NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Following Jesus, who said, "Let the little children come to me," the Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Boliviana (IEMB) found a way to open the doors of their Guarderia Samuelito (Samuelito Daycare Center) again. This time with slightly older and fewer children to help keep everyone healthy.
Mennonite Mission Network associates Freddy Barrón and Margrit Kipfer Barrón, serving with IEMB in partnership with Schweizerische Mennonitische Mission (Swiss Mennonite Mission), helped shape a new academic initiative to provide academic support for children pre-kindergarten through second grade at the Guarderia Samuelito. In 2006, IEMB began this daycare as an outreach of the Esmirna congregation, one of 12 IEMB churches — four in Santa Cruz proper and the rest in the surrounding countryside.
Guarderia Samuelito, along with other daycare facilities, had been closed for more than a year, due to the pandemic. Although government regulations limit reopening as a daycare, the staff can serve in other ways. "Something that worries us a lot is the situation in the schools," Kipfer Barrón wrote in a recent email to Linda Shelly, Mission Network's director for Latin America. "Last year, academic progress was practically nil. They advanced three weeks and then came the quarantine, during which some [students] advanced a little and others made no progress. And then, in August 2020, school closed for the remainder of the year."
According to Kipfer Barrón, younger children are facing bigger challenges during this pandemic. "We know children who should be ready for third grade but have not yet learned to read or write. In the city so far this year, practically everything has been virtual, and we do not yet know when they are thinking of going back to face-to-face classes," wrote Kipfer Barrón.
Aida Luz Hurtado is coordinating the new program that began mid-August and now includes 22 children in three groups. She wrote, "During this time of pandemic, the children have not learned well and are missing a lot. That was my concern, and I know that their parents cannot stay home with them or help with virtual classes. I am very happy we can receive some children here."
The Esmira congregation, and other Mennonite churches in Santa Cruz, have also been developing neighborhood outreach groups during the pandemic. "We did the same here in our home and have named the church group La Buena Semilla (The Good Seed)," Kipfer Barrón wrote. "La Buena Semilla continues meeting on a regular basis once a month for a Sunday morning church service, often followed by a fellowship meal. In other family homes, we have been meeting for Wednesday prayer meetings sporadically, depending on the needs of the family."
While Barrón pastors the Sinai congregation, Kipfer Barrón develops leadership in the Esmirna congregation. She also encourages and helps organize the youth and children's ministries throughout IEMB. These include Vacation Bible School (VBS) for children; an Alpha program for teens; and a leadership training program, Sirviendo a Cristo (Serving Christ). Youth trained in this program and during summer camps help lead VBS activities.
Kipfer Barrón, who first came to Boliva in 1993 from her homeland of Switzerland, believes biblical education and discipleship training is important for all life stages. This approach has brought both joys and challenges, she said.
"Sometimes you see the little kids you work with grow up and continue relating to the church," Kipfer Barrón said. "But some of the children who grow into adolescence end up not making very good decisions in their lives, and you can feel like your efforts have been in vain."
Children and youth often absorb biblical teachings better in settings outside of church buildings, Kipfer Barrón believes. So, she helps families develop devotional activities in their neighborhoods. "The devotionals help them to learn to know where the different books of the Bible are and give them a base to keep reading into the next years of their lives."
The Alpha course provides videos for youth and teens that explore Christ and his salvation, along with biblical instruction and discussion. "Discussion time is really good, especially since some of these groups have teens attend who are not regular church goers," she said.
For Kipfer Barrón, the peer-to-peer relationships that teenagers form is why the youth leadership program is so important. "It is a time when they are making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives," she said. "At those junctures, it really helps them to hear testimonies from people their own age who have made a strong commitment to God."
In the days ahead, no matter what the pandemic brings, Kipfer Barrón hopes to continue identifying leaders for the various ministries she oversees.
"I strive to develop and identify leaders who have real hearts for people and real hearts for God — people who are willing to be committed during this shaky time," she said. "My experience over the decades has been that God always prepares people to be ready for what is coming."