea how he finds the energy to do what he does. That’s not quite true either. I am humbled at his faith that God will provide.

Sat, Day 12

What does it mean to confess an incarnate Lord? Incarnate—fleshly like you and I—acculturated and socialized, then and there, but until what point? We can agree with Paul—‘emptied himself’ / ‘form of a slave’ / ‘in the likeness of humanity’—but just exactly how seriously do we take that? How seriously do we take the way Mark appears to have wanted to leave things (i.e., to end things)? If we’re reading ‘canonically,’ what do we do with the apparent ending of Mk (16:9-20) which has every other appearance of being secondary? Can we still go back to Galilee (Mk 16:1-8) if Mk’s appenders would have it otherwise? And what about faith: Who has it? Do you need it? Does it follow?

We worked our way through Mark’s miracle stories today and lo and behold we managed to make a day of it. A bit of tension along the way. (See above.) Which just goes to show that this stuff matters, somehow, enough to raise the emotions. Much vulnerability. MUCH vulnerability. There is a wonderful openness to sharing of the way in which God has been present in life here, and an immediacy to that, but also a willingness to tell of the hardship and struggle that life tends to bring, and an immediacy to that too. Good food. Songs, some familiar to me and some not. And prayer. The normally taken-for-granted round of introductions—name and why you’re here—had us standing on holy ground from the get go, amidst one story after another of tragic loss and surprising presence, of death and life, and somewhere in there, of miracle. It turns out that that is also part of reading the Bible, that is, the lives (and hopes and bitter losses) which we bring to the text. I’m not sure I had realized that to the degree I realized it today. Mark, who I guess knew a thing or two about loss, carried us the rest of the way, and we tried not to turn away.

After it all, I was given (among other things) a well-worn mate gourd, commissioned by the Mennonite church in Buenos Aires, with the inscription: No hay caminos para la paz; la paz es el camino. (There are not ways to peace; peace is the way.) Pope Francis has one too, apparently, so I’m in good company. Perhaps one could say something similar about the Bible and our need to read it together: it’s not necessarily, or only, where we get that matters; it matters that we read.

Fri, Day 11

Started the second workshop this evening. Stop. No deep thoughts left. Stop. Joined by a group of church leaders (women) from Argentina. Stop. Which has already made for some fascinating discussion. Stop. Can we call Jesus a local curandero (the village shaman)? Stop. Do we dare? Stop. Mark might have something to say about that. Stop. I think we’re ready for tomorrow. Stop. But it’s time for bed. Stop. And good night.

Thurs, Day 10

You know you’ve arrived when someone asks you for directions, even if, as happened to me this morning, you really havn’t a clue. There is something about fitting in or looking the part or being trusted, perhaps, that we desire—that I desire—especially when in so many ways, even here in Montevideo where everyone comes from away, I am obviously ‘other.’ That’s a tiring thing, I’m discovering (again). One never quite knows… Is it a handshake, a hug or a kiss that is appropriate? Is it rude to give in to this headache and go to bed early tonight? What exactly does ‘a la hora de cenar’ (at suppertime) mean? Whose ‘hora de cenar’? And I even know the language! Perhaps it’s just nice to know that there is someone else out there that doesn’t know where she is going either.

Today I had lunch with the president of the Convención—the group of 12 or so Spanish speaking Mennonite churches located mostly in Montevideo though not entirely—and her sister. And after a wonderfully interesting four hour (!) ‘chat,’ I have to say it’s the convergences in our experiences of church that stick with me: The church sees a lot of people with a lot of needs; not as many stay as we would like. Bridge figures are important but let’s not forget that bridges tend to get walked on. The demands of everyday, local ministry make it difficult to attend to, much less to foster, connections / questions which are less immediate but probably no less important. Conflict will come; but it will also go, and go more quickly if we learn to listen first. To get away you really have to get away. We are a global church but that really has to do with relationships. Or, to turn that around, our claim to ‘global’ fame is only as strong as the relationships which sustain it. None of that should come as news, I don’t think. But sometimes, even when you think you know the answer, it pays to ask for directions.

