La Paz: A ready message for the world

David Landis
David Flores

The Flores family drives a minivan up the dirt road, damp and slippery from last night’s rain that left a coating of snow on the overlooking volcano. On the rear hatch, there’s a decal announcing, El Señor es mi pastor; nada me faltará. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.

The road winds up and over, through a quarry littered with trash into a small settlement of primitive houses made of cement, plastic and pieces of wood. Upon arriving at La Joya, Lupita Flores and her three sons unload guitars, posters with song lyrics, and coloring books and we walk together into one of the houses to meet glowing children, their mothers, and a mop-like dog for
the evening church gathering.

This weekly gathering of women and children at La Joya began two months ago when the Flores family began visiting the community to explore the possibility of starting a church. The family comes from Iglesia Cristiana de La Paz, an Anabaptist congregation on the southeast corner of Mexico City that has a vision to minister and disciple to the needs of the world. Lupita continually reminds us in a faithful tone, “If God wants to start a church here, it will happen.”

The name La Paz, translated “the peace,” comes from the metro stop located nearest to the church community. As the church grew with the nurturing of Kirk and Marilyn Hanger, it adopted the metro stop name with its logical connection as an Anabaptist congregation and a reminder of the peace of Christ. The church’s vision comes from Ephesians 6:15, as they strive to be always ready to go out and announce the message of peace. As the congregation departs each Sunday morning, they remind each other with this verse. Estén siempre listos para salir a anunciar el mensaje de la paz

After Kirk had served as pastor at Methacton Mennonite Church in Norristown, Pa, for nine years, he and Marilyn moved to Mexico City in 1993 as missionaries from Franconia Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Board of Missions. “It was tough going initially,” says Kirk, “and we were almost willing to quit a few times.” There were power struggles with local leaders. Some even threatened to deport Kirk, accusing him and the church of stealing kids from the community and selling their organs to the United States.

After two years, things began to settle and the church grew to more than 50 people, requiring a larger meeting space than the Hangers’ patio.In 1999, Blooming Glen Mennonite Church, along with other contributors, helped to purchase property. Soon after, the congregation was able to construct their current meeting location of La Paz with the help of local paid workers and occasional volunteer groups from the states.When Bolivian pastor Ruben Mercado assumed leadership of La Paz in 2003, Kirk returned to the United States to plant Nueva Esperanza/ New Hope, a bilingual congregation on the outskirts of another capitol city, Washington DC. The network based in Mexico continued to expand, stretching to over 15 churches, missions
and organizations in Mexico, Bolivia and the United States.

As new persons become a part of the network, they also carry their accompanying ministries. Four pastors from four different countries share the leadership of the Mexico-centered La Paz network: Kirk Hanger (United States), Ruben Mercado (Bolivia), David Casana (Argentina) and Victor Zaragoza (Mexico). As the pastors move back and forth from their respective countries, opportunities are reated for exchange, learning, and discipleship.

LaPaz’s pastor in Mexico City, Ruben Mercado, is visionary and compassionate with an unending quota of energy to expand the church. Coming from a family profoundly involved with witchcraft, Ruben grew up deeply and personally involved with drug trafficking, alcoholism, gang violence and abuse. An encounter with God transformed Ruben’s life and he began the Christian walk, later directing him into pastoral ministry. One of his dreams for the La Paz area is to build a drug rehab center, a desparate need for many persons in the community.

David Casana comes to the pastoral team at La Paz after working as an economic consultant to the Argentinean Senate in Buenos Aires to reduce national debt. Through connections to Anabaptists in Argentina, he changed vocations and began working with the church. He has since served as the president of Faith Biblical Seminary, expanding this network to eight locations in Mexico to train church leaders.

Victor Zaragoza, the former leader of a Mexico City gang of over 400 members, is the only native Mexican on the pastoral team. He and his wife Julie have started two ministries, one called Pescadores de Hombres (Fishers of Men) which is a roaming evangelical medical clinic that visits nearby villages. The other is their home, Refugee Ranch, expanded so they are able to take in abandoned and neglected children. Julie says, “Even if we have 48 kids, we’re going to church on Sunday. I don’t care if we need a bus…”

Each pastor brings different leadership gifts, whether as an evangelist, a visionary, an administrator or with pastoral care. Together they sort out their cultural differences, knowing that they share the same vision—to give people evangelical encounters with Christ.

The La Paz network operates through the principle of scattering relational seeds widely and intentionally while simultaneously watching for fruit and continuing to sow more seeds. The church chooses to focus attention on strategic areas, such as rapidly developing suburbs of Mexico City or where they sense strong leadership through personal connections. “We want to anticipate what is coming so we will be ready when the opportunities arrive,” explains Kirk.

The churches in the La Paz network translate into a variety of shapes and forms in their emerging contexts. In some locations, traditional church structures are used for gathering, but in others, it’s a former tortilleria, the rooftop of a public building, or the apartments of developing leaders. Coming from a reality where resources need to be utilized responsibly, the Mexican church shows it’s resourcefulness and creativity in how it gathers for worship.

Energy and resources seem to be directed towards moving persons between various parts of the ecclesial network, investing in keeping persons connected even after they leave the geographic center. For example, one of the young leaders of the church, David Flores, who is involved with the La Joya community, will spend the next year working with youth in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, through Mennonite World Conference’s YAMEN program and Pastor Ruben’s connections. The church in Mexico will stay connected with David by sending others back and forth, hoping to use his presence in Bolivia for transformative growth with the churches in Mexico and developing the network.

Pastor Ruben, states, “We are learning to develop this network from the Apostle Paul and how he worked. Starting churches is natural. When we see opportunities for growth, we should take advantage of it. When we see fruit, we will support its continuation.”

The network model shows its value by bringing in a greater diversity of persons and connections with which to learn and grow. The network has been most successful when it functions freely as a grassroots movement without the rules and paperwork that larger church institutions usually require to stay organized and secure. Pastor Ruben feels that the most authentic church model is one where the church’s energy is free to multiply as the early church did throughout the Mediterranean and into the world.

To be called Mennonite in Mexico might mean that you will get confused with the plain-dressing German colony Mennonites who are publicly known for their cheese-making skills. For this reason and other cultural perceptions of Mennonites, many Mennonite affiliated churches have appended the word Anabautista to their church signs. Having more of a theological definition than a cultural one, the word Anabaptist helps the Mexican public transcend traditional EuroAmerican perceptions of being culturally Mennonite and extends their theology to the broader community.

Each member of the Mexican Christian Anabaptist Mennonite community expands on a different facet of what it means to express their faith through this theological context.

As David Flores prepares to leave for Bolivia, he says Anabaptism means being born again to faith and entering a new family. As Pastor Ruben facilitates movement within the ever-expanding network, Anabaptism means that the church integrates the social and spiritual needs of the community, keeping equilibrium with the Bible and the world. For Lupita Flores, it means ministering to women and their children in La Joya. Anabaptismincludes the freedom to cut her hair and not wear skirts down to her ankles while being a part of the family of God.

Each person says that it means that the movement of God’s spirit is free to flow through the community, reaching out to bring new life to connected relationships around the world. It seems to be Anabaptist in a global age may require that we need change the way we call ourselves to build relational networks with those we care about.