Anabaptist History in Paraguay

May, 2013

By: John D. Roth

In the past, I have led various May Term courses on “Anabaptist History in Europe,” visiting many of the historical sites associated with the emergence of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century along with several contemporary Mennonite congregations.  I continue to have many strong connections with libraries, churches, scholars and friends in Europe … and I hope that all of you have a chance to visit Europe someday.

But in the Spring of 2011, I created a new organization at Goshen College called “The Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism” (ISGA).  The ISGA reflects my conviction that the most dynamic expression of the Anabaptist movement today is unfolding in countries outside of Europe and North America—especially in the so-called “global South.”  For me, the past two years have been a significant intellectual (and spiritual) journey as I have tried to reorient my understanding of Anabaptism from a focus primairy on a 16th century, German-speaking tradition to its contemporary expression in 85+ different countries. In the recent past, I have spent time visiting Mennonite communities in Ecuador, Mexico, Taiwan, Guatemala, Paraguay, and elsewhere, trying to get a deeper sense of what it means to be an Anabaptist Christian in these settings.  Currently, the ISGA is moving forward with 4 different initiatives—in close cooperation with the Mennonite World Conference—that have brought me into conversation with leaders in many more countries. But I have barely scratched the surface … there is much, much more to learn!

In my recent work, I have found Paraguay to be an ideal “laboratory” for thinking through this new perspective. Today, at least 20 different Anabaptist-Mennonite groups have settled in Paraguay. Some of them have deep roots in the traditional Anabaptist story, and have retained a strong sense of ethnic, cultural, and religious continuity with their European origins that they have tried to preserve by living in relatively isolated colonies, far from Asunción. Many of these groups came to Paraguay by way of Russia, Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, or the U.S., bringing with them some elements of their tradition, while also absorbing aspects of the new Paraguayan context. Other groups, however, have emerged as a result of local missions among “native” Paraguayans—they generally speak Spanish or Guaraní, and have adopted worship practices quite similar to the broader evangelical/pentecostal currents around them. But there are also several flourishing indigenous groups (Nivaclé, Enlhet, Guaraní, Ayoreo) who have still other understandings of what it means to be “Anabaptist.”

Our challenge is going to be to hold all of these many strands together.  All along the way, we will be attentive to the insights of three related disciplines:  history, theology and sociology. And we will need to ask over and over again:  what is the appropriate relationship of faith and culture?  The course unfolds within an academic context—indeed, it is crucial that you do the readings and keep up with the assignments.  But our main mode of learning will come through experience—paying attention to what we see and hear; cultivating a curiosity that seeks to understand; being respectful of our hosts, even when you are uncomfortable or bored.

The journey will be intense … but also rich with new insights, fresh perspectives, unexpected twists, and a deeper appreciation for the manifold richness of the Body of Christ in all its varied cultural expressions.