Convención de las Iglesias Evangélicas Menonitas de Puerto Rico, Inc.
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Puerto Rico: World Factbook, 2011
13,790 sq km
3,989,133 (July 2011 est)
Spanish (official), English (official)
Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant and other 15%
white (mostly Spanish origin) 76.2%, black 6.9%, mixed 4.4%, other 12.5 %
For years, Puerto Rico had a large gap between the few, elite rich and the impoverished. This led to the creation of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA), one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s organizations in the New Deal that attempted to heal the economic situation. As World War II began, some conscientious objectors found service opportunities with the Civilian Public Services in Puerto Rico. Many of the early workers were part of the Brethren Service Commission from Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Virginia. Most were between the ages of 18 and 23. The main work of the CPS CO’s was to follow Dr. Cordier’s, a Brethren history professor, five-phase program: one, ambulance service for rural residents; two, resident medical service; three, health education through moving pictures; four, community service, namely helping preserve food; and five, community recreation work, should be established. Note that church ministry was not a key goal; though not forbidden to do religious work, the CPS men were working under the government and, should the government discover the religious work, CPS workers might have been removed from Puerto Rico. One Mennonite worker in Casteñer describe the living situation as, “To know Castañer you must... watch the children, shabby and barefoot but proud and happy, chattering their way along the road… You need to feel the aching in your heart and wonder at the futility of what to do when you send a freshly nourished child back to no milk and inadequate diet that will return him to your care again…” This feeling of helplessness, knowing that one was only solving the end problem and not preventing the initial problem, was a large focus of the workers. After World War two ended, many Mennonites stayed, began churches, and continued working at improving social and living conditions in Puerto Rico. This eventually led to the formation of the Puerto Rican Mennonite Church Convention, which is now made up of 11 congregations with 394 members.
Esta conferencia fue organizada en 1988 como una conferencia latinoamericana autónoma. Se ha convertido en una conferencia indígena con lliderazgo puertorriqueño y trabajadores pastorales. Los últimos misioneros menonitas que siervieron en Puerto Rico se fueron en 1986. La conferencia todavía tiene lazos con agencias menonitas en Norte América, pero tiene un contacto creciente con otras conferencias latinoamericanas.
This conference was organized in 1988 as an autonomous Latin American conference. It has become a fully indigenous conference with Puerto Rican leadership and pastoral workers. The last Mennonite missionaries to minister in Puerto Rico left in 1986. The conference still has ties with North American Mennonite agencies, but is increasing its contact with other Latin American conferences.
Timeline of some Key Events
August, 1942: First CPS unit (11 men, 2 doctors) arrived. This unit had initially been scheduled to go to China; however, given the start of the war, the CPS conditions changed so that the men could only stay in US soil. Because Puerto Rico was US territory, the troops were able to join the PRRA in working there. Most Mennonites came between 1943 and 1944.
1943: Agriculture Program created, which focused on teaching about sustainable crops and getting the poultry and dairy business going to curb dependence on sugarcane and tobacco planting. Also worked at helping farmers find a market for their produce.
1944: La Plata Medical Program established and built, subsidized by both Mennonite Church and US government. Common ailments were malaria, parasites, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. Public school health service also established, which focused on elementary grade health.
March 1945: First chapel built after the war had ended.
1946: Sewing Project established, which gave women a job and community. Calvary Mennonite Church established in La Plata, which became a center for community life. Other churches branched off of this one.
1947: Radio evangelism began. The Luz y Verdad radio program was broadcasted across the island and grew immensely.
Late 1940s: Two-room rural school in Pulguillas built. Began as first years and grew year by year until there were nine grades.
1949: Community Nutrition Program, which focused on decreasing malnutrition, teaching about the relationship of food to health, and educating about raising, preserving, and purchasing food.
1957: More modern hospital built with a greater number of beds.
1975: Hospital moved to Aibonito and further expanded.
1986: Mennonite missionaries leave Puerto Rico. The church is now an “adult,” self-sufficient body of faith.
Connections to Church in US
Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico find various ways of being connected to the church in the United States. Because Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States, as a commonwealth, it is easier to include Puerto Rican Mennonites, even though the socioeconomic situation in Puerto Rico is still vastly different than that of most churches in the American Mennonite Conferences. Community and theology are two main emphases when it comes to connecting to the Mennonite Church in the states. Some more specific ways that the Puerto Rican church remains connected are through curriculum, conventions, returning missionaries, and theological points about God, fellowship, community, and service.
Literature and Programs
Much of the curriculum in Bible schools and Sunday School classes is received from the Mennonite Publishing House. Weekly bulletins are printed on paper for the Brethren Press and Mennonite Publishing Network. Hymnals in the church complete with four part harmony remain in an Aibonito Mennonite church from back from 1967, with heavy tape trying to keep the binding together. With similar songs, though in Spanish, bulletin decoration, and curriculum, this is one practical, everyday way that the Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico stay connected to the mainland churches.
