Paraguayan Mennonites you might meet at Assembly 15
Could you imagine leaving your family and your home and setting off for the heart of South America, never knowing when you might return? That is exactly what Melvin Warkentin did. He thought he was going to teach, but soon found he was learning more than he ever could have guessed.
His great-grandparents, Russian Mennonites, moved from the U.S. Midwest to Reedley, Cal., where his great-grandfather was the first lay minister in the Mennonite Brethren Church. “I would hear stories of how my grandfather, H.K. Warkentin, suddenly left his business late in life, went to the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, established a church in Pasadena, travelled to India visiting missions, and then came back to California and began making films,” Melvin says.
But it was not only his grandfather’s sense of adventure that influenced the young Melvin. “It was my grandfather’s spiritual dynamic that attracted me,” he says. After graduating with a BA in education from Biola College in Los Angeles, Melvin joined the Good News Corps (a program of Mennonite Brethren Mission and Service) and was sent to Asunción, Paraguay.
After two years’ service he returned to California and graduate work at the MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, where he completed an MDiv. It was during this time that Melvin met someone who would change his life forever.
Interest in people
Gudrun Siemens was full of curiosity and courage, so when she was offered a scholarship to leave her large extended family in Filadelfia, Paraguay and venture alone to California for college, she accepted immediately. “I must have inherited my curiosity and interest in people from my grandfather, Nikolai Siemens,” she says. Her parents had been among the first Russian Mennonite babies born in the Chaco in 1930 and her grandfather, Nikolai Siemens, was the publisher of the Mennoblatt, the publication of the Fernheim colony.
After high school graduation, Gudrun had worked for Wilmer Stahl, the director of ASCIM (Asociación de Servicios de Cooperación Indigena Mennonita), which assists in the settlement and economic development of the indigenous people in the central Chaco. After two years, she entered a teacher’s training course in Filadelfia.
“Because of my cross-cultural interest, after graduation they asked me to teach in Yalve Sanga, the indigenous settlement,” she says. She discovered she had an interest in special needs children and Heinz Ratzlaff, head of the Paraguayan Mental Health Services, then arranged for the scholarship for Gudrun to attend Fresno Pacific College.
She stayed on in Fresno for graduate school in special education. When her roommate had someone for Gudrun to meet, Gudrun discovered how much she and that “someone” – Melvin Warkentin – had in common. They began a conversation that continues to this day, after 24 years of marriage.
“I felt a moral obligation to return to Paraguay to teach after graduating,” Gudrun says. Melvin too began teaching Bible studies among the indigenous church leaders with Licht den Indianern (Light to the Indians), a local inter-Mennonite mission agency. After Gudrun’s promised three years of teaching were finished, the two faced a difficult decision. Should they stay in Paraguay or return to the United States?
“A house was offered, a confirmation that God would provide,” Melvin says.
“I felt the door was open,” Gudrun says. “We felt the support.”
In Yalve Sanga
The Warkentins settled in Yalve Sanga, where they have raised three children. They serve under Licht den Indianern in partnership with MB Mission and Service International. Melvin continues to teach at the Indian Bible Institute and Gudrun teaches at the settlement’s high school. They also assist the local indigenous pastors and students with counsel, visitation, and attending to needs of various kinds.
They have learned more than they could have imagined, they say, as they reached out to their students and their students reached back, both touching and changing each other’s lives.
“One thing I’ve learned is patience,” Gudrun says. “The Enlhet have taught me the value of patience. We think when we speak fast and quickly it is good, but I’ve learned that by waiting we learn more, and the answers are deeper and more profound.”
“I learned the importance of listening when others ask questions,” says Melvin, who is fluent in Enlhet. “We are very much achievement-oriented and the Enlhet are more relationship-oriented. I’ve learned that it is important that you touch people’s lives, not always that you accomplish something.”