LAS GRUTAS, Argentina (Mennonite Mission Network) — For one Argentine group, mission involved making a dirty job cleaner, Elizabeth Nachtigall discovered during an apprenticeship with Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Argentina (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Argentina).
Las Grutas beach on the Argentine coast was home to pulperos (octopus fishermen) long before it became a vacation spot for the rich. Now, however, the pieced-together shelters of corrugated tin and other recycled materials are over-shadowed by large luxury hotels and a dispute has arisen over property rights. The resort owners consider the pulpero community an eyesore and sanitation risk.
In conversation with the pulperos, an eight-member mission team led by Mennonites from Choele Choel discovered that the construction of a bathroom with a shower, sink and toilet would serve the community.
“Not only is this a practical way to show Christ’s love, but a way in which the pulperos know we care and want to establish friendships with them,” Nachtigall said.
On March 17, Nachtigall, a Mennonite Mission Network intern from Hopedale, Ill., began the study component of the Seminario Intensivo Misionero (Intensive Mission Seminar). Although, she has engaged in mission work since her arrival in Argentina on August 31, classroom learning deepens and provides theological structure for the mission trip experiences.
Reflecting back on the time of latrine-building, singing, story-sharing and meals with the pulperos was humbling for Nachtigall.
“I felt unworthy to invade their space. These men have life stories filled with sorrow and pain as rough as the back of their hands, stories that I might not ever understand. Only by the grace of God and Christ within us is it possible to even step into this experience,” she said.
Juan Domingo and Toti, two of the pulperos, spoke eloquently of their years lived by the sea. They have nowhere else to go if the hotel owners force them to move off the beach.
“They see no way out. Or perhaps to get out might be too painful,” Nachtigall said. “This is why Christ died for us. To give a hope and a future and show us a way to freedom.”
The mission seminar prepares church members for ministry through a three-pronged approach: participation in Choele Choel’s congregational life, classes and monthly mission trips. Classes are taught by Juan Sieber, Argentine church leader, and Delbert and Frieda Schellenberg Erb – former Mennonite Board of Missions workers, who have retired in Choele Choel.
Current seminar participants are Nachtigall, six members of the Choele Choel congregation – Ezequiel Diaz, José Luis Rojas, Laura Vaugniaux de Rojas, Oscar Lorenzi, Lucia Trancamilla de Lorenzi, Alicia Rodriguez de Formiga – and Jacob Good of East Bend Mennonite Church in Fisher, Ill., an Arm in Arm congregation.
Nachtigall is part of a two-way mission exchange between Mennonites in Argentina and Illinois Mennonite Conference congregations that dates to the mid-1990s. The Patagonia Mission Project emerged from congregations in Argentina’s Patagonia region desiring co-workers to help them realize their call to mission. A cluster of Illinois congregations and individuals responded through a partnership called Arm in Arm that brought them together with the Patagonia congregations and Mennonite Mission Network. This partnership develops new churches and renews existing churches in Patagonia and Illinois.
The Patagonia Mission Project commissioned 12 mission workers for church-planting in their own country and in neighboring Chile. The project also sends Argentine church leaders, like the family of Amaris and Juan Sieber, to help Illinois congregations reach beyond their comfort zones. This has led to the development of the Southern Illinois Mission Partnership that is beginning a new church in Mt. Vernon, Ill. where the Crossroads Christian Center serves as a base for mission to surrounding communities.
Elizabeth’s parents, Karen and Ray Nachtigall, are providing leadership to mission teams making contacts for other potential locations for congregations throughout the southern Illinois region, including Galesburg, Hopedale, Stanford and Pana.
Verónica Villasuso of Choele Choel arrived in Illinois in February to participate in the Arm in Arm and SIMP ministries for four months.
Since relationship-building is a foundational component of the Argentine-Illinois partnership, visits are exchanged regularly. Karen and Ray Nachtigall were part of a 10-member Illinois delegation that traveled to Argentina at the beginning of this year to accompany the Argentine Mennonites for two weeks in their mission work.
Even when they meet for the first time, Argentine and Illinois Mennonites often describe their encounters as family reunions because of the shared spiritual heritage.
“The love I have found in the body of Christ here in Argentina is unlike any I have experienced in the past. The overwhelming joy and a sense of being part of the kingdom of God – regardless of race, language, nation, socio-economic status – fill my heart,” Elizabeth Nachtigall said.
She believes that the powerful mission energy that she is experiencing in Patagonia can be duplicated anywhere in the world – if the church is a willing vessel, doing whatever God wants to do and going wherever God wants to work.
“Mission work might look different in each place, but God is the same in Argentina as in the United States,” Nachtigall said.