Sunday, August 17, 2008

Passion for peace inspires “return to roots” for Chilean denomination


"February 1, 2008
-Deborah Froese

SANTIAGO, Chile —Gracious and unassuming, Omar Cortés Gaibur seems an unlikely revolutionary, but his passion for peace has inspired change. A teacher of theology and an international ministry worker for Mennonite Church Canada Witness (MC Canada) and Mennonite Mission Network (MMN), Cortés Gaibur has been instrumental in articulating a vision of Anabaptism among Baptist churches in Chile and in shaping a ministry partnership agreement to promote it. This partnership, between MC Canada, MMN and the Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Chile (UBACH), revolves around the development of an Anabaptist Christian Resource Centre for Peace. Known as Centro de Recursos Cristianos Anabautistas por la Paz in Spanish – or CERCAPAZ – the initiative outlines concrete, practical ways for Chileans to embrace Anabaptist peace theology. In a nation where systemic conflict has fuelled societal and family violence, CERCAPAZ offers desperately needed tools and training for church workers and others. Cortés Gaibur is the project coordinator.

Cortés Gaibur grew up in Chile and Mexico under the influence of a Presbyterian grandmother and a Syrian-Muslim grandfather. He credits his grandparents with instilling in him a strong respect for those of other religions and an appreciation for peace work. For example, when the United Nations decreed that land should be set aside for the nation of Israel, Cortés Gaibur’s grandfather knew that it would result in refugee status for many Palestinians, some of whom he was related to. He also understood that such knowledge could jeopardize his relationship with a neighbour who happened to be Jewish. Before any tension could develop between them, Cortés Gaibur’s grandfather approached his neighbour and gently conveyed his disappointment with the UN’s decision while expressing concern for their friendship.

“We grew up with that kind of story,” Cortés Gaibur says. “We learned to understand that peace and dialogue, respect, are the most basic values.”

Cortés Gaibur was introduced to Anabaptist theology in the early 1990s by Titus Guenther, an Associate Professor of Theology and Missions at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University) who at that time taught church history at the Evangelical Theological Community in Santiago (now the Faculty of Evangelical Theology). When they shared their perspectives on spirituality, Guenther’s reflection on Anabaptist peace theology struck a chord with Cortés Gaibur. Although Cortés Gaibur expressed his longing for a Mennonite Church in Santiago, Guenther persuaded him to continue pastoring the Baptist church then under his care, where he could sow seeds of interest in Anabaptism.

Through Guenther’s connections, Cortés Gaibur travelled to Vancouver to study at Regent College. When he completed his studies in 1997, he returned to Chile as a worker for the Commission on Overseas Mission (COM), the predecessor to MC Canada Witness. He immediately began developing programs to deal with violence. With his wife Ester and financial assistance from COM, he created the program "5 & 2 Multiply for All", a shelter for abused women in Conchali, Santiago. In 2005 he helped to establish "Sanctuaries of Peace", a neighbourhood abuse and domestic violence prevention program that involves local churches and continues to be a vital component of the CERCAPAZ plan.

UBACH’s vision is often referred to by leaders as a “return to Anabaptist roots”, implying a history of Anabaptism within the Baptist church in Chile. Cortés Gaibur explains that some of the European immigrants who introduced Baptism to Chile arrived with an Anabaptist image of church, although the Southern Baptists with whom they developed a relationship encouraged growth in another direction. With rising membership and an increased desire to find its own identity, UBACH made a decision several years ago to move away from that particular theology. They sought a return to their roots. Although Cortés Gaibur acknowledges UBACH’s spiritual heritage, he attributes the current rise of Anabaptism to visiting professors like Guenther who brought peace theology to Chile in the early 1990s. “It’s a movement more than history,” he says.

UBACH’s renewed focus on Anabaptism has significant implications. Representing 35,000 members and 500 congregations – twice the number of MC Canada congregations – UBACH also influences the 100,000 Chileans who attend member church worship services regularly.

UBACH General Secretary Freddy Paredes acknowledges that although the current leadership has made an intentional theological shift, it will take time for it to filter into local congregations. Paredes, who once studied under Cortés Gaibur and helped him draft the plan for CERCAPAZ, believes the partnership will support and encourage growth of UBACH’s Anabaptist identity. He is appreciative of MC Canada and MMN support. “I see the hand of God working in this development process,” he writes through a translator. “The formation of this strategic alliance for the Kingdom of God, and its practical expression through CERCAPAZ, has meant a great personal satisfaction for me.”

Tim Froese, Executive Director of MC Canada Witness International Ministries and Mission Partnership Facilitator for Latin America, sees UBACH as “a large ministry partner with missional-minded leadership, access throughout the country and many gifts.” He notes that UBACH has been active in building relationships with other Latin American Anabaptists/Mennonites by attending two regional gatherings in 2007. Although MC Canada Witness has had various church partners in Chile over the years, Froese believes CERCAPAZ offers potential for a new, more closely knit partnership. “Omar is a significant resource for CERCAPAZ in developing this vision,” Froese says. “Without being aware of the extent of his teaching influence, Omar has helped give voice and structure to a missional identity and vision for UBACH and has thus paved the way for our partnership to become one of church to church [MC Canada and UBACH].”

