A Christian missionary believes Jesus commanded his followers to take the gospel message to the people of every nation. This means leaving their home countries in order to live and work amongst a foreign community.
In Argentina, the word ‘missions’ will instantly call to mind the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests who built settlements in South America during the 17th and 18th centuries. These Spanish New World colonisers aimed to organise the indigenous people and convert them to Catholicism whilst allowing them to retain elements of their native culture. Ruins of such settlements can still be seen in the aptly-named province of Misiones. The issue is polemic: whilst the settlements were feats of organisation and strong both economically and militarily, they raise the question of whether one people group has a right to impose their belief system on another in such an extreme way.
In the first half of the 19th century, a Protestant former British navy officer named Allen Francis Gardiner made several visits to Argentina in an attempt to establish a mission. During his last trip to Patagonia, the Yahgan people of Picton Island were hostile towards Gardiner and his colleagues. A ship carrying food supplies from England then met with delays and, since the men had forgotten to unload their gunpowder from the boat that brought them, they couldn’t shoot any animals to eat. They eventually starved to death, martyrs to their own cause. However, they left behind the legacy of the South American Mission Society (SAMS), which would run independently until 2009 when it merged with another mission.
Fast forward 150 years and it may come as a surprise to know that the Christian church is still sending missionaries to Argentina in order to serve society and share their message of God’s love and salvation for all. We meet four Protestants, all under the age of 30, to find out more about life as a modern day missionary.
Hannah Davis, 22, is an English Literature graduate who formerly worked in a publishing house. “Being at the computer all day and not being able to use my personality made me feel like a zombie,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be comfortable or stationary. I could have carried on climbing the career ladder but I felt compelled to help others.” Two months ago, she arrived to spend a year working in a playgroup called Grandes Lucecitas (Great Little Lights) run by an Argentine Christian NGO called Generadores de Cambio (Generators of Change). The playgroup, in the provincial town of Monte Grande, welcomes 25 children and charges a fraction of the cost of other nursery schools.
“The idea is that children deserve the best possible start in life,” she explains. “Also, that they learn in different ways – academically, spiritually, creatively.” In addition to English which Hannah teaches, the children will amongst other activities have swimming lessons, grow plants and learn dance in an effort to develop all of these skills. For Hannah, it has not all been plain sailing. Being a beginner in Spanish, she initially experienced some teething problems. “Communicating can be a struggle. Especially the first few weeks when the kids would cry and I couldn’t understand why…I felt like crying too!”
This winter, Hannah and others from Generadores de Cambio will make a two-week trip to Salta. “The Wichi communities can be shy as they don’t often get visits from outside, except for reporters, but they’re always grateful to see us. We plan to make a vegetable patch and build a space to put on extra-curricular classes in art, writing and dance, whilst training community members to carry on these classes after we leave. For the children, we’ll have a big feast, dress up in costumes and act out plays. The plays speak about God but major on the fact that the children are loved and special. We also get pupils from schools in Buenos Aires to make surprise boxes containing clothes, pens and toys. For previous visits, LAN airlines agreed to transport them all to Salta for free.”
Laura Kyte, 25, became a Christian on a summer camp at the age of 14. “I never planned to be a missionary though,” she says. During university holidays, she volunteered to work in a church in Spain that had been founded by a young couple from the US. “I was struck by what they’d done and how the church was Spanish and not at all Americanised. Seeing this couple live out their faith in another culture made me think: if I really believe what I say I do, it should transform my life and make me want to share the good news with others.” She decided to do just that.
Supported by savings and her home church’s generosity, she first came to Argentina to work in a villa in Córdoba. However, she missed athletics, a sport she’d previously excelled in. “I thought being a missionary meant giving up everything, going to a remote area and working with children. I felt reluctant and wondered if I was being selfish but I just couldn’t see where my passion for sport fitted in.”
Laura moved to Buenos Aires to get back to 1500m, 3km and 5km training and to volunteer for the Coalición Argentina Deportiva, a network which aims to relate sport to the Christian faith. Day to day, she runs events where non-Christian sportspeople can hear about the Bible and make up their own minds, as well as mentoring Christian athletes such as basketball and volleyball players. An associated organisation is Atletas de Cristo, which gives prominent Christian sportspeople t-shirts emblazoned with slogans. One such example is Brazilian footballer Kaká who will often, having scored a goal or won a match, take off his jersey to reveal a t-shirt with a simple but striking message: ‘I belong to Jesus’. Laura wears similar t-shirts and takes advantage of the limelight after winning a race.
“The best thing about my work is supporting people to make the connection between faith and sport, a connection that changed my life,” says Laura. How? “The Olympic gold medallist Eric Liddell said: ‘God made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure’. That’s how it is for me too. I want to be the best athlete I can.” She is currently ranked first for 3km in the capital and Greater Buenos Aires.
Andrew and Bethanie Walker, 28 and 29, arrived in March to work long-term, supported by the organisation Crosslinks. “We’ve been very warmly welcomed. We know we’re still at the honeymoon stage of our experience,” admits Bethanie. She explains how she came to faith at university. “I heard the gospel clearly explained for the first time and became aware of how relevant it was to everyday life.” Meanwhile, Andrew, brought up in Hong Kong, recalls: “I became convinced that Jesus was God and had died for my sins and it turned my world upside down. I thought: everyone needs to hear this. I’d been studying Psychology but I decided people’s spiritual needs were greater than their emotional needs. I decided to go to Bible College.”
The couple’s work in Argentina will eventually involve training new church leaders and supporting Christians. Outside of Buenos Aires, Andrew says churches are “growing and enthusiastic but needing pastors.” Before being sent out to the interior though, Andrew is learning Spanish (which Bethanie already speaks from working in Tucumán before they married) and both will attend Bible school in Santiago, Chile next year. They see this as an important transitional step and a chance to gain more of an understanding of their new culture.
Doesn’t the idea of foreign missionaries coming in to train locals seem a bit, well, colonialist? “Missionaries are often portrayed as waving their own religious flags and ‘correcting’ locals’ beliefs but the Christian faith is not a European idea – it’s universal,” explains Bethanie. “We’re not coming in to tell Argentines how it’s done but we can offer a fresh perspective. Similarly, we’re being challenged in our British way of doing things. Being here shows up our own cultural blind spots.”
It is interesting to note that whilst missionaries such as these four come to Argentina, South American Christians are leaving these shores to take the gospel message to that spiritual wasteland: Europe. “Our organisation currently has one Argentine guy working in Northern Ireland and a girl in England,” Andrew says. “Mission today is more of a mutual relationship.”
Lead photo of Christ the Redeemer statue in the clouds above Rio de Janerio by Olivier.