By Jeff Boshart
There are some people that when you meet them, you just see Jesus. Maria Silva is one of those people. She is quick to pray, quick to smile, quick to hug, and quick to cry. Silva was born in Cuba and moved to Spain as a child before making her way to the US as an adult. Settling in New Jersey, she met her husband, Osvaldo, who came to the US from Brazil. While living and working in New Jersey, they would enjoy occasional trips to Lancaster County (Pa.) to visit the Sight and Sound Theaters.
Upon retirement, the couple decided to relocate to the area where they purchased a home in Strasburg. When searching for a church home, they settled on a new Church of the Brethren church plant, the Ebenezer congregation in Lampeter, pastored by Leonor Ochoa and Eric Ramirez.
At her new church, Silva brought her passion and compassion for children’s and youth ministries in Ecuador. One of her friends from work in New Jersey was from Ecuador. This friend invited her to on numerous trips to Ecuador to work with a church near the city of Cayambe with a local congregation, about an hour north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. In early 2020, Silva shared with her pastors the idea of organizing a trip to Ecuador. They were supportive but didn’t want to commit to anything without first checking with the Global Mission office. At this point, they began to learn about earlier Brethren mission work in Ecuador–and then all plans came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Late in 2021, with a renewed sense that international travel could safely happen again, plans began to take shape. Conversations continued to include more voices, such as former mission staff in Ecuador; new Global Mission co-executives Ruoxia Li and Eric Miller; Global Food Initiative manager Jeff Boshart; Yakubu Bakfwash of Graceway International Community Church of the Brethren in Dundalk, Md. (the congregation hosts an Ecuadorian fellowship in its building); and Alfredo Merino, executive director of the Fundacion Brethren y Unida (FBU, the Brethren and United Foundation) in Ecuador.
The pandemic-caused delay allowed for more focused conversations and fundraising for this trip. Funds were provided by the Ebenezer congregation, Brethren World Mission, and the Global Mission office. Finally, all the prayer, planning, fundraising, and conversations culminated in a group of six people traveling to Ecuador for a learning and exploratory trip from Feb. 25 to March 2. The group consisted of the Silvas, Boshart, Ramirez, and Elizabeth College students Elliot Ramirez and Anneliz Rosario (Yakubu Bakfwash was unable to participate at the last minute).
The team utilized the FBU campus as home base for the week and Merino set up transportation and handled logistics. The itinerary included a worship service and meeting in Cayambe with the leaders of the church with whom Silva has established relationships over the years; attending a worship service and holding a meeting in Llano Grande with elders of a congregation established during past Brethren mission work in the country; and a tour of the FBU farm and facilities in the town of Picalqui, just a stone’s throw from the Pan American Highway. A visit with Joyce Dickens, widow of Washington Padilla, a theologian who authored numerous books on Protestant church history in Ecuador, had to be cancelled.
In conversations with church leaders in Cayambe, it was learned that there is a strong desire for a church that teaches and demonstrates a holistic gospel. Stories were recounted of various mission groups that came to share literature promoting a gospel of personal salvation without a recognition of physical needs. Often these groups would offer handouts instead of partnering with church and community leaders to promote self-reliance through educational or community development programs leading to dependency. Ramirez and Boshart shared briefly about Church of the Brethren work around the world and the denomination’s emphasis on peacemaking, simplicity, humility, disaster response, and community-based development. There was also strong affirmation for the Brethren style of local church governance with a church board or council making decision for the church instead of the pastor.
In Llano Grande, the formerly Brethren congregation is now a United Methodist congregation, but the elders shared how they have maintained lessons learned from Brethren workers many decades ago. Church members Mercedes and Andres Guaman recounted their fear of attending the school founded by the Brethren when they were children, and how people told them the missionaries wanted to turn them into sausages. However, to this day they have maintained lessons of self-reliance with skills gained from the missionaries such as sewing, organic agriculture, and the excellent academic tools to succeed in life that they received at the Brethren school.
Andres Guaman remembered the confusing events of the Brethren pullout from Ecuador. When asked how he felt about the Church of the Brethren leaving, he said it was a “golpe fuerte” or hard hit. All they knew was that there was an evaluation undertaken and they did not feel at all prepared. They were left without a pastor and thus looked elsewhere. The current United Methodist pastor was appreciative of our visit as he too learned a great deal and did not even know the history of this congregation. Mercedes Guaman promised to complete a scrapbook that she’s been working on and to share it when completed.
The delegation will continue to be in communication with the Global Mission office to determine any next steps. It is clear from this trip that the Church of the Brethren understanding of holistic mission would be welcomed in Ecuador. It also is clear that great care will need to be taken to live up to the Brethren ideals of humility and peacemaking in order to avoid creating division or conflict or a sense of cultural superiority in considering a return to Ecuador. As Ramirez stated to the group, “We aren’t here to fish in someone else’s pond.” Boshart shared that in Haiti, for example, the denomination will not accept any churches into the fold through an affiliation process. All new churches must be church plants. In contrast, the denomination in the Dominican Republic had some difficult issues when congregations that were once part of some other denomination or had been independent were allowed to join.
On the final day of the visit in Ecuador, a friend of Silva’s came to meet with the group. She has visited with Maria Silva and the Ebenezer congregation in Pennsylvania on numerous occasions. She shared that she would like to start a cell church in the Lago Agrio canton–a region on the Colombian border to the northeast of Cayambe. She already has a ministry in the community reaching out to youth who are dealing with drug addiction. Copies of Siguiendo las Pisadas de Jesus (To Follow in Jesus’ Steps) by C. Wayne Zunkel were shared and the Ebenezer congregation will remain in contact and be in prayer about next steps.
One concrete outcome of the trip was the connection of church leaders in Cayambe and Llano Grande with the work of FBU. FBU, although founded by the Church of the Brethren, by law is not allowed to have any particular religious affiliation. However, it is able to work with any community groups, including religious ones. In Cayambe and Llano Grande, both groups of leaders expressed a desire for projects that would benefit children and youth. Although the Ecuadorian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has surpassed all others in the region regarding vaccination rates (over 90 percent) and low case numbers, child malnutrition has increased due to economic hardships connected to business closings and layoffs. The Global Food Initiative is encouraging direct dialogue on potential gardening and farmers market projects between FBU and community leaders in Cayambe and Llano Grande. A proposal will be developed with the assistance of FBU staff and submitted to the GFI for potential approval.
Is God opening a door for the Church of the Brethren to return to Ecuador to re-establish churches? The idea received affirmation from the executive director of FBU and even pastors of churches from other denominations. Leaders of the Ebenezer congregation remain committed to dialogue with the Global Mission office as well as interested partners in the US and Ecuador.
Maria Silva felt the tug of the Holy Spirit to organize this exploratory trip, and all involved will continue to discern the Spirit’s leading going forward.
— Jeff Boshart is manager of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Food Initiative (GFI).
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