Nov 23, 2007

Convention in Maracay

Luz Maria in the assembly
Luz María and I last week attended the annual meeting of the Lutheran Church of Venezuela. It took place at La Fortaleza Lutheran Church in Maracay, which is a little more than two hours west of Caracas.

Juan Vicente GomezI studied Spanish for several months in Maracay when I first came to Venezuela. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Juan Vicente Gómez, a ruthless military dictator who ruled Venezuela from 1908 until his death in 1935, preferred to exercise his iron hand from his cattle ranch near Maracay rather than Caracas, the traditional seat of power. Gómez was officially president of Venezuela for part of the time he wielded power, but even when he wasn't, he was still the real head of state.

When I lived in Maracay, the congregation of La Fortaleza met in rented facilities across from the city´s main cemetery. The building had been a florist's shop. Actually, nearly all the businesses on that block were florist's shops. It is customary to observe el Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) November 1 in Venezuela. Unlike Mexico, however, there are no candy skulls or graveside altars with offerings of food and tequila. Rather, it is much like Memorial Day in the United States, when everyone buys flowers to lay on the graves of the honored dead.

Now La Fortaleza Lutheran Church has its own beautiful sanctuary and surrounding facilities, which include a medical and psychiatric clinic for the benefit of the community. The current complex was built with the help of volunteer teams from the United States.
Adrian Ventura
When we returned to Barinas, Luz María and I were encouraged by the fact that Adrian Ventura, the pastor of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) Lutheran Church in Maturin, will again lead the national church for a two-year term. This will be his third term as president of the Lutheran Church of Venezuela. Pastor Adrian was elected to his first term as president in 1999, followed by a term as vice president/interim president, then was elected president for the second time in 2005.

Adrian Ventura was born February 14, 1970, in the eastern city of Maturin, the son of Rosalino Ventura and Carmen Susana Marin de Ventura. When he was 10 years old, his sister Iraima died. An aunt talked to the family of the comfort to be found in Christ the Savior and introduced them to Calvary Lutheran Church in La Pica, a small town near Maturin (this church now is known as Cristo Vencedor or Christ the Victor). U.S. missionary Henry Witte was pastor of the church at that time.
Adrian, Cruz Maria and children
Through his involvement in church youth activities, Adrian came to know a young woman named Cruz Maria Islanda Anibal in 1987. Their courtship began with a date at the Rialto movie theater (now closed). They were married December 25, 1993 and today have three children: Adrianny Noemi, Adrian Josue, and Raquel Andreina.

On May 14, 1994, Adrian's father was murdered while working at his job as a taxicab driver.

The Juan de Frias Theological Institute provided Pastor Adrian Ventura with theological training through extension courses. He was installed as pastor of Cristo Rey March 17, 1996. Cristo Rey Lutheran Church began as a mission of Calvary Lutheran Church in 1984.

The issue of who will direct the Juan de Frias Theological Institute was left unresolved due to a shortage of qualified candidates. For the last four years, the institute, which provides theological training for pastors, deacons and laypeople throughout the country, has been under the leadership of Jesús Ricardo Granado, a deacon at Cristo Rey. Nearly everyone at the plenaria expressed gratitude for his service and wished him well. The issue of choosing a candidate for new director was sent back to the Juan de Frias board for further review.

Ricardo and Sara
Ricardo was raised as a Lutheran, an unusual situation in Venezuela. He was born in Morrocayo, Monagas, but when he was four years old, his family moved to Ciudad Guyana in the state of Bolivar.

When he was 25 years old, Ricardo moved to Caracas to study business administration at a university there. While living in Caracas he became involved with the youth group at El Mesías (Messiah) Lutheran Church. (El Mesías, unfortunately, has since closed its doors.)

After obtaining his degree, Ricardo returned to Ciudad Guyana, the "Twin Cities" of Venezuela. Ciudad Guyana consists of Puerto Ordaz on one side of the Orinoco River and San Felix on the other. Ricardo managed a bank in Puerto Ordaz. There are two Lutheran churches in Ciudad Guyana, Fuente de Vida (Fountain of Life) in Puerto Ordaz and Ascension in San Felix. Ricardo was a member of both congregations at various times.

Ricardo GranadoHe continued studying theology through the Juan de Frias Institute and eventually served as pastor of Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace) Lutheran Church in the small village of Sierra Caroni.

Ricardo and his wife, Priscila for six years have three children, Sara, Samuel and Ana Rebeca.

These two men have proven able overseers of the national church during a period of great upheaval, both within the church and within the country. We anticipate that with Pastor Adrian's continued leadership, there will continue to be an emphasis on sound doctrinal instruction and formation of the pastors and teachers that the Lutheran Church of Venezuela needs.

The plan is to expand the program of intensive training of pastors and national missionaries in Caracas to include preparations of candidates for the office of the holy ministry in various regions of the country before they begin studies in the capital city. This fits well with our vision for our mission in la Caramuca as we would be ideally positioned to provide such preparation for candidates in southwestern Venezuela.

Speaking of upheaval, my fellow "seminaristas" and I were to have graduated from our year of intensive study Sunday, December 3, at El Salvador Lutheran Church in Caracas. However, the ceremony has been postponed to the following Sunday, December 11. Political tension in the country is very high as a national referendum has been scheduled for Saturday, December 2.

The Venezuelan government has proposed sweeping changes in the national constitution. The constitutional reform would place more power in the hands of the federal government. Supporters say this is necessary for solving the country's problems. Opponents say the reform gives the government too much power and is paving the way for a dictatorship. Already there have been rioting in the streets to which the police have responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Venezuelan is burdened with an inflation rate of 19.4 percent (the highest in South America) and an unemployment rate of around 7 percent (down from a peak of 15 percent in 2003-2004). One of Venezuela's chronic problems is an over-reliance on the export of raw materials (such as petroleum) and imports of consumer goods.

For instance, despite fertile soils and a tropical climate that supports year-round production of a variety of crops, Venezuela imports more than half of its food needs. For example, Venezuela is second only to Italy as the world's largest consumer of pasta, with annual consumption of 13 to 14 kilograms per capita. But the imported pasta is made from high-quality durum wheat that grows in North Dakota and Pacific Northwestern United States as well as Canada, not from the rice and corn which flourishes in Venezuela. The high cost of imported food is particularly troublesome for the poorer members of Venezuelan society.

Everyone agrees that there are problems, but not everyone agrees on the solutions. Therefore, there is conflict. We continue to pray and urge everyone to seek peaceful solutions with respect for the governing authorities as St. Paul counsels in his epistle to the Romans, chapter 13.

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