Churches Reach Out to Bolivia's Mennonites

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They live simply, dress plainly and refuse to use many modern conveniences.  They trace their spiritual ancestry to a 16th century European preacher named Menno Simons, whose followers became known as Mennonites.

Not all Mennonites follow these old-world customs, but there are colonies, like the Pennsylvania Amish, scattered throughout the Americas.  In Bolivia, life in the Mennonite colonies can be harsh. 

Bolivia's Mennonites are easy to spot.  Their European features and distinctive clothes separate them from other Bolivians.  The Mennonites settled in eastern Bolivia's farmlands more than 50 years ago.  They came from Mennonite colonies in Canada, Russia, Mexico, Belize and Paraguay, looking for a better life.

"Many of the more conservative Mennonites move from one country to another trying to separate themselves from the world, and keep their own culture, and not associate with the world," said Dario Kehler, director of the Mennonite Mission.

Today, some 60,000 Mennonites call Bolivia their home.  Their colonies are broad expanses of land given to them by the Bolivian government.  This is where they live and work, sheltered by the government's promise of freedom of religion, exemption from military service, and the privilege of running their own schools.  

Their language is low Herman, but since most of them were born here, they also speak Spanish.

"There are no telephones there, that is, phones are forbidden.  Radio.  Vehicles," explained nearby resident Abraham Wall.  "So they use buggies, horses and iron-wheeled tractors.  And those are their laws."

Since some Mennonites refuse to live that way and instead use modern vehicles and technology, they are shunned and mistreated within their colonies, or are expelled altogether.

"It was very hard," said Jacob Smith.  His father was expelled from the Mennonite colony.  "The ministers always came to beat my mother."

It's also difficult for Mennonites who live outside the colonies, away from their traditional culture.  Some become destitute.

"Because of their problems in the colony they got very discouraged.  That's why they've left the colony," said David Janzen of Mennonite Mission.  "But they're not used to life in bolivian towns either.  They're two different cultures."

The harsh reality faced by exiled Mennonites prompted two local Christian organizations to come together and create "Villa Neuva," a community that now houses and gives help to some thirty families.

dario kehler:  "we try to maintain certain aspects of their mennonite culture, the language, the work, etcetera.  but at the same time teach them how to live the christian life within bolivian society.

In Villa Nueva, Mennonite children have their school where they can receive a formal education.

An economic development project provides families a source of food and financial support.  They construct prefabricated wood houses, and other jobs for which they have special skills. 

Villa Nueva also provides spiritual healing for exiled Mennonite families.  They draw near to a loving, restoring God, as they gather in church every Sunday to worship and receive Bible teaching for adults, youth and for children. 

What many have found there is a community with a difference, new friendships and a new life.

"I had bad habits. I smoked.  I drank. And one day I received Christ and I came here to be baptized," said resident Abraham Wall.  "And we've lived here in Pailon almost a year and here in Villa Nueva another year.  I'm happy to be here.

Enrique Smith is another.

"I see my family is very happy because they always come to thank me when they see that there are drunks out there.  How they walk, how they behave," he said.  "Then they come to me and hug me and say, 'Thank you daddy.  You're not like that any more.'"

Even though the needs of Mennonites who have left or been expelled from their communities are still great, the wholistic support provided by the Christian ministries are helping to change their reality, their attitude and their destiny.

*Originally aired June 19, 2009.

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