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From “second conversion” to the helm of Mennonite World Conference

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General Secretary-Elect César García reflects on his journey and vision

César García, an MB pastor and conference leader from Bogotá, Colombia, was recently appointed general secretary-elect of Mennonite World Conference. After a transitional period starting in August with current general secretary Larry Miller, García will begin his term January 1, 2012.

As one amateur Mennonite historian likes to point out, the only real Mennonite name is Menno Simons. From there on down through history, the rest of the family names are just “add-ons.” After a series of Mennonite World Conference (MWC) secretaries named Dyck (1961–73), Kraybill (1973–90), and Miller (1990–2011), the name of García stands out as a historically recent addition to the Anabaptist family.

César García’s personal story with the Mennonite family began in Bogotá, Colombia, when his mother took him and his sister to several churches in search of a new church home. Eleven-year-old César chose the Iglesia Hermanos Menonitas Dios es Amor (God is Love MB Church) as the place they would settle.

That choice was the first step on a continuing journey for García, who has come to treasure Anabaptist theology and history and has given his life to scholarship, to mission, and to shaping the church from an Anabaptist perspective.

A drive to understand Scripture and have a reasoned faith has characterized García’s walk since what he calls his “first conversion” at 19. After some teen years rejecting God and the church, García found himself depressed and unfulfilled by the existentialism and other philosophies he was pursuing. “The sense of vacuum was huge,” he recalls.

Under pressure from his mother to come back to church, García attended a Dios es Amor youth meeting where he was touched by the speaker’s assertion: “God doesn’t see us as a problem but as a possibility in his hands.” Half-believing that he was just “talking to the walls,” García told God that he wanted to experience that hope.

“The next day my life was different,” he recalls. “I decided to read the Bible, come back to church, and start looking for responses to my atheistic arguments.” Not satisfied with a personal emotional experience, he also began a lifelong pursuit of theological study, mission, and church ministry.

A smorgasboard of theological traditions

García’s love for learning has brought him into contact with many theological traditions. As a child attending private Catholic school, he already found himself bringing his new teachings into discussions with his teachers. “Of course I lost the argument every time,” he says with a smile, “but it pushed me in my convictions.”

García worked for six years at a Christian radio station where he interacted with Christian leaders from charismatic, evangelical, and mainline denominations. “It was a time of growing theologically,” he says of those years teaching and counselling in his radio ministry and serving as youth pastor and elder at Dios es Amor church.

More formal education at Seminario Bíblico de Colombia, an interdenominational seminary in Medellín, earned him a bachelor of theology and Bible with an emphasis on missiology and gave him the tools for studying Scripture. Well-versed in Protestant theology, García was now ready for his “second conversion” – to Anabaptism.

Juan Martínez, then president of the SEMILLA Latin American Anabaptist Seminary in Guatemala, challenged García to complete his education by studying Anabaptism. When García and his wife, Sandra Báez, moved back to Bogotá for church ministry, he took up the challenge, starting with John Driver’s book, Eclesiología Radical. “It was amazing,” he says, “like candy for a child.”

A year later, he and Sandra were commissioned as church planters in Bogotá and seized the opportunity to weave their new-found theology into every aspect of Iglesia Hermanos Menonitas Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower MB Church). “I was excited about participative community, restorative discipline, servant leadership, communal hermeneutic. It was so clear that I wanted that kind of values for our new church.” The spirit of community drew new believers, and the church grew and flourished.

García credits visiting teachers with helping the Colombian pastors gain a deeper understanding of Anabaptist theology. One of them, Mark Baker, tells a story of how García applied the theology in his role as president of the Colombian MB conference. At a national convention, a delegate vote on a contentious issue barely passed the required 80 percent approval.

García was not content with the spirit of the debate or with the narrow margin of approval. He invited the delegates who had voted “no” to voice their concerns with conference leaders and encouraged everyone to reflect, pray, and be ready for a new vote the next day. The result was a positive vote of 94 percent and a strengthened sense of trust and confidence among the conferees.

Rich global relationships

As much as he values the ideas and principles of Anabaptism, García also cherishes his relationships in the global Anabaptist community. Fellow leaders in Portugal and Venezuela are now counted among his closest friends because of their work together in the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB).

Other new friendships have developed among MB, Brethren in Christ, and Mennonite Church leaders in Colombia. After some periods of little interaction or cooperation between the three denominations, “Mennonite Central Committee helped us realize that in reality we were not so different and that many of the suspicions between us were only that.”

