The disciples followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. –Acts 2:46

With Pentecost upon us, I’d like to conclude this series of posts with a reflection on Christian unity. In both Paraguay and Argentina, the ecclesial emphasis is the national setting – each national church understands itself as a particular and complete manifestation of God’s church. Members of the Argentinean congregations all feel they are part of the Argentina Disciples Church, and the members of the Paraguayan congregations all feel they are part of the Paraguay Disciples Church. As a result, a spirit of pitching in to help one another prevails in both churches.


The post-binational encounter gathering, at the Friendship Mission in Asunción, Paraguay. In addition to representatives from Argentina and Paraguay, we were honored to receive a delegation from Mexican churches.

In the UCC, on the other hand, we tend to emphasize the local congregation. For us, the congregation is whole and complete and the denomination is a broader framework within which local churches realize their ministries.


The beech forest in Torres del Paine, Chile. Do we in the UCC sometimes loose the forest for the trees?

Sometimes, our UCC structure can discourage us from reaching out to neighboring congregations – projimo congregations – because we defer to other agencies of the church. We say, “they’re handling that”, or “we’ll respond when asked”.


The Church in Vedia. Angel Peiro, the pastor who started the congregation, is next to me. Eva and Gaspar Imfeld, who are currently coordinating services there, are to his left. Pr. Peiro was visiting from Buenos Aires with his wife Winnie (in front) and Eva and Gaspar are members of the Resistencia church.

As we prepare to celebrate Pentecost and the great season of going out, let us cheer the diversity of Christians, along with the unity of the one body of Christ, and let us work towards making that church unity visible. Amen!

“For in him we live and move and have our being.” -Acts 17:28
The world today is increasingly interconnected. This is first and foremost cause for celebration. But it brings challenges. People have different perspectives and guiding experiences. While we are knitted together through common connections, interests, and aspirations, we speak many languages, eat different foods, and come from different places. Marian and I discovered this yet again in Argentina and Paraguay, where we served as ambassadors from a diverse country, to an increasingly diverse region.
semana de la no discriminación

From the Tabladas Congregation, near Buenos Aires. The church includes people from Bolivia and Paraguay.

Into such a world, Christians must prepare ourselves for ministry.

There are several Christian approaches to pluralism and religion. Some say that the God of the Christians is the same as the God of the Jews and the Muslims (and the Hindus and Buddhists). They might also believe that righteous women and men from these religions and others will be saved through the sacrifice of Jesus. Others do not suppose what will happen in the end, but believe that while we are here, we must promote reconciliation between the different religions as a sign of the in-breaking of the reign of God.


Mt. Fitz Roy rises above El Chalten in Argentina.

Amidst these differing perspectives, I would offer the metaphor of the hand (this image comes from my hospital chaplaincy supervisor, who received it from his mentor). The hand has several fingers. Each is unique but also interwoven, at its base, with the other fingers. You cannot reduce the thumb to the palm, but at the same time you cannot separate it. You can compare the fingers but you cannot make them one. Each is separate, distinct, and related. Understanding this is essential for loving our neighbors and our projimos.


From the Igauzu Waterfalls

I would therefore urge us, when thinking about other religions and our interactions with their adherents, to come with an open mind, treasure what we can learn from the encounter, and avoid bringing an interpretive lens that seeks to fit their beliefs and our conversations together into our Christian schema. As Moderator Dr. Neal Presa of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) put in in a recent lecture, our motivation must be, “I want to learn from you!”


Fellow ice-trekkers on the Perito Moreno Glacier.

But – we also have today quite a few people who, confused by the wide array of religious options, are swayed to choose no religion at all, and they even opt for the religions established by our consumerist culture; I hope that a greater openness to the possibilities of interfaith partnership does not prevent us from reaching out to the people who are genuinely lost.

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” (Mark 16:6)

As we enter Easter and celebrate the Resurrection, let’s take a moment to consider once more Christianity’s interplay with culture. Dr. Pagan and others have noted that when missionaries introduce Christianity to new places, what takes shape is not just what they teach, but a new creation that responds to the traditions and needs of the receiving culture. Jesus resurrects, yet again, in a new place.


