Commentary: Reflections on 100 years of Methodism in Bolivia
Sept. 22, 2006
Wilson T. Boots
A UMNS Commentary
By Wilson T. Boots*
Francis M. Harrington, the Methodist missionary who led the Methodist witness
to Bolivia in 1906, reflected on the difficult beginnings: “I have put
faith into my work, and I know it will bear good fruit.”
A hundred years later, on the Aug. 20 anniversary of the initiation of the
Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia, some 6,500 Methodists, representing
the 10,000-member denomination, marched through the center of the capital city
of La Paz, accompanied by the stirring music of 16 bands, to celebrate and
savor the abundant fruits of Gospel witness that Harrington had envisioned.
As the Methodists, many in colorful indigenous dress, streamed into the public
coliseum, the depth of my emotional response was beyond words. My wife, Nora
Quiroga Boots, a native of Bolivia, and I have been personally involved in
more than half of the history of Bolivian Methodism, so the celebration was
one of the most significant moments of our lives.
We remembered the 1950s when there were only about
300 members in six churches throughout the entire country. We recalled the
days when the leaders
felt that the mission was a failure and should be terminated. In the 1970s
and 1980s, a Spirit-led people’s movement among the Aymara peoples led
to significant church growth.
During the centennial celebration, Bolivia’s president, vice president
and cabinet members expressed gratitude for the impact and service of Methodists,
and the national leaders bestowed the Order of the Condor upon the Evangelical
Methodist Church — the highest honor the nation can bestow. The assembly
also received greetings from Methodist lay leader Casimira Rodriguez, who is
Bolivia’s minister of justice and recipient of the 2003 World Methodist
Violence and hardship
|A UMNS photo by Bob and Ginny Stevenson
Dancers and musicians in native dress perform at the anniversary celebration.
In his sermon, Bishop Carlos Poma, leader of the
Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia, reminded the congregation of the
cost of discipleship
of the early church leaders. He recalled the great “cloud of witnesses” that
includes pastors and lay people who were “victims of mob violence, threatened
by death, tortured, imprisoned, beaten, forced in ignominy to ride backward
on a donkey while being mocked, and silenced with irons in their mouths.”
The bishop recalled “the many years in which
Methodist converts lived in a largely hostile society, often oppressed by
and marginalized in their relationships in society.”
The Evangelical Methodist Church now constitutes
190 congregations with some 10,000 members. Most members are from the Aymara
church also includes Quechua and Guarani peoples. Bishop Poma affirmed the
denomination’s multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual nature.
The diversified, democratic and prophetic church
is forming a “new people
in a new society, struggling to be free of oppression: a church with outreach
ministries in education, evangelization, rural health development and social
witness throughout the nation,” he said. The 14 districts of the denomination
were presented during the centennial service.
Lifting up the poor
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America; more than half of its eight
million residents live in abject poverty. But Poma noted that God defends the
poor and those excluded from society.
|A UMNS photo by Bob and Ginny Stevenson
Worshipers don traditional dress for the centennial service.
“The church has received the mission to declare God’s good news
of the liberation and redemption of the poor through the spirit of justice,
to make whole those with broken hearts, to cure the sick, to feed the hungry,
to declare liberty to the captives, to denounce the structures of injustice
that lead to death, to give sight to those who are physically and spiritually
blind — and to preach the year of the Lord’s favor,” he said.
The church’s theological perspective reflects
the Wesleyan understanding of salvation as both social and personal. An incarnational
theology of mission
takes root in the multiple cultures of Bolivia and finds expression in discipleship
that is grounded in the cultural, social and political realities of Bolivia.
The Evangelical Methodist Church is an ecumenical church, committed to ministry
with other churches on behalf of the reign of God, and an active participant
in the World Council of Churches. Many Methodist clergy and laity work closely
with top leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. The outstanding ecumenical record
of Methodists was recognized by the president and vice president of Bolivia
during the centennial service.
United Methodists may remember that the denomination
designated Bolivia as a “Land of Witness and Decision” in 1956.
Many churches in the United States supported mission work in the nation and
a large number
were sent by the then-Board of Missions. Although much reduced, a significant
United Methodist missionary presence remains today. The nation also hosts Volunteer
in Mission teams from the United States.
The people called Methodist in Bolivia, filled with new Spirit energy inspired
through the centennial events, are moving into their second century with renewed
commitment and hope.
*Boots is a clergy member of New York Annual Conference. He and his wife,
Nora Quiroga Boots, served as missionaries in Bolivia through the United Methodist
Board of Global Ministries.
News media contact: Amanda Bachus or Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.