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Presbyterian pastor Ben Gutiérrez had a heart as big as Texas

 

Mission co-worker and church leader’s ecumenical work in Latin America and the Caribbean lives on

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Ben F. Gutiérrez and his wife, Ernestina “Tina,”(standing) with Alejandra Pérez and her husband, Leo Pérez, pastor of Iglesia Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Benjamin F. Gutiérrez, who served the Presbyterian Church as a mission co-worker, along with his wife, Ernestina “Tina,” in Ecuador; as joint field secretary, associate for mission design, and liaison with Latin America and the Caribbean; and as area coordinator for South America; passed away Nov. 2 in Texas at age 87.

Gutiérrez, the son of a Pentecostal pastor, was born in Houston on Oct. 8, 1930. He graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in Houston in 1949 and received a bachelor’s degree from Austin College in 1953. He earned a master’s degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1956. His graduate studies focused on Hispanic-American literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, theology at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, and Christian ethics at the Faculty of Protestant Theology of Paris, France. He also continued his studies in Brazil and Cuba.

Gutiérrez was ordained June 24, 1956, in the Presbytery of West Texas. He and Tina, were married Feb. 17, 1960, and he began pastoral ministry in three rural South Texas congregations. He later pastored Gethsemane Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth at two different times, decades apart.

His friends say Gutiérrez was a big-hearted Texan through and through. “He was beloved by all,” said the Rev. Dr. Eriberto “Eddie” Soto, who followed Gutiérrez as PC(USA) area coordinator for South America.

“Ben Gutiérrez was a good friend and supporter,” says the Rev. Jose Luis Casal, director of Presbyterian World Mission. “He invited me to come to the U.S. to work with the PC(USA) during the time I was serving with the World Student Christian Federation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a part-time pastor of the United Evangelical Church in Quito, Ecuador, a PC(USA) partner church at that time.”

Ben and Tina worked as Presbyterian mission co-workers under the auspices of the United Andean Indian Mission in Ecuador (1963–67), organizing the first church of the United Andean Indian Mission in Quito, and teaching at the Center for Theological Studies. Upon finishing their assignment in Ecuador, they were invited to work in a youth ministry and church extension in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Austin College students Ruben Armendáriz, left, and Ben Gutiérrez, right, wearing freshman caps and holding stacks of newspapers, date unknown. (Photo courtesy of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary)

From 1969 to 1972, Gutiérrez served as joint field secretary of the Board of World Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the Commission of Ecumenical Mission and Relations (COEMAR) of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA). He served as the associate for mission design and liaison with Latin America and the Caribbean, a program agency at that time of the UPCUSA. In this important role, he stayed in close contact with churches and ecumenical bodies and institutions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. From 1988 until his retirement in 1996 — after 40 years as an ordained minister — Gutiérrez served as coordinator for South America in the Worldwide Ministries Division of the PC(USA).

Following his retirement, Gutiérrez served as moderator of the session and periodically as stated supply pastor at Iglesia Presbiteriana Emmanuel in Dallas.

Dr. Loida Gáffaro de Valera, a physician and lay leader of the Presbyterian Church of Venezuela (IPV) who represented that denomination at the PC(USA) 222nd General Assembly (2016) noted: “Ben, our beloved brother in Christ, was a tireless advocate for the IPV, both during his time as PC(USA) coordinator for Latin America and continued to be so in his later years.”

Gutiérrez and Dennis Smith, PC(USA) South America regional liaison, collaborated in co-editing a book, “In the Power of the Spirit,” which follows the growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America. The book was published in Spanish and Portuguese in 1996 by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in Latin America, and the Latin American Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies. It was later translated into English by Peter Kemmerle.

Smith remembers Gutiérrez loved the sport of boxing as a young man, which he says may have had something to do with his “dogged, persistent spirit.”

“I suspect that was the mindset that helped him be, perhaps, the most effective navigator of the intricate, seemingly impenetrable walls of church bureaucracy that I’ve witnessed in 40 years of working for the church,” Smith said. “Ben deeply believed in empowering our global ecumenical partners — a sometimes messy, but deeply rewarding process. He was willing to take risks. He understood that those of us that worked under him would sometimes make mistakes, and he helped us learn from them.”

Gutiérrez, the Rev. Frank Arnold and their wives were part of the class of some 40 would-be missionaries commissioned by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1963.