Wed, Day 9

Uruguay-s-LocationToday it rained. A lot. Which is better than snow, I suppose, but has the same effect of slowing everything down. And so it was with my day. An eddy before the current picks me up again and sends me on down the river. With the wind and the rain, even my afternoon meeting was off. So I can confidently say I know no more about the Uruguayan Mennonite church today than I did yesterday! Except perhaps that living in Montevideo, Mennonite or otherwise, one deals with the occasional thunderstorm that blows in off the ocean, from the south. I’m reminded, as the temperature drops, that we’re not that far from colder waters, in this the southernmost capital city in South America. And the truth is that since my arrival here things have been a little overheated, about 10°C warmer than normal, though I’m sure I don’t know why. 🙂
It’s an interesting thing to be housebound, at the best of times; but when you’re counting the days, stretching to soak in as much of ‘it’ as you can, it is all that much more… interesting. I won’t say frustrating because the eddy is a part of life too, maybe even the majority of life, and even though I tend to buck against it, I’m happy to be feeling a whole lot more prepared for the weekend than I was at this time yesterday. There is a time to stand and wait, as Milton wrote (On His Blindness), or, if you’re in Uruguay, to sit and drink mate, and a purpose in it too. Each one takes a turn, sipping slowly and methodically, until the gourd is empty. One pours. The gourd makes the round, almost rhythmically. There’s a certain energy in that. And that is good because tomorrow is another day.

Tues, Day 8

One week ago, at about this point late Tues night, I was somewhere high about the Amazon, wondering whether anyone was down there watching us pass through the night sky. My memories of Uruguay consisted of (i) playing tennis in the sand dunes at a beach somewhere, (ii) the prospect of my parents attending a symphony at a grand old theatre in downtown Montevideo leaving my brother and I who knows where, and (iii) trying out our new skateboards (bought in Paraguay) on the Seminary driveway. I havn’t seen a beach yet. I looked for the theatre yesterday without success. In my memory it is way too big to be missed. And the Seminary, it turns out, had already moved to Asuncion some 15 years before our visit. So much for my memory!

But that is good and proper I guess, that things become more complicated the longer and closer one becomes involved. It is good and proper that reality intervenes in the way we would have things be, ideally or idyllically, because reality has a way of bringing us face to face with other folks who are (also) just trying to make a go of it, who might even become good friends; less regal sounding than ‘THE Uruguayan Mennonite Church,’ to be sure, and a lot harder to report on—Who is ‘the church’ after all?—but a whole lot warmer, and more fun to be around too. I met some of those folks today, who could become good friends. In a week from now I’ll be landing in Toronto, Dios mediante, with a new set of memories. Here’s hoping they don’t get in the way.

Mon, Day 7

Montevideo2So today I screwed up my courage and went for a walk downtown. Which meant a bus ride to the old city. On my own in a sea of others. There and, God willing, back. It took me 5 minutes simply to unlock the front gate. Not a good omen. But the rest went swimmingly. Actually it was hot enough to swim today (for a Canadian at least). And the old city of Montevideo is sort of hemmed in on both sides by water—the Rio Plata—so there was even the possibility, until I got close enough to see the water, which was not exactly inviting. In any case the beaches are said to be further to the… east I think. Still, my purpose today was the old city and that turned out to be an interesting thing. A couple dozen blocks of old colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, balconies and street vendors and musicians—think postcard Cuba: I stepped into a shop full (!) of accordions and an old poster of Astor Piazolla and the fellow actually sat down and serenaded me—but the whole thing is surrounded not only by water but also by nondescript concrete apartment blocks on one side, flying the flag of the left wing coalition that seems to have won a majority yesterday, and an industrial port land on the other. In case you’re tempted to forget the real world I guess.

1414515979980This evening I joined another pastoral couple for another prayer meeting, in the real world. This one in the shadow of the Cerro, which is the hill overlooking the harbour from which the Spanish defended their claim to the area. I hadn’t been there yet, and didn’t think I was going, because the last person to mention it said he’d been robbed at gunpoint when he was there. The church is down the hill a bit. It’s a converted chicken operation of some sort. And by converted I mean completely redone. It is actually a marvel and quite clearly a source of pride for one and all who gathered tonight and will each night this week for prayer, in anticipation of communion on Saturday. They do that once a month. Otherwise the pattern is already familiar: prayer meeting on Mon, worship on Wed and Sat, youth on Fri. What was different about this particular ‘First’ Mennonite Church, first on the Cerro, was the volume. We are ‘gritones’ the pastor warned me. In other words, we like to holler. I’ve been in louder churches… but I’m pretty sure, from the unused instruments on the stage, that today was rather tame. It was a prayer meeting after all. And above it all, beside the big bold letters, DIOS ES BUENO (God is good) which stand above the purple curtains, is 1 Cor 3:11—For no one can lay any foundation other than that which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. I wonder what Menno would have thought of these bearers of his name? Perhaps he would have liked to holler himself, once in a while, on the stage coach, for instance, as they looked for him inside. It might have done him good. We could all use a good holler now and then. But in the meantime I will continue to say, as I did again tonight, that we live in the same Spirit, whether here or there, like those first believers in Acts, even as that same Spirit tends to come out rather more quietly at FMC. And I will even believe it. They are praying for us.


