Monday, August 18, 2008

Signs of Spring in South America

From the Gettysburg PO

By the Rev. Michael L. Cooper-White, M.Div., D.D.


Here in mid-August, for the third time in the past year, it is my privilege to sojourn for a few days among the saints of Argentinas Iglesia Evangelica Luterana Unida (United Evangelical Lutheran Church).  IELU leaders and executives of the ELCA’s Global Mission unit have kindly invited me to serve as consultant or "coach" for an ongoing process of strategic planning and ecclesial restructuring--part of a comprehensive effort to achieve long-term sustainability amidst a challenging context of limited financial and human resources.


With all genuineness, I conclude each session with our Argentine sisters and brothers assuring them that I receive far more from these encounters than I could possibly contribute.  Such is the nature of the ELCA’s approach to global mission, encapsulated and summarized succinctly in one unusual word: "accompaniment."  We accompany one another on the journey of faith, as Luther put it, "showing one another where to find bread."


South of the equator, where the seasons are reversed from the northland cycle, my "summer sojourn" occurs late winter, on the verge of springtime in Buenos Aires.  As I ponder all I have seen and heard over the course of the past 13 months since first coming back to South America (after a hiatus of more than three decades since I interned in Chile), I am struck that "springtime" is an apt metaphor for much that is occurring, both in the churches and wider societies.


Both Chile and Argentina are ahead of the global curve, served by women presidents.  Unthinkable in societies dominated by "machismo" just a generation ago, what many thought impossible seems to be working out quite well.  This societal embrace of women’s leadership is mirrored in the churches, with Pastor Gloria Rojas the Lutheran bishop in Chile, and women a majority in the lay leadership gathering I co-keynoted here in Argentina with ELCA colleague Raquel Rodriguez, who heads the Latin America work for Global Mission.


Church leadership has shifted in just one generation from being "foreign missionary dominated" to indigenous and contextual.  Whereas I served my South American internship in the mid-1970s surrounded by American and German pastors, today the churches leadership is solidly in the hands of South Americans.  Yet these are by no means mono-cultural faith communities.  The clerical cadres in each country contain the names of pastors from other Latin American nations.  And students from all over Latin America, as well as "overseas" study here at Argentinas ISEDET seminary, my base of operation while in Buenos Aires. 


Just as they have swirled among us in the ELCA and broader North American scene, so the Spirit-winds of liturgical and evangelical renewal are blowing in the southern hemisphere.  In every IELU arena where I have been privileged to observe and interact, I hear and see signs of renewal and a passionate mission-mindedness.  The questions raised in the leadership development retreat for congregational presidents and treasurers were exciting ones: "How can our parochial schools develop a greater sense of evangelism and community outreach?  What concrete steps can we take to welcome spiritual seekers from our neighborhoods and broader communities?  What changes do we need to make in our parish life in order to deconstruct barriers that are keeping non-members from crossing the threshold? 


In this one short P.O. piece with a Buenos Aires "postmark," it’s simply not possible to share all I’m seeing, hearing and feeling.  Upon my return to the U.S. and LTSG campus, I will seek opportunities to share further my “learnings” from this South American sojourn.  Suffice it for now to pass along these few reflections and glimpses into the signs of impending springtime, hoping that as the fall season is upon us in the northland, you too are seeing many signs of ever-greening Gospel!


P.S. When you see me, ask about my encounter with the world’s oldest living Olympic gold medalist, followed in short order by my first tango lesson . . .


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