SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Mennonite Mission Network) – The cold rain whipping through a pavilion on the edge of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Santa Cruz couldn’t dampen the fervor of worship and warm fellowship when nearly 100 people gathered for the Bolivian Mennonite Church’s (Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Boliviana) annual Carnival camp, Feb. 16-20.
The wind carried throbbing rhythms of a favorite song into the leaden skies, “When I raise my hands, I begin to feel the fire. When I raise my hands, my burdens fall away.”
Talented young musicians accompanied the singing with electric guitars and drums as people from three continents and many organizations joined their voices. Represented were the Bolivian Mennonite Church, Mennonite Mission Network, Eastern Mennonite Mission’s YES program and Mennonite Central Committee with volunteers from Europe, Latin American countries and the United States.
During the period of the camp, the Bolivian national television spoke of two realities. A divided screen showed the disaster of the torrential downpour on the left and the extravaganza of Carnival on the right. President Evo Morales declared the country under a state of emergency with 60,000 people displaced by the flooding. Even the Carnival parade had to be postponed for a day. At the same time that Bolivian Mennonites were pouring their energies into the Carnival camp, they were also providing food, clothing and shelter to people who had to evacuate their homes due to flooding.
Although people from all over the world stream to Latin America to celebrate the festivities that culminate on Fat Tuesday (the day before the sacrifices of 40 days of Lent begin), many churches in Bolivia organize camps outside the cities to keep their young people far away from the temptations of Carnival.
Youth and church leaders at the Bolivian Mennonite Church camp described the carnival as “colorful with well-dressed queens wearing very little clothing” riding on elaborately decorated floats, free-flowing alcohol and sexual promiscuity. Stone throwing, paint and foam spraying and pickpocketing are all hazards. Deaths during Carnival are not uncommon. Some are accidental from throwing stones and paint. Others are intentional as rival comparsas (fraternities organized for Carnival) settle outstanding feuds.
“Carnival is not just playing,” said Debora Rodriguez, member of Príncipe de la Paz Mennonite Church and teacher in a daycare center for single mothers. “I know that it involves worshiping Satan.”
But the Devil doesn’t own all the fun. Dynamic Bible study twice a day, Bible competitions, sports, talent shows, excellent meals, laughter far into the night and lots of time to just enjoy the company of other Christian friends make the church camp the obvious choice for the youth present. It is also a place to invite friends and give them a taste of what joy can be found in knowing Jesus.
While studying the theme, “Living out the difference,” campers explored distinguishing characteristics that enable followers of Jesus to persevere through hardship and temptation to obtain the prize Paul wrote about in 2 Timothy 2:7.
The Bolivian Mennonite Church uses a grant from Mennonite Mission Network to subsidize some of the camp expenses to make it affordable to Bolivian Mennonite Church youth.
“We can not organize week-long camps the way churches do in North America and Europe,” Margrit Kipfer Barrón said. “Our members can only afford a few days, even with the subsidies.”
Kipfer Barrón, a Swiss Mennonite who has worked with Mennonite Mission Network and its predecessor agency in Bolivia since 1993, is also supported by the Mennonite Church in Switzerland. She has worked over the past years to help build vibrant ministries for the children and youth of the Bolivian Mennonite Church; camps, clubs, vacation Bible schools, Sunday schools and a church library. Now youth leaders have been trained and have taken over these responsibilities leaving Kipfer Barrón free to do some preaching and worship leading in her home congregation, Sinaí Mennonite Church, where her husband, Freddy Barrón is a self-supporting pastor.
Freddy Barrón works six and a half days a week as a car mechanic because his congregation can’t afford to support a pastor. He prepares his sermons after work when he and Kipfer Barrón aren’t counseling church members or parenting their four children.
Kipfer Barrón is also helping to begin a daycare center in a neighboring community, Barrio Libertad, where the Bolivian Mennonites have worked for years and are beginning a new congregation.
“After so many years of walking alongside people struggling so hard to break the ingrained habits that are ruining their lives, I thought it would be good to train children in the way of God’s love while they are young,” Kipfer Barrón said. “It is much better to build self-esteem than to try to cure alcoholism that grows from a poor self-image.”