ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – Two North American families stepped off the S.S. Vaubar Steamship at the port in Buenos Aires on Sept. 11, 1917. Sent by Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, a Mennonite Mission Network predecessor agency, Tobias Kreider (T.K.) and Mae Hershey with their two children, Beatrice and Lester, and Joseph Wenger (J.W.) and Emma Shank with their children, Elsa and Robert, traveled by sea for almost four weeks to answer the call to serve in the southern most country of the Americas. They were the first Mennonites sent to Latin America as missionaries.
On Sept. 16, 2017, the Argentina Mennonite Church will commemorate that moment in history and the beginning of the Mennonite denomination in their country at the very same port that the Hershey and Shank families stepped onto after their long journey. Festivities will begin with a dinner for pastors and guests. The following day, the surrounding churches of the greater Buenos Aires area will celebrate with a missions rally, with sharing from Argentine leaders as well as Stanley W. Green and Linda Shelly from Mennonite Mission Network and Nelson Kraybill of Mennonite World Conference.
A separate celebration will take place in 2019 remembering the first baptisms and the founding of the first church in Pehuajó. This took place two years after the North American missionaries' arrival.
The growth of a church body
After 100 years, the Argentina Mennonite Church has more than 3,000 members, plus children and other participants in its 50 congregations. They are in the process of planting an additional 30 churches and are developing contacts in more communities. The Argentina Mennonite Church has a missionary spirit. Its three mission programs have 26 church-planting missionaries, including a family who serves with the indigenous evangelical churches in the Chaco.
Mario Snyder, son of the first Canadian missionaries to Argentina, said, "We want to express our gratitude for the reason we are a church today." Snyder has lived in Argentina most of his life, and is one of the celebration organizers.
Confirming a call
The call to South America was first mandated at the Mennonite Convention of 1911 in Virginia. There, J.W. Shank was chosen to do an exploratory visit to decide where they should send mission workers. Returning four months later, Shank affirmed the call. He believed God had given him a promise from Revelation 3:8, that in going to Argentina, the Lord was opening a door that no one could close. With this promise, he set out to raise the funds to make the ministry a reality.
"The door for evangelization is still open," said Snyder, "here (in Argentina) and in all Latin America."
J.W. Shank recalled his thoughts in seeing his homeland's shoreline disappear from their view, in The Gospel under the Southern Cross: "On August 16 in the afternoon, we saw the coastline of our native land fade away in the distance. We were apparently stepping out into the great unknown. Yet we did so with the assurance that we were undertaking for God and that He would through our efforts bring many things to pass for the honor of His name in that land across the sea."
Humility in learning
During their first year, the Hershey and Shank families dedicated themselves to learning. Through the assistance of brothers and sisters from already established churches such as the Methodist, Baptist, and Christian Missionary Alliance, they learned about Argentina's culture and studied Spanish for three to four hours daily.
After this time of preparation, J.W. Shank and T.K. Hershey began searching for the town in which they should establish themselves and the church. They followed the railway line traveling west of Buenos Aires where the first churches were established. Their requirements were that it have a stable and dense population, which would allow them easy means of transportation and communication. However, most important to them was to select towns with no evangelical work in progress.
While their work was not without its difficulties, by 1919, they celebrated the first baptisms of their new congregation in the town of Pehuajó, and one month later, they started their first Sunday school. With time, these ministries and others grew to surrounding cities and across Argentina. Other ministries that grew out of their presence were preschools, medical clinics, and children's homes.
Mae Hershey, 92, speaks in front of the house that was first used for church services in 1919. Don Brenneman, who at the time was a pastor, is to her left. Photo courtesy of the Mennonite Church USA Archives.
Gratitude for ministry
In preparation for the 2019 celebration, an updated history of the church in Argentina is being prepared. Heriberto Bueno, one of the collaborators, said, "Today, in the year 2017, we can celebrate what has been lived, and ensure, without fear of being mistaken, that the work is just beginning."
Linda Shelly, director for Latin America for Mennonite Mission Network, noted that although the missionaries who arrived 100 years ago came from North America, we now celebrate that the evangelists, church planters, and missionaries are Argentines sent by the Argentina Mennonite Church. "As a part of Mission Network, it is a privilege to work with the Argentina Mennonite Church in partnerships including churches in the United States, and in ways that support and encourage continued church planting and leadership development, and also ministries among the indigenous evangelical churches of the Chaco."