HARPER, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – For 29-year-old Isaac Shue, a visit by a Bolivian delegation to Harper, Kansas, late last July was more than just an extended time of fellowship after Mennonite World Conference in Pennsylvania.
It was a deeply personal “family” connection with Yuneth Vargas. She was his host mother in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It’s where Shue, of Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church, served in 2010 with Mennonite Mission Network’s Journey International program and remained after his term, continuing his service until 2013. He worked at the church’s Samuelito day care center.
Shue and his wife, Karina, a Bolivian, hosted Vargas in their Harper home for a month. She came with five other Bolivians to connect with three Kansas congregations that share a partnership with the Bolivia Mennonite Church, Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Boliviana (IEMB).
For five days, they visited with the partner congregations of Pleasant Valley and Crystal Springs Mennonite churches of Harper and Journey Mennonite Church at Yoder, Kansas.
“It was so cool to have Yuneth visit my home after all the time I spent in her home,” said Shue, who as a teenager first visited Bolivia in 2002. “After staying with me, she apologized for not being able to provide more luxurious surroundings for me at her home.”
Quite the contrary, he said. He is grateful that Yuneth introduced him to the riches of his global family in Christ. “Bolivia helped me to understand how people from different cultures ... worship the same God,” he said. “Because of that, we learn to grow to love each other.”
The gratitude is mutual. “I am grateful that my North American brothers and sisters are willing to leave their comforts and technology and become accustomed to living in a different way and eating different foods,” Vargas said. “They have the heart of Christ, to leave everything to go and serve where they are needed.”
When the partnership was launched in 2004, the Kansans and Bolivians decided to focus on getting to know each other’s gifts and challenges and praying for each other. That desire has yielded the fruit of strong relationships, said Linda Shelly, Director for Latin America at Mennonite Mission Network.
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“The relationship between the Bolivia Mennonite Church and three churches in Kansas is a powerful example of the value of partnerships based on prayer and relationships,” Shelly said. “In initial visits, they learned to know each other, heard their prayer requests, and experienced each other’s gifts in ministry.
“The churches have continued to pray, to learn from each other, and to support each other in mutual ways. Twelve years after the first partnership formation visit, it’s encouraging to see the lives impacted and the ministry accomplished together.”
The youth at Príncipe de Paz church in Santa Cruz first launched the idea for a partnership after they spent time with the Kansas youth on their first trip to Bolivia in 2002, said Tim Penner, a longtime member of Pleasant Valley with his wife, Faith. The Penners, as well as former Crystal Springs pastor, Lidia Zehr, and her husband, Doug, earlier had served with Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia.
After the first intergenerational visit in 2002, Kansas youth delegations have traveled to Bolivia. “Though our kids today connect a lot of with the wider world through social media, they still don’t have a face-to-face context for that – which our cross-cultural visits are providing,” Tim Penner said. “Also, in years past, congregations may have been less removed from a sense of global missions, but they still interfaced mostly with mission workers. This partnership has changed all that.”
Sheri Zerger, children’s pastor at Journey Mennonite Church, took her first trip to Bolivia in 2009, deepened relationships during a sabbatical month in Bolivia in 2010, and hosted the Bolivian delegation during this past summer’s vacation Bible school at Journey Mennonite.
“This partnership has helped me realize that even though we are from different parts of the world, we worship the same God,” she said. “By experiencing another culture, we see God is bigger than we think. … Our guests helped us sing a Bible school song, “My God is So Big,” in Spanish. That was a simple thing, but it helped our kids understand that our world is bigger than what we see in Kansas.”
The Bolivian delegation also spent a day at Camp Mennoscah with Pleasant Valley, and visited other places, including Hesston (Kansas) College and the Mennonite Mission Network office in Newton.
The visits further solidified the value of the partnership, said Leónidas (Ona) Saucedo, IEMB president, during time with Shelly. “We dedicate time and energy to grow together with our Kansas churches,” he said. “We walk together, holding hands and helping each other. We demonstrate to each other that we are brothers and sisters. In Christ, the differences in culture and customs are broken down. And we feel that we are not alone, that we are together.”
Prayer is at the heart of the partnership, and has inspired IEMB in their relationships among their own urban and rural churches. Financial and other gifts from Kansas have helped to develop the Samuelito child care center as well as several other church community projects.
The partnership has also helped the Kansas churches to be more intentional in reaching out to their local neighbors of many backgrounds, as well as to connect more with their global family.
“Because of this summer visit, members of our congregations who haven’t traveled to Bolivia had the opportunity to see what dear people we are connected with through this partnership,” Faith Penner said. “The face-to-face contact helped to cement our relationship.”
She tells a story that demonstrates this: “As I was taking the Bolivians around, we stopped in at our church on Wednesday morning, when the older ladies were working on quilts and sewing projects,” she said. “I sat back and watched as the Bolivians and Kansans mingled, becoming real to each other. They were becoming friends, and not just names in a bulletin prayer needs list.”