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2013-07-01 issue:

Not your typical Beachy Amish bishop

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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On the surface, Mario Ramon Quevedo may not fit your image of a Beachy Amish bishop. Raised as a Catholic in central Paraguay, Mario is more comfortable speaking Spanish or Guaraní than English.

Moreover, his beard is not very full, he cannot trace his genealogy back to Switzerland, and his soft-spoken, gentle demeanor confounds the stereotype of bishops in conservative traditions.

Yet the fact that Mario has been an ordained minister for more than 25 years and a senior bishop in the Beachy Amish church for the past decade testifies to the way Anabaptist-Mennonite convictions are finding expression in a beautiful variety of cultural forms.

In May, I taught the course Anabaptist-Mennonite History in Paraguay. Since Paraguay is home to at least 20 Anabaptist-related groups, the country is a microcosm of the diversity of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite fellowship.

With 17 Goshen (Ind.) College students, we visited eight different groups in Paraguay. In each encounter we tried to deepen our understanding of the history of the group, the central convictions of their faith, the distinctive cultural forms they had adopted to express that faith, and the challenges of identity and witness they faced within the larger Paraguayan context.

Behind our study was a deeper question, one that has confronted followers of Jesus from the beginning of the Christian movement: How is the Word made flesh (John 1:1)?

How is the good news of Jesus—a message of universal authority and appeal—incarnated within the particular cultural forms of the gathered church that bears his name? The call of Jesus always unsettles the culture in which it is proclaimed, yet Christian faith is always expressed in a particular culture.

Cultural identity—carried forward in language, folkways, communal practices, economic assumptions and ethical boundaries—can be a gift that enables a group to witness to the gospel in visible ways. But it can also be a burden that reinforces boundaries of race, class, status and power.

In the spring of 1967, when Paul and Amanda Eichorn, along with several other Beachy Amish families, left the comforts of Pennsylvania to establish a Christian community in the wilderness of eastern Paraguay, their goals were not entirely clear. Some were fleeing the temptations of modern society, others were interested in mission, and some, no doubt, were looking for economic opportunities and the promise of an adventure.

Now, nearly 50 years later, the Luz y Esperanza colony seems to be doing well. The community is home to some 20 families, their farmlands are thriving and they are known throughout the region for their maternity clinic and their prison ministry.

Throughout their sojourn in Paraguay, members of Luz y Esperanza have maintained a distinctive cultural identity—in outward appearance they appear similar to other conservative groups you might meet in northern Indiana or eastern Pennsylvania.

But as we enjoyed an afternoon of softball, singing and relaxed conversation, we were amazed at the many expressions of cross-cultural integration evident in the community.

From the beginning, members of Luz y Esperanza were committed to becoming multilingual. Today, everyone in the community speaks at least three languages, and Laban Eichorn, one of the community’s leaders, speaks no fewer than seven.

As the linguistic barriers dissolved, the group quickly developed close friendships with their Latino Paraguayan and indigenous neighbors. Soon, members of the original Luz y Esperanza community married newcomers to their church, making Spanish—or occasionally Guaraní—the language of their households.

With marriage came the adoption of new foods and cultural practices and a broader network of relationships with other Paraguayans.

Even more impressive was the fact that the Luz y Esperanza community looked to the first generation of converts for leadership. Thus it was that Mario Ramon Quevedo, some four years after his conversion, was ordained a minister and shortly thereafter selected by the lot as bishop of the congregation.

In quiet Spanish, Mario expressed to our group his love for the church.

“There are many people here who have more experience or education than I do,” he said. “But I have been entrusted with the spiritual oversight of this church and I pray every day that God gives me wisdom for that task. It is not always easy, but we have learned to forgive each other.”

The apostle Paul describes Jesus as the one who has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) that separated Jews and Gentiles, making one body of a divided people. In a quiet way, that vision is being realized today in the community of Luz y Esperanza. 

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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