Walking the road with God: Ernesto Unruh

If you are looking for Ernesto Unruh, you may just find him on his hands and knees with other members of the congregation, painting the floor of the church in Yalve Sanga, in the Chaco, Paraguay. If you have the honour of speaking with him, you will hear him speak humbly of working together with others, of cooperation and harmony.

Ernesto Unruh is an Enlhet indigenous leader, a man of great stature, dignity, poise, grace, and diplomacy. A pastor at one of the largest churches in Yalve Sanga, he served for 13 years as president of the Conference of Enlhet Mennonite Churches, an organization of seven churches with more than 2,000 baptized members.

He is a graduate of the Bible Institute of Yalve Sanga and continued his studies for six years after graduation. He has co-written many books, including Ya’ alva Pangcalhva II, a collection of stories from Enlhet elders; the 903-page Enlhet dictionary; and Lo Que Cuentan los Enlhet, stories of the Enlhet published in both Enlhet and Spanish. He has travelled to Europe and Africa as a representative of his church, his people, and his country.

Ernesto’s father, Francisco, an Enlhet, was given the name of his boss, Mr. Unruh, the owner of a large farm. “My father attended a fiesta and there met my mother, a Nivaclé. I am the third of their twelve children,” Ernesto says. “As a boy, I sang in the local choir and, at 18, came to the Bible Institute, back when the classes were held in a barn.”  During these years, he helped build a new building for the Institute and began his work with the local church, where, after 10 years, he became a pastor.

A different world

In 1984, Ernesto, along with two other Enlhet and two Nivaclé, was invited to the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France. “I saw a very different world on that trip,” he says. “I saw many new ideas and activities. I saw people living in big buildings, which is not our custom. We like to live out in the open air, free.”

Most importantly, he met Mennonites from all over the world. “I saw people of many different colours who are part of the Mennonite family. I learned about all the diverse Mennonite churches that are equal. I met many people and we discussed many themes, studied much, and thought much together about Christ.”

In 2003, he attended the Mennonite World Conference in Zimbabwe. “I saw the African people, walking together, singing on the way to church and we, too, at the conference, walked and sang the song, ‘Walking in the Light of God.’” Ernesto learned about the devastation of AIDS in Africa and saw many people suffering from this disease. Again, he was moved by the diversity of Mennonite congregations.

Back home, Ernesto, now 55, continues his work as pastor, travelling long distances to speak with people, offer solace, advice, and marriage counselling. He does this work, as he has always done it, without pay. “When we walk on the road with God, we must do it with or without pay,” he says. Ernesto’s wife Elsa works with women’s groups at the church and sings in the 80-member women’s choir. The couple has four children: one daughter and three sons.

While Ernesto sees that the problems for the Enlhet in Yalve Sanga now are basic, such as food security and water, he sees that in the future, as the population grows, they will need more land to sustain their needs. Unfortunately, all the land around Yalve Sanga is owned by others. “The Co-operative of the Enlhet must work together to buy land,” he says. “The community must face these issues together.”

Katherine Arnoldi is the author of two books, a member of the Manhattan (New York) Mennonite Fellowship, and currently a Fulbright Fellow in Paraguay. Melvin Warkentin assisted with this article.

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Besides the Conference of Enlhet Mennonite Brethren Churches, consisting of Enlhet Norte speakers, there are two other Mennonite conferences among the indigenous peoples of the Chaco: the Conference of United Enlhet Churches, consisting of 14 churches and three annexes with some 4,000 baptized members from Lengua Norte, Lengua Sur, Toba-Maskoy and Sanapaná groups; and the Conference of Nivaclé Mennonite Brethren Churches, consisting of nine congregations with about 2,300 baptized members of the Nivaclé language.

—Information from MWC

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