A few short years ago, CERCAPAZ would have seemed implausible. “It’s amazing to me how quickly things can change,” says Linda Shelly, Director for Latin America, MMN. She first visited Cortés Gaibur at the Baptist Seminary in Santiago in 2003. “The Rector pulled out their statement of mission that identified their theology as Anabaptist... Omar as well as the other seminary officials said this is clearly in contradiction with our own conference [UBACH].”

However, the idea of Anabaptism spread as UBACH pursued a new identity more closely addressing the needs of Chileans. Just three years later, in late 2006, UBACH president Raquel Contreras Eddinger told Froese that “We [UBACH] are looking for an identity. We think we want to be Anabaptist. We want to be a peace church.” By early 2007, when Contreras Eddinger’s term was ending, Cortés Gaibur helped her to shape an Anabaptist vision for UBACH, which she shared at the annual assembly. She was re-elected.

“A Kairos moment,” Cortés Gaibur muses, reflecting on the event. The CERCAPAZ agreement is shaped with phrases such as “communities of peace,” “horizontal leadership” and “respect for the individual conscience” – a statement which demonstrates sensitivity to Chile’s history of dictatorial leadership. CERCAPAZ encourages congregations to become “Sanctuaries of Peace” or communities of refuge for those who feel their rights or dignity have been violated. Training is offered to help congregational leaders recognize and cope with issues of family violence. Other anticipated projects include regional meetings, campaigns for violence prevention, and the establishment of relationships with other Anabaptist churches.

Publication of resource material is also part of the program. MC Canada Witness and MMN jointly financed over half of the cost for production of 2,000 copies of Radical Coexistence; Spirituality in the 21st Century by John Driver (Eidiciones Kairós, 2007), which was launched in the fall. The balance of funding will be recuperated through book sales.

The CERCAPAZ vision is spreading like wildfire. A workshop held in Oct. led to the scheduling of a Dec. peace march. November seminars on abuse prevention and conflict mediation were attended by churches and non-governmental organizations. Sanctuaries of Peace are met with enthusiasm and Cortés Gaibur reports that several new communities are scheduled to begin this year.

“One of the things that is interesting is that many people from outside the church look at this program with enthusiasm and are interested to be a part of it,” Cortés Gaibur says. “Just today I made a call to a friend who is a teacher and not associated with any church. I asked if he would like to help out with this program and he replied ‘Of course. That is the most wonderful program that I would like to participate in’.” Cortés Gaibur reports hearing people say they are thrilled to be learning how to deal with the real issues that face them.

Anabaptism, it seems, meets many Chileans’ needs. Cortés Gaibur simply opened a door by living in accordance with his own personal convictions and left the rest to God.

Currently, Cortés Gaibur teaches at the Baptist Seminary in Santiago and is the Executive Secretary of the Latin American Theological Fraternity. He would rather build relationships than deal with the inevitable paperwork that accompanies his position – indeed, paperwork often falls behind. He tends to deflect praise for himself by focusing on others. “I want to say you have helped me,” he says at the end of our interview. “Now I know what to write for my reports.”

UBACH celebrates its 100th anniversary from Jan. 8-13 in Temuco, Chile. Representatives of MC Canada, Jack Suderman, General Secretary and Janet Plenert, Executive Secretary of Witness, are in attendance to share Anabaptist perspectives, meet with the UBACH executive and lead workshops on Anabaptism.

Sidebar: Wordplay

The Spanish acronym for Centro de Recursos Cristianos Anabautistas por la Paz (Anabaptist Christian Resource Center for Peace), CERCAPAZ, offers a clever play on words. “CERCA” means “close or near.” The translation of “PAZ” is “peace.” CERCAPAZ can also be pronounced “SER CAPAZ,” with “SER” and “CAPAZ” meaning “to be” and “capable” respectively. Thus, peace is within UBACH’s proximity and capability.

Sidebar: Bread, fish and servanthood

Teacher and theologian Omar Cortés Gaibur takes biblical principles to heart and finds unique ways to share the message of mission. The program 5 & 2 Multiply for All was inspired by the story from Mark 8:1-8 of five loaves of bread and two fish that fed a crowd of four thousand. Under 5 & 2 Multiply for All, Cortés Gaibur and his wife Ester created a shelter for victims of family violence.

At the shelter’s opening banquet, Cortés Gaibur invited high-ranking city officials to participate. While those attending the ceremony expected a fancy meal, the fare was simple – five pieces of bread and two small fish – and the attending officials were invited to do the serving. “It was a way of saying that this is what we have and that this miracle of love extends through us,” says one observer.

The experience left quite an impression on the serving authorities, one of whom noted that he now understood that the miracle of bread and fish wasn’t just a miracle that happened two thousand years ago; it was something that could happen even today.

Enough money was raised that evening to buy groceries for the shelter.

The program 5 & 2 Multiply for All is still in operation today, although it has been modified and is now run by the Baptist Church of Conchali.


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