"Jesus, thank you for this Sunday school and the opportunity to learn about you," Angie Perez spontaneously prayed two weeks ago. Angie and her younger brothers, Richard and Jimmy, were among the eight children baptized in La Caramuca last March. Angie will turn 11 this year and, like most of our older children, earnestly desires to be confirmed.
We begin each class by reviewing what the children have learned from Luther's Small Catechism. They have memorized the Ten Commandments and we are moving on to the Apostle's Creed. Then we sing some songs from "Cancionero Luterano 7" or, Lutheran Songbook No. 7. Most of the songs are upbeat and easy for the younger children to sing and understand, but Angie likes the Agnus Dei, which was one of my favorites as a child:
"Oh, Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.
Oh, Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.
Oh, Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace."
Of course, we sing a Spanish version:
"Cordero de Dios, que quitas del pecado el mundo, ten piedad de nosotros.
Cordero de Dios, que quitas del pecado el mundo, ten piedad de nosotros.
Cordero de Dios, que quitas del pecado el mundo, danos la paz."
After the songs, I lead the children in a brief liturgy, el Servicio de la Oración Vespertina, or the Service of Afternoon Prayer. This includes the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed, the Bible reading appointed for that Sunday, and prayers. Then Luz María presents a lesson based on the Bible reading which culminates in a crafts activity. If there are enough of the older children present, we work in a lesson from the catechism for them as well. Finally, the children play volleyball or some other active game until sundown.
In 2008 we plan to teach some of the children to play instruments to accompany the singing. We have on hand a cuatro (four-stringed Venezuelan guitar) and a pandaretta (more like a tambourine than anything else). We would like to purchase more. Also, if we can get the children's parents more involved in our activities, by the time they are confirmed, we could be ready to offer a complete Sunday service of Word and sacrament.
The joy of working with the children in this way more than compensates for a rather rocky start to our new year. For two weeks of this month, the public water system was out of commission. This was not the first such failure, but it was the longest-lasting since I have lived here. We at last were able to put to use the well at the bottom of our hill by figuring out a way to keep the well water out of the pipes to our water-filtration system in the kitchen. We have a two-stage filtration system like many people in Venezuela. The first unit filters out particulate matter and the second is supposed to zap any microbial life in the water. But Luz María does not trust our unit to handle water from the well, which needs a thorough cleaning. For the past two years, the dry season has not been very dry, so the water level in the well has not subsided enough for cleaning. But maybe this March we can accomplish this goal. At least we had plenty of water for washing and did not have to haul our laundry down to the river.
To pump water from the well, we used a small electric pump with a long extension cord. Fortunately we have not had lengthy power outages so far this year. There is a famous quote from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's rural electrification program, which brought electric power to many parts of the country. A grateful farmer is supposed to have said, "The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house." I tend to agree, although I question whether electricity or running water should be in second or third place.
Also this month there was a near-panic in our area as pasta and rice (staples of the Venezuelan diet) briefly disappeared from grocery-store shelves. Mysterious shortags of various items,like milk, eggs and sugar, have become more frequent in the last two years. We occasionally have worried that Luz María's daughter, Sarai, would not find enough powdered milk to meet the needs of her infant son, Edwar José.
But all is nearly back to normal now. We are getting used to the new currency. In order to stem the runaway inflation, the Venezuelan government Jan. 1 began replacing the nearly worthless bolivar with the bolivar fuerte (strong bolivar). While 1 U.S. dollar equaled 2,000 bolivares, 2 bolivares fuertes equal 1 U.S. dollar. A large cup of coffee cost between 1,000 and 2,000 bolivares (50 cents and $1), but now costs between 1 and 2 bolivares fuertes. That is still between 50 cents and $1, but at least one does not have to deal with all the extra zeroes.
By the way, it is a Venezuelan custom to enjoy "café con leche" (coffee with milk) in the evening. This is like a latte, in other words, a lot of milk with a little bit of coffee. But these past few weeks, we have had to use a milk substitute made of rice and wheat flour (also products that have been in short supply, so you see why it was a concern for everyone).
Building materials are once more available, so Corpus Christi Lutheran Church in Barinas is moving ahead with the construction of its new kitchen, bathrooms and pastor's living quarters. Luz María's daughter, Wuendy, came down from Caracas to help obtain all the cement, tile, fixtures and other necessary items. We soon will resume construction of our fence and playground, and, God willing, begin construction of a schoolhouse this year in La Caramuca.
Update on Kenya: Spring of Life Lutheran Church in Kibera, Kenya, was among the Christian churches burned during post-election violence in that country. About 40 people had sought refuge in Spring of Life, but nobody was injured in the fire. The pastor of Spring of Life is Dennis Meeker, a 2007 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is married to a Kenyan woman who, like Luz María, is a deaconess in her national church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya. For more information on the situation in Kenya, see the Friends of Mercy blog or the personal blog of Carlos Walter Winterle, a Brazilian pastor who is serving as a missionary to Kenya.