A letter from Dennis Smith in Argentina (Regional liaison for Brazil and Southern Cone)
On March 24 Maribel and I found ourselves in the Plaza de Mayo, the public square in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. We were accompanying a mission group from Highland Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Highland has been a faithful supporter of our ministry for many years. March 24 is the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice in Argentina, a national holiday to remember that on this day in 1976 a decade of terror began that saw tens of thousands disappeared.
Our Pennsylvania friends were startled to see banners with the slogan: Don’t Forget, Don’t Forgive. In 1987, after the military had released their hold on power, their civilian allies had passed an amnesty law to protect the armed forces from prosecution for crimes against humanity. In 2005 the Supreme Court overturned this law and senior military leaders began to be arrested and placed on trial.
Don’t forget, don’t forgive: harsh words. But it was another time, a time tinged with fear. People in the U.S. knew it as the Cold War, but for Latin Americans there was nothing cold about it. In other parts of Latin America the military was already firmly entrenched in power. Uruguay’s armed forces overthrew the civilian government in June 1973. On September 11, 1973—yes, another September 11—Gen. Pinochet overthrew the Allende government in Chile. The Guatemalan military had overthrown the Arbenz government in 1954. In Brazil the military overthrew the Goulart government in 1964. The U.S. had participated in all these coups, justifying intervention as part of the global struggle against communism.
Under military rule thousands upon thousands of Latin Americans were tortured and disappeared. University students, union leaders, pastors and priests working with the poor, peasant leaders working for social change—all were subjected to unimaginable horrors.
I began to work as a mission volunteer in Guatemala in 1974; some of the veteran mission colleagues I met were afraid to place ministries at risk by challenging unjust military power. Others were afraid of the Red menace. Had not Mao persecuted the Chinese church and kicked out the missionaries when he came to power in 1949? Had not Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Argentina’s Che Guevara revealed themselves to be architects of armed revolution? Was not the gospel itself under siege? It’s hard to hope when you’re afraid.
During this Lenten season many of our mission partners in Latin America have been exercising the right to memory. The United Presbyterian Church in Brazil has been remembering the ministry of Jim Wright and Chuck Harper. Both were the Brazilian-born children of PC(USA) mission workers. Both became PC(USA) ministers themselves. Jim—Jaime in Portuguese—had a brother, Paulo, who served in the Brazilian Congress from 1963 to 1967. In 1973 Paulo was disappeared by the military. Soon thereafter Jaime teamed up with Cardinal Arns and a team of lawyers in São Paulo to carefully—and at great risk—document the massive human rights violations being committed by the military. By then Chuck Harper was at the human rights desk at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Slowly this ecumenical team shipped thousands of photocopied pages of official case files out of Brazil and used them to write the book Brasil: Nunca Mais—Brazil: Never Again.
In 2013 as part of the activities of the recently appointed Truth Commission, these papers were repatriated to Brazil. Magalí do Nascimento Cunha, a Methodist scholar, is working as an investigator for the Truth Commission. She has documented how ambivalent church people were about the dictatorship. Was not the threat real? many leaders said. Did not the military offer to bring peace and stability during turbulent times?
But this was the '60s and a generation of young church leaders—in the spirit of the times—had begun asking hard questions of entrenched leaders who didn’t like to have their traditional authority questioned. The disagreements led to physical confrontation, imprisonment, torture, death.
Conflict continues to be the order of the day, both in Latin America’s churches and in the U.S. Today the mission challenge we face is: How can we find the grace and maturity to stay at the table and commit to working together, building a better future rooted in God’s grace despite our disagreements?
The day after we went to the Plaza de Mayo, we visited CAREF, the ecumenical agency in Argentina that ministers to refugees. Our partner churches founded CAREF in 1973 to attend to the thousands of refugees pouring out of Pinochet’s Chile. Anthropologist María Inés Pacecca described how in recent years CAREF has focused on the problem of human trafficking. Our Pennsylvania friends noted that this was a problem in Lancaster County, too. Donegal Presbytery participates in a group that stakes out truck stops on the interstates and educates truckers to be on the lookout for traffickers and their victims.
María Inés described how their ecumenical network in Argentina has succeeded in getting better laws passed and better services offered to victims. She emphasized that as a church agency CAREF can offer something that politicians and bureaucrats, therapists and officers of the law cannot—local church families that will welcome victims into communities of healing.
No one else offers that.
Thinking back on our visit together, Highland friends were challenged and encouraged by María Ines’ words. As we faithfully follow Jesus today, we must work together with a broad range of professionals and experts to build a more just and peaceful world. But—in times of conflict, fear and confusion—it falls specifically to our churches to be communities of healing.
In March we also hosted a mission trip from the Presbytery of Tres Ríos. These were the first two mission trips to this area in a decade. We’d be delighted to work with you in designing a mission trip to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile or Brazil. We can focus on rural and urban ministry, evangelism and social justice. Drop me a line if you are interested.
In this resurrection season, we are deeply grateful for your prayers and for your financial support. If you don’t currently support Presbyterian mission workers, would you please prayerfully consider supporting us?
Just a reminder that Maribel and I will be visiting churches in the U.S. from August through January. Our calendar is filling up quickly, but we’d love to visit you and share how God is working through your support for our ministry and through our partners in this corner of the world.
Under the Mercy,
Dennis A. Smith
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Thank you Dennis Smith for remind us the important role Churches played as places where we could be healed, particularly at a time when healing did not seemed possible to many of us.