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Mennonites in Brazil celebrate transition from a receiving to a sending church


(l-r) Steve Plenert and Dan Nighswander present a plaque to Hans Gerhard Peters, president of AEM to signify a pledge of continuing relationship.

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October 4, 2005
- from reports, with quotation translations from Portuguese to English by Steve Plenert

Winnipeg, Man. — In Brazil, birthdays are big events, celebrated with parties, music and of course a suitable cake. So it was natural for the Associação Evangélica Menonita (Evangelical Mennonite Association, or AEM) to celebrate its 50th birthday with a party, lots of music and a 50 kilogram cake.

The “party” was held in conjunction with the annual conference of the AEM (now re-named Alianca Evangélica Menonita) at a retreat centre near Brasília, the capital. Delegates drove up to 20 hours from as far away as Recife in the northeast and Curitiba in the south. During the evening worship services the attendance swelled to almost 300, many of them youth and young adults.

The 50th anniversary celebration marked a transition of the AEM from being a church receiving missionaries and financial support from North America, to being financially self-supporting and an international partner in ministry. It now has its own mission board and has sent mission workers to serve in Albania and Mozambique.

Several speakers made the point that the church is not independent but interdependent with many other national churches, including other Mennonites in Brazil. There has been, for example, increasing collaboration with the German-speaking conference, the Associação das Igrejas Menonitas do Brasil (AIMB). Several persons who have served in both conferences attended, including Alfred Pauls and Peter Siemens, both of whom preached in the extended worship services.

Siemens’ message wove together themes from Anabaptism, the history of Brazil, the AEM story and the experiences of individual church members. He spoke of pain and tragedy, of brokenness and failure, of the church’s calling to be prophetic and the difficulty of being so.

Hans Gerhard Peters, the newly elected president of Alianca Evangélica Menonita, said, “Most certainly the memories of living and working together with Mennonite workers from Canada and of the organization they brought to us will always remain close in my heart.”

Dan Nighswander, General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, and Stanley and Ursula Green, representing Mennonite Mission Network, represented the historical relationship with the North American Church and the future of partnership in the gospel. Margarit and Michel Ummel and their children represented the Swiss Mennonite Church.

In bringing greetings from Mennonite Church Canada, Nighswander recognized the history of sending Canadian missionaries and expressed hopes for future church-to-church relationships. Noting that the two national churches are peers before God, each discerning what God’s purpose is for the world and what its particular calling is, Nighswander pledged to continue walking together with AEM. That pledge was symbolized by giving Hans Gerhard Peters, AEM President, a Mennonite Church Canada plaque symbolizing the partnership. The Brazilians were pleased to be recognized as equal partners in the gospel. Steve Plenert, a former missionary in Brazil, was honoured for his family’s contribution. He also brought greetings on behalf of his wife, Janet, now the Director of International Ministries for Mennonite Church Canada.

Other missionaries from North America were also honoured in the gathering for their work in establishing churches and many other ministries. Canadian long-time missionaries Ken and the late Grace Schwartzentruber were remembered for their 32 years of service. Several other Canadians (most of them from BC) have also served in Brazil under the former mission agencies of Mennonite Board of Missions and Commission on Overseas Mission—now Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network (USA).

Some of the former missionaries were present for the birthday party and were invited forward several times to receive words and prayers of gratitude. In addition to Steve Plenert, Glenn and Lois Musselman, David and Rose Hostetler, Fran and Bob Gerber, Betty and Otis Hochstetler, received words of blessing.

Like Mennonite Church Canada, AEM faces challenges in being a national church. A new constitution, unanimously approved after vigorous discussion, gives greater autonomy to the five regions of the church. Delegates recognized the great distance between the churches, the limited resources for travel and the tendency to localize ministries like education and church planting.

Peters lamented the virtual disappearance of Mennonite publishing and leadership development in the country, noting that the church in Brazil has, of necessity, focused on local mission and outreach, but added that the church would not be where it is today were it not for the resources brought by North American mission efforts.

“Many of the projects that were initiated here in Brazil, like the bookstores and the leadership training program, would have been impossible without the support of North American mission workers,” he said. He also invited continued support from international partner churches, both directly and indirectly.

Meanwhile, mission director of the Brazil church, Paulo Campos, added, “It’s really important in a church to develop [mission] consciousness among pastors and leaders early on so that they in turn can form congregations with this notion of a culture of mission, so that there is a sense of a whole church being a sending church, not just sending individuals.” Paulo noted that the Brazil church is also active in international mission, with efforts currently focused in Mozambique and Albania.

Conference attendee and long-time dedicated church worker Sirlani Coimbra Pereira credits Mennonite mission in her country for her conversion to faith. “I don’t fee that the church in Canada is far away, that it feels more like an extension of the church here and that we feel more like an extension of the Canadian church and so we are all part of the same church,” she said.

They churches in Brazil also recognize the importance of remaining in relationship with one another. Though the distance between some congregations is great, they seek to draw on the strengths that each brings. Tensions sometimes arise because each region originated under different circumstances and was shaped by different leaders. In the past, differences over worship styles and theology have threatened to divide them. In this year’s conference there were expressions of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Part of the gathering on July 21-23 carried the usual delegate discussions and votes. But above all it was a party celebrating God’s blessings over fifty years.

“Fifteen hours of worship in a three-day conference featured rousing singing, passionate preaching, animated corporate prayer, vibrant testimonies and sincere gratitude for God’s presence and blessing. It was a wonderful birthday party. With God’s grace, may there be many more,” said Nighswander.