… is it still about cheese …?

I have been in and out of Mennonite colonies over the years that Kathy and I lived in Bolivia but never to the extent that I have been now, these few months. The number of colonies has pretty much doubled since our last assignment here, as has, perhaps, the variation among them in terms of which beliefs and ways of living are most important to them. There are ingredients of lifestyle among the more traditional Colonies – about 80% or so of the 100,000 here –  that are pretty constant, but cheese making seems pretty much a given. I don’t know of a traditional Mennonite colony where there isn’t a cheese factory or two … or more. Each family is allotted an amount of land to purchase, sometimes 25 ha. or up to 50 ha. depending on the total the colony was able to buy, I believe … and it’s almost as if each family is also assumed to have a few cows for shipping milk to the cheese factory down the road. Sometimes up to 20 or 30 cows, but I haven’t heard of numbers much beyond that. It tends to be the work of the women to feed and milk the cows. The men provide the feed and the infrastructure and would look after the buying and selling of cows and also the selling of the milk. vhGXE%rxQaGH8uzKg3Xr4A.jpg

This past week, I travelled with Gerhard, a young MCC worker from Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, to southern Bolivia … near Yacuiba. It’s called El Gran Chaco (the great plains) area of Bolivia. Gorgeous climate, I thought. A little drier, longer views, very gently rolling land buffeted off in the west by what look like the Buffalo Head Hills south of La Crete,  Alberta; a moderate, handsome wall in the distance. My kind of mountains; any higher and they seem dangerous.

I spent some time watching the making of cheese in a colony in El Gran Chaco, partly because I stayed an afternoon and a night with the family who manage one of their cheese factories.  It looked – to me – something like this. Like in most families in the colonies, the girls  (sometimes also one or two of the boys or the dad) milk in the evening, just before dark. They don’t allow lights, so as the sun sets, they are quickly working in the dusk of early evening sometimes with the help of flashlights. The milk is stored overnight but only marginally cooled. Early the next morning, by 5:30 am or so, they milk again, and that milk is added to the milk of the night before, put into 20 litre cans, and taken on small wagons to the road where it waits the horse-drawn pick up wagon.b4uLjNqhTt+Xj5p62Imdvg.jpg

I walked to the factory.  The manager had been there at 5:30 to build a fire under the large steam tank which is used to heat the milk during the early curdling process. I watched as the wagons of milk cans began to arrive from all over the colony, and when they were all there, I counted 10, each with at least 60 to 80 cans. That’s 70 to 100 farmers if the average family has 10 cans waiting by the road; some have only a couple and some have more. The young drivers unload their cans as every liter is counted and then they sit and visit drinking coke for, they said, a couple of hours while the milk is heated and the whey is separated out from the milk during the curdling and straining process. The whey is piped to a large outside tank after it separates and after a while, they refill their cans with whey and trot off to return the cans to the farmers, where it’s used to feed the pigs and other farm animals. The manager told me there are 18 men working in that particular cheese factory, but the industry also includes the ten drivers, the horses, the women who milk and feed the cows, the men who put up the daily feed for the cows. It’s a labor intensive farming industry by which the Mennonites have been well-known for many decades in Bolivia, Mexico, Argentina and also Belize.yNVxLD%KRtCGqArVKDMgQw.jpg

I have wondered why that one agricultural industry has become so an assumed part of their farming. Why, when they start a new colony, is there automatically a cheese factory?  What would happen if they just stopped and let each farmer figure our for themselves how to make a living? I’m sure there are reasons: one would be that they know how to do milk cows and make cheese. You don’t need much higher schooling to look after the cows and run a cheese factory, which suits them; they don’t go to school past about 12 or 13 years of age.  They also know how to organize a colony of farmers to make this industry happen and … so far, there is always a market for their cheese. So, cheese makes sense. QzvMyCYhQXGE35EIHr5aKw.jpg

On the other hand, it also seems to me that it’s not an industry that will make any of them prosperous by itself. Unless they have really good cash crops alongside, the milk they sell at 2.20 bs to 2.60 bs (.40 USD) a liter is basically low-to-moderate-income farming.  So my guess is that the milking and cheese making also suits their commitment to modest living. Not many will get rich, but it’s a way to provide significant work and daily chores for what are usually large families.  They don’t engage in much activity that is recreational; life is more about work than play, and looking after cows, and supporting the cheese making provides activity at home and quite a lot of part time employment just off the farm. It may even be true that the moderate income also suits them as a way of keeping people busy without looking too much at other opportunities outside the colonies, which most of the colonies see as problematic.

