Diana Cruz and Felipe Preciado served a three-year term with Mennonite Mission Network and the Colombia Mennonite Church at a children's village in Benin. The experience changed them for good.
Diana Cruz and Felipe Preciado said goodbye to their home of three years when they left La Casa Grande (The Big House — LCG) children's village in Allada, Benin. Their service term was a time filled with grief and blessing — an experience of mission as mutual conversion, as they immersed themselves in the daily laughter and struggles of the LCG family, through a partnership assignment with Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (Colombia Mennonite Church) and Mennonite Mission Network.
"Benin was our life," Cruz said, during a Zoom interview. "It changed everything for us. Our time in Benin was filled with beauty and painful things. We did life together."
Preciado described entering the holiness of LCG, a place alive with vibrant community. An arched sign over the front gate combines French and Fon (one of the languages spoken in Benin) to announce "Village d'enfants Fifatin" (Peace Children's Village.)
"Going to Benin was not about us doing something there," Preciado said. "It was about the people at La Casa Grande allowing us to grow with them. You can't buy the joy and sorrow of these kinds of relationships. For me, this is mission."
Cruz and Preciado served at LCG from 2018-2021. Cruz taught English and Spanish at Les Leaders, a school on LCG's campus that serves the residents, and offers quality education to families in Allada. She also developed a computer lab. Preciado worked with agricultural and animal-breeding projects for LCG and other Mennonite partners in Benin, like Institut Biblique du Benin (Benin Bible Institute).
As Cruz and Preciado experienced growth in their own lives, they also watched children develop into young adults.
One child is Jean Léo, a gifted artist. Cruz watched with joy as Jean Léo's art evolved. In July, five months after their departure from LCG, she and Preciado shared in the celebration when Jean Léo announced that he had passed his bac (a comprehensive exam that is the equivalent of a high-school diploma and a pre-requisite for entering university). Since leaving Benin, Cruz and Preciado haven't been able to communicate with their LCG friends as much as they would like to, but Jean Léo borrowed a phone to call them, so that the couple could share in the joy of his achievement.
Preciado worked with LCG children to care for the animals and the gardens that supply food for the LCG cooking pots and provide some income for the children's village. One day, a boy who didn't grow up at LCG joined the work crew. The visitor became frightened when a pig snuffled toward him, and he struck the animal. Elui, an LCG child, reprimanded the visiting boy, saying one should never be cruel to animals.
"I was so proud when I heard Elui explaining this," Preciado said. "I had passed on what my grandpa taught me when I was five years old — to trust animals and have respect for them. That filled me with joy."
As Benin gave Cruz and Preciado a chance to enlarge their cultural horizons, their vision of God and the church also expanded. They are members of Iglesia Menonita de Teusaquillo (Teusaquillo Mennonite Church) in their birth country of Colombia. There, services are "calm, like in many North American Mennonite churches," Cruz said. When they first encountered the Pentecostal-style worship found in most Beninese churches, they were in culture shock. But eventually, they loved discovering how varied and beautiful worship can be.
"Before going to Benin, we saw only one face of God, but now we see a more colorful and complex aspect of God," Cruz said. "We also learned different ways to understand suffering and pain in the world. My faith grew through deep conversations with the children."
Fiacre, an eight-year-old, died three months after the couple arrived at LCG. In that short time, both Cruz and Preciado had grown to love him dearly. One day, when Cruz was crying in grief for the injustice of a young life cut short, six-year-old Viviane said to Cruz, "Don't cry. Fiacre is with God now." Viviane and many of the children delighted in imagining what Fiacre and God were doing together and what they were eating in heaven!
"The children are so sure of God," Cruz said. "They challenge our faith. What are we so sure about?"
Before going to Benin, Preciado said he was concerned about being theologically correct, with the right words and phrases. But this preoccupation faded when he encountered the harsh realities of village life.
"Sometimes their faith is all that people have," he said. "They taught me what really matters."
Preciado said he learned so much from the old men in the village and the woman who sold him the pigs' food.
"I started not caring about so many things that used to take up my time," he said. "I learned to sit down and listen to God speaking through the people in Allada, and through them, I developed a deeper connection to Jesus. I became aware of God in the face of others, a holy experience."
Referring to Acts 17:23, Preciado spoke of Paul encountering the altar of the unknown god in Athens, Greece.
"LCG showed us the unknown god," Preciado said. "God was taken out of the little god-box I had. It was an amazing opportunity and a blessing."
Preciado credits LCG personnel for creating the sacred space — from the administrators through the aunties. Eight children live in a cottage with an "auntie," who serves as a mother-figure and creates a family atmosphere.
"[The LCG personnel] preach with their lives," Preciado said. "The kids are the witnesses."
Cruz said that LCG offers wholistic care and restores dignity to children who have lost so much in their short lives.
"I admire the work La Casa Grande has done in the children's upbringing," she said. "The children know they are loved, and they feel safe."
LCG opened its doors in 2000, through a collaboration of the Mennonite Church in Burgos, Spain; the churches of Benin; and Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mission Network. LCG's network now spans four continents, and includes the municipal governments of Allada and Burgos and churches in Canada and Colombia.
LCG is not an orphanage, where children are adopted and taken away. It is a forever family that welcomes children who have no one else to care for them. Some of the first babies LCG welcomed are now in university.
"We are so grateful to have been part of this web of support," Cruz said. "It was a mission of all those who sent us. LCG brings so many people together. It is like a quilt: We each bring our little scrap of cloth, but when we piece the bits together, it brings warmth and comfort."
Preciado expanded on his wife's web-of-support image that sustains God's mission. "Everything is so interrelated," he said. "Mission is not one or two people who go to serve somewhere. If you melt down [in the difficulty of your call], there are so many arms to hold you."
There is no Mennonite church in Benin. Rather, Mennonites choose to work with more than 70 denominations, worshiping together and addressing social needs that have been identified by the Beninese churches and the communities they serve.
"Mennonites have left a credible imprint of faith in Benin through the institutions they helped to establish, like Benin Bible Institute, Bethesda and the farm at Oumako," Cruz said. [To read more of this story, see 3-D Gospel in Benin]
Mennonites worked hard not to colonize Benin, Preciado said, but they had a vision of sustainable ministry with local leadership right from the beginning.
"Mennonites embraced people and developed just relationships," he said. "Diana and I were able to participate in a harvest that we didn't plant. And we hope we planted new seeds for others to harvest." [Click here to see video of some of those seeds.]
Since July, Cruz and Preciado have been serving in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Cruz, is working as a planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting facilitator, and Preciado is the Connecting Peoples coordinator, working with one-year term programs, like International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) and Service and Learning Together (SALT).
Cruz and Preciado express their profound gratitude to the children and their colleagues at LCG, to the churches of Allada and Sekou-Denou, to their neighbors and friends, and to everyone who welcomed them into community and helped shape their faith.