“We joked that if we made it, living together in spartan Geneva Hall at Montreat that summer, we could make it in Africa or wherever it was we were going,” Arnold said. After that summer, the Arnold and Gutiérrez families would only see each other sporadically. Ben and Tina were assigned as mission co-workers to Ecuador, and Frank and Hope were sent as mission co-workers to Brazil, where they served in evangelism, church planting, community development and theological education for 33 years.

It took many years, but Gutiérrez and Arnold eventually found themselves in the same role as field secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean — Gutiérrez with the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and Arnold with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. They attended meetings together regularly and traveled together frequently.

“Ben was a unique person,” Arnold said. “Looking at him one would be forgiven if he were taken for a Quechua Indian of the Andes. He would have made them proud. Ben was a brilliant man, an efficient administrator and totally dedicated to his wide responsibilities and to his Lord. He was always quick to grasp what was going on and never let things get so serious that he could not interject some relevant levity. I was privileged to get to know and work with my friend Ben.”

Gutiérrez and Arnold worked in partnership with the Rev. Abival Pires da Silveira and the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil in the early 1980s to build a long-standing mission partnership between the two denominations.

“The Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) extends our solidarity to the PC(USA) on the death of the Rev. Ben Gutiérrez. Ben’s loving and courageous actions left an indelible mark on the IPIB as he worked with Cliff Kirkpatrick and Rev. Abival Pires da Silveira to build a fruitful period of cooperation between our churches that remains indelibly etched on our memories,” said the Rev. Roberto Mauro de Souza Castro, General Secretary of the IPIB.

The Rev. Aureo Oliveira, moderator of the IPIB, remembered that, in 2005, Gutiérrez and Tina came to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to have lunch with him as he waited for a connecting flight. “He was a key person so that I could study at Princeton in 1995–96,” Oliveira said. “We deeply regret this loss. Presbyterianism got poorer, but heaven enriched.”

The Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, professor of World Christianity and Ecumenical Studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Emeritus, said, “While it comes as a great loss to me and to so many others, the death of our brother in Christ, Ben Gutierrez, falls appropriately during the season of the church year when we focus on ‘all the saints.’ Ben was truly one of the great saints of the church in our time and a dear brother in Christ, whose life was a living demonstration of what God intends for all humanity.”

“Coming to know Ben was one of the gifts of Presbyterian Reunion for me in the early 1980s,” said Kirkpatrick, who also served as director of the Global Mission Ministry Unit, the predecessor to Presbyterian World Mission. “While Ben and I are both native Texans, his ministry led him to the world mission effort of the ‘northern church’ and my ministry led me to the world mission effort of the ‘southern church.’ What a blessing it was to be involved in reuniting the church and, at the same time, being given the gifts of new friends like Ben who was actively engaged in transforming the world for the cause of Christ. For Ben, this reunion was simply one step in a broader journey of unity and reconciliation, which were hallmarks of his ministry.

“No one made a greater contribution to the well-being of Reformed Churches in the Americas in the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century than Ben Gutierrez. He led the efforts of the PC(USA) to strengthen ties between Christians in the United States and Latin America, was instrumental in creating the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in Latin America (AIPRAL), and built bridges between Protestants, Catholics, Pentecostals, and all who worked for peace and justice in the Americas. He will be deeply missed by me and countless others who looked to Ben for leadership in the cause of Christ in the Americas and throughout the world.”

Kirkpatrick added, “Beyond his considerable leadership gifts, Ben was a faithful husband, a dear friend, a caring pastor and a prophet for justice and peace. Ben will be dearly missed by so many of us, but during this season of All Saints we give thanks that Ben is now in the Church Triumphant. A Brief Statement of Faith of the PC(USA) has at its heart that wonderful phrase, ‘In life and in death we belong to God.’ We are grateful to have been colleagues with Ben in his walk with God on this earth and rejoice that he now belongs to God in the Church Triumphant.”

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A visitation for the Rev. Ben F. Gutiérrez will be held on Sunday, Nov. 12, from 3-5 p.m. at Lucas Funeral Home, 1601 S. Main St., Keller, Texas.

A memorial service will be held at a later date at Gethsemane Presbyterian Church, 960 W. Bluff St. in Fort Worth, where he served as pastor for many years.


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