RIOBAMBA, Ecuador (Mennonite Mission Network) — After 30 years, Beatriz and Daniel Escobar are singing together the songs of faith that once incensed Daniel. And they are learning to lead the 1-year-old Riobamba Mennonite Church in the Andean mountains of Ecuador.
Until three years ago, the idea of serving in a pastoral role together would have been unthinkable for the couple. Although the Escobars have always had a loving home, they were quietly at odds over religion for most of their 36 years of marriage.
Beatriz Escobar, who grew up in an evangelical Christian milieu, said that before her husband’s conversion, church attendance meant little to Daniel beyond being a national pastime – something one did on holidays, like going to a bullfight.
“I was critical of both Catholic and Protestant hierarchies,” Daniel Escobar said. “When my wife brought up church or faith, I was very stern and resistant.”
Many factors contributed to Daniel Escobar’s conversion, but the patient faith of his wife – scientist, teacher, singer and poet – is what finally convinced him.
“Before my conversion, things that interested me were cultural, such as poetry and fiestas, or fun times with friends; but also I was always working for the rights of the poor,” said Escobar, speaking of the days when he poured his best energies into academia and his law practice.
Escobar repeatedly told his wife to destroy the poems and songs of faith she composed. As a result of Daniel Escobar’s aversion to all things related to the church, he and Beatriz rarely discussed faith.
“Out of respect for Daniel, I didn’t argue with him or even attend church much.” Beatriz Escobar said. “I prayed for Daniel, that Christ would save him and our household.”
She waited and prayed for more than three decades.
In May 2007, a brain tumor turned Daniel Escobar’s world upside down. Though surgery was scheduled, the doctor cautioned Escobar that death on the operating table was a possible outcome.
Facing the end of life, Escobar began to imagine a new beginning. When a pastor came to pray with him, Escobar committed himself to the way of Christ, citing Beatriz’s faith as part of his inspiration.
“I was the happiest woman in the world,” Beatriz Escobar said.
During a long recovery period, the couple, newly united in faith, studied the Bible together. Daniel Escobar found that Jesus shared his passion to serve the poor.
“I would tell Beatriz, ‘Underline the parts that have to do with action.’ I had a desire to be part of a church that was active … a church that reflects the way of Jesus Christ in the world,” Escobar said.
But where to find such a church?
“We went from place to place,” Beatriz Escobar said. “We prayed, we cried, we read the Bible, and we left. Nothing more. [The Christian culture we encountered] was egoism rather than service to others, a sense that faith is between God and me. Daniel would say, ‘Where’s the action?’“
Then they were invited to a Friday night Bible study that discussed Anabaptist theology and practice. The Escobars found inspiration there and began attending regularly. The Bible study group grew and in March 2009 became Riobamba Mennonite Church with regular attendance of about 30.
The Escobars have become associate pastors, working alongside short-term mission workers Don and Jan Rheinheimer. The Rheinheimers, members of Hopedale (Ill.) Mennonite Church, arrived in Riobamba in 2008 through the Ecuador Partnership, where Central Plains Mennonite Conference, the Colombian Mennonite Church and Mennonite Mission Network minister collaboratively.
Daniel and Beatriz Escobar attended Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay last year and describe it as a powerful experience of global unity. They also feel this connection that defies national barriers in the Ecuador Partnership.
“There is a feeling of brotherhood, that we are not alone but a part of a larger body of people in many places,” Daniel Escobar said. “When I found the Mennonite Church, I felt, this is incredible. I had a compatibility with this church already.”
The Escobars’ hope for the church in Riobamba is that it would be established solidly as a local part of the church universal. However, the couple also expresses openness to a missionary calling.
“If God permits us, maybe we would even travel to another country for mission, following the example of Don and Jan,” Beatriz Escobar said.
Don and Jan Rheinheimer are returning to the United States in September. Colombia Mennonite Church is interviewing candidates to serve as pastoral mentors to the Escobars and Riobamba Mennonite Church.
Holly Blosser Yoder was one of the nine members of Central Plains Mennonite Conference to visit Ecuador in March. She has served in Ethiopia, Lesotho and Zambia, is currently advising director for University of Iowa honors program and a member of her conference’s outreach and service committee.