By Sarah Schafer and James Neuendorf
For most of their lives, Gladys Hamann of Paraguay and other Lutheran women throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have cared for the needy in the name of Christ.
But for the first time, April 30-May 4, they had opportunity for theological enrichment and networking at the first Lutheran deaconess gathering in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“I think this event that we’re having for the first time is very important for us as a church, as sisters in Christ, to motivate us and to continue to strengthen and train us in working with those who are needy in Latin America and the entire world,” said Hamann.
“This unprecedented gathering of women from 10 countries revealed, for the first time, a powerful, common thread of ministry that reaches from the USA through Central America, all the way to the southern tip of Argentina,” said Rev. David Birner, associate executive director of the LCMS World Mission international mission team. He was also a gathering presenter.
International partner church leaders, pastors, LCMS representatives, deaconesses, and women from Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Guatemala, Venezuela, Panama, and Dominican Republic attended the gathering. It was hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argentina and Liga Misional de Damas Luteranas (an Argentinean organization similar to the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League), with support from LCMS World Relief and Human Care (WR-HC) and LCMS World Mission.
After visiting deaconess students in Panama in December 2007, Rev. Carlos Hernandez of WR-HC recognized a “need for Gospel proclamation — in body and soul — in these areas” and how deaconesses “bring in that aspect of body care along with spiritual care.”
Some of the participants stated they have been sharing Christ’s mercy and love with people in need for their whole lives. A representative of each international church body at the gathering shared information about their diaconal efforts. In Chile, for instance, when a child in the community was diagnosed with cancer, women in the church sold empanadas (meat-filled pastries) to raise funds to cover $1,000 in medical bills.
Participants said that the gathering gave them a deeper understanding of the mission of the church and the role deaconesses have in bringing Christ’s love and mercy to the world.
“I feel like I’ve already gained a lot of knowledge that I can take back to my sisters in the Dominican Republic,” said Santa P. Ortiz Catalina.
The gathering also was the first time the Latin American and Caribbean church bodies were engaged in deaconess ministry, according to Rev. Matthew Harrison, WR-HC executive director and the gathering’s keynote speaker. “A lot of these women are not deaconesses. This served as an introduction to the deaconess program as a great way for women to serve,” he said.
The LCMS partner churches in Panama, Venezuela, and the Lutheran university in Brazil already offer deaconess training, and the Dominican Republic and Argentina will soon launch programs.
“All nine countries are strongly interested in some form of diaconal training. Women have expressed clearly their need and desire for training,” said Olga Groh, director of project management in Latin America and the Caribbean with LCMS World Mission and LCMS World Relief and Human Care. “Some churches might be ready to launch programs sooner, others later.”
For Groh, the gathering also served as a way to show participants they are part of a bigger community of Christians. “This new certainty renews their strength,” she said.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to meet sisters in Christ from a different part of Latin America who are working hard somewhere else for the same thing that you are working hard in,” said Hamann of Paraguay. “It’s magnificent to share the experiences and the stories. [The gathering] is reinforcing us and preparing us for more fervent prayer for one another in the future.”
“As women shared among themselves how the power of God was at work throughout the Latin American continent, new ideas emerged, new friendships were formed, and a commitment to forge cooperative ministries emerged as Lutheran women from many countries recognized that together they could make a profound contribution to Lutheran outreach ministries throughout the continent,” said Birner.
In response to the gathering, Groh began a Spanish-language blog, www.almadiaconal.com, to share news about diakonia (or service) and the work of deaconesses in Latin America.
“This first Latin America and Caribbean deaconess gathering laid the foundation for a second one,” said Groh. Where and when the next gathering will be is undecided, but Groh said participants were enthusiastic about approaching their church bodies to host the next event.
Sarah Schafer is a writer for LCMS World Relief and Human Care. James Neuendorf is a communication specialist missionary with LCMS World Mission in Latin America.
Re-posted Sept. 8, 2009