A letter from Dennis Smith in Argentina
As we sit around the breakfast table, I ask my hosts about their church. She is Argentinean—now a first grade teacher, she was raised as a country girl; he is Uruguayan—a technician who works in Argentina's booming agricultural sector. They met at church camp, now have two young children, and have settled in La Paz, Entre Ríos, Argentina, about eight hours by bus from Buenos Aires.
I ask them to tell me about the Waldensian Church, hardly a household name in the United States. They proudly explain that their name derives from Waldo, a 12th-century merchant from Lyons, France. In a church that had become corrupted by avarice and ambition, Waldo promoted a life of simplicity and service in the way of Jesus. (In nearby Italy, Francis of Assisi, Waldo's contemporary, pursued similar concerns.)
As often happens with reformers, Waldo and his followers were persecuted; they sought refuge in the remote mountain communities of southern France and northern Italy and came to be part of the Reformed tradition.
In the 1840s Waldensians began to emigrate to Uruguay and Argentina. At this time Latin America roiled with the fevers of revolution. Beginning in 1810, Latin Americans had begun to rise up against European empires; new nations were being built. Visionary leaders like Bolivar and San Martin dared to dream of “la Patria Grande,” a vast region that would be rooted in freedom and tolerance, progress and prosperity, stretching from Mexico to Argentina.
Immigrants from the Old Country were welcomed in Latin America, even when they brought with them beliefs that challenged a religious status quo that was still dominated by Roman Catholicism. “Heterodox” newcomers tended not to be persecuted; they were permitted to practice their beliefs as long as they contributed to economic development and didn't preach in Spanish.
I remember how the colonies that would become the United States faced similar challenges, and the important role played by leaders like Roger Williams in promoting religious tolerance and the separation of church and state. Listening to the Waldensian story also reminds me that the longing to worship God according to one's conscience and the desire to build the common good sustained by God's grace have been founding principles of many political movements throughout human history.
While my hosts' forebears were settling in Argentina and Uruguay, other Waldensians were emigrating to the U.S. In recent decades Waldensians have developed a close friendship with the PC(USA), their Reformed cousins. Indeed, the American Waldensian Society has its offices at Waldensian Presbyterian Church in Valdese, North Carolina.
The Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio de la Plata has long been a valued partner of Presbyterian World Mission; I have come to La Paz to participate in a meeting of the Waldensian Synod. The theme for the Synod is “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 22:17).
The keynote speaker, Rev. Oscar Nuñez, addresses the theme, saying: “We are a church with a history. Our church is rooted in a vision of encounter with other cultures. But we have not always been true to our vision. How can we honor the sacred in a new place? How can we share the water that flows from the sacred fountain for the health and well-being of all nations? Jesus is our model. As we share new life in Jesus, we must allow others to teach us how to draw water from the well of all being and build life anew.”
Amen, brother Oscar. Amen!
Under the Mercy,
The 2012 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 2
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