A throw-back to earlier sewing missions that gave Puerto Rican women work, a new project in Puerto Rico is a sewing room inspired by the Amish. People sew school kit bags and infant clothing to help MCC. The project also brings the community together, which founder Carlos Camacho, a director of missions for Convencion de Iglesias Evangelicas Menonitas de Puerto Rico, said was one of the key goals, along with connecting Puerto Rican efforts to Mennonite Central Committee’s work.
Returning missionaries are another key connection between the states and Puerto Rico. Given its commonwealth status, it is easy for missionaries to return with their children to see the island they once worked in. One Aibonito member shared that many visitors to her congregation are previous missionaries and their families. This connection was evident both ways; upon moving to Goshen, Indiana, one Puerto Rican and his family met old missionaries who loved to talk about their experiences and catch up on the lives of old friends.
Youth and Education
Another way the church is connected is through conventions for the youth. There are strong connections between Mennonite high schools in the states, and Puerto Rican schools are often included in lists of US Mennonite high schools. One special connection happened just this year at the school in San Juan. Every year, there is a high school choir festival. This year, in spring of 2011, one group’s festival was held in San Juan at Academia Menonita. In previous years, Puerto Rican choirs have sung with Mennonite high schools from all over the states. There are also connections among adults that form. This past year there was a meeting in Leaders of Color about minority leadership in the Mennonite Church. Many Puerto Ricans were present to listen in and share their country’s experiences.
Education is another important effort to maintain ties with the Anabaptist church. There is a Bible institute in Puerto Rico to better prepare Puerto Rican leaders for their roles as pastors and mentors. There are two Mennonite schools that work at teaching youth how to live moral lives, and that are well known on the island for their academic rigor. This emphasis on education is Anabaptist in that everyone should have the ability to read and think for themselves, whether that apply to the Bible or daily life.
Women’s roles are another way that the Puerto Rican Mennonite Church has exemplified the Anabaptist church. In the Anabaptist church, leaders were both male and female because females were seen as innocent to the officials, so they could get away with more. While that was not the case in Puerto Rico, women played a major role in both social and theological leadership positions even though they were not in Puerto Rico because of the draft. From female high school principals to independent nurses to leadership trainers to evangelists, women played important roles in the church that, during the 1950s, they would have been unlikely to hold in the states. Beth Graybill, in an article by published in the Journal of Mennonite Studies, wrote, “without the leadership of women, the Mennonite church in Puerto Rico would never have come into being.”
Theologically, some points in the Puerto Rican church are congruent with the early Anabaptists. They don’t just have the “Who are the Mennonites?” publication in their church building – they mean it. The fundamental Anabaptist belief of reading and interpreting Scripture remains, as efforts for increasing literacy among Puerto Ricans have assisted government efforts in decreasing the illiteracy rate from 79.6 percent in 1898 to 35 percent in 1935. God is a fundamental part of faith. In interviews with members, God’s will and waiting for God were commonly used phrases indicating the church’s dependence on the Lord. There is a heavy emphasis on community and fellowship seen in lechon (pig roast) meals, the enthusiastic waving when greeting visitors to the church, and helping others who ask, like the woman who recently came to the church in Aibonito asking for a tank of gasoline.
True to Mennonite mission tradition, the Aibonito church tries involve and invest itself in the welfare of the community. Often visiting the sick and their families, offering their building for community events, allowing the bell choir to store their bells and practice in their spare room, and having special cantatas, or, choral performances, are ways to get people out of the church interested and inside church doors. Though defining itself as Mennonite is a struggle, especially when comparing the early Puerto Rican church to the state it is in now, there are still strong Mennonite ties back to the “taproot” of Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition.
Challenges Facing the Church
There are three main challenges that have faced and continue to face the church: cultural issues which lead to a decrease in youth, poverty, and leadership.
Cultural Issues and the Youth
Cultural issues are more of a historical issue. When one older member first attended the Mennonite church in Aibonito, she was surprised that the rules about dress were stricter than those of the Brethren church she attended in Indiana while growing up. At Rock Run, they were expected to dress modestly, but there were no official guidelines. But, in Puerto Rico she was expected to dress in long skirts with long sleeves – not very comfortable in the tropical heat. As time passed, so did this strict rule. She believes the change happened gradually, but when the pastor changed about 8 years ago, there was a greater change. If you visit her church today, you see people in various stages of dress and modesty. This modest influence was often the result of rules that the Mennonite missionaries had to follow during their time in Puerto Rico.
But, dress wasn’t the only cultural issue. Dancing was another controversial point of conflict that, like dress, became more open as time went on. Among the youth, pop culture in Puerto Rico is more sensual and pervasive than that in the United States. Finding a balance between what is right and wrong is a struggle for the younger in the church, and often results in generational divides. While this also happens in the United States' churches, the difference is starker in Puerto Rico. There are no Mennonite meccas in Puerto Rico where church values abound. This lack of separation makes competing for youth attention a struggle for the church, especially when church values don’t seem as fun as others’. It is also hard to retain youth because there are no exclusive programs designed for the youth. While young adults get involved with music and scripture reading in the church, the jyf and myf groups that the church in the states has are virtually nonexistent. Because of this, the younger generation is not as loyal to the church. Even in Puerto Rican Mennonite schools, many students are not Mennonite but attend because the academic reputation is better than other schools. One student from Academia Menonita in San Juan said she did not know what Mennonites were before attending Goshen College apart from thinking they were “Amish-y” because students were not allowed to use their phones during school. Also, the religion teacher at that school was not Mennonite. This lack of religious leadership and influence for the youth is negatively affecting the younger engagement in the church.
