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2012-12-03 issue:

Saint John

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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Erwin Mirabel was barely 20 years old when, in the late 1980s, he attended a seminar in Salazar de las Palmas, Colombia, led by Mennonite theologian and teacher John Driver. Although the young Venezuelan understood almost nothing about Anabaptist theology at the time, he returned from the workshop to his home on Isla Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela, eager to learn more.

In the years that followed, Mirabel gathered regularly with a group of other earnest Christians to explore more deeply what it meant to be a church rooted in community and committed to following Jesus in daily life. Gradually, four congregations emerged, all of them oriented around this vision, and in 2009 the congregations formally organized as the Iglesias Evangelicas Menonitas del Oriente.

Recently, when Peter Stucky, a gifted leader in the Colombian Mennonite Church, responded to a request from Mirabel to provide some teaching for the new Mennonite congregations on Isla Margarita, he discovered to his surprise that the group had formed a small bible school, the John Driver Seminary.

Though his work may not be as well-known among Mennonites in North America, few individuals have been more influential in the spread of Anabaptist-Mennonite faith and practice in Spanish-speaking countries than John Driver. For more than 60 years, beginning with a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in Puerto Rico in 1945, John and Bonnie, his wife, have taught and embodied a life of radical Christian discipleship oriented around Anabaptist themes that has quietly borne abundant fruit.

From 1967 to 1974, John served as a teacher at the Inter-Mennonite Seminary in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he gently challenged a generation of young Christians—many of whom were ready to respond to injustice with revolutionary violence—to consider the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. During the following decade, John and Bonnie lived mostly in Spain, offering encouragement and theological support to a wide range of evangelical and Pentecostal communities who were committed to care for the poor and the marginalized.

For the last 20 years of his active ministry, John taught in various classroom settings—especially at SEMILLA, the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary in Guatemala City—while also leading countless workshops, Bible studies and seminars on topics such as church history, community, peacemaking, missions and the atonement. He also published more than a dozen books, mostly in Spanish, whose impact on Latin American Christians well beyond Mennonite circles is incalculable.

The central theme of John’s writing and teaching has always been the good news of the gospel as revealed to those who are poor, weak, marginalized or oppressed. In violent settings, John has courageously articulated a gospel of peace, service and reconciliation.

In countries dominated by the institutional church or highly individualistic renewal movements, his teaching on the Christian community as a committed, caring fellowship of believers has been received as good news. Perhaps more than anything, the success of John’s ministry has been grounded in the integrity of his personal character—a steadfast life of simplicity, generosity, gentleness and humility, and an evident love for all God’s people that has given visible testimony to the radical message of his teaching.

Clearly, one small seed planted by that teaching more than 25 years ago transformed the life of Erwin Mirabel and the witness of the congregations that have emerged on Isla Margarita. It is fitting—given John’s lifelong practice of teaching from the periphery—that the seminary that now bears his name is a small school, located on a tiny island. But no one should be surprised if its impact turns out to have profound and far-reaching consequences.

Unlike many other Christian traditions, Mennonites have generally not honored individuals as “saints.” To be sure, some groups tell stories of Anabaptist martyrs, but a deeply embedded emphasis on humility and our strong Christocentric focus have made Mennonites hesitant to elevate individuals for special notice. Moreover, those, like John, who are most worthy of honor are almost always the most reluctant to acknowledge or accept it. But I can think of no other person who better embodies the late-20th-century transformation of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition from a church located in Europe and North America to a movement that is now leavening the Global South. If it were permissible to nominate someone in our tradition for sainthood, I would propose John Driver. 

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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