 Sun, Day 6

Iglesia Menonita La Foresta

Iglesia Menonita de La Floresta

Two times in church today. Three times at the ballot box with church folks. As an observer, at least as regards the election. It’s compulsory to vote in Uruguay (!) and a good reason to get out and see the city. Nonetheless it’s clear that the Mennonite church here struggles with the same ambivalence toward the world of politics as the Mennonite church in Canada, or at least in KW. In Uruguay that comes with the additional weight of an extended period of brutal dictatorship from c. 1973-1985.

In the morning service, after two trips to the ballot box, the pastor of the Floresta church—she’s been pastor here for many years—spoke on 1 Timothy 2:1-15. Very bravely. Read it when you have a moment and you’ll see the irony. And in the front row centre sat a couple who have fled Colombia with their kids, now facing the hard decision of whether to return or make a new life in (gulp) Sao Paolo. That would be in Portugese. Population: too many. Between a rock and a hard place he said to me. Which sounds strangely familiar.

In the evening service, after another trip to the ballot box, we turned to Romans 13:1-7. In a very neat, 4 or 5 yr old building, built by the congregation themselves, with a playground out front and a mini cancha de futbol beside. The pastoral couple, with three young children in various stages of needing attention through the service, also seemed familiar, strangely. 😉 Afterward, he talked of their decision to make Mondays their family day. A little bit revolutionary here I think. But a good reminder of what I’m probably guilty of taking for granted.


Sat, Day 5

Is it only Day 5? With the first workshop over and done, it somehow feels like I should be halfway through. We began last night with a good group. I walked in at 7:30 to find four people already in their seats! Today I found out they had been told it stared at 7:00. 🙂 Today we began more to pattern, later than anticipated, with a group which turned out to be smaller than anticipated. The young people, whom yesterday added a bit of zest to the proceedings, were busy at a church event. Turns out many of the churches likewise take Sat to do everything which they can’t do during the week. (Work is hard to come by here in Uruguay, despite what the unemployment figures project. And it’s hard to get away. The more things change…) In any case, it made for an interesting day. Much more intimate than I might have imagined. Much less according to plan. And perhaps also more vulnerable. It is a challenge in one day to foster the sort of space which allows an eclectic bunch of Bible readers to enter into the gospels, all four of them, not simply to find out what’s there (which we expect to do) but also to think critically about what we find there (which we normally would rather avoid). The process itself is valuable, maybe most because it brings us face to face with each other and in particular with our own idiosyncrasies. That is, after all, at least in part what we find in the four gospels when we read them side by side, idiosyncrasies that is, which nonetheless serve to invite us into a conversation which has been going on for a long time but I dare say still waits for us to join.


 Fri, Day 4

And then I went to church. In a room half the size of our north foyer ENTRANCE. Yes that would be between the outer door and the inner door. With a table and a couch and a collection of plastic chairs and, of course, a computer and TV screen on the wall… for the songs. With a window open to the street, we left no doubt in any who might have passed by, what was going on. (No singing in hushed voices for fear of raising suspicion on this night!) A wonderfully friendly, engaging, honest and down to earth group of people. One of the newest Mennonite congregations, ironically (says the pastor) self-titled the Soldiers of Christ.

That was last night. Today I crossed the tracks to have lunch with a German Uruguayan Mennonite couple, in Spanish. (If that seems like a mouthful, well, it is.) Equally delightful and earnest. They participate in the only church that I’ve come across so far (maybe the churches in the Colonies are headed in this direction as well) which worships in Spanish AND German. So you can understand my interest. They’ve recently turned to Spanish every week. That’s been hard, predictably. They hold a German service before the Spanish service twice a month. But you can imagine who attends. What I found most inspiring was their ability to celebrate the growth which has resulted in the church… even as they minister to those who mourn the loss of what was, and do so themselves to a certain extent. German immigrants are not exactly flocking to Uruguay any more, so it’s likely we all know where this story ends. And yet, in the meantime, they publish a bulletin in German every month, they meet with the women from the other German churches (in the Colonies), and they trust that what they’ve done here, what’s been planted here with no little effort and hardship in the last 50 years, will not go for nought. For wont of a better way to say it, they soldier on.


