A letter from Dennis A. Smith in Argentina (transitioning from Guatemala to Argentina)
A sliver of moon hangs over the vast Argentine plains and melds with the lingering colors of a spring sunset. If this were Iowa, the endless fields would be corn instead of soybeans. If this were Minnesota, the farm families would be Norwegian Lutherans. Here they are German and Dutch Reformed or Italian and Spanish Catholics.
If you take a second look, the place names will remind you of first nations — indigenous peoples whose memory lingers as the bus rides through Gualeguaychú and Paraná. The survivors of these first nations have been pushed to the margins of Argentine society, again not unlike the United States.
I am here to represent the PC(USA) at the merger of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate (IERP) and the Reformed Churches in Argentina (IRA). I will join the Rev. Dr. JoBeth Tice McLeod, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Alpine, Texas. Tres Ríos Presbytery is hoping to develop a mission partnership with the new denomination.
JoBeth has brought along a beautiful triple cross made of clothes pins by the children of her congregation. At the closing worship she presents it to the Rev. Carlos Duarte, newly elected president of IERP; JoBeth emphasizes that the cross represents the down-to-earth tasks that make up so much of what pastors do: taking time to listen to people and to share Christ’s love with them in practical acts of service.
These two denominations have been mission partners of the PC(USA) for the last decade. IERP, present in about 250 communities and with 25,000 members, was founded in 1899 by German-speaking immigrants. It has churches in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. The IRA, founded in 1893 by Dutch-speaking immigrants, has 13 congregations and about 2,500 members. The new denomination will be known as the Evangelical Church of the River Plate (IERP); IRA churches will conserve their identity as a group within the new denomination.
Both churches illustrate the diversity characteristic of the River Plate region, where Italian, German, Dutch and many other European immigrants arrived en masse in the late 19th century. As happened in the United States, the immigrants have become integrated into Argentine, Uruguayan and Paraguayan culture. As happened in the United States, the faith communities brought by immigrants became the heart of each community and helped preserve their language, history and cultural identity. (The German spoken today in Crespo has a decidedly Russian tinge — their ancestors came from the Volga River region in Eastern Europe. The Dutch spoken in parts of Patagonia is mixed with Afrikaans: their ancestors fled the Boer Wars in South Africa in the 1890s.)
As each immigrant community has become more integrated into local culture, Spanish has supplanted their traditional language and the tango has joined Bach in worship. (My Central American ears were also delighted to hear a rousing version of the Credo from the Nicaraguan folk mass at one of the worship services!) Over the decades the pastoral vision of both IERP and IRA has turned to living out the gospel in the larger community in evangelism and service.
The theme of the Assembly was urban ministry. Latin America’s urban areas are growing rapidly as young people abandon rural regions, seeking educational and economic opportunity in the cities. Built around the prophet Jeremiah’s admonition to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (29:7), participants looked at how the church can be a space for building community in the turbulent anonymity of the city. Participants also noted how ministry to urban youth must take into account rapid social and technological change and understand the importance of using social media such as Facebook and YouTube to build relationships.
Now I’m on the bus again for the seven-hour ride back to Buenos Aires. Soon all this will be home. Tomorrow I'll be visiting schools for our boys and looking at office space and temporary housing. The boys are finishing up their school year, then we’ll have a couple of months to sell our things in Guatemala City, pack our suitcases and prepare for the long journey south. January we will take a couple of weeks for vacation with my folks in Oregon before going to Louisville for a week of orientation to the new position. We hope to fly to Argentina the last week of January.
As we approach this new assignment, your continued support is vitally important. Please note that you can designate support to two funds: D503801 is for salary support, E052106 (Individual donors can give to E052106 online; see the Give box in the left column, -Ed.) is for my work budget. Your support for our salary makes our ministry possible, but I can’t do the job I have been appointed to do without resources. Please prayerfully consider dividing your support between both funds.
Thank you for your prayers as we approach this season of change.
Under the Mercy,
Dennis A. Smith
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 277 (Guatemala)