FORMOSA, Argentina (Mennonite Mission Network) – Hilaria Medina dares to confront powerful men. She doesn’t write out speeches ahead of time but relies on the Holy Spirit to give her the words when she stands in protest for her people before government officials of Argentina’s Formosa Province.
As part of a growing movement of self-awareness among Argentina’s indigenous people that included national and provincial protests (see sidebar), Medina organized her neighbors to make a human barricade on the major east-west road through La Primavera Reservation. For 10 days and nights, the Toba people camped in lean–tos made of branches despite midday temperatures that soared to 100 degrees.
The protest united old and young, Christians and those who didn’t attend church. Medina permitted no alcohol during the demonstration and at night called for worship, prayer and singing on the asphalt.
Indigenous protest timeline
June 6, 2006: 500 indigenous people erect tents in the central plaza of Resistencia, the capital city of Argentina’s Chaco Province, to protest nine cases of provincial governmental corruption, discrimination and injustice.
July 12: Twelve protesters begin hunger strike.
August 14: A group of indigenous people step up pressure by camping in front of the Chaco government building in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city
August 22: Accord signed with government of Chaco Province. Nine remaining hunger strikers end fast (health problems forced three to discontinue earlier).
“The victory will be the Lord’s,” Medina said.
The various indigenous protest movements are part of an effort to emphasize the retention of each indigenous group's cultural identities within the larger Argentine society.
The provincial government officials were compelled to begin negotiations with the Toba community and the results are tangible. Today, a newly built government health center stands in the center of the colony. Cisterns are promised, and Medina is now trying to reach an agreement with the government on constructing homes for the reservation’s most needy families.
Government officials have repeatedly tried to bribe Medina.
She once told the governor’s brother who drove to her home with a large sum of money and a new motorbike: “We are poor and will always be poor. That is our way of life. I don’t want personal favors. I am not in this for myself, but for the colony. Every day I must look into the eyes of the old women and the children. They are counting on me for their future. We want a clear title to our land. We want safe water to drink.”
Medina, a 35-year-old Toba woman, has little formal education. She is a member of Iglesia Evangélica Unida (United Evangelical Church), the independent, indigenous church conference that grew out of the work of early Mennonite missionaries. Her courage grows out of her faith in God, who she believes cares for both the physical and spiritual well-being of her people.
On her numerous trips to government offices in the past two years, Medina has often stopped for rest and encouragement at the home of Gretchen and Keith Kingsley of Mennonite Mission Network. Medina lives two hours away from the provincial capital on La Primavera Reservation.
“Hilaria’s courage puts her in a dangerous place. Not only does the government dislike her initiative that does not bend to political favors, but traditional indigenous values also distrust the person who acts ambitiously,” Gretchen Kingsley said.
The Kingsleys see the church as an important influence in the development of self-consciousness among indigenous people and Mennonite mission workers as encouragers along the way.
North American Mennonites began ministry among the indigenous peoples of the Argentine Chaco in 1943, working out of a mission compound. However, within 12 years Mennonites closed the compound doors and embarked on a creative strategy of working with a fast-growing Christian movement that was sweeping through indigenous communities in northern Argentina.
Keith Kingsley said that this movement gave two desperately needed things: healing and salvation.
“[It offered] healing from diseases brought by their white conquerors, as well as a balm for the deep humiliation of being conquered, displaced and massacred. It offered salvation to them as a people, from extinction and oblivion ... and from powers and fear of powers, human and spiritual, that enslaved them. In Jesus, they found their salvador y sanador, their savior and healer,” Kingsley said.
In addition to the evils perpetrated against indigenous peoples 60 years ago, new forces threaten to “swallow them into the imperial culture of Coca-Cola and cell phones, urban poverty and alcohol, agribusiness, unemployment and the degradation of what used to be their land,” Kingsley said.
“One could ask, ‘Does it really matter if the world has one less people group, one less language, one less culture? What difference would it make if the Toba disappeared altogether as a distinct people?’” Kingsley said.
He believes God cares.
“I see in Scripture a witness to a particular intention of God, a God that guards and nurtures small things and small communities – a fallen sparrow, a bruised reed, a smoldering wick, a nation described as the ‘least of all peoples’,” Kingsley said.
He has been inspired by the Argentine Bible scholar, Néstor Míguez, who says that God’s design is for people to preserve their distinct communities and languages. Míguez interprets God’s dispersal of the builders of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 as a gracious act of liberation rather than a punishment.
According to Míguez, the Babel story shows one ethnic group dominating their neighbors with military might, spectacular urban culture and technology. This first world empire also imposed their language on everyone.
God preferred the pattern established by Noah’s descendants in the preceding chapters of Genesis who lived in clans with their own languages, Kingsley said.
“By disrupting this single imposed language of Babel, God liberated the people colonized by Babylon in order to carry forth God’s intention of regional, cultural and linguistic diversity,” Kingsley said, adding that this same diversity of languages is honored at Pentecost, in Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 and in John’s vision in Revelation 7.
“[The indigenous peoples’] faithful expression of their perspective of God’s truth enriches and benefits and blesses all the other families of the earth – if we give it heed,” Kingsley said.
Kingsely identified the following as significant indigenous contributions:
• A profound sensitivity to spiritual reality, recognizing the forces of good and evil in everyday life.
• A capacity to live and move lightly on the earth, avoiding excessive consumption and sharing rather than exploiting natural resources.
• A modesty of aspiration and contentment with what one has and who one is.
• A dependence on God in any circumstance.
The conviction that the indigenous people of Argentina bring a vital viewpoint to the global church inspires the accompaniment ministry of the Mennonite team in Argentina that is made up of seven households: three Argentine families, one German family and three couples from the United States. The team’s primary focus is walking alongside and empowering indigenous people through respect for their culture and facilitating dialogue with the word of God through translation and contextualized Bible study.