I don’t know if any colony leader or lay Mennonite person would say the cheese and milk industry has anything to do with their faith and belief system.  I would love to listen when this is talked about after all the cows are milked, the sun has set, the generator is turned off for the day and the lamp is on in the kitchen.  Maybe they don’t talk about this, but I suspect sometimes they do.

As with most of us, it does all tend to run together eventually – like vereniche and Mennonitism, clean houses and Lutheranism or white caps and Eastern Mennonites.  What we hang on to and cherish may, in the end, matter little to our spiritual life and our faith, but it may provide a stability, an identifier, a social and personal pillar that becomes kind of a fixture.  Sometimes our fixtures become then, without anyone being able to articulate how it happened, a muddying up of what was intended as an intentional spiritual or lifestyle helper.  But sometimes also, the fixture, the identifier remains in place as a steadying hand at the wheel of busyness … when all is said and done for the day.


… their own story …

In about 1994, MCC asked me to make a brief visit to Pucallpa, Peru.  The Mennonite Brethren Mission, who were based at the Swiss Mission base (really a small town complete with an airstrip) had asked if MCC would work with some of the (indigenous) Ashaninkacommunities in the Amazon tropics, including small animal, horticulture and crop production. Except for some airstrips in northern Alberta, it was really the first time I had landed on tiny airstrips in remote places (those SAM and MAF pilots are amazing in talent and discipline) to be surrounded by indigenous people with painted-up faces wearing what looked like clothes or wraps made out of sack cloth.  The Summer Institute of Linguistics also had a large base in that area. They had an official, education-based agreement with the Peruvian government from in the mid forties, and from which, for 50 years, until about 2005, missionary linguists made their way into deep Amazon-basin territory. They befriended indigenous peoples, sometimes at considerable risk, and by the end of the 50 years, had translated the New Testament into 26 different languages accompanied by basic literacy skills.NwQQgyDfTgSZM2vvk7%oAw.jpg

Just before I left Calgary for Bolivia in late March, Justine, a fellow MCC staff person gave me a book to take with me.  The Storytellerby Mario Vargas Llosa, is fiction but based in the Amazon basin of eastern Peru. The Amazonia,as it is also called makes up about 35% of South American. Huge. I didn’t pick up the book until a couple of weeks ago but when I realized it takes place in that same Amazonasregion around Pucallpa where I had so briefly once been, and where MCC, after that, placed several workers over a number of years, it piqued my interest. Another reason was that, before coming to Bolivia I had heard, to my surprize that there are, beginning in 2015, at least 4 low german Mennonite colonies in the Pucallpa area of Peru. Maybe more. Several from Bolivia and at least one from Belize. Check Wikipedia: they already have an introduction. How did the Mennonites discover that place, what, I continue to wonder, compelled them to move and what keeps them there, four or 5 years in?  It’s a very humid (low german word is feicht)part of the world and they will not be able to raise crops they are familiar with in Bolivia: soya, sorghum, corn, chia … sometimes dry rice. Which means that, yet again, the colonists have embarked on a journey now so much part of their DNA; that capacity to just … pick up, move, and start over.  One of my uncles was 71 when they sold their farm and relocated to another part of the Santa Cruz department … to start over.

Hal Peacock has spent most of his life in Bolivia, and at least 15 years of that working with MCC. As director of MCC’s agricultural program here, he once made an off-handed comment to me. He said, the low german Mennonites are not here to stay, are they?  I was a little surprized. Hal is a wise man but in this case, I wondered if he knew what he was talking about.  But he persisted … they don’t have a lot of land, meaning their individual investment is restrained and guarded. Most of them milk only a few cows. They keep their income fairly measured through the small amounts of milk and twice-annual cash crops.  He listed other indicators, but his unscientific conclusion was, the low german Mennonites are ready to move. They may stay, and in Bolivia they have grown from a few families in 1955 to 100,000 in 2019. But within Bolivia, they are constantly venturing into new areas, buying land, starting up … again. They are also now in Peru, Colombia, Argentina, and were in Paraguay before Bolivia.

