This is an article I wrote recently for Shalom Connections, a newsletter for the Shalom Missions Communities. It’s a good summary and synthesis of our time in Bolivia.
If it is about the journey and not the destination, then our family has certainly been in the midst of it for the past year or so. After living at World Hunger Relief for a year as the Urban Gardening intern and becoming part of Companerismo de Esperanza in Waco, TX, we made the decision to accept a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia working with their Low German Program. Even though MCC takes care of all the financial needs of volunteers, we still considered ourselves sent and commissioned by Hope Fellowship. We felt their support and connection throughout our time in Bolivia, skype-ing with people when we could and reading emails and minutes of meetings.
We also made the decision that storing our things for three years of our lives seemed like a waste of resources. So we began to give our things away, to shed ourselves of that heavy, dead skin that so easily weighs us down. We gave away things that did not seem like a necessity to own such as a stereo, movies, books, toys and kitchen gadgets. We also gave away things that feel more like necessities: beds, dressers, pillows, pots and pans.
We were on an adventure and there was no telling where it would take us. We were excited about learning Spanish in the context of Latin America. We were also nervous about learning a second language and culture of the Low German Mennonites, old colony Mennonites that are culturally similar to the Amish who speak Low German and have migrated throughout the Americas. There was a world of unknown possibilities, anticipation and excitement ahead of us.
We arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia on November 8, 2010 with our entire lives stuffed into eight suitcases. We were there for a month for language school. We lived with a host family and slowly adjusted to our new surroundings. Every member of the family got sick in the first weeks as our bodies adjusted to altitude and new microbes in the food we ate and the air we breathed.
After language school we flew to Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia, for orientation with MCC, where we lived with another host family. There we experienced Christmas and New Year’s with a Bolivian family. Then in January we lived for three weeks with a Low German family in Chihuahua colony.
The little that I have learned about the history of Low German Mennonites (LGMs) is a fascinating tale. Like other Anabaptists, they were persecuted for their beliefs in Europe. They eventually settled in Russia with an agreement between their people and the government that has come to define their history. They were initially granted the right to their own land, their own schools in their own language and their own form of governance. For all intents and purposes, colonies were (and are) their own separate entities apart from the nation-state in which they exist. This was their way of living out their two-kingdom theology of being “Stille im Land” or “Quiet in the Land”.
After many years the Russian government decided that these colonies should become more integrated into the broader society and, at the very least, learn Russian. The response by the LGMs eventually was to leave Russia and settle in Canada where they were able to secure a similar agreement with the Canadian government. This pattern repeats itself throughout the LGM history, mixed in with internal disagreements over how to deal with these changes. When the Canadian government challenged the colony educational system, many colonies and families moved to Mexico and eventually throughout the Americas.
Often when colonies became divided over an issue (such as whether or not to use rubber tires on their tractors), the more conservative groups would find their way to Bolivia. So, Bolivia became, in some ways, a repository for the most conservative of the conservative LGMs. However, the colony we stayed in was considered the most progressive in Bolivia, which primarily meant that they used a lot more technology, modern tractors, combines, cell phones, computers and the internet. Worship was still segregated by gender, however, and their theology is very conservative.
It was a wonderful experience to live with a LGM family and understand their culture in a more personal and intimate way. Similar to our experience living for many years in the shadow of the largest military installation in the free world, it was a lesson in loving people with whom we have fundamental disagreements, in humanizing “the Other”.
After our colony stay, we made the decision to move to Charagua, a small town in southern Bolivia in the foothills of the Andes and seven hours from Santa Cruz by bus. Charagua is divided into the pueblo, the main town, and the Estación, the small community around the train station about 8 kilometers from the pueblo, which is where we lived. Charagua is the largest municipality in Bolivia in terms of land area.
The largest population is the indigenous Guaraní who were famously portrayed in the movie The Mission. Their territory covers areas of Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia and is known as the Chaco. This area crosses lines arbitrarily drawn and fought over by both Spanish conquistadors and multinational corporations (who used the indigenous as proxies during the Chaco War).
The second largest population is the LGMs that live in four colonies to the east of Charagua Estación. They are one of, if not the largest, economic drivers in this region as agricultural producers. Since LGMs do not believe in using modern vehicles, they contract Bolvians for transportation. This includes transporting their produce, primarily sorghum, sesame, soy and corn, as well as themselves for travel primarily to Santa Cruz. While the colonies in this area are among the poorest in Bolivia, they enjoy a standard of living well above many Bolivians. There were also other indigenous people in Charagua including Quechua and Aymaras. The smallest population is referred to as “Spanish-speaking Bolivians”.