Some travelers on horseback ascend to the Torres of Paine.

Christianity, at its heart, brings a message of love and liberation to each new time and each new place. Because the particular situation is different in each case, we cannot modify or recycle the old Christ, but rather, we need for him to resurrect again.


The Lenga beginning to turn color. The species we observed in the Patagonian forest were very different from what we’d experienced up north.

The word “projimo” in Argentinean and Paraguayan Christianity demonstrates this. Projimo is the word used for “neighbor” in the command: “love thy neighbor as thyself.” But it is far stronger than the English “neighbor”. Neighbor, for us North Americans, means people with whom we are friendly but not intimate. Projimo, on the other hand, evokes unity and interconnection. Your projimo is the one who is right next to you. Your projimo’s humanity is reflected in you and vice versa. Your existence loses its meaning without your projimo. He or she is the one whom we must love. Therefore, as Chris resurrects anew in the Southern Cone, he becomes our projimo and so offers us an alternative wavelength for understanding who our neighbor is.


An inhabitant of the Rosedal, Buenos Aires’ Rose Garden.

Sometimes, when Christianity has been established in a place for a long time, we must re-examine our message of love and liberation. In such moments, we need to find out how Christ is resurrecting in new places. Through this knowledge that comes from sharing, we can carry on all the brighter in our task of seeking God’s reign.


A waterfall on the edge of Perito Moreno Glacier.

Easter blessings!!

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
 -1 Cor. 1:18

Throughout the history of the Congregationalist strand of the United Church of Christ, we have had sustained periods of emphasis on the individual’s decision for Christ. Christians identified our paramount duty as each one recognizing his or her own sinfulness, the sacrifice of Christ, and the forgiveness of God. Especially during the Great Awakenings, Christians often experienced this recognition at a particular moment, and then they could in theory rest assured in their salvation. But there were always some who could never be quite convinced that they had really recognized Christ and that they were saved. They sought ever more vivid experiences of Christ’s grace, hoping for certainty.


A lake at the base of the Towers of Paine, Chile.

Elements of this theological perspective have arrived in Paraguay and Argentina via the Charismatic movement, starting in the 1970’s. Along with the emphasis on the individual’s decision for Christ has come, unfortunately, the shadow of doubt: have I really decided for Christ? And with that doubt comes the conviction that in doubting, we have sinned, so the cycle continues. Eventually it sneaks into our mind to ask whether our neighbor is really Christian. How about our neighbor church? Have they really decided for Christ?


The forest beneath the peaks of Mt. Fitz Roy, El Chaltén, Argentina

During one of my final workshops in South America, a church leader stood up and explained that after the salvation experience is the conversion. And whereas salvation might take place all at once, conversion is a life-long process. Conversion is working out, in community, the meaning of our decision for Christ. What does it mean for our lives? What does it mean for our service to our neighbors?

I believe that charismatic congregations might think more about the conversion aspect – the question of what does it mean to be a Christian. We might call this faith growth or formation. Faith growth is something that all of us need. It can help us move beyond our doubt-filled and ultimately stifling interiority, towards fields of grace we didn’t realize were there.


Some lovely pink flowers!
(From Torres del Paine Park)


“After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and officials; I said to them, “You are all taking interest from your own people.” And I called a great assembly to deal with them…” – Nehemiah 5:7

Lent is a time of introspection and a time of letting go of the things that stand between us and God. A group of Yale Divinity students have organized a campaign called “Lent without Borders.” This campaign aims to take up immigration reform at the state level by harmonizing Connecticut’s posture with respect to I.C.E. deportation requests. They are holding public actions to move the issue forward. In what ways do our borders and immigration rules stand between us and the community to which God calls us?


Pastor Abel Duarte, of the Tabladas Church in Buenos Aires, demonstrates the flags of Paraguay and Bolivia, which he displays to help immigrants from those countries feel welcome in his church.

In Argentina and Paraguay, I often wondered how the church might involve itself more in the public sphere. Of course, I was coming from the Congregationalist tradition in New England, where we have always felt called and welcome to speak our mind. I realize that in predominately Catholic Argentina and Paraguay, there might be pressures on Protestants to keep to themselves.