In The Storyteller,Vargas Llosa writes about the Machiguenga, one of the many indigenous populations the Institute of Linguistics had managed to work with over a period of about 25 years. It’s a fascinating and plenty mysterious story beginning with Vargas Llosa in an art gallery where he sees fotos of that area, including one, where the Machiguenga are seated at full attention, listening to their storyteller. His novel is about the specific storyteller, but it’s entirely embraced in the mysteries of the Machiguenga. They don’t have reading materials, nor any audio or visual aids, nor radio, nor television, nor, of course, social media.  Their entire ‘entertainment’ and information sharing comes from the occasional visits of the storyteller, whose role, apparently, is to move from one settlement to another, appearing unannounced but always to the full attention of all who are present, with news of their other small communities. It’s for sure a difficult job because the Machiguenga, writes the author, have a way of simply picking up and disappearing.  Without any fuss nor any announcement. They just move. It is how they integrate with the rhythms of the Amazon jungles and waterways, he says.  Once, when the linguists thought one of the Machiguenga groups had stayed a while in one location and were settling into other ways … they woke up one morning to silence. They had left. Almost as if … they just had to.q6MyR+guQ1qc5bTyVglgYg.jpg

Unlike the Machiguenga, who number only a few thousand in the story, the low german Mennonites are a rapidly growing, hemispheric people. They live in northern Alberta up to maybe 200 km from the 60thparallel, across Canada, including the Maritimes, across the United States, Mexico, several countries in Central America and to 8 hours south of Buenos Aires. But like the Machiguenga, the low german people move.  Almost always, in Bolivia at least, it is because they are looking for more land. They tend to have large families, and so long as farming remains the base to how they live, they will keep needing more land. Unless they develop different, more labor intensive farming practises where less land perhaps is needed.  Probably in most ways, these two cultures are very different. Housing. Family size. Use of technology. Religious life. But the low german people have in common with the Machiguenga, in whose territory they now also live, that capacity to hold lightly their connection to the earth.  Not in the same way – the Mennonites tend to clear the land.  Machiguenga tended to live, so to speak, inside its seasonal and daily dynamics – but still, able to separate themselves from any one location, perhaps to return later, but maybe not.

The storyteller in Vargas Llosa’s novel also reminds me of the low german communites, many of whom I have visited these last months in Bolivia, and in earlier years also. Auction sales, as just one example, bring everyone out, apparently here as wherever they live and move. People go to buy things, but also to catch up with each other and the ‘news’. The gossip. Vargas Llosa says the Machiguenga loved gossip. (does anyone not?)  Our dad went to many auctions in Saskatchewan as we grew up. Sometimes he took us along. They were festivals of storytelling.

I don’t have any particular point to make except to note that when I look at the low german Mennonite population, I can describe them at length. So can others and many have.  But they become less describable and maybe a bit more mysterious when I let them become their own story and maybe also when I don’t look at them by themselves. When I think of them through or alongside the mysteries of other groups, it’s easier to allow my fellow low germans to also be their own story.  We all want that freedom.



… a bigger story …

I watched parts of the funeral of Rachel Held Evans the other day. It had been live streamed and because she was a well-known Christian writer and speaker, it’s out there. The officiating minister ended the benediction, quoting Rachel Held Evans with a last word: Jesus invites us into a story that is bigger than ourselves and bigger than our imaginations …

This young writer died at 37 leaving behind a husband and two young children. She will be missed by many who followed her blog, read her books, heard her speak. But my sense from the funeral was that she will be missed more because she was a solidly kind and good person, whose entire theology and living was intensely about noticing and welcoming those who are otherwise not welcomed … often shunned and overlooked.  Raised in a pretty conservative Southern Baptist environment, she had ‘bible answers’ and bible verses ready for pretty much every situation. But early on she began to see some of the ways in which her own church somehow kept those they were not comfortable with at a distance. She began to see a discriminating rather than an abundantly welcoming ‘christian’ culture … and what she was learning about Jesus began to conflict with her experience of the church … where, as she said, all should be welcome. (Martin Luther King Jr once said that the most segregated hour in America is every Sunday at 11 am.)

 It’s Pentecost Sunday today.  Each day in Santa Cruz this past week, various Christian denominations have come together for a brief time of singing, praying and eating together. This morning the Catholic Cathedral at the Central Plaza acknowledged ‘the other hermano churches’ present and talked about the experience of the early Christians, when it became dramatically evident to them that this message of love and forgiveness, so very personal and Jewish, was in fact, universal, all inclusive, belonging to no one and at the same time to all languages, all cultures and all traditions.pZoCNsUqTMOrhCWReBgJjg.jpg

From a distance, a place like Bolivia can be broadly brushed and painted. Friendly, helpful people, mostly catholic Highlanders and Lowlanders with numbers of Japanese and Mennonite immigrants. An indigenous president. Stunningly gorgeous Highlands. Tropical Lowlands. Just south of the equator. Broad strokes. But as with any place on earth, set foot on the ground, as Jesus did for that reason, and it becomes personal and particular. And then the challenge from within our deeply personal particularities is to remember that in fact, it is a bigger story, a bigger place, a bigger God.

