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A social gospel for social change in Chile


Omar Cortes-Gaibur, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Chile since 2000, says of his ministry, "In the Anabaptist manner, authentic theological questions come out of the walk of following [Jesus]."

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May 26, 2006
- by Dan Dyck
- translation assistance by Rebecca Yoder Neufeld

Santiago, Chile - Omar Cortes-Gaibur believes strongly that the church and the government in Chile need to work together to affect positive social change.

Cortes-Gaibur, an international ministry worker for Mennonite Church Canada Witness, has evidence that this is true: What began in 2000 has a church-sponsored shelter for abused women (the 5&2 Multiplying for All organization), two years ago morphed into the Prevention Center for Domestic Violence.

The transition occurred in partnership with City Hall and the National Women's affairs ministry. It was recently recognized by the federal government as "one of the best teams" in the country. Social work and education students now use the Center to work on their theses. In 2007, the Center will primarily be managed by the municipality. The church board will be a collaborating organization, offering violence prevention programs for youth and women.

The challenges of social reform in Chile are multiple. Violence and domestic abuse are wide-spread, present even in many church communities. Maintaining a Christian identity in a violent culture, where religion has often accepted and justified violence, is difficult.

And church collaboration with government has its own moral risks. In "very critical social situations" Cortes says it's important for leaders to keep their identity as a church and resist the temptation of power.

A third and significant challenge is theological diversity. Protestants and evangelicals comprise only 20% of the population, but leave a significant imprint on society. Catholics, says Cortes-Gaibur, feel threatened by the explosive growth of the Pentecostal sector. At the same time, many evangelicals wish for the same state benefits the Catholic Church has historically enjoyed in Latin America. Ecumenical tolerance continues to be a problem from both the Catholic and evangelical perspectives. "In this context the Anabaptist vision becomes very valuable and important to apply," he adds.

In a context where social ministry needs are great, Cortes-Gaibur has little time to sit still. Last year he helped to establish "Sanctuaries of Peace", a neighbourhood abuse and domestic violence prevention program that involves local churches.

The idea sprouted through his work with others. In addition to his teaching role at the Baptist Seminary in Santiago (he teaches Ethics and Systematic Theology from an Anabaptist perspective), Cortes-Gaibur is the executive secretary of the Latin American Theological Fraternity and a member of the board of the El Camino Network, where he is a connector and resource person to a network of local congregations interested in missional church thinking. Conchali's City Hall (Conchali is in the Santiago Metropolitan Region) and Compassion have also become involved in Sanctuaries of Peace.

Becoming a Sanctuary of Peace requires a congregation to become part of a violence prevention campaign in the neighborhood. Churches commit themselves to respectful treatment of others and to be a place of support for victims of violence and abuse. Then, local government joins with the community to proclaim the church as a "Sanctuary of Peace."

"Six churches are receiving training to attend cases of abuse, domestic violence and sending specific cases for professional treatment," reports Cortes-Gaibur. "People will recognize this as a place where young and old can find refuge from abuse or violence."

Cortes-Gaibur hopes the program will eventually take root in other churches, cities and countries. Conchali's mayor Carlos Sottoloccio, in the presence of 50 evangelical pastors, said, "Can you imagine how we could change the face of our city if just the 50% of your churches are part of this significant program?"

The program has caught the attention of UNICEF which is now offering sponsorship and training. A similar program is to be started in the Dominican Republic. In May, Cortes-Gaibur together with 35 representatives of religious groups attended UNICEF's global consultation called "Mobilizing Religions to Address Violence against Children" in Spain. This meeting brought together religious representatives and experts to discuss issues of violence and child protection. The consultation is part of the United Nations Study on Violence against Children and will help ensure that the Study process involves the voice, values and commitment of the world's religious communities.

The significance of such affirmation is enormous. Since it began a year ago, more churches have expressed interest, in spite of obstacles. "The main barrier in having churches adopt this program is that domestic violence exists within their communities also. They seek to avoid the topic," Cortes-Gaibur says.

Although he teaches at a seminary, edits books on theology, and organizes theological events (he is on a planning team for the fifth Latin American Evangelism Congress), Cortes-Gaibur is always working at ways to put the theological rubber on the road.

"My ministry [seeks] to create an ambiance of collaboration between churches, overcoming denominational differences in the common desire to serve the Kingdom of God. Many churches of different denominations are interested in learning from the Anabaptist model and its peace theology.

"They are very receptive if the message is presented effectively as an alternative, a third way. There is a sort of saturation with traditional evangelical discourse and it is lamentable that many Mennonite churches in Latin America do not go back to their roots and transmit the Anabaptist message in the midst of the urgent need that we have in our continent," reflects Cortes-Gaibur.

The intensity of his multifaceted ministry makes it difficult to regularly stay in touch with supporters, and for that he asks forgiveness. He asks that the Canada-wide church keep him in their prayers, " ... so that I can continue being in some way of help in our mission context.

"One can't do theology from the balcony. It is impossible in Latin America to develop theological activity without having ones feet in the midst of people's problems. It is tension-filled, it is difficult and tiring, but it is part of the cross in Latin America."