“I have a calling for eliminating suspicions and rather showing appreciation and respect for differences,” he adds. “There are differences, but that doesn’t mean we have to fragment. The body of Christ is a living organism that demands diversity, but also requires love and unity.”

One of the bridges García is determined to strengthen is the one between people with a long Mennonite pedigree and those who have come to Anabaptist faith more recently.

At the same time, he knows from experience the value of coming to Anabaptist faith by conviction rather than heritage. “It gives the opportunity to have a passion – to fall in love with the tradition.”

“We need to value Anabaptism by conviction, but we also need to maintain our historical tradition, and to learn that those things are related, and not opposed,” he asserts. “We are thirsty for identity. In Anabaptism, we find a body that offers that – not just theologically, but also historically.”

García also wants to strengthen the ability of every national body in the MWC to find and share its own cultural expression of Anabaptism. “MWC is relevant as ethnic churches bring our own identity and theology contextualized, instead of just copying Western patterns,” he explains. “Enrichment happens when every church brings that kind of value.”

When asked what he values about MWC, García pauses, taking delight in mentally scanning the faces that would be around the table at their meetings. “I value the people who are there. Each one is like a treasure,” he reflects. “They bring insights from their different contexts, different gifts, different ways of seeing life and church.”

The journey to MWC

A year and a half ago, search committee facilitator Bert Lobe took García aside after a church service and asked him if he would consider being one of the candidates for MWC General Secretary. With typical humility, García thought he must have misunderstood the question.

As soon as he realized that the invitation was genuine, he began a discernment process, talking and praying with Sandra and composing a discernment group to help them determine God’s direction. Humbly he accepted the nomination, which resulted in his selection as the first general secretary from the Global South.

Few others who know García would consider this appointment surprising. Recognizing his unique gifts of learning and leadership, many have invested in his education and preparation for ministry. From the Dios es Amor congregation, where he began teaching Sunday school and leading the youth at 15, to MB Mission and other supporters who helped finance his theological education in Colombia and USA, to the Colombian MB conference who, two years ago, sent him to complete a master’s degree at MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno – people everywhere have recognized his potential for leadership.

Perhaps least surprised of all would be García’s mother, Evelia. She was 45 years old when she became pregnant with this son. The doctor advised her that, because of her age, the child was at risk. She pleaded with God for a healthy child and, like the biblical story of Hannah and Samuel, consecrated her son to God for ministry.

With a wry smile García remembers how aggravating it was to hear his mother recount that story during those rebellious teen years. But today he finds it reassuring – a reminder that God’s gifts and blessing are on him from before his birth. And with this call to ministry comes God’s Spirit to guide and give strength for the task ahead.

César García and Sandra Báez have two teenaged daughters, María and Paula. They have recently completed two years of study at Fresno Pacific University, the MB university in Fresno, California. César earned a Master of Arts in theology and Sandra completed a Master of Arts in peacemaking and conflict studies. The family is currently settling again in Bogotá.

–Kathy Heinrichs Wiest is a writer from Kingsburg, Cal. This article was written on behalf of Meetinghouse publications.

New MWC general secretary has MB credentials
César García is quick to point out that his appointment as Mennonite World Conference (MWC) general secretary is just a continuation of a long history of Mennonite Brethren activity in MWC. Pulling his copy of A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church by J.A. Toews off the shelf, he opens right up to some well-used pages highlighting such things as the first MB participation in 1930, a host of MB participants in the 1948 Assembly held in Indiana, and the MB General Conference’s official approval of MWC membership in 1951.

García counts himself as following in the line of Mennonite Brethren leaders C.F. Klassen and P.C. Hiebert who held MWC leadership positions in the early years. He also points to current MB leaders, Paraguayan Alfred Neufeld who is president of MWC faith and life commission, and John Fumana of DR Congo who is part of a global Anabaptist service consultation task force.

According to García, the value of MWC comes in the diverse points of view it brings together, with each participating church body bringing something of value from its own tradition. Mennonite Brethren, he says, contribute a strong Pietistic emphasis on prayer and worship, and a commitment to evangelism. Other traditions bring in other emphases, such as the Holy Spirit or discipleship or peacemaking.

“It’s a mixture that I like,” he says. “If we want to evangelize we have to be peacemakers, if we want to be peacemakers we have to rely on the Holy Spirit.—KHW

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