Depending on whose report one has or hasn’t read, it’s also easy to broad brush the 100,000 or so Mennonites of low german (language) background now living here. They came as a few families from Paraguay in 1955. Within ten years, they were coming from Mexico, Belize, and from several places in Canada. The Mennonites sometimes speak broadly about their Bolivian neighbors. Just last week I heard a young man who had grown up here but whose parents or perhaps grandparents had come from Mexico … referring to their Bolivian neighbors as ‘mexa’ suggesting that for him at least, pretty much all latino people are simply ‘mexicans’. The Bolivian population in the same way can stereotype the Mennonites as ‘the people with overalls and hats who are hardworking and industrious and who keep to themselves except for business needs. But sit with either a Mennonite or a Bolivian national and you soon hear them speak about each other much more specifically, with stories of their experiences of each other … and the broad strokes begin to fade into the personal.

It’s common to think of the low german speaking Mennonites here as Old Colony.  Many are. Most in fact.  But they did not all come as Old Colony (one colony came as Reinlander directly from Manitoba) and after being here for nearly 65 years, influences have happened. Hardly a week goes by, for me at least, that I don’t hear of some change, a new colony starting up, an unhappiness leading to a split … . After a few more months here, it may all seem less distinguishable for me, but it seems important, this Pentecost weekend – which they all celebrate with 3 heilige days – to acknowledge the significant diversity among the 100,000.  Some Old Colony use rubber-tired, self-propelled equipment. These are the ones who came directly from Canada to Bolivia in the 1960s.  For the majority – who moved to Mexico from Canada back in the 1920s, 40s/50s and then came to Bolivia – anything self-propelled will have metal wheels.  Even a bicycle will not have pedals. It will be called a foot-cycle; kind of like a large scooter idea.  (A young man in one of the colonies allowed me to take a foto of his fut cycle.fullsizeoutput_3fde.jpeg

With various mission and evangelical radio influences, as well as, in many cases, internal renewals or changes for other reasons, there are now ‘Baptist’ Mennonites, ‘Eastern Mennonites’ or ‘Whitecaps’ as they are often known, Gemeinde Gottes and Die Gemeinde Gottes Mennonites, Kleine Gemeinde, and a growing group loosely called the AGUM group: Arbeits Gemeinde unter Mennoniten. They have a local leader, but they are not a Conference; just a growing group of at least 9 or 10 evangelical churches, each, I think with their own local identity, who work together. The name AGUM comes from Germany and there are supporting missionaries here, sent by the Arbeits Gemeinde unter Mennoniten in Germany.

Gerhard and I briefly visited an Amish Mennonite colony last week. Former Old Colony, the men have beards and wear suspenders; they have rubber tires and electricity but some other rules are in place; they can have cell phones but are not allowed to use whatsapp. Five hours north and east is a small colony who have ‘slowed life down’ as one of them said.  Forty one families each allowed only 15 hts of land with all work done by hand or by horsepower.  No motors, though they do use wind power. Still others have left the slower life behind, driving trucks and large, modern machinery which turns large tracts of land quickly into production.  Last week I visited a colony where they no longer teach any german in their school … only English and Spanish.  In their church they still speak only german, but a woman told me their younger children are rapidly moving towards fluency, mostly in Spanish.

There are a lot of ways to gain a sense of a colony.  Of any people.  What are the children doing?  What kind of school and church buildings are there?  The layout of the villages. Housing. Clothing used.  And for sure, the kinds of conversations they are willing to have. But in those conversations all those first impressions can go by the way as you realize that even with all the diversity already among the colonies, each family and each person is their own story.

During the funeral for Rachel Held Evans they celebrated the Lord’s Supper.  The leading minister introduced it by saying ‘this is not our table, but the table of the Lord.  Wherever you are in your journey, whatever tradition you come from, you are welcome here for strength and comfort.’

Pentecost is about a bigger story, and whether low german Mennonite, other Bolivian Mennonite, Japanese, highlander or lowlander Bolivian … our stories are specific and personal, often full of pain and worry, many times also of joy. But from any and all of our specifics, we are, indeed, invited into that bigger story.  And if we allow it to be bigger than we are, and bigger than we can imagine … it helps.





