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Commentary: Reflections on 100 years of Methodism in Bolivia

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Wilson T. Boots
Sept. 22, 2006

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 discouraging 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 Peace Award.

Violence and hardship

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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 for many 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 the official religious body 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 indigenous culture, but the 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.

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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 of missionaries 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.

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