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Exploring a unique Mennonite community in South America

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Gerhard Ratzlaff

Gerhard Ratzlaff

One Body – Many Parts: The Mennonite Churches in Paraguay

Gerhard Ratzlaff (Trans. Jake K. Balzer)

Privately published, 2008

Next year’s Mennonite World Conference (MWC) Assembly will take place in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, and some readers will attend the event. To get to know the Mennonites in Paraguay better, readers would do well to acquaint themselves with the history and life of Mennonite churches there.

One of the most knowledgeable Mennonite historians is Gerhard Ratzlaff of Asunción. He’s a teacher and church leader, and has written several books on Mennonites in South America. In 2001, he published One body – many parts, which is now available in English. It is an interesting, thorough, and well-written study of Mennonite churches in Paraguay.

Five Parts

The book consists of 35 chapters divided into five parts. Part one deals with the significance of history for the Paraguayan churches and places them within the context of worldwide Mennonitism. (In Paraguay there are more than 25,000 baptized members.) Part two provides a detailed survey of Mennonite immigration to Paraguay and the establishment of colonies in the Chaco. The author seeks to deal objectively with the different groups of Mennonites, from the traditional or conservative to the more liberal.

Parts three and four show how Mennonites early in their history began mission work among the aboriginal and Paraguayan population, and soon established thriving churches among them. Part five shows how the many and varied Mennonite churches seek to serve God within their different cultural traditions, yet remain united as a people of God under the umbrella of the national Mennonite conferences.

Religion and secular life meet

The Mennonites in Paraguay are like no other community anywhere in the world. In North America, including Canada, Mennonite churches function within a secular society, keeping their church life separate from national institutions such as education, medical care, business and economics, and law and order.

In Paraguay, on the other hand, the communities are responsible not only for their members’ spiritual needs, but also their physical and material needs. They administer their own schools, conduct various community services, have political structures, and maintain law and order in their colonies. Only in serious criminal cases do the national authorities step in.
Similar to the so-called “Mennonite commonwealth” in pre-Soviet Russia, the Mennonites of Paraguay have become a state-church (or church-state), a situation in which religious affairs are interlinked with all other aspects of life. Therefore education, medical care, and business ventures, for example, are not seen as secular activities but as religious functions conducted as services under God.

While this close relationship between the religious and secular aspects of life can, and sometimes does, present problems, the book demonstrates that generally this church-state association works well. In fact, Ratzlaff believes that for a believer all of life is sacred.

Reading this book, one is impressed with the manifold achievements of the churches. When the Mennonites went to Paraguay (in 1926, 1930, and 1947), they immediately established schools for their children and soon began mission work among aboriginal people. Their educational system today is one of the best in the country and their work among the natives is successful. Aboriginal children receive not only a basic education, but are also taught various practical crafts such as sewing, masonry,
and carpentry.

Learning from Paraguay

Delegates to the MWC Assembly in 2009 will no doubt learn much from our Paraguayan brothers and sisters. While Paraguayan Mennonites seek to preserve their German language and ethnic ways, they respect the culture of the indigenous people. Ratzlaff believes that eventually biblical integration will have to happen, but hopes that assimilation will not.

“In assimilation, the values of a culture and religion are given up in favour of another,” he writes. “In integration, the traditional forms are adapted to the national culture without surrendering biblical values.” As Ratzlaff sees it, the Mennonites in Paraguay will no doubt maintain their own identity, but will also continue to have a positive influence on the national society.

— Professor Harry Loewen lives in Kelowna, B.C. and attends First Mennonite Church.

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