By Ken Zacharias and Brad Brandt
Paraguay is not a strong tourist destination. It is often overshadowed by surrounding, bigger, and more noteworthy countries when describing beauty, progress and peoples. It is a landlocked country with just over seven million people and where 90 percent of the population speak Guarani as well as Spanish.
Paraguay has prospered and progressed in recent years. There is an improved road infrastructure; the main road from Asunción to the Ciudad del Este is being twinned and many secondary roads are being paved. Many large businesses and industries are flourishing. Agriculture, the main economic activity, is strong and those who own land can harvest two soybean crops plus one additional crop of corn every thirteen months.
Yet for more than a half-century, the EMC has been involved in Paraguay for reasons that have nothing to do with tourism. We’ve been there because of the message of Jesus Christ.
Spiritually, Paraguay has religious freedom and its evangelical churches are slowly growing. The Evangelical Mennonite Conference’s mandate is to see local churches begin and grow in the countries where its missionaries are serving. This is done through various ministries, one being to see missionaries enter communities to visit and share Christ’s love and redemption with people living there. In East Paraguay, this visitation ministry began in the mid 1960s in a time when the Paraguayan lifestyle was very different than now.
Let us tell you about one of these ministries. In 1974, when missionaries first entered Yhovy, a rural community located about twenty minutes north of Campo 9, farming was simple and life was difficult. The roads were poor and when it rained, it was a challenge to travel on the slick muddy roads, if at all.
Honorio was one of the people in Yhovy the missionaries visited and in time he accepted the Lord under their teaching. He also became one of the church leaders in this new congregation and served on the Conferencia Evangélica Menonita de Paraguay (CEMP) leadership council for many years.
He is now older in age and, in our visit together, he reflected on the first missionary he met, Peter Friesen. Honorio spoke in detail of how it was common for the missionary to walk a long distance to their community when it was wet and muddy. This was done on multiple occasions. The dedication of the missionary that he referred to spoke volumes to this now retired leader. I asked Honorio what impacted him more: Was it the message that the missionary brought to his community or was it the untiring dedication of the missionary to visit his community in times when it was very difficult to do so?
He hummed and hawed, reluctant to say because he suspected the answer sought “should” be “the message.” The answer, in reality, is both. This church leader obviously accepted the message, which was salvation given to him by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but would he have listened to the message so intently if it were not for the missionary’s dedication over a long period of time? Longevity and service speaks volumes to those listening.
Today Yhovy is a prosperous community with close to 80 percent of its families owning and operating small dairy farms; they sell their milk to processing plants in Campo 9. In 2020, a paved highway replaced the dirt road through this area.
The Yhovy church has not had a missionary serve in their community now for many years. Today, the church has a plural leadership structure with four leaders and are a congregation of about 70 people. One of the four church leaders is the son of the retired leader. Many of us know how much work and time it takes to operate a dairy farm, yet this congregation has witnessed and understood dedication and sacrifice and now has four church outreaches. They have a vision to see growth take place in both their own churches and in nearby communities. They are an example to their own people in Paraguay and a Good News story that encourages us.
A Conference Developed
Today, there are thirteen churches in East Paraguay that have chosen to work together under one conference (CEMP) that is autonomous from the EMC. I am encouraged to see that several conference leaders and pastors are now second-generation Christians whose parents became Christ followers through the work of EMC missionaries. The conference directs its own ministries, including plans to run their own private elementary school.
The legacy and examples of the early EMC missionaries dedicated to planting churches is good to remember and it encourages us today. The work has not always been easy, yet it has been and is rewarding to see each one of the churches now being led by believers from the local community.
Church Planting Continues
Recently the EMC Board of Missions recommitted itself to continued ministry in Paraguay, with a special interest in Minga Guazú, another municipality in Paraguay where at this time there are few evangelical churches.
The urban centre of Minga Guazú, located 16 kms west of the Brazilian border, is a fast-growing community where numerous new “subdivisions” are being developed. People in these suburbs generally have few financial resources and they have limited ability to travel beyond walking distance. Many people live day to day and do not have a strong support network of friends and family for when there is no work or someone gets sick.
Travis and Rosey Zacharias and Chris and Revita Kroeker are EMC missionaries working to establish a stable church in this community. Currently, there is a core group with about ten family units and several others who attend services or home Bible studies on occasion.
There are tremendous opportunities and occasions to share the love of Jesus Christ and the saving message of Jesus Christ to those living in this area. Young people are being affected—young men and women, teens, and children. About 100 students already have attended the church’s DVBS program.
While ministering to families, the need was seen for marriage and family counselling for couples who do not have stability and love in their marriages and homes. Adults who do not deal with their past in a biblical manner cannot have healthy relationships with their spouses or other believers; neither can they effectively teach their children. Chris and Revita were led to prepare themselves to teach and provide counselling to stengthen both families, and as a result, churches. They are teaching this course in churches and communities in the area, including in Minga Guazú.
Paraguay is blessed to have many strong para-church ministries involved in ministry through radio, food programs, medical services, economic development, counselling, and many others that are needed to effectively build God’s kingdom. What ties all these ministries together and gives them long term effectiveness is the planting of churches.
The Past and the Future
EMC has chosen the mandate to be involved in church planting. God has used past and present missionaries to bring the good news of salvation to Paraguay. Missionaries and the ministries they were involved in may not be remembered by a future generation, yet the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, the never-changing message of salvation, and God’s faithfulness, will continue to bear fruit. Our methods and strategies will vary, but the message of God’s love and salvation will not.
We look at the people and opportunities in Paraguay, and we continue to joyfully and faithfully build up the local church bringing the gospel of salvation, discipling, and developing leadership in youth and adults who will be there long after we are gone. We continue this ministry because it brings glory to God, salvation to a lost world, and joy to the church in Paraguay and here in Canada.
Yes, the EMC has been involved in missions in Paraguay for more than a half-century. Does this mean our work there is old news? Not when Christ is at work in new ways.
Ken Zacharias is the Director of Global Outreach. Brad Brandt is the chair of the Board of Missions. Both of them recently returned from Paraguay—and went into 14 days of self-isolation.