by Hal and Nancy Thomas, Friend Serving Abroad
How does a local congregation interact with its social context in life-giving ways? At the same time, how does this congregation keep itself from being influenced in ungodly ways by the surrounding culture? The Bolivian Friends Church is wrestling with these issues, in light of a country-wide movement that is encouraging (sometimes forcing) indigenous peoples to return to their animistic roots. As Friends in Bolivia come primarily from an indigenous Aymara background, this puts the church under tremendous pressure.
During the past two years we have been part of the leadership team facilitating consultations on “Gospel and Culture in the Aymara Context.” Local Friends have given major leadership to these meetings which have brought together over 100 Aymara Christian leaders across denominational lines.
Perspectives vary from those who insist Christians should reject Aymara culture and separate from “the world,” to those who would seek to contextualize the Christian message and practices to the highest ideals of the culture. We confess to holding the latter point of view, along with the rest of the leadership team. So our task has been to encourage all of us to listen well to the Scriptures, to each other, and to the context, while simultaneously learning to listen together to the Spirit. This discernment process is not easy in any context.
Everyone has a voice in these highly participative sessions. Formal presentations are brief, followed by small group discussions where the work of the consultation is carried out. We’ve been encouraged by the level of engagement, and by the insistence that the discussions continue. People long for light on what seems like a dark road ahead.
One of the most significant moments occurred after the consultation in September of 2012 as we were meeting informally with the La Paz regional executive council of the Bolivian Friends. This council, or mesa directiva, was a sponsor of the consultation. We were all seated in a crowded circle of chairs arranged around what was the living room of the mission house fifty years ago.
The conversation turned to the consultation, and Dionisio, the district president asked me (Hal) if I really understood what it meant for Friends pastors and each family in the churches to take on community responsibilities. Community responsibilities are part of what is known as the cargo system in indigenous peasant communities throughout Latin America. In Andean communities every young husband with the cooperation of his wife begins to take on community tasks through which they eventually acquire prestige and a place in a progressive ladder of community responsibilities. The roots of this social structure go back to the pre-conquest empires, and reflect a holistic worldview that combines indigenous rites with social responsibilities. It is an egalitarian and binding structure for living. But it brings serious conflicts of power, truth and loyalty with their Christian commitments.
Upon being obligated to a community cargo, a Christian believer commonly asks the permission of the congregation to be excused from attending church meetings or taking church responsibilities during the year of their service to the community. He promises to return at the end of the year, repent and reconcile with God and the church. Some do. But many persons and families become marginal to the congregation.
This whole discussion becomes especially difficult when it involves the pastoral family. This was the issue that the men and women in that crowded church office began to talk about. And one by one the leaders began to recount their experiences of community leadership at the very highest levels. All recounted points of tension. Nearly all recounted humorous situations. And what came through most strongly was their vision and experience of personal and community transformation that came from faithfully living as followers of Jesus in conflictive, compromising situations. It took courage, planning and personal financial sacrifice to do this.
What was significant was that these Friends pastors and leaders were openly discussing the problem of Christian testimony and community obligations. And they were sharing their own experiences. The depth and impact of this informal discussion opened the potential to us of what can happen as we continue to consider the critical relation between gospel and culture among Friends in Andean Bolivia.
Please pray for Bolivian Friends. Meaningful participation in community obligations, always a challenge, is more complex now than ever. Pray for the consultations and for believers here to grow in their ability to listen well to each other and to the Spirit. Pray for a positive impact in the social context.