Renewing a Covenant with the Methodist Church in Bolivia
Late in August Elgin District Superintendent Oscar Carrasco and his wife Joyce along with Ken and I traveled to Bolivia to renew the covenant with the Iglesia Metodista Evangelica en Bolivia (IEMB). We almost didn’t land in La Paz after our red-eye flight from Miami because of an unusual snow storm there. But we landed and our United Methodist missionary in Bolivia, Skip Hodges, weathered the storm in his jeep and picked us up with no problem. We later in the week found him to be quite an adept driver when the main road we were on was blockaded and we literally drove across paths through the fields to get where we were going!
We spent the first full day in La Paz with Bishop Javier Rojas and his staff. You may remember him from when he attended annual conference in 2012. During those conversations, we renewed the covenant between the IEMB and the Northern Illinois Annual Conference.
The second day we headed north and west toward a town called Copacabana. On the way there, we stopped in a small town by the name of Ancoraimes. I expected a nice reception with a few songs and speeches. But no sooner had we arrived than they were dressing the Carrasco’s, Ken and me with the indigenous dress. For me they put on a big skirt called a pollera (easily weighing 10 pounds), a shawl around my shoulders, and another cloth called an aguaya that held 25 pounds of potatoes on my back (there is some dispute on the actual poundage) with a traditional hat of felted wool which I had to balance on my head (which reminded me of when the women of Liberia tried to teach me to carry water on my head) and a small bag for good measure. This was all on top of my long-sleeved t-shirt, a polartec vest, and a polartec jacket (it was probably about 25 degrees outside). But it was fine, the clothing was beautiful.
After some introductions, a few songs, and a few speeches, one of the Aymara leaders of the town grabbed my hand and before I knew it, all of us were dancing hand in hand, back and forth, at breakneck speed down the street into the town square where there were all the other people of the town, seated along the outside wall, watching the commotion of a band playing at earsplitting volumes (modern technology has nothing on the indigenous instruments).
All this at an altitude of over 13,000 feet! I can normally run for an hour and not feel winded but I barely got to the town square when I was totally winded, exhausted and dizzy! But you can’t pass out in front of the whole town, so I kept on going. We returned to the church courtyard for more songs and speeches until it was time to leave. What an impressive reception!
The Methodists in Ancoraimes, like the other places where we visited, such as Huacuyo and Chua, and where the Northern Illinois Conference and other annual conferences have provided funds and work teams, are pleased with the contributions and work on the construction of their churches. But they hope that there will continue to be funds and work teams sent by us and other U.S. partners so they can be completed soon.
We continued across the hills and mountains until we got to Lake Titicaca and then we continued until we arrived in Copacabana where Jeff Wasilevich and Deborah Rissing live and work as Volunteers in Mission. About 2 1/2 years ago, Deb and Jeff literally sold all they have to go and serve the poor. (They’d be embarrassed for me to describe it that way but there’s no exaggeration here.) They’ve been in Bolivia since, and having gone there with no Spanish-speaking skills, they now converse fluently with their neighbors and were able to translate. They also speak a little bit of the indigenous language of the Aymara.
Jeff and Deb are doing wonderful work on our behalf in this area of Bolivia; a sparse, even barren, almost scrub-like land. It has rich soil but its weather conditions make it difficult to grow many crops. The people are very poor; Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.
Working with the Methodist church in Copacabana and in the surrounding communities, they assist volunteer teams in constructing church buildings and help with other projects, such as building community greenhouses that can provide food throughout the year. Other agricultural projects include cuy production; cuy are guinea pigs and evidently are a delicacy.
Jeff and Deb live in Copacabana, shop in the market (careful to rotate their support of the local vendors so as to maintain good relationships), don’t own a car so that they take the same overcrowded buses as their neighbors when they want to go up to Peru or over to La Paz for supplies, and are active in the Iglesia Metodista Nueva Jerusalem and the community itself.
There’s a system in Copacabana (I can’t say for sure if it applies to the whole country) where as a resident if you don’t put in your community service, you can’t get cooking gas. So Jeff and Deb have a card that shows they’ve assisted with community work projects and attended community meetings which they must submit in order to get cooking gas without a fine.
Furthermore, Deb teaches health classes throughout the region (especially dental care–it’s obvious that many adults have very poor dental health) and she teaches English to all ages. Especially children, youth and young adults are eager to learn English because they know that will provide them with more opportunities in the future. Presently she is also substituting for a local teacher in the school who just had a baby but has no maternity leave. The teacher would lose her job if she took time off so Deb is teaching her English classes for grades 1-12 for two months.
Skip Hodges is a pastor from the North Texas/New Mexico Annual Conference and is a commissioned missionary by the General Board of Global Ministries. He assists volunteer work teams when they come to Bolivia along with our apportioned and advance dollars as well as individual support, but Jeff and Deb as Volunteers in Mission rely totally on support from individuals and churches for their Mision Fronteras. (You can give to their Advance #3021288 for the Peru-Bolivia Lake Titicaca Border Mission. Although the Peruvian part of the Border Mission is not functioning and the money goes toward Jeff and Deb’s work in Bolivia.)
In the midst of a life of poverty that’s harsh and unrelenting, where women are often treated with open disrespect, with no surety of medical care should one get sick, the gospel of Jesus Christ is sometimes the only thing that gives joy, gets people–especially women–out of their homes, and gives them a sense of being surrounded by people who love them and care for them. Church gives them hope and life! And yet the women of Bolivia are not always recognized for their leadership in the church.
The churches we visited have a desire to help their neighbors. I told the people gathered for the final celebration when we signed the covenant that in some ways I was trying to do some of the same things in the Northern Illinois Conference – it just looks different! Given our communities and their needs, what are we doing to help people be as healthy and whole as they can be? How are we empowering people in our communities? How engaged are we with our communities?
In Chicago, we are just beginning to roll out steps to assess what each church is doing in their neighborhoods in each of the four areas we are using in Chicago to address: poverty, community safety, food security, education and literacy, and restorative justice.
But in every community throughout the Northern Illinois Conference, there are opportunities (we often call them “problems”) to reach out to make the community healthier and more whole, to look for where our neighbors are in need and to assist them. These same areas apply to the needs of most communities in the Northern Illinois Conference. Just recently a study revealed that the poverty in suburban Chicago is just slightly less than that of the city itself. Rural northern Illinois also suffers from extreme poverty in many places.
Bolivia is a tough place to visit, I think, primarily because of the altitude. Maybe it was the thin air, but it made me think metaphorically that as Christians we often want to live high above the problems of the world but the air is rarified there and we forget what Jesus taught us, or even called us to do: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor. We may not literally do as Jeff and Deb did, but all of us are called to find ways to make our faith real, make God incarnate through such tangible, material, hopeful, and earthy things as cuy, greenhouses, and substituting for two months as an English teacher if you’re in Bolivia.
How is God calling you to make God incarnate through tangible, material, hopeful and even earthy ways?
~Bishop Sally Dyck