FORMOSA, Argentina (Mennonite Mission Network) – Richard Friesen spent hundreds of hours in hospitals in and around Formosa, Argentina, sharing God’s comfort and love. That love and care returned to him in his last days.
Friesen, 66, died in one of those hospitals on August 11, 2010, and was buried in a Toba (an indigenous ethnic group) cemetery in San Carlos two days later.
Although Richard and Ruth Anne Friesen went to Argentina in 2004 primarily to coordinate the revision of the Toba New Testament, the couple made twice weekly hospital visits a priority. Patients, their family members and medical personnel were touched by the Friesens’ compassion in the face of great suffering, said Gretchen Kingsley, coworker on the Mennonite team in the Chaco.
After a visitation service in the Friesen home the night after Richard’s death, his body was transported four hours to the San Carlos community for the funeral and burial on August 13. Community leaders joined church leaders in standing around Friesen’s casket to show how honored they were with Ruth Anne’s choice that Richard be buried among the people he loved so deeply.
“We are happy to provide the place for Richard’s body to rest. He was a missionary and a man of God in our community,” said Rafael Mansilla, leader of the Toba New Testament revision team and Toba chief and church leader.
Aurelio Charole, pastor of the San Carlos congregation, took John 14 as the text for Friesen’s funeral sermon, emphasizing that in heaven Richard was joining his family members – his missionary parents and grandparents – who had demonstrated to Richard how to walk in the way, the truth and the life.
“We are all eager to be reunited with our ancestors in the place where we see Jesus,” Charole said.
Ruth Anne Friesen spoke about how Jesus was the cornerstone in the Friesens’ marriage and ministry, using Eph. 2:17-22, their wedding text. Richard died just a month before their 28th anniversary.
In keeping with the communitarian worldview of his people, Mansilla placed Friesen’s contribution in the context of 50 years of Mennonites walking alongside the indigenous peoples of the Argentine Chaco. He expressed great gratitude to Mennonites for the value they placed on Toba language, spirituality, and culture.
Friesen’s brothers, Delbert and Stanley, and Ruth Anne’s brother, Julius Belser, arrived in Formosa only hours before the visitation, representing the families in support of Ruth Anne.
Stanley Friesen said that Richard’s burial alongside the people he worked with was consistent with his life and ministry. Belser spoke as a representative of a dominant culture and expressed sorrow for the ways “my culture has oppressed indigenous people”. He also affirmed Richard Friesen’s decision to follow Jesus in being numbered among the marginalized of the world.
In 2004, as Friesen prepared for his most recent ministry, he wrote, “My goal is to come to love my Toba brothers and sisters and to be loved and accepted by them.”
That love was evident as many of those who filed past Friesen’s casket touched him tenderly on the forehead.
In the graveside service that followed the funeral, Juan Aguirre, a Toba church leader from Formosa, said, “When any respected person dies, we don’t want to bury their history with them. We can choose to carry on Richard’s story that was part of God’s project. It becomes the task of the living to continue this story so it doesn’t die.”
Linda Shelly, Mennonite Mission Network director for Latin America, traveled to Formosa this week. She expressed appreciation for Friesen’s strong linguistic abilities that facilitated two major publications that will enhance Toba churches’ biblical understanding; the revision of the Toba New Testament and a New Testament study guide. Both projects have been completed and are awaiting publication by the Argentine Bible Society.
“These contributions will live on in the Toba churches, along with the testimony of Richard’s life and death among them,” Shelly said.
Son and grandson of Mennonite missionaries in India, Charles Richard Friesen was born in Dhamtari, India on Feb. 25, 1944 to Genevieve and John Friesen, who served with Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. He graduated from Hesston (Kan.) College in 1964, Goshen (Ind.) College in 1966, and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1970, before serving with MBM in Santa Rosa, La Pampa, Argentina from 1971-72.
After his marriage to Ruth Anne Belser in 1982, they served with the Overground Railroad, Jubilee Partners and Mennonite Central Committee. From 1983 – 1992, the Friesens worked along the south Texas border area, interviewing war refugees for asylum in Canada and the USA. The next four years, they ministred among indigenous people as part of a Mennonite Central Committee team in Guatemala.
The Friesens joined Plow Creek Mennonite Church and Fellowship in Tiskilwa, IL, working on the farm. They also taught English as a Second Language at a nearby school.
Friesen was preceded in death by his parents. He is survived by his wife, Ruth Anne; and four brothers – Stanley, Weldon, Delbert, and William.
A memorial service is being planned at Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill. on Sept. 5.