… beige …

Debra, who works in MCC Alberta, once left me this line by Madeleine L’Engle.  ‘Compassion is nothing one feels with the intellect alone. Compassion is particular; it is never general.’

Garrison Keillor, in one of his homey, folksy monologues, back a few years, said something about being a writer, which he was. Probably still is. He said, ‘happiness is found in the particular’. The specifics. ‘Depression and sadness’, he said, ‘is always general’.  And then he added that writers look for the particular.  You can’t write or tell a story using generalities. The story is in the details. Not many of us listen for long to a beige sermon that is mostly an essay. We do listen to something that has particulars of life in it.

Malcolm Gladwell has an entire Revisionist History podcast – King of Tears, Season 2, EP6  – about why country music is the only music that can really be sad. Gladwell’s point is that country music is always specific and often even autobiographical. Tyler Mahan Coe responds to that podcast saying that Gladwell doesn’t know what he is talking about and that there is lots of other music that is just as capable of engaging the audience in its sadness and its particulars. But whatever … I’m pretty sure Gladwell would acknowledge and remind Tyler Coe that his revisionist podcasts are exactly that: revisionist. A second glance at something not often thought about. I only like some Country Music and Gladwell’s entire premise surprized me, but the larger point about life experienced in the particulars … seems to me always true.  No one identifies with beige. But give us the colors of daily experience and we pay attention.  It’s surely why God, whoever he, she or it is, came among us in the person of Jesus. God himself/herself/itself comes to us in the particular. The incarnation. The baby. The man. The dieing.


No (eucalyptus) branch is like the others. 

A friend sent me a note last week.  In it she expressed concern over a specific incident where she witnessed what she described as racial profiling.  A small group of people outside the entrance of a store. The manager noticed, and urged the cashier to make sure all incoming customers were required to leave any bags at the front desk before entering the shopping area. She overheard the instructions because she happened to be paying her bill.  She didn’t intervene, but the so-obvious incident in which a manager displayed a distrust of another people who hadn’t yet entered the store … caught her attention enough to write a note about it. Had she simply read a devotional or some reminder that morning in which someone suggested that racial profiling does happen and is usually humiliating and dehumanizing, she might not have given it much thought. But she saw it happen … to real people; her note showed how deeply it disturbed her.

A long time ago, a family had a concern about something in an organization with which they were familiar, and which, in one way or another, they supported.  They wrote to one of the leaders of the organization to voice their concern. What they got back was a significant letter, except that it wasn’t personal.  The letter had borrowed statements from the organization’s front-end website and other public statements and simply quoted them to the family who had the concern, as if, quoting their own official material would be enough to lay the concern to rest. Varnish it. They were not pleased. Their particular concern had not been validated. And while there was nothing wrong about the letter, it made little effort to connect with the family’s issue.  The leader who sent it was probably very busy, and at a distance, maybe that is the best one can do at such times. But I remember how frustrated the family felt, receiving the letter. Even in raising concerns with each other, or maybe especially when concerns are raised … a beige response pretty much suggests a level of disinterest and the absence of attention to the particular that has been expressed.  We humans need validation. It’s very often just as important to us and as critical as the problem we may have tried to name.

There are around 100,000 low-german speaking Mennonites in Bolivia. The BBC recently put out a podcast about them, and while I think they were not inflammatory nor were they sensationalist, as some tend to be, they focused heavily on an incident that happened 10 years ago. It’s a dark and tragic event and the mystery around it continues. But the BBC used that event as pretty much the backdrop for any further commentary about the Mennonites in Bolivia. What if they had acknowledged that event, and then done a bit more travelling and visiting and recording (they may have … but the podcast doesn’t show it much) and focused on the significant diversity that is found if you spend time meeting low-german speaking Mennonites in Bolivia. Do a story about their education system. Their children. Their capacity to pick up and move. Their very complex community structures. Their milk and cheese industry. They are an interesting people and they are not the same. All speak low german, but many also speak english, and I keep meeting those who speak a very good spanish.  Every colony is different from the others in one way or another. And within every colony, every family … and all those children.  Many do tend to wear those dark overalls (the men) so it’s tempting and convenient to see them all as kind of … one color.  One story.   XDYbx1ZdQLWU+8XDNeU%Mg

Yesterday morning a group of young Bolivian medical students came to Centre Menno, at MCC in Santa Cruz; they were doing a sociological report about colony mennonites for one of their classes.  Last week a group of high school students dropped in with a similar request. In their case, they were lucky. A gentleman from a colony showed up as they were sitting with us, and he allowed them to interview him.  In both cases, I thought they had a healthy approach. They were curious and even though they have seen the colony Mennonites on the streets of Santa Cruz for many years, they were curious enough to keep asking. In the end, they will both write a report, and reports tend to lean toward general commentary. But my sense of these students was that they were interested enough to be looking for what isn’t ‘the same’ about the Mennonites.

