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Chilean Church revels in its Anabaptist identity
February 9, 2004
Concepción, Chile— People were eager and enthusiastic. The details were in place. The keynote speaker had arrived.
It was the first time a group of emerging Anabaptist congregations in Concepción, Chile, had met together for formal Anabaptist studies.
Response to the teachings of John Driver—author, teacher, professor of church history, and missionary for almost four decades in Latin America and Europe—was more than enthusiastic. “Rarely, if ever, have I experienced such a lively exchange on these dimensions and applications of radical faith,” wrote Driver in a follow-up report.
The nearly full-to-capacity weekend event, held at Puerta del Rebaño (Door of the Sheepfold) church, was co-sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner in the USA, Mennonite Mission Network. Begun in 1986, the congregation is stridently Anabaptist.
“We involved the whole congregation in the required duties – coordination, publicity, worship, cooking, cleaning, etc. It had to be our workshop, because we knew it would be a unique opportunity to uphold our identity as Anabaptists,” said workshop participant and planner, Felipe Elgueta.
The group’s Anabaptist perspective frequently alienates them from other evangelical churches. “Every time we say we are Anabaptists to some brother or sister from another church, he or she asks us: ‘And what’s that Anabaptist stuff?’ This, in addition to our practices and ideas… makes us feel alone and misunderstood,” Elgueta added. “It was very moving when Janet Plenert said to us, ‘I want you to know that you are not alone in your search for God.’”
Plenert, executive director of International Ministries (MC Canada Witness) also attended the event. “I shared with them about the global Anabaptist family of faith. I told them that I would tell other churches about them and that we would pray for them.”
Elgueta says the theological concepts Driver taught affirmed “…that our community had been Anabaptist long before being in contact with the Anabaptist theology. We were very moved by the stories about those dissidents of 2nd to 16th centuries, whom we see now as our predecessors, those who were also a misunderstood minority, many times pursued. We are also not alone in history.”
Driver describes the Door of the Sheepfold as “… a remarkably radical community that has gradually evolved from a variety of evangelical currents and influences.”
He notes in particular the impression made by Titus and Karen Guenther on leaders Carlos Gallardo and his wife Monica Parada. The Guenthers lived in Concepción from 1989-1994 while serving with Commission on Overseas Mission (COM), the predecessor of Mennonite Church Canada Witness. Titus is now Associate Professor of Theology and Missions at Canadian Mennonite University.
“They’re (Door of the Sheepfold) is excited about the social alternatives the gospel implies,” said Driver. “They see that the church can be a community and not a hierarchy.”
Driver, already retired for 15 years, remains amazed at the thirst for Anabaptist teachings. His teaching tour in Latin America spanned 5 weeks and several countries. He adds that the “This expression of Anabaptism offers a vision that stands in contrast to other traditional alternatives on both right and left.”
Plenert was equally impressed by the group’s desire to understand and live out their faith. “From morning until evening we met and listened to his (Driver’s) presentations. At every break John was surrounded by enthusiastic people, full of questions and comments. Both John and I were struck and amazed at the sincerity, knowledge, and depth of these people’s faith commitment and their eagerness to live out an Anabaptist understanding of their faith. They drank in the teaching for hours on end. It was sheer joy watch.”
Elgueta says that in Chilean evangelical churches it is difficult to find people with the necessary instruction and openness to sincerely seek the will of God through theological reflection. “It is still more difficult that this reflection truly engages the community,” he added, noting that most of the 60 participants were simply there to learn. “It was a workshop with a high theological level, but accessible to everyone.”
The congregation has also been working at integrating a theology of peace and non-violence into its teaching and preaching. Elgueta notes that the church is working with Mennonites in Bolivia to become more actively involved in encouraging government leaders to peacefully resolve a long standing Chile-Bolivia border dispute. The group desires “…a different vision of this topic, a vision free of poisonous nationalisms.”
The tiny congregation has important links with evangelical churches and other ministries in the region. “We believe that our work will have a great influence, compelling them to follow Christ in community, looking for peace and justice,” Elgueta said. He encourages readers to visit their church website (www.puertachile.cl).