Thurs, Day 3

Bird of paradise

Bird of paradise

The sun is shining again, despite the fact that the local soccer team lost, last night, to an Argentinian rival. There is a bird outside my window, which is yellow, and has a beautiful song, so long as you’re not trying to take a siesta. I had forgotten the beauty of that custom. I walked by a bird of paradise bush in full bloom. The change in season here is in full swing, only we’re going in the opposite direction. It is spring.

All of which serves to remind me that I’m not in Ontario any more. (Sometimes I’m a little slow!) And then I sat down—I should have been taking my siesta ahead of the worship service this evening but truth be told I’m not much good at that—to flip through one of the songbooks the Spanish speaking churches use, those that don’t simply use the internet that is. And suddenly the distance is not so far. Heilig, heilig, heilig. Lord you have come to the lakeshore. In Spanish of course. El Alfarero. Enviado soy de Dios. Dios esta aqui. These are the same songs we sang last weekend so very far away. Not a surprise, necessarily. But certainly a reminder of how small things are or might be, were we to take notice.


Wed, Day 2:

Two days. Two conversations about homosexuality. For a subject that is apparently off the table, it is apparently not so far off the table. At least it is present in the mind. Or perhaps it is the presence of this North American that brings it to mind.

Today I met a pastor, 43, newly minted. He grew up in the church, here on the grounds of the Centro de Estudios, but after being asked to lead a new group in his home, which numbers about 25, he’s now attending an independent, interdenominational seminary to get some sense of theological grounding. Very interesting. He does that on Mon and Tues evenings, after beginning work at 4:00 AM (!) as a bus driver. Wed night is prayer meeting. Thurs night is the worship service. Friday night the youth gather, with the leadership of his daughter. Once a month he meets with other pastors of the Spanish-speaking Uruguayan Mennonite churches. They’ve started a praise and worship service once a month on Saturday. And Sunday he attends the mother church. Can you imagine? What’s interesting, in the midst of all this, is his desire to approach things as an Anabaptist and, all the more, his commitment to seek this out even when it is not exactly easy or forthcoming here in Montevideo. I didn’t ask him why. It seemed self-evident. But maybe I will tomorrow, when I join his group for worship.

He was late this afternoon. Had to take his car to be repaired by a friend of a friend. He had 20 pesos to his name the other day. His wife is off work and facing an early retirement because of her health. “God is calling us to rely on him” he says, before running off to this evening’s prayer meeting. May we all, likewise, learn to rely on God, whether or not we are so close to the edge.



Rene with a group of Uruguayan pastors and students at the Centro.

Tues, Day 1:

I woke up this morning to a rooster, a very big (and, I now know, friendly) dog barking right outside my window, which has bars, of course, drinkable yoghurt in bags (!), dulce de leche and of course the question of whether the toilet would take my toilet paper. (It did.) And graffiti. Right outside my window. Through the bars, over the gate, on the other side of the street: ‘No hace falta las halas para hacer un sueno’ / You don’t need wings to reach your dreams.

Interesting to be reminded of that each morning. This place (the Mennonite Study Centre) has a long history, relatively speaking. It certainly has a long history in terms of the Uruguayan Mennonite church. The library—made up of 2 or 3 shelves of extra books left over when the ‘real’ library moved with the Seminary to Paraguay in 1974—is testament to that. The slide’s rusty red and blue seems to say as much. The soccer nets which have seen their share of repairs. But there are also dreams here, still, I think. Where is God leading? The Mennonite church in Uruguay seems to be expanding. There are four churches that form the German Konferenz, one that now worships every week in Spanish. Many more that form the Spanish Convencion. And several more which seem to be going it alone, somewhere in between. One met for the first time last week. There is a will to do things from an Anabaptist perspective, if not always a way. But there are still dreams.

I met with a prayer group here this evening. There are troubles as well here, as there are in KW, of mind and body and soul. And at the end of the day we ask God to take care of them… and us.

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