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First Person: Corner store counseling


Titus Guenther, visiting professor at Evangelical Faculty of Theology, bestows a certificate of completion of his courses to student Victoria Castillo in Concepción, Chile. Castillo studied special courses offered by Guenther - Theology of Missions and Radical Reformation. Some of what Castillo learned was quickly put to use when Guenther connected her with a convenience store clerk experiencing marriage difficulties. "This possibility of taking your theology courses at FET I hadn't dared to dream about because I couldn't have afforded this. But the invitation to enroll tuition-free to students from Puerta del Rebaño, I see it as God having heard my prayer before I even uttered it,” Castillo told Guenther.

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April 13, 2006
- Titus Guenther*

Concepción, Chile — I like to walk to my temporary office while on a sabbatical teaching assignment with Mennonite Church Canada in Concepción, Chile. I have no car and prefer to use my bus fare money for snacks. And, I get 15 minutes of exercise to boot.

This particular morning, on my way to the Evangelical Faculty of Theology (FET), I step into a little corner store recommended to me by FET folks. I select a handful of fruits from the stands and a couple of snack-sized yogurts that are on sale, and wait my turn to pay the cashier. Sarah (not her real name) is perhaps in her mid-forties. She serves me courteously, but asks in a whisper if I would wait a little; she’d like to talk to me after the other customers go on their way.

As the last shopper leaves, Sarah begins cautiously to tell me about her troubles: marriage problems, her husband. Next to the pastor, her husband is the most powerful leader in their congregation – part of one of the oldest Protestant denominations in Chile. To whom can she turn for help?

I feel a bit bewildered. Is Sarah placing an incredible, undeserved trust in me, a perfect stranger, or is this a calculated strategy? Is Sarah so distraught that she is willing to take the chance on an unknown gringo (foreigner), hoping to share with someone anonymous the troubles weighing her down? If it is indeed blind trust, how can I avoid disappointing her?

I suddenly realize this is both a cross-cultural and cross-gender situation. Though I have some years of experience with Chilean culture, here I’m faced with additional challenges. It occurs to me that I could put Sarah in touch with Victoria, a mature student and member of the Anabaptist Puerta del Rebaño congregation in Concepción. Victoria has spoken candidly about her own marriage breakdown and how her church and the women’s group in it helped her to cope. Surely Victoria understands the culture and gender dynamics as I never will.

One of the courses Victoria attended was Theology of Missions – which included John H. Yoder’s book, The Fullness of Christ. This was most empowering to students, particularly women, since it asserts there is no person in the church without a ministry, and rejects the division between clergy and laity, and between men and women. Happily, Sarah welcomes the suggestion to see Victoria.

Happily, too, Victoria willingly begins visiting Sarah as time allows, hearing her story and praying together. As the weeks go by, the relief in Sarah’s face signals that the times with Victoria are indeed helpful.

During a later visit to her store, Sarah slips in a wrapped piece of cheese with the things I had come to buy. I protest. “But I haven’t paid for that.” She responds wistfully. “Let’s just say it’s a ‘blessing’.”

*Titus Guenther, professor of Theology and Missions at Canadian Mennonite University, spent close to four months (from late Aug. to mid Dec.) in Chile as part of his sabbatical, teaching Anabaptist theology to Evangelical-Protestant seminary students and visiting Anabaptist-Mennonite churches there. He was also on special assignment from MC Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network.