Pentecost, I had always thought, was God’s way of saying that in Christ, we’re all the same. Culture and language may divide us, but God’s Spirit makes it possible for all to be one. Pentecost, I had thought, was a divine remedy for the confusion and division created at the tower of Babel when God punished human arrogance by creating different languages.
More than 35 years of mission service in Latin America have led me to suspect that I got it all wrong. Babel, far from presenting linguistic diversity as divine punishment, may teach us that God gave the gift of many languages as a way to protect those suffering under a despot, helping them to escape oppression and preserve their particular identities. In the same sense, at Pentecost, God does not erase diversity, but rather builds bridges of understanding and solidarity between radically distinct communities.
Over the centuries, Latin America’s churches have been learning how God is present in the differences that define our human identity. Gradually we have learned that all of Creation and all cultures bear God’s unmistakable fingerprints. We can go nowhere where God is not already present; even the first missionaries came to lands already inhabited by God’s Spirit. We also have learned, as did the early church, that God does not call us to impose our culture on others but to accompany others as they discover how and where God has always been present in their lives, calling all to wholeness. It is within others’ culture and through their language that they come to know Jesus.
The Evangelical Waldensian Church of Río de la Plata (IEVRP) is a PC(USA) mission partner with congregations in Uruguay and Argentina. The Waldensians are one of the earliest Reformed denominations, going back to the time of St. Francis of Assisi. From their earliest roots in Lyon, France, they moved into northern Italy and then, in the 19th century, to the U.S., Uruguay and Argentina.
A few years ago I accompanied Kevin Fredericks (pastor of Waldensian Presbyterian Church in Valdese, North Carolina), Francis Rivers (executive secretary of the American Waldensian Society) and Jonathan Evans (pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Naples, Florida) on a 16-hour bus journey to visit one of the mission endeavors of the IEVRP in El Chaco, a vast, sparsely populated region that straddles Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Our host was Hugo Malán, a Waldensian Bible scholar from Uruguay.
The Chaco is home to the Qom people. For decades the Waldensians have been working with ISEDET (an ecumenical seminary and PC(USA) mission partner) in Buenos Aires to help staff a Bible Institute for the Qom. Malán has long been a professor at the institute.
Like so many other tribal peoples throughout the world, the Qom struggle to preserve traditional cultural values while adapting to challenges ranging from jobs and education for their youth to preserving their rights to ancestral lands.
In El Chaco we met Auden Charole, a young Qom pastor. He was team-teaching a class with Malán. Charole shared with us a new book, published by the provincial government that documents Qom knowledge of local wildlife, including legends told by the elders explaining each creature’s place in the community of all created things. Auden drew many of the illustrations for this pioneering volume.
Charole explained that his parents are Christians; he came to know the Gospel as a child. When he was 16, however, he left the church and went to work as a day laborer for immigrants that had usurped Qom lands. “It didn’t occur to me to value my own culture; I had no hope of defending my rights as a person,” he observed. “But then in 2001 our community experienced a rebirth of our rights as a people, of our self-esteem, of our traditions. It was the Bible school that provided the space where we made all these discoveries. This is where our leaders gathered. I was able to finish my schooling here. Now I have a family and when I look at my young son I am encouraged to continue the struggle for our rights, for our land.”
As we observed the class, we witnessed faithful men and women from an oral culture working hard to interpret Bible texts and link those teachings to their own time and place. We noted that Auden and Hugo had the good sense not to provide easy answers, nor to interrupt the silences as the Qom leaders struggled with the Scriptures.
God’s Spirit was there, another Pentecost.
DENNIS SMITH is a PC(USA) regional liaison for the Southern Cone and Brazil.