Italy, Europe, South America

South America

In South America

The Waldensian Church of the Rio de La Plata  has approximately 40 communities and 15,000 members shared between Uruguay and Argentina.

The following report from the most recent meeting of the synod of the Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio de la Plata comes from Dennis Smith, a member of the board of the American Waldensian Society. Dennis wrote this report on the first day of the synod meeting. 

It’s a warm summer day at February 17th Park near Colonia Valdense, Uruguay. The mighty Río de la Plata – 40 miles wide here as it nears the Atlantic Ocean – murmurs in the background.

After four flights and 25 hours of travel, I’ve arrived a day prior to the opening of the Synod of the Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Río de la Plata. Fifty South American Waldensian leaders have gathered for a long-delayed in-person meeting of “Be Strong in Grace,” the church’s lay leadership training program.

This pioneering initiative began more than a decade ago when the Synod of the Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio de la Plata began to reimagine its lay leadership and Christian education strategies in light of alarming trends in the denomination. The synod recognized that they had only a handful of ordained ministers – several of them nearing retirement age - and that theological education programs in the region were in crisis. They also recognized that many young people who had studied theology were not assuming traditional roles of ordained ministry.

Clearly, if local congregations were to survive, lay leaders would need to assume new and challenging roles that were not dependent on traditional ordained clergy.

The Mesa Valdense – the Board elected at each Synod to manage the denomination’s day-to-day affairs - appointed one of their pastors, Rev. Claudia Tron, to facilitate the creation of a training program to meet the urgent and growing needs of local congregations. Claudia is trained both as a pastor/theologian and as a popular educator in the tradition of Paulo Freire.

“Be Strong in Grace,” the product of this process, was launched in April 2018. Rev. Tron and her colleagues expected that no more than 20 students would sign up for the program, but more than 100 registered and 62 completed the course of study.

Training was offered as a hybrid process that would include both virtual and face-to-face encounters. When COVID struck the region in 2019, the program was limited to virtual encounters. This is the group’s first face-to-face meeting. Indeed, tomorrow the Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio de Plata will begin its first in-person synod meeting since 2019.

Rev. Tron and her team were able to draw on rich and varied local sources in the preparation of the curriculum. “Convincing academic colleagues to treat complex social and theological issues succinctly and in lay language was a challenge,” she wryly observed.

I was fascinated to review the “Be Strong in Grace” curriculum, because it reveals the Synod’s understanding of what skills and knowledge are vital for continued ministry. The first section, entitled “Our Faith”, includes the following topics:

1. Our Life Stories Viewed as Experiences of Faith
2. An Historic View of the Origins of the Waldensian Movement/Church
3. Theologies that Nourish our History and Give Us Identity
4. Interdisciplinary Contributions to the Theological Task
5. Encounter with the Word: Old Testament
6. Encounter with the Word: New Testament
7. Members – All Ministers – of Church
8. Our Ecumenical Identity
9. The Church in Change: Challenges for Mission

The second section, entitled “Our Practices”, includes these topics:

1. Sharing the Word in Community
2. Accompanying One Another and Celebrating in Community: Liturgy
3. Music as an Experience of Faith
4. Spiritualities
5. Christian Education for Children and Adolescents
6. Community That Serves: Diaconia
7. Being Community in the City: Urban Ministry
8. Community-building as Process
9. Tools for Communication in Community

Rev. Marcelo Nicolau, the Moderator of the Mesa Valdense, describes the challenge like this: “’Be Strong in Grace’ is a sign of the changing times in which we are living as a church. A new way of being church is emerging. The willingness of these 62 church members to receive this training is a sign that we seek to conserve the theological foundations that have built our identity, while opening ourselves to the sensibilities and spiritual concerns of new generations. We seek to maintain the effectiveness of our diaconal service and reaffirm our ecumenical commitment, very much aware that God’s mission transcends that of any church.”

This process raises many questions for the future of the Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio de la Plata: Is “Be Strong in Grace” the training program they need to prepare for the future? What courses should be added or amended? Should they offer the course to a new group of students? Could the program be shared and coordinated with other like-minded denominations?

As I look around the room, I see a heterogeneous group of women and men, young and not-so-young, many lay people, and a few clergy. They all agree that they are confronting both an existential threat and an historic opportunity. As these issues are weighed by the synod, the 62 graduates of “Be Strong in Grace” are clear that this is their church and they are willing to change to survive.The first Waldensian colonists from Italy arrived in South America in 1856, during the years of a serious economic crisis that caused millions of Italians to emigrate overseas. The first pastor, Miguel Morel, arrived in 1860, which was a sign that the community was establishing itself and intending to stay on the new continent. The Waldensian Colony in Uruguay built their first church and high school in 1888. At the beginning of the XX century, when Italian immigration reached its historical peak, the church also established itself in Buenos Aires, Argentina. During the 1950’s millions of Argentines and Uruguayans moved from the countryside into the cities. This phenomenon caused a crisis within the Church as it had been organized on a rural model that closely identified the agricultural colony with the Waldensian community.

A second element that had a dramatic influence on the life of the Waldensian Church of the Rio de La Plata was the military dictatorships during the 1970’s and ‘80’s. During those tempestuous times the small Waldensian community had to reaffirm the principle of separation between church and state and defend its freedom to preach the Gospel that are the foundations of Waldensian tradition. “The Church, founded on the principles of the Gospel, stands on the observance of its confession of faith and ordinances, without expecting privileges from the temporal power and without consenting to interference or restrictions on its own organization by civil society,” the Synod of 1977 solemnly affirmed.

At the turn of the new century the problems of the Waldensian Church of the Rio de La Plata were primarily linked to the severe economic situation of the region. From this emerged a strong commitment to social programs. Exclusively with its own resources and voluntary donations, the Church manages four homes for the elderly, two homes for children, two centers for the challenged, and a hospital. Historically, service to one’s neighbor has been a distinctive trait of the Waldensian witness. The growing poverty that today has hit the greater part of the population of South American countries engenders feelings of desperation and loss of dignity. It is in this difficult context that the Waldensian churches of the Rio de La Plata announce their hope in Christ and witness to the love of God.


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