The days were a marathon of meetings, starting with the 6:00 am early service (optional), then morning meetings from 8:00 to 12:00 (usually extending longer), afternoon meetings from 2:00 to 5:00 (always extending longer), and evening service from 7:00 to whenever it ended (usually around 10:00, although one night we stayed until 11:30). I admit to skipping some sessions and sleeping or reading a novel.
Fourteen of the 15 districts sent representatives; the Lago Norte District did not show up and the Pacajes District sent only one man, our old friend Osvaldo Cutipa. It’s obvious that these districts are in trouble. They are far from the city, isolated on the altiplano. One of the problems is that most, if not all, of the youth are migrating to the cities, and individual congregations are being closed as the old people die. It’s sad to us personally because we served in those districts, to open Lago Norte and to teach in the extension Bible school center in Pacajes.
The sessions contained the usual amount of conflicts and controversy, but I need to point out that all of this is in the context of a nation in conflict. Ever since we arrived (mid-October) the city has been rocked with strikes and protest marches, due to a new penal code that Evo Morales’ government has passed. One of the most serious protests is the ongoing strike of the medical profession. One aspect of the new code lets the family of any patient who has died or not improved under treatment sue the doctor, with assurance of winning. The doctors would lose their licenses and be imprisoned until payment could be made to the family. Also at risk are pastors and priests who pray for the sick; if the person prayed for does not get well (or worse, if he dies), the pastor or priest can be sued and the church property confiscated. This is just scratching the surface of the implications of the new penal code. Morales is currently on a campaign to be made president for life, and people sense the beginning of a dictatorship.
The yearly meeting sessions included a presentation of the penal code given by an Aymara lawyer and former Friends pastor, Ramiro Carrillo. Among other things, Carrillo stressed that if any organization does not fulfill its own government-approved constitution, it can be disbanded and all property confiscated. This caused a spirit of fear to arise in many of the representatives.
One unfortunate result was the action of the assembly to fire the current treasurer on the basis on some confusion in her annual report. This young woman is a professional accountant and an honest, hard-working Friend. (Furthermore, she was the only woman at the national level of leadership.) While the criticism and shaming heaped on her was typical of Aymara Quakers in yearly meeting, I cringed and prayed for mercy. Indeed, some voices asking for mercy, justice and grace did rise up, but they were discounted in the end.
Reports of the growth (or non-growth) of the church were typically contradictory, with the president reporting 184 churches in the 15 districts, and the districts themselves reporting 192 churches. This contrasts with the 202 churches reported last year. Statistics always have to be taken with a grain of salt as standards and categories vary from district to district and from year to year. But taken over a 25-year period, we see a national church pretty much plateaued, with new churches constantly rising up, balanced by churches being lost. We are analyzing this in our history team.
Each district and each working commission (task force or committee) gave their annual report, along with the national women’s and youth organizations. A highlight for me was the report of the women’s organization, UFINELA. Actually, it was one of the more boring reports of the sessions. The out-going president didn’t know how to read well and she stumbled through the report (obviously written by someone else on her board). It was basically a list of activities plus the financial report. Most of the activities were visits to quarterly meetings and conferences. At the end, the clerk scolded her for not including a ministry plan for the coming year.
But what I heard filled me with appreciation and hope. Basically, the women engage in three ministries: they visit, they give offerings, and they pray. Their constant visitation of other Friends gatherings in the country follows the old tradition of the Quaker traveling ministry (although the women don’t know this and they don’t use those terms). It’s a gentle ministry of encouragement, teaching and unity. They work to raise money to cover, not only their own costs, but offerings that go mostly to the mission work of the national church. The financial report of the secretary of missions showed that the women gave more money than any other group or church in the country. And they pray. People here acknowledge that the Friends women are the prayer force behind the whole church. I see the Spirit at work in these feminine Quakers.
By the time Saturday night rolled around, I admit I was discouraged with all the controversy and in-fighting. I found myself asking, “Where is Jesus in all of this?” I decided I would not even attend the closing celebration on Sunday morning.
I’m so glad I changed my mind. Sunday’s service is always dedicated to celebration and to the consecration of new leaders on all levels. I knew it would be long (people here not being oriented to the clock), and I was right. We started at 8:00 am (more or less) and ended just after 1:00 pm. A good deal of that time was given to singing. Loud and heartfelt singing, accompanied by drums, guitars and an electronic keyboard. Because most of the visiting representative were from rural churches, we sang in the Aymara language. I loved that; it’s such an expressive, complex and beautiful language, and many of the songs were original compositions using Aymara musical styles, not translations through Spanish from English or German.
e ministry of women during the service. The first group of leaders to be consecrated were the members of the executive council of the church (the mesa directiva). The clerk asked that their wives accompany them to the altar, recognizing the importance of the couple and the role wives play. (Unfortunately, none of the mesa members this year is a woman.) Later, when the new leaders of the women’s organization were asked to come forward for consecration, their husbands were not asked to accompany them. I wondered why. For the valuable leadership and ministry these women offer, surely the support of their husbands counts for something. A delightful exception was the positioning of the new youth officers; half of them were men and half women. And in the past, young women have served as president.
Of all the district officers consecrated (a group of about 90 people), six were women, three of these representing the more progressive Santa Cruz District. And of the group of around 140 pastors gathered at the altar, three were women. We still have a way to go.
Before the end of the service, national president Hector Castro challenged the church to plant a new congregation in each of the 15 districts this year. And in his closing remarks, clerk Reynaldo Mamani remarked that, “We always have conflicts, but God always shows up and somehow we manage to do his will.”