Another challenge is that of poverty, which remains a struggle in Puerto Rico and defines church life. If the church does not have the resources, it can do less financially. Looking at the worn hymnals in many churches affirms that – there are more important things to spend money on. However, this challenge is not a serious flaw, for, if the church was wealthy, it might be looked upon as elitist. The churches truly are churches of the people. In one article from The Mennonite, the conference was asking for $20,000 to make a building into an office. This reliance on the US Mennonite churches, while not unhealthy, blurs the line between the Puerto Rican church’s identity and independence.
The third and most grave challenge is the lack of inspiring Mennonite leadership in Puerto Rican congregations, mostly due to a lack of educated pastors and leaders. Though there is the Bible Institute that was established to train leaders, it is training leaders from all educational backgrounds, which makes it ineffective: sometimes the education is not useful to a pastor, but it is better than nothing. There are seminaries in Puerto Rico, but these are not Anabaptist seminaries; thus, the pastors get mixed training, another somewhat unhelpful result. Another leadership problem is that being a pastor is not a full-time job in Puerto Rico. So, the pastor needs another job to sustain life. Often, these other jobs pay better. So, if one is highly educated, they have to be very passionate about their ministerial work or they will find another higher paying job. The pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Aibonito, for example, is also a chaplain at the Mennonite hospital. This is an effective way of using his training for both a job and his preaching; however, not all have that opportunity.
There is more to criticize then just the lack of education or dedication. Throughout the development of the church, various leaders have come to power that seem to defy the very Anabaptist roots the church rose out of. Many were patriarchal and believed what they said was law, not unlike Catholic Popes. This abuse of power created a new movement, the catacumbas, which was a Pentecostal youth movement focused on outreach and delivering people to salvation.
Recently, one Mennonite congregation split because of leadership issues. There was a charismatic pastor who replaced a pastor that had been there for 17 years. He brought new changes in and forced new rules in the congregation, claiming to be doing God’s will for the congregation. Before long, two groups within the church began meeting for worship at separate times, because they could not agree on the new changes. The pastor then left, taking half of the church with him. One member lamented on the inability to solve problems in a Sermon on the Mount fashion, especially because most of the youth went with the pastor, but she sounded optimistic about the rising numbers of youth coming to her congregation. In a different congregation, a pastor took over the church and told the congregation they were no longer Mennonite. No one fought the change, so that church left the convention suddenly.
One church member also said that the current pastor of her church focuses on accepting and loving all people. This has led to increased growth in the church. Another member commented on the previous rules about Catholic relations. The Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico were influenced by the Protestant church that was anti-Catholic. Some young people were not allowed to marry in the Mennonite church because they were marrying a Catholic man or woman, so they married in the Catholic Church. That the current church is working at being more inclusive is a fundamental and crucial step in the future growth of the church.
The role of the conference is also unclear. One member in a Mennonite congregation said she didn’t really know what the conference did apart from meeting once a year and overseeing churches and the schools. 10% of each church’s income goes to the conference, and recently they asked for $40 per member to send a missionary to the Dominican Republic. This is a struggle for many congregations that don’t have the funds to give up. The timing was also bad; apparently, the conference asked for this money after all of the congregations had finalized their budgets, which caused some tension. The conference also determines themes to focus on in the church, approves of pastoral leadership, and intervenes when the leadership goes awry. More transparency with the congregations would help ease that relationship. A final challenge one previous member spoke of is a question many struggle to answer: how do you define what it is to be Mennonite in a non-American context? This will continue to change as the historical and socioeconomic realities change, but as time passes there is more of a disconnect between the “motherland” and the island. Not part of the Mennonite Church USA, the Puerto Rican church interprets and behaves differently than the early Puerto Rican church and the church in the states. Better figuring this out this identity will be key to the future of the church.
Future of the Church
In the next 5-10 years, one can expect the church to remain fairly stagnant in growth. Certain congregations might grow at times, but it will be hard to sustain that growth without a revolutionary change in the way church is done in Puerto Rico, particularly a focus on bringing youth into the church and engaging them. There will most likely be similar styles of worship and patterns of service over the next few years.
More long-term, in the next 50-75 years, one might expect a decline in the church. Similar to the problem in the states, the majority of Mennonites in Puerto Rico are older. Without the driven leaders of tomorrow, the church will suffer and begin to die unless there is a new movement. One church member said there is high uncertainty as to how [the church in Puerto Rico] will survive in the future. Unless the church can better excite youth and train them effectively, the church will not grow. Recent significant decline (one source said there were 900 members in 1988, yet only 400 in 2003) does not bode well for the church.
More references to come shortly.
- "Puerto Rico," CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/maps/maptemplate_rq.html (accessed 18 April 2011).
- Global Gift Sharing Report (MWC, 2005), 115.