Dear American Baptists,
The Argentine Baptist Association met last week (August 9-11) for its biennial gathering, where I had the privilege of speaking twice on their biennial theme rooted in John 17:18, “as the Father has sent me so send I you.”
We met in a Roman Catholic retreat center in Pilar. I was told that this is where the Catholic bishops of Argentina meet in retreat and that I was staying in the room that Pope Francis occupied when he served here in Argentina. The center was quite simple in its appointments and in its chapel, a sign of the simplicity that marks the ministry of Pope Francis as pope.
It’s amazing how, though the language is different, a Baptist meeting is a Baptist meeting. As delegates and visitors gathered there were hugs and kisses, and the expression of “God bless you” shared liberally. We opened with singing songs and choruses we would all know including “How Great Thou Art,” and with a morning devotional on the greatest commandment, the love of God.
Though I speak a little Spanish and understand a bit more, I quickly learned that I don’t speak Argentinian. The pronunciation is quite different – not surprising given the differences in English around the world, for example. It seems as though each people put their particular stamp on their own language. I was grateful for assistance in translation by two SBC missionaries, Asbury and Hope, who have served in Argentina for over a decade and currently focus on church planting.
One of the things I enjoyed very much is that when there is an occasion for prayer, various people in the assembly will stand and pray spontaneously.
Of course there is business which began with a financial report that the Association had tripled its giving. New member churches were welcomed. Reports of mission were given. We as American Baptists have partnered with the Association in outreach to four impoverished settlements (favelas): Catamarca, Villa Constructora, Santa Brigida, and Lomas de Mariló. In each of these communities, children are at risk because of poverty, violence, drugs, and lack of education. The Association has made outreach to such at-risk youth a priority because “the level of violence is great and death is always near.” It is their goal to embrace these children in the love of Christ, to include them in the fellowship of the church, to provide them guidance, support, and affirmation as they find their way toward the love of Christ and lives that are redeemed from the destruction that challenges them on every side.
At lunch I sat with Rosa, who directs the center in Catamarca. She described the community where she serves as one with low wage earners, with many single mothers, and with a large number of suicides. But in the midst of so much despair, her Christ-based ministry is having a wonderful impact. Her center’s success with drug addicts, violence prevention and ministry with children is attracting the attention of the government and universities. When she is asked by them what the secret of her success is, she replies that there is no secret; it is the work of Jesus changing hearts and lives.
Likewise, I was blessed to sit at a table with a young teenager and an older woman from the same church. But they did not first meet in church. They first met when he robbed her in her home for money to support his drug addiction! “At first, when the pastor brought him to church a few weeks later and said Jeremiah had given his life to Christ, it was hard to believe,” she said. “It was even harder to forgive him, but when he asked for forgiveness, I could not refuse because Jesus had not refused to forgive me.” Jeremiah’s desire now is to let his friends with addictions know that it is possible to walk a new path with Jesus and the church.
Two other pastors whose work we also support serve in very dangerous neighborhoods. Neither is a young man. Each accepted the call to their town with great reluctance. One of the pastors had his evening service broken into by a young man with a gun in his hand who then proceeded to rob those in the service. “God protected us,” he said, “because just a few days later this same teen killed a person during a robbery.” In each case, they serve a community marked by extreme poverty, high unemployment, drugs, violence, and many births to young teenage girls. I so admire their courage! Though they do not see it that way. One of them, speaking of his ministry said, “It’s glorious to serve here.”
The Association is not big. Evangelical churches are still a minority in Argentina, but the people are filled with joy, commitment and determination. What a marvelous band of disciples! And they are rejoicing in working together with ABC – not only to receive as they reminded me often, but to share their gifts with us to strengthen the ABC.