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God's Grace in Argentina: Summex 2013

Each year the college sends teams abroad to experience culture and missions, called Summex (summer missionary exposure). The following is taken from email updates from Megan Von Bergen, one of the Emmaus Faculty members of the team that visited Argentina from July 25-August 16.

Iglesia Cristiana Evangelica

As of today (August 1), we have been in the country one week. During that time, we´ve been privileged to hear about God´s work through the Iglesia Cristiana Evangelica Villa Real, a large assembly in Buenos Aires.  

Among the Iglesia Cristiana Evangelica´s most prominent ministries is its work in education. The church has a Christian school on-site, and both believing and unbelieving students are enrolled here. At least two of the young women we have met - one, a gracious young woman in the youth group named C; another, a woman on the ministry staff of the Iglesia Cristiana Evangelica named M - tell us that they came to the school as non-Christians. C in particular told us how she was drawn to the school because of their program in journalism, which she plans to study in university next year. She came to the school, grew close to the students and teachers, and attended a camp that they sponsored. At camp, she came to know the Lord. Today, she is the only Christian in her family, and over the years since she was saved, her parents have noticed her care and love towards the other members of her family. 

The Iglesia Cristiana Evangelica also sponsors a number of rural schools; these schools offer education and lodging, which students in impoverished Argentina would not receive if it were not for the schools. We will be visiting one of these schools next week, one near Santiago del Estero. Sometimes the students who attend the rural schools will come to Buenos Aires to attend tertiary school (the Argentinian equivalent to college) to receive job training as teachers. We have really enjoyed getting to know the tertiary level students here: They are a dedicated group of young people, often facing challenging personal and financial difficulties yet committed to growing in their faith and walking with God. 

The IBCM Conference 

In Buenos Aires, one of our main responsibilities was assisting with the first-ever conference of the Hispanic branch of the IBCM (International Brethren Conference on MIssion). Joel Hernandez organized and spoke at the conference, and the four of us women pitched in with food preparation and service. 

The goal of the conference was  to inspire more missions work in Latin America and more international missionaries from Latin America. Because this was the first time this conference has been held and its location changed unexpectedly (to the Iglesia Cristiana Evangelica instead of Word of Life, about an hour south of Buenos Aires), there were a number of challenges: We ran out of coffee, changed the schedule unexpectedly and then changed it again, finished up the conference bulletins the night before, and hosted, in addition to the regular attendees, an extra two hundred students from Word of Life. 

Yet the conference was, in the end, enormously successful. More than 150 people from the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, were in attendance. People came from as far away as Spain, England and the Dominican Republic. Even all those unexpected challenges we faced were a sign of God´s blessing on the conference: We were so glad to be bursting at the seams with those ready to learn and grow in their ability to minister to those in the Spanish-speaking world and beyond.

At this time, we are about halfway through our trip. One ongoing challenge continues to be the language, but even those of us who speak almost no Spanish are making progress. This last week, we women, in addition to serving the food for the conference, also served lunch to the students who attend the school. At every lunch, Allison Wisecup made more progress in talking with the students. Despite the fact that the room was filled with the loud noises of children´s happy voices, that the children spoke quickly and without any real knowledge of what it means to learn a second language, Allison regularly bent down to learn about the girls - how old they are, whether they have brothers or sisters, what their names are. It´s been encouraging to see her make progress in this way. 

Next week, we head into the Interior - to San Miguel de Tucuman, to Santiago del Estero, to Villa Maria, and to several small villages. There, we will connect with the local ministries and see what God is doing in the rural areas far from Buenos Aires. 

Tucuman

In Tucuman, we stayed with Juan Clemente. A passionate, gifted evangelist, Juan has been working in the north of Argentina for more than thirty years, and across the rural countryside there are pockets of believers - especially children - who were brought to Christ through the efforts of Juan and his family. 

What was most memorable about Juan was his absolute trust in the faithfulness of God: He and his children told us story after story after story of God working miracles to preserve the Gospel. Immediately after we arrived, Juan’s daughter stopped us and began to tell us, with great expression, of a man who had opposed her father’s work and railed against attempts to bring the Gospel to a remote Argentine village. The man, his daughter told us, was suddenly struck dumb. Later, the man was converted and the Gospel was preached in the village. She then told us of a time that Juan and his traveling companion stopped in the middle of nowhere to preach the Gospel. Juan was confident that God wanted him to preach the Gospel, even though there was clearly nothing around besides various trees and shrubs. Yet towards the end of the message, a gaucho crawled out from behind a shrub and was saved. They never saw the gaucho again. 

In modern-day America, miracles, we are told, do not happen any longer. God works differently now, people say. Yet Juan Clemente proves it is not so. The truth is, our God is powerful and gracious, and He will exercise that power - even in ways that we no longer believe possible - for His grace to be known around the world. 

Tucuman, incidentally, was also a remarkable cultural experience. Supper is often served late in Argentina, somewhere between 9.30 and 11.00 PM. At Juan’s house, it was served even later. Our first night there, we enjoyed a prayer meeting and conversation with the local church (so many welcoming, kindly people!) It was 11.30 or 11.45 PM before we left church, and still we had not eaten supper. In the States, we would perhaps eat a few crackers and go to bed, but that would offend Argentine sensibilities about food and especially about hospitality. Juan and his family graciously prepared a meal for us - pizza, with thick slabs of mozzarella cheese, ham, green olives and chopped hard-boiled eggs - and we sat down to eat about 12.30 in the morning. Between conversation, pizza and dessert, we didn’t leave the table for another hour, until 1.30 in the morning. 