When Madeleine L’Engle talks about compassion being particular, maybe it’s about this.  A reminder that we will only find our God-given capacity for compassion when we go out of our way to pay attention, to notice each other, those on the margins, those often not seen, those too often stereotyped, those who don’t quite fit into beige. And, if we stick around a bit, it turns out that none of us do quite fit.






… a second look …

Sometimes we get a shot at reconnecting … . I was 22 when I first came to Bolivia with a group of 9, most of us around that age. A few even a bit younger. That was 1973.  We were teachers, nurses, ag workers, generalists, and we were not the first. MCC Bolivia had a lot of young workers here during those years, most of us placed in rural villages in the department of Santa Cruz, for periods of 28 months.  Later, those terms were lengthened to 3 years. The first 3 months were typically spent in language learning in the city. Which meant that about 4 days in, we were taken, one by one, dropped off with Bolivian families somewhere in the city, and wished lots of blessings and good health. The next morning, language school. Three months, with the desperate hope that we would be at least functional by end of that little bracket.  And after that, we hoped our various villages would have little houses ready for us to live in so that we could begin our 2 years of service and learning with them.  They didn’t … so there was waiting … but eventually, we all got to where we were expected to be.

Now, looking back, I’m not sure I would have the stomach for it. I apparently did then but I’m more sensible now, decades later. Or maybe not. Kathy and I came back to Bolivia two more times after meeting here back in 1975, and now I’m back for a short 4th assignment.h4tHuIfpROK7ooF6zb%h7g.jpg

We were new to the cultures of Bolivia. Pretty young. Inexperienced, even in our own worlds let alone in the cultures, languages, streets and on the roads and trails of tropical Bolivia. Roads today are quite a lot better but back then, wrestling with mud and motorcycles and horses and collapsing bridges and rivers that needed to be crossed was the stuff of many conversations. Mostly we survived and carried on, but with an intense and unique learning experience embedded on our souls … that, for most of us I suspect, significantly affected and shaped the rest of our lives.

Some of those memories keep becoming more poignant now that I’m in Santa Cruz for a little while, and doing some travelling. This weekend has been a little stacked that way.  Tig Intagliata, who was here with Karen from 83 to 91 showed up. He brings with him a group of students from Bluffton College but he had a little time so yesterday he and I took a micro (one of those mid-sized buses that stop every 30 meters if there is someone to pick up) to El Torno to see Wendel and Karen, who, less than a year ago, returned to the home they built more than 2 decades back. They had settled into the area where Karen and another MCC teacher, Beth, had taught school from 1973-75, had developed a successful orchard among other enterprises, and then returned to the USA for a number of years. But they are back. To get to their place we had planned to catch moto-taxis who would take us across a foot bridge across the Pirai river. But because of a soccer game involving precisely the moto-taxis, there were none, and so, one more time, just for old times sake or something, we got to ride the back of a truck as it waded its way across the river. zKmg2R%VQv+viE1j9FF2IQ

Today, Sunday, I skipped church. Giovana with her 8-year old son, Samin, and Fabiola, daughters of Nestor Perez, former, long-time employee of MCC Bolivia (Nestor passed away a few years ago) took me to Buena Vista and then off the highway 34 km to Sta Fe de Amboro. I had wanted to see if we could get there so that when Kathy comes in a couple of months, we can take her. It is the village where she lived from 75 to 77 with Linda Coffin and Alf Epp. To get to Sta Fe we traveled through Huaytú, where a number of former workers had lived and where, today, they seemed to be in the middle or near the end of a party that seemed to have left the men a bit tipsy and the women, mostly, waiting them out and looking after things. We took a foto of the mighty Amboró, the ‘mountain’ Ron Diener used to want to climb, as we drove through Espejitos, where I think Ron and Marilee lived for a few years. And then … down the hill and we were in Sta Fe. I had been a few times, but not for many years. The untidy little plaza looked mostly as I remembered it. At the store on the main road I asked if Don Onorio was still alive. Yes, they said, he still owns the store in fact, but he now lives in Montero.  Don Onorio had been a strong supporter of Kathy’s work as a nurse in the community … way back.  A neighbor remembered Kathy and showed us where she and Linda had once lived.fullsizeoutput_40b2.jpeg

