Elkhart, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – When leaders of Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Argentina (Argentina Mennonite Church, IEMA) imagined an outdoor centennial celebration near the docks in Buenos Aires, they were thinking of the future as well as the past. They wanted their celebration to be a testimony of God's faithfulness while commemorating their denomination's history, which began there in 1917 when Tobias Kreider (T.K.) and Mae Hershey with their children, Beatrice and Lester, along with Joseph Wenger (J.W.) and Emma Shank with their children, Elsa and Robert, stepped off the ship onto Argentine soil. Their arrival was the first of Mennonite missionaries in South America.
The open-air service on Sept. 16 began with a festive atmosphere as a praise team led children's songs, while local food venders, seeing a crowd of 300-400 people, took the opportunity to sell snacks. Church youth presented a religious drama, which was followed by worship, speeches, and presentations by local religious and civil authorities, as well as global Mennonite leaders.
To ensure that participants understood the historic relevance of the celebration, three short videos and a brief history were shared at the gathering, along with photos of current ministries.
"It is encouraging to see the missionary vision of IEMA. Their annual report includes 53 congregations and 31 church plants, some of which are served by 26 missionary church planters," reported Linda Shelly, Latin America director for Mennonite Mission Network. Shelly also explained that while not on the official report, there are many more points of contact that may develop into churches. In addition to the church planters, Argentine missionaries Alfonsina and José Oyanguren work with indigenous evangelical churches in the Chaco.
The second day of missional festivities featured more worship and sermons. Speakers included Nelson Kraybill, president of Mennonite World Conference; John F. Lapp, senior executive for Global Ministries; Linda Shelly, and Mission Network board chair Madeline Maldonado with her husband, David. They noted the many ways that the world and Mennonites in the world have changed in the past 100 years.
"A key part of this celebration is also looking forward, recognizing how the sending of Argentina mission workers today, honors and goes beyond the original arrival of missionaries 100 years ago," reflected Shelly.
IEMA missionaries Orlando Rodas and Gloria Roldan serving in Tafi Viejo, and Alfonsina Oyanguren serving in the Chaco, offered testimonies from their ministries.
Another manifestation of IEMA's present mission work is its regional mission programs, some of which are involved in partnerships with Mission Network and churches or conferences in the United States. Following the centennial celebrations, Mission Network representatives traveled to various mission locations in Argentina.
One such location is Villa Mercedes, a town with a mission outreach of Visión Evangelística y Misionera de la Zona Oeste (Evangelistic and Missionary Vision of the Western Zone, VEMZO), which is in a partnership with Akron, Neffsville and Ridgeview Mennonite Church congregations of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Ministry in Villa Mercedes was a vision of the Carlos Casares church. María Medina, a youth when her church began the ministry, said, "The initial years were financially challenging." She explained that the youth group made a special effort making and selling homemade pastries and pizza crusts to support the mission workers.
Through this involvement, her own call to missions grew, and in 2015, she married Jonatan Curto and moved to Villa Mercedes. Together, they serve as youth leaders to the growing group of 15 youth in Villa Mercedes. Currently, their congregation has 26 baptized members and an average of 40 people in attendance for services.
Villa Mercedes church functions with a business as mission model. The workers sent there in 2008 established a brick/block fabrication and installation business to support themselves.
In more recent years their business has not only supported the workers, but also provided materials and funds to build a pastoral house and a church building still under construction.
The business gives many opportunities for contacts in the community, some of which lead to conversion to Christ and church membership. Pastor Ramón Godoy explained, "We are honest in all the work we do; we are Christians 24 hours a day. We always show that we love God first."
In 2019, IEMA will celebrate the centennial of the first baptisms that led to the first church in Pehuajó. Planning is in process to incorporate the celebration at IEMA's national assembly, including a day trip to Pehuajó. In preparation, an updated history of the church in Argentina is being written.
Heriberto Bueno, one of the collaborators of the written updated history, 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."
**Watch commemorative videos: Los Primeros Misioneros Menonitas 1 and Los Primeros Misioneros Menonitas 2 and Los Primeros Misioneros 3