Sunday, July 17, was el Dia del Niño (Day of the Child), an important holiday honoring children in Venezuela, so we closed Sunday school with a piñata for the kids. A piñata is a figurine, usually these days made of cardboard and crepe paper, and stuffed with candy. Children take turns being blindfolded and whacking away at the piñata with a stick. Eventually the piÃ±ata breaks and everyone dives for candy.
These days this Latin American tradition has been influenced by popular culture and piñatas now may take the forms of Spider Man or Mr. Incredible. The Spider Man piñatas are very cool as they often depict the Marvel Comics superhero hanging upside-down by one of his webs - and are at times nearly life-sized. Our piñata, however, was more conservatively shaped as a carousel. Nevertheless, the children loved it.
That same evening Luz Maria and I left to spend the following week in Caracas. We attended an intensive course (10 hours per day for five days) sponsored by the Juan de Frias Theological Institute. The course was taught by Dr. David Coles, a former Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod missionary to Venezuela and now a member of the faculty at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. In addition to a master of divinity from Concordia Theological Seminary, Dr. Coles earned bachelor's and master's degrees, and a Ph.D. from Yale University. Dr. Coles is completely fluent in both Spanish and English, having grown up in a bilingual family, and has learned a variety of other languages, including Italian, German and Dutch. However, he spoke only in Spanish during our time in Caracas.
The subject of the course was the history of the Christian Church with a special emphasis on Christian missions in Latin America, from the earliest Roman Catholic missionaries to the rapid rise of Latin American Pentecostalism over the last 30 years. It was an excellent presentation, but there was a lot of information to process. At one point Dr. Coles talked about the possibility that Protestant literature was smuggled into what was then forbidden territory by pirates and corsairs in the 16th and 17 centuries. There is no hard evidence for this theory, but it otherwise is difficult to explain how Reina-Valera Bibles and Protestant tracts appeared in certain places at certain times. It is known that some of the pirates were of Lutheran background, although more were Huguenots (French Calvinists) and, of course, Anglicans. At this point my attention wandered as I started daydreaming about being a Lutheran pirate off the Spanish Main.
On a more serious note, most of the leaders of the national church were present and I believe the course was offered at very opportune time given recent challenges, both internal and external, faced by the Lutheran Church of Venezuela. This is because Dr. Coles painted a panorama from the time of Apostles through this current century in which the Church always has been plagued by heresy, schism, persecution and corruption, but always the cause of bringing the Gospel to every nation has advanced and there are new doors opening for mission work all the time.
We had some interesting after-class discussions, too. At one point we were talking about my sending church, St. Michael's Lutheran Church of Bloomington, Minn., and how it has nearly 2,000 members. By contrast, the largest Lutheran congregation in Venezuela has only 200 members. Edgar Poito asked me, "How does a church come to have 2,000 members?" I tried to explain that my experience not only at St. Michael's, but at a variety of congregations in the 20 years of my life before my arrival in Venezuela, was this: Growing churches do not accept the idea that Christian education is complete at the age of confirmation, but rather emphasize continued study of the Bible by adults in small-group settings, often in the homes of laypeople. These groups not only strengthen members of the church in their faith and equip them to be more effective witnesses, but also provide non-threatening places for people outside the church to ask the questions that may lead them to Christ. I have seen this for myself and also have read studies on evangelism and religious connversion that indicate the majority of people who join a church do so not because of television evangelism or huge "crusades" or "revivals," but through relationships with people they know and trust to help them find the answers to the most troubling issues in life.
Edgar asked me if this meant congregations relying less on pastors and missionaries to grow the church and taking more responsibility for this task themselves. I replied that yes, the key was for every member to become part of the mission of the church.
In fact, a program something along this line has already been proposed to the national church by Carmen Fermin of Puerto Ordaz, the woman charged with developing an evangelism for the Lutheran Church of Venezuela. Her program would emphasize personal Bible study and relationship evangelism by every member of every Lutheran congregation in Venezuela.
After the short course in Caracas, Luz Maria and I traveled to Barquisimeto with Miguelangel Pérez. (His name, by the way, is the Spanish form of Michelangelo. Ask a Venezuelan who painted the Sistine Chapel and he will tell you, "Miguelangel.") There Luz Maria again taught a confirmation class. This time the class met in Parque Ayacucho, a beautiful city park in Barquisimeto. As part of the class, she divided the group into pairs that witnessed to people in the park.
We were back in La Caramuca Sunday afternoon where, in addition to our regular Sunday school, Pastor Edgar Brito of Corpus Christi Lutheran Church in Barinas led the first service of Holy Communion in La Caramuca for Luz Maria, myself, and Luz Maria's daughters, Yepci, Charli and Sarai. Yepci's husband, Eliezer, was in Barinas with their eight-year-old son, Aaron, who underwent minor surgery this week. There were not as many children in attendance as we had hoped, but July 24 is yet another holiday in Venezuela, Simón Bolivar's birthday, and many families had left town. But the service was held outside on our patio and many passers-by on the street took a second look our way. One man asked me what was going on.
After the service, Pastor Edgar and his wife, Mariel, stayed and talked with the family for some time. He seemed enthused about returning to La Caramuca for more visits.