All of us have unique, early, life-shaping memories, no matter where we have lived and what we did.  When Kathy and I briefly visited Bolivia last October (out of which came this short assignment) I remember saying to someone that even after 22 years, Bolivia had felt surprisingly at home for me; like a second home. And maybe that is what these early, intense memories become. That second home to which much of our later life is somehow, intuitively – sometimes thinly, other times more poignantly – connected. I’m grateful to be able to reconnect a little, to this enchanting place.

On our way back today, we drove west from Buena Vista to the Yapacani river where a new bridge is well under way to completion, and we had Surubí in a little place on the river bank.

…not quite like the others …

Nathan Harder and his wife Loida Garcia work in the Charagua area of Southern Bolivia. They left me a book to read a week or so ago.  Nourishment: what animals can teach us about rediscovering our nutritional wisdom.Kind of a longish title and not the kind of book I would pull off a shelf easily. But after spending a couple of days with Nathan and Loida 6 hours north of Santa Cruz, and hearing Nathan mention the book, I asked if I could borrow it. I’m reading some of it.

The writer, Fred Provenza, is a life-long researcher among plants and wild animals. This morning I read a few pages where he talks about his early years, back in 1976, when he and his wife built a set of pasture fences in Utah, rented 90 goats over a period of 5 years and watched how the goats interacted with blackbrush and other nutritional vegetation. What he hadn’t expected is that the goats preferred older, less nutritional (he thought) twigs than fresher, more nutritional twigs, from newer growth. What also surprized him was that the goats that faired better than the other groups where those who began to eat woodrat houses. Woodrats are larger rodents who make houses above ground of mounds of twigs. It went against all his own sense of animal and nutritional wisdom.Q%Gq5IKkREGTRsW1re7cNQ

There is much more to this than my little description, but he writes that ‘over the years, I’ve come to realize that the outliers – not the averages – are the most interesting part of research. The quirky behaviours of individuals (also trees and animals and plants) interacting with each other and the places we inhabit are how nature creates new relationships. Chances …  unexpected occurrences.

A month ago I met a youngish man, a Mennonite Colonist who is a farmer, a businessman and also a school teacher.  We visited for an hour and I hope to visit him. He lives with his family about 10 hours away. He talked about teaching his students spanish in the german school.  That is not normally done, but this gentleman does it … a little at a time. It becomes helpful to the students, but also to the broader community as they become more able to communicate, even if only for utilitarian reasons, with the Bolivia around them.  This gently innovative teacher also has workshops with other teachers in his area where he helps them develop their teaching skills … a little at a time.

Our dad, probably well before I was 10, had managed to start a Sunday school in Blumenheim, Sask, a weekly class that he taught for 35 years or so, and that, I’m pretty sure continues to this day. Sunday school was not part of Old Colony Church practise then, but somehow, he was able to get permission to do this. I don’t know the story, but he, in that work, and in other ways, was an outlier who had a genuinely transformative impact on his family and probably on the broader community.

Every Mennonite Colony in Bolivia that I have visited so far is fascinating and unique to me. I have been to 16.  Hoping to visit another tomorrow.  They have come here to live distinctly unique lives. Old Colony from Canada. Old Colony from Mexico and Belize. Similar but not the same. Sommerfelder from Mexico. Sommerfelder from Paraguay. Also not the same. And over the last 25 years, quite a few more evangelical colonies and settlements coming out of the work of Missionaries from Paraguay, Alberta, Mexico, Manitoba, Ontario, Germany … have also been born. These more recent ‘breakaway’ groups become quickly quite different in church life, school, use of electricity, use of farm equipment and transportation and they welcome others to join them.