Our work focused on water issues and small-scale agriculture with both the Guaranís and the LGMs. Part of our work was also what MCC refers to as “connecting peoples”. In the past MCC put together workshops where indigenous people and LGMs learned from each other about soap making and agriculture.
Our neighbor in Charagua was a Guaraní sociologist, who had worked for the Bolivian government, traveled the world and represented his people on a national level. One day he was showing me around some land where he was working to establish a new community. As we walked through fields of sesame, he shared with me about an international conference of indigenous people that he attended in the United States. The conference came to an agreement about some of the basic rights that indigenous people wanted. These included access to land, their own education system in their own language and their own form of governance.
Then he made the connection that these were the things that the LGMs had secured from the Bolivian government in 1963. It was eye-opening to see that two very different people with very different cultures and worldviews had something very fundamental in common. In fact I began to realize that we are all indigenous to somewhere. Anglos come from particular places that originally shaped them genetically and culturally. They are also the ones who decided to go out and conquer other peoples across the world, but they belong no less to those particular places that originally shaped them.
Charagua municipality voted in December 2009 to become one of 11 “autonomous indigenous zones” under the new Bolivian constitution. While we were there, we helped the Autonomy Assembly organize a meeting with LGM leaders in which they explained the autonomy process and invited them to participate. The LGM’s two-kingdom theology sharply distinguishes between the church and the world. As the secular authorities the LGMs believe that they are ordained by God and therefore submit to any decisions they make. They politely thanked the Assembly for informing them about the process, but declined to participate in any way. They were very reluctant to even give any opinions, ideas, questions or thoughts. It was fascinating to see these worlds collide.
Not long after that meeting, we received a phone call early one morning from our country representative informing us that Bolivian immigration had called and said that we had to leave the country and would not be allowed back into the country for five years. We were in shock. We had three days to pack up our eight suitcases, say goodbye to all of our friends, my son’s kindergarten class at the local school and the people with whom we worked. Our neighbor and his family threw a wonderful despedida for us the day before we left.
The reason we were given for being deported was that we had overstayed our tourist visa with which we had entered the country. There were also clearly political tensions between the Bolivian government and the United States. The U.S. Ambassador was expelled from the country and Evo Morales continued ratcheting up his rhetoric at the United Nations and elsewhere. There are clear historical precedents for many Latin American leaders’ animosity toward El Norte. However, the Morales’ administration began to seem paranoid.
The Bolivian government announced plans to build a road, partially funded by Brazil, through a national park that is home to three indigenous groups. The indigenous groups responded by denouncing the move as unconstitutional since they were not consulted. When the government continued, they protested by marching in the streets and blockading roads. The morning that we were supposed to leave our home for Santa Cruz so we could be at an immigration hearing, the Guaranís blockaded the only road to Santa Cruz in solidarity with the other indigenous groups.
While Evo Morales is, himself, indigenous, he belongs to the highland indigenous, who have historic animosity toward the lowland indigenous which continues today. The Morales’ administration claimed that these protests by indigenous groups were orchestrated and backed by the United States.
So, you can begin to understand the atmosphere under which we faced deportation. As privileged people of European descent, it was certainly a new experience for us to be uprooted and expelled by a government for reasons that were flimsy at best. We felt rejected and ashamed. We had done nothing wrong. In fact, we were there to help.
Yet, while we felt some solidarity with what many of our immigrant brothers and sisters experience in the United States, we also realized how different our experience was. We had native speakers working on our behalf with the Bolivian government. Not many immigrants in the U.S. can afford that. We had a safe place to stay while the situation was worked out. Many immigrants in the U.S. are taken away from their families to detention centers and held without contact. We had a community to come back to in our home country. Some immigrants in the U.S. who get deported were raised there, do not speak Spanish and have no support system in their “home” country.
Our experience moving to Bolivia and ultimately being deported is one of immigration and incarnation. We were immigrants in a foreign land, “extranjeros, imigrantes, exiliados.” This is part of what it means to be a pilgrim people. We are not Jesus, but in imitation of him we cross borders and boundaries. We cross over to the Other to understand, embrace and love those whom God has made and gifted. In many ways we continue to grieve the loss of our time in Bolivia, but in others, as you can see, we have been enriched and blessed in the midst of our suffering, not in spite of it.