Ultimately, unusual (to our American sensibilities) as the dinner hours were, late nights around the dinner table were one of our favourite experiences . The art of dinner table conversation is perhaps a lost art in the United States. Not so in Argentina: Lingering after supper is part of good hospitality and is an excellent opportunity for deep conversation. It was around the dinner table that we truly got to know our hosts, got to hear about how God drew them to Himself and how He was working in the Argentine cities. 

Brea Pozo

After Tucuman we visited Brea Pozo, the site of the rural community school linked to Buenos Aires. The school numbers nearly 200 students from kindergarten to seventh grade, about 50 of whom live on-campus. Brea Pozo was one of our most low-key stops, as we planned only to play with the students during the daytime and attend the local assembly in the evenings. 

It also turned out to be one of the most heartwarming. I was surprised one afternoon, walking out to the ball field, when someone grabbed me around the waist. I’m not physically affectionate and very ticklish, so my gut instinct is to flinch away when someone touches me unexpectedly, especially on the waist. Thankfully, for whatever reason, I only turned around and discovered Maya, one of the students, had come in for a hug. Then suddenly ten other primary-school girls were there, crowding in around Maya, wanting to hug me or hold my hand or simply wanting me to rest my hand on their shoulder. The students also loved the games that we played. The day we arrived, Rebecca and I coaxed a group together and, with Joel Hernandez translating, taught them Sharks and Minnows. They played with enthusiasm, tagging each other wildly . I taught them to high-five, and after that they gave me high-fives with both hands every time they made it untagged across the boundary line. The next day, we taught them Capture the Flag, and that too they played with abandon (and a good amount of cheating in the mix.)

Although many students do not choose to follow Jesus, the school directors point out that the school nonetheless is a vital ministry in rural Argentina. Were the children not at the school, they would be living in extreme poverty, and in their area of the world, that could mean living with an abusive father, or living with a mother who prostituted herself for money, or receiving no education whatsoever because the schools were too far away. Indeed, the school is an excellent example of a ministry that follows Jesus’s instruction to care for the poor and to shelter those who were outcast. We cannot force people into faith, but we can show them the love of Christ by supplying their physical needs. In Brea Pozo, a bed, regular meals, an education - all these, to the children who attend the school, are an enduring testament to the love of Christ for His people. 

Garza

One of the high points of our stop was Garza, a small town (perhaps 1300 people) along a highway in rural Argentina. The church in Garza, only a few years old, is entirely made up of adult converts. What this meant was that our group was the first group of foreigners to visit the evangelical church in Garza. It was a historic moment. 

We traveled to Garza with Pepe and Mariana Arjona, who have been working there for several years (The Arjonas have two sons at Emmaus, one who works there and one who attends.) Our first night in Garza, we shared testimonies - sharing with the local believers our testimonies, then listening as they shared theirs with us. Because the Garzan believers are all first-generation Christians, it was a treat to hear how God has been working in their lives. Alejandra, for instance, was saved and wanted to be baptized, but first she needed to put her life in order, which included marrying her partner of seventeen years. He agreed to marry her, since - as he put it - after seventeen years they must be doing something right. Then he came home one day and said, “Today’s the day. Let’s get married.” They called a friend of theirs to witness the ceremony, discovered she was already in town and said, “Great, stay there! We’re coming in to get married today!” Alejandra’s husband is also a believer now and she tells, with tears in her eyes, of how God has changed her life. 

The little church in Garza has had to endure some derision and mockery by the local population. Members of the church are called “Gospels.” A term which echoes Acts 11.26 (“And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch”), it speaks both to the resistance to the Gospel in rural Argentina and the growing strength of the new church, standing up to community disapproval and continuing to reach out to its population. 

Perhaps this is why the Garzan believers so greatly appreciated our visit. Poor as they were, they feasted us, in the fashion of 2 Corinthians 8.3 (“They gave as much as they were able and even beyond their ability.”) The night we shared testimonies, they made mate - loose-leaf Argentinian tea drunk from a communal cup; I loved it - again and again as we sat and talked. For lunch the next day, they served roast pig, salad, bread, and an abundance of some of the best chicken empanadas we ate, six or seven for each person. After lunch, we lingered around the table and sang hymn after hymn in Spanish (and one or two in English), with Joel on the guitar and Mariana on the accordion. 

These men and women are isolated geographically and spiritually, and our presence assured them that they are not alone in their faith, that there are people who love them and pray for them and want to see them grow. Their joy was a good reminder that, much as we love to be independent, our faith is not something we do as a Lone Ranger. Walking with God can be difficult and the companionship of our brothers and sisters on the journey is a welcome comfort.

To conclude: Thank you for your many prayers! We were privileged to encourage the Argentinian believers - and be so encouraged in return! - for the three weeks. Coming back to the United States is bittersweet. Yes, we are ready to pick up our professional and personal responsibilities again, teaching, studying, and ministering to those in our lives here, but we will greatly miss our friends and fellow believers in Argentina. 

All the best,
Megan Von Bergen & the Summex Argentina team

Be sure to look at Megan’s photo journey on our facebook page!

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