Ventura Mall in Santa Cruz

Of all the colonies I’ve visited so far, all of whom have been welcoming and hospitable, there is one that seems a little distinctly unlike the others. Nathan, Loida and I found directions to their little colony back two weeks from a man in Concepcion who said he sold them their land. Precisely 37 km from Concepcion, on a kind of rise just the other side of a gorgeous area of maybe the greenest jungle bush I have seen … is their sign. Gruenwald/San Miguel.The drive in is narrow. Fences on both sides. The farms are small. Fifteen hectares per family. The people visit easily and have time. ‘We have slowed life down’, an older gentleman said as he explained that they are not Amish – though the men wear beards. Their yards are small, but seem carefully organized. And there is not a motor on the colony. All the small plows and tillage equipment is pulled by horses. They cut their trees into beautiful boards – horses around a carousel geared up to where the blade easily cuts up the hardwood they take off (only) their own land. They have gardens and fruit trees and had many questions of Nathan and Loida about how to raise better gardens and why their mango trees produce only small mangos that ripen too early. They are curious. They read. And in their school they teach spanish along with the traditional german. The men we talked with were quite comfortable in german and spanish.L6gB2+GVR4SqIyeG5sKukw.jpg

So who are they? Just former Old Colony Mennonites who still have relatives in some of the other colonies. They decided about 8 years ago to try to ‘live more scripturally’ said one of them, and for them, that meant living more simply. He admitted without me asking that the use of horses has, in itself, nothing to do with scripture. But they seem committed to living smaller, not bigger, which is the curse of so much of modern western civilization. Malls and Amazon and giant, always faster equipment. I’m part of that westernism and a lot of it, I like. But this colony has decided to slow it all down. They are, as Fred Provenza would likely say, the outlier.  The not-quite-the-same one,  who is not ever going to be average and from whom others of us, if we want to, may pick up some things along the way.



… a little question …

I saw a little wall hanging recently that reads in German, but roughly it goes like this.  If you lose your money, you lose a lot.  If you lose your friend, you lose more.  If you lose your faith, you lose everything. And while I am sure that there is some truth in the little proverb, I commented to my friend Gerhard, that maybe it should be flipped.  If you lose your faith, you lose a lot, but maybe not everything.  Jesus did say, with some emphasis, that all the other commandments could be summed up in two … to love God and the other like the first, to love our neighbor.  Which really means that to love God is to love our neighbor and to love our neighbor is to love God. They are not separate. They mean one and the same thing and the evidence of either love is equally found in the other.  I’m pretty sure it’s something like that.  So, if we lose our faith, or even if we adjust some of our beliefs (which seems to happen a lot in the evangelical world) have we lost everything if the center of it all is that we love our neighbor?aIARRBscTyeUbkw2lOVz9Q.jpg

A long time ago, here in Bolivia, we interviewed a woman who wanted to work with us in, I think, income generation work. Near the end of the interview she stopped me and said, I want to be clear with you, I am an unbeliever;  MCC is a Christian organization. Hmmm, I thought … so, you mean you are Catholic perhaps, since about 85% of Bolivian population at that time would have said they are Catholic. I assumed she meant that she was not an evangelical, acknowledging that MCC would be known as a Christian Evangelical Organization. No, she said, I actually don’t believe. Well, I knew what MCC’s policies are about hiring unbelievers, but I did some checking and we hired her anyway, initially on a 3-month basis, if I recall it.   When Kathy and I left Bolivia, she was still working with MCC and now, more than two decades later, I have no idea where she is. But I am pretty sure that by hiring her, we allowed the holy spirit more freedom to do the work he/she wants to do with all of us, than if at that point we had denied her the opportunity.  I’m not saying we should always make such exceptions, but I am saying that we should always be open to making them.  I think I’m also saying that just because we are able to say we believe ‘the right things’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the fruits of the spirit will show themselves in our lives, which is really what matters. Jesus said this quite clearly in Matthew’s gospel. That single/double commandment is what it always comes down to.

I have several friends in Canada who tell me they are unbelievers. About 5 or 6 actually.   Sometimes I tell some of them that they are actually my favorite believers. Partly I say it in jest, but partly, the idea that a person of ‘faith’ has to have a clear set of beliefs to which they adhere doesn’t entirely make sense to me in light of Jesus’ so clear, all-inclusive commandment. Each one of my ‘unbelieving’ friends, from everything I can see in their lives, is a person of profound love and compassion and good works. The kind that look after their neighbor. The kind that go out of their way to do good. The kind that give generously. The kind that James says are the evidence of our faith. And so, while they don’t claim it, I can’t help but thing each one of these, my friends, are also deeply spiritual people. But they don’t confess to believing very much, except … they love their neighbors.

All this to wonder about that little german proverb someone hung on a wall here in Santa Cruz.  Maybe it doesn’t need to be flipped but I would also not say that it is a bad thing to lose a few of the many beliefs that can so easily clutter up what is the centre of our faith as if it all depends on how much and how precisely we believe things. So in that, I have to wonder if the little proverb overstates its point … a little.