Aug 1, 2005

Mormons muy blancos

When I underwent volunteer missionary training in St. Louis, I received as a freebie a shoulder bag emblazoned with "LCMS World Missions" in an attractive style: light blue text on a black background. I never used the bag; Luz Maria liked it, so I gave it to her. Now she carries it everywhere.

The other day we purchased building supplies for the preschool at a hardware store in Barinas. The sales clerk asked Luz Maria what LCMS stood for. She explained that it meant "la Iglesia Luterana, el Sinodo de Missouri." He asked if that was connected with "la Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Ultimos Dias" (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints).

In Venezuela if you say you are "a missionary," it is not unusual for people to respond something along the lines of, "Oh, so you're a Mormon." The Mormons have mounted an aggressive missionary program in this country. Mormon missionaries are everywhere and they just as distinctive in appearance here as in the United States, if not more so. Although they have recruited some Venezuelan "elders," most of the people in charge look like they were just airlifted in from Utah or Idaho (which is probably pretty much the case). One woman, when she could not think of the terms Mormon or Latter-Day Saint, asked us what we thought of that group that was "muy blanco" (very white).

There are white, black and brown (not to mention Asian) Venezuelans, but people described as "white" here generally are not that pale. Other groups, such as the JehovahÂŽs Witnesses and the Muslims, have representatives that look much more like average Venezuelans. Why this is so, I am not really sure.

Anyway, Luz Maria started to explain that the Lutheran Church has no connection with the Mormons, but started in the 16th Century as a reform movement with the Catholic Church. He cut her off, however, by saying he personally worshiped the most powerful of all gods. When Luz Maria asked what god that would be, he replied, "George Washington." By this he meant the U.S. dollar, a potent symbol of economic power and wealth for the many Venezuelans who do in fact worship those things.

To an extent, one can understand this point of view. Life is easier here for people who have access to U.S. dollars, including myself. Due to the strength of the dollar relative to Venezuelan currency, I am able to not only support myself and my wife, but also help Luz Maria's children support her five grandchildren with a fraction of the income I received from my last job in the United States. But we thank the true and living God for this, who grants power and prosperity to all nations according to His will and judges them according to whether they use their power and wealth justly or unjustly.

A critical moment in my decision to enter the mission field was when my previous employer and I had a disagreement over business ethics and the direction the company was moving. My options were to compromise what I believed to be right or lose my job, but my employer really did not want me to leave. His words to me were, "Principles are fine, but everyone has their price." At that point I understood the nature of the choice with which I was presented and what I had to do.

And I have not had any regrets. God has blessed us with support for our ministry and has blessed me with an invaluable partner in Luz Maria. When I came to Venezuela, I did not expect to find such a world of private happiness, but we will have been married two years in November. So I thank God for her, and for the children in La Caramuca that have greatly enriched our lives.

I also have to give thanks for another person who played a role in my decision to serve in Venezuela. This past week Martin Lieske died at age 94 in a nursing home in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, five months after suffering a stroke. The son of a Minnesota farmer, Martin served as the pastor of several rural parishes before being elected president of the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod in 1966, the first to work in that office on a full-time basis. He was reelected district president in 1970.

I came to know him and his wife, Lucille, as members of the home Bible study group that I attended for four or five years before coming to Venezuela. The Lieskes were mainstays of our group, despite Martin's struggle with cancer. One thing that impressed me about Martin the first time I met him was that although he was of an advanced age, when I took his hand I was met with the strong grip of a farmer in his prime.

Martin was a staunch advocate of mission work and strongly encouraged me to answer the call to Venezuela. For that reason, I shall not forget him.

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