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Listening to the Spirit in South America


Waldensian church partners seek to serve the whole community

By Dennis A. Smith | Mission Crossroads Magazine

Young Waldensian leaders share experiences of urban ministry at a workshop in Paraná, Argentina. Photo by Alfredo Servetti

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – It happens quickly, often in a single generation. Yours is the big church on the town square, the church that your family has attended for generations. Once, this church was the spiritual heart of the community. This is where people supported one another in times of crisis, remembered their roots and celebrated their joys. Once there were jobs in the town, but today young people leave to study and work in the big city. Now, on a good Sunday, 25 or 30 people gather for worship; your church struggles to survive.

Sound familiar?

Two years ago, the Waldensian Evangelical Church of Río de la Plata (IEVRP), a PC(USA) ecumenical partner in Uruguay and Argentina, looked in the mirror and decided that this description fit too many of their congregations. In addition to revitalizing small and struggling churches, they understood that they needed to rethink their pastoral presence in the cities.

As Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for South America, I had the opportunity to work with IEVRP’s moderator, the Rev. Carola Tron, on ways her denomination might explore urban ministry models with churches in the U.S.

In February 2017, with support of the American Waldensian Society, another PC(USA) ecumenical partner, the society designed an exploratory visit to the PC(USA) and other Reformed churches and theological seminaries in New York City, northern New Jersey, North Carolina and Kentucky.

Carola was joined by student minister Alfredo Servetti and elder Yanina Vigna, both from a Waldensian congregation in Buenos Aires, for 10 intense days of exploration and dialogue, looking at how churches in U.S. urban areas are responding to pastoral challenges, including immigration, youth ministry, the training of lay leaders and creation of safe and welcoming spaces for sexual minorities. 

Reflecting on the experience, Yanina and Alfredo noted how often small churches in the city fall into a bunker mentality: “One of the lessons of this trip,” said Yanina, “was to visit churches that had come to understand themselves as public spaces, as truly in service to the whole community.”

“I was grateful,” added Alfredo, “for the sense of dialogue with U.S. churches. We found people to be deeply interested in the social problems we face in South America and in our experience of ministry.”

As a follow-up to this trip, the IEVRP invited the Rev. Bob Brashear, a New York City pastor with decades of experience in urban ministry, to visit Argentina and Uruguay and lead a series of workshops. The goal was not to transplant ministry models from the U.S., but to encourage people to listen to God’s Spirit and discern how they could be Christ’s presence in the city.

As Bob gathered with IEVRP leaders in Paraná, an Argentine city, leaders of the local congregation spoke of the power of creating a faith community where none had existed before, a community open to all, where they follow Christ, advocate for justice and raise their children together.

“We are learning that our churches need to be porous,” Carola said. “We must respond to the needs of our communities and not just seek to preserve our traditions. Our churches should be places where the whole community — believers or not — feel invited to celebrate their victories and mourn their losses.”

Dennis Smith is Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for South America. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe visit

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