All the same, when, for instance, President Lugo was removed from office in a lightning-quick trial by Parliament; or as the Administration of Personal Incomes under President Fernández de Kirchner increased its micromanagement of the financial lives of Argentineans; I wondered where the church was.


This graffiti reads, “Out, traitors!” and refers to the members of Parliament who voted to remove then-President Fernando Lugo without time for a sufficient trial as specified by the constitution.

But there are limits to what the church can do or say. Sometimes opinion is divided. Sometimes we are not educated enough about the issues. Sometimes we wisely realize that we cannot align ourselves too closely with any political party or any particular quasi-political movement. Sometimes there is danger.

Yet I have come to believe more and more that we are called to public witness. Our witness does not need to be overly theoretical. We can come, we can pray, we can say what we believe. All the better if we come with lots of people. And what we say does not always need to be a simple pro or con. Complexity should not be an excuse to stay inside our sanctuaries. Rather, it should be an opportunity for us to bring to the public discourse our core principles of faith, hope, and love. Respectful and compelling participation in public life, through prayer, can help us overcome secular criticism of religion, as well as the fears that keep us in our sanctuaries.


Some young people pose with letters that spell out, “Everyone” at Resistencia’s sculpture event.



He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:3-4)

This week I have been in Puerto Rico for the Commissioning of Pedro Carlo and Amelia Casillas, who will continue our work as consultants to the Round Table for Mission Development in Argentina and Paraguay. I congratulate them on this exciting new call and thank them for their service.


Reverend Amelia Casillas is commissioned along with her husband Pedro Carlo to be missionaries in Argentina and Paraguay, continuing the work that we were doing.

Forgiveness strikes me as an appropriate theme to discuss as we enter into Lent, and as I learn more and more about the U.S. history of imperialism in Puerto Rico. Also, in several conversations with Pedro and Amelia, the theme of historical wounds and forgiveness has arisen for us with respect to the War of the Triple Alliance when Paraguay fought against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.


The mountains before us at Torres de Paine national park, Chile.

My first observation is that those of us who have been wounded often need to take the initiative in our own healing process. This healing will often (but not always) include forgiving the person who offended or harmed us. It will often (but not always) include reconciliation. Yet we cannot always wait for the person or persons who harmed us to come and apologize. It is my prayer that through our own healing, we may become more aware of the ways in which we have offended or harmed other people, that we might change our ways to be better neighbors.


A butterfly at Iguazu Falls.

Another observation is that somehow all of this applies not just to interpersonal relations but also to national and international relations. The Rev. Alan Boesak recently delivered a lecture entitled “Reconciliation, Justice, and the Spirit of Ubuntu”, in which he challenged conventional understandings of justice to evolve beyond retributive justice, and even restorative justice, to arrive at social justice. Social justice would be the moment when groups as such and nations as such collaborate non-violently for justice in a context of seeking and offering forgiveness. The easiest way to envision this happening is with churches playing a role.


A field with flowers growing around the charred remains of a devastating forest fire in Torres.

So – what are the wounds in your life? What needs forgiveness in your context? How can you be a part of healing this Lent?



A hill in Caacupe from the home of retired missionary Juanito Carter.

One aspect of worship in Argentina and Paraguay that I came to appreciate is the central focus on Jesus Christ. In some United States contexts, I think we sometimes feel that we should focus more on God the Father/Mother to be more inclusive. I understand and share the motives guiding this decision. All the same, a Christian is someone who follows Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the person who I know. Jesus Christ is the person who walked with us, who cared for us, who fed us, and who freed us. He is also the person who suffered with us and dies with us and resurrected for us.


A tree at sunset in the Misión de Amistad.

Yet despite the focus on Jesus Christ in Rio de la Plata liturgy, the theology favors God the Father. Most people believe that God has a plan for everything and that therefore, everything happens only because God chooses for it to happen. But the world knows too much sadness for me to believe this.

With Jesus Christ, however, we have God among us. The God of all creatures came to dwell with us, live with us, and die with us. The God of all creatures understands our suffering and soothes our pain, even when there might not be any way to ever cure it. The God of all creatures who imparts to us peace and the impetus for peace, not to mention the implements, calls us out to the task of seeking the peaceable reign. This is the God I worship.


Spring buds on the tree right outside our gate on Arturo Illia, Resistencia.



Here are several generations of Hanenbergs kicking off my mom’s birthday party!

After celebrating Christmas and New Year’s in Argentina, we are now back in the United States! We’ve received a warm welcome from our family, friends, and housemates, and are happy to be back. Thank you so much!


The snow was also waiting to welcome us back…

During the next couple of months, I am concluding my time with Global Ministries through reverse mission: I am visiting UCC and Disciples churches to share with them about the churches in Argentina and Paraguay and our experience there, as well as ways to get involved.


Here I am with my hosts in New Haven, Ian and Hillary Skoggard, along with friends Stefan, Paula, Fran, Bill and Hamid. Zoe is under the table.

As members of the congregations ask me provocative questions, I am reflecting a lot about what I learned in South America. I have come to realize that I have come away with some things grounded in deeper ways, some things switched around, and some things new altogether.

I plan to use this blog to work through some of this reflecting. I hope you will bear with me!


Here we are hacking our way across the glacier Perito Moreno in Patagonia.

The poet Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy in the 14th century. The Comedy’s three parts – the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise – chronicle the poet’s mystical journey among the spirits. There is an introspective element of the Comedy as Dante examines his past and future, questions conventional truths, and explores mysteries of the faith.

I studied the Comedy during my final year of seminary with Professor Peter Hawkins, and was fortunate to have as peers a group of dedicated and accomplished literary scholars. Then, I came down to South America to serve as a missionary. Dante was waiting for me.


This bust of Dante sits in front of the Italian-Argentinian society on the next block. I pass by it most mornings.

One of the most engaging elements of the comedy is the emphasis on teaching and accompaniment. As Dante journeys through the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, he has a series of guides. Then, our reading of Dante’s experience is, in a sense, guided by Dante himself, as he catalogs what he saw and reflects on it. I have felt the importance of being guided as I’ve arrived in a new place with new customs, and have had things explained to me; and then I have sought to share what I’ve learned with people in the United States.


Here he is in Buenos Aires’ delightful Rosedal (Rose Garden).

A second resonance has been the foreignness of a new place. Dante spent the last 20 years of his life in exile on account of political struggle in his home town of Florence. He refers to this period in his Comedy: “You are to know the bitter taste 
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know 
how hard a path it is for one who goes
 descending and ascending others’ stairs” (Mandelbaum translation). I have enjoyed the bread here (especially the Christmas sweet bread) but the gist of being in a land not my own rings true. There have been many terrific opportunities to learn and share here, but all of this has come with the price of leaving the familiar.


A Gargoyle in Buenos Aires’ Palacio Barolo. The Palacio, built in 1923, was inspired by the Comedy. It was the tallest building in South America at the time of its construction, with 100 meters – 1 meter for each of the chapters of the Comedy.

Finally, Dante often draws contrasts between the sorry state of the world and the radically different way of being that God desires. As a consultant for mission development, I have thought a lot about how the church engages with society, where we can connect, and where we must confront. Although each of us can only review our own spiritual commitment in a personal way, this commitment is ultimately lived out in how we treat other people and in what we are doing for the broader community.


Upside-down Buenos Aires, as seen in the mirror of the lighthouse in the tower of the Palacio Barolo.

I have appreciated all the more my time with Dante since it has served me well while I have been here. I also greatly appreciate the warmth and love of our sisters and brothers in Argentina and Paraguay, who, in their welcome of us and care for one another, embody God’s (and Dante’s) hopes for humanity.


Here we are with friends after our farewell worship service with the Disciples of Christ of Paraguay, wearing the new Paraguayan-style shirts that they gave us as a gift!

May 2013 be a year filled with learning, service, and good company. ¡Qué Dios les bendiga! God Bless!

Here in the Mercado Cuatro district of Asunción, craftsmen prepare pesebres (crêches) to celebrate the joy of Christmas. We wish you much happiness as once more the familiar cast of characters – shepherds, angels, kings, animals, parents, and child – comes to life in your home and faith community. Merry Christmas!