German President Horst Kohler wanted “to learn to know the Mennonites” during his March 2007 visit to Paraguay, so the German embassy along with local Mennonites took on the challenge to help him do that.
Mennonites in Paraguay are a heterogeneous group with different backgrounds, cultures, liturgy and language. There are large Mennonite churches among the several indigenous tribal communities and in the Guaraní-Spanish national population, but this visit focused primarily on the German immigrant experience.
Mennonites, along with Church of the Brethren and Quakers, are known worldwide as one of the ‘historic peace churches’.
The choir at Concordia Mennonite School greeted the president on Monday 6 March with a German song of welcome written for the occasion by Gerhard Schnitter. The delegation then toured an exhibition showing the 80-year experience of Mennonites in Paraguay and their current strong interaction with local culture, society and various ethnic groups.
After the tour, President Kohler and his delegation, which included German political and economic leaders, met for a dialogue with some 15 leading representatives of local Mennonite social, economic, school and church institutions.
From an opening memorized greeting in “Mennonite Low German” (Pennsylvania Dutch) from the president, a remarkable openness, simplicity and empathy characterized this occasion, reported observers.
Jakob Warkentin, president of the Paraguayan Mennonite Historical Society, gave an overview of Mennonite educational institutions and philosophy. Helmut Giesbrecht, former chairman of German Mennonite-Indigenous Mennonite cooperation (known in Paraguay as ASCIM), introduced the delegation to the social institutions, health care, community development and diaconal theology of Mennonite immigrants. Hans Theodor Regier, present administrator of Friesland colony, talked about the economic and political dimensions of the Mennonite presence in Paraguay.
Alfred Neufeld, moderator of the session, gave glimpses into Mennonite theology and history, remembering the crucial support German presidents have given to Mennonite refugees from Russia under President Hindenburg in 1929 and after World War II as well as toward former Mennonite Low German Aussiedler communities moving from the Soviet Union to Germany during the last 30 years.
The German delegation inquired about Mennonite perspectives toward the present political process in Paraguay and on how to fight poverty. They asked about the effect of North American and European agricultural subsidies, which limit the competition of products from poor countries in the South on the world market.
Several times during this remarkable meeting, which lasted 90 minutes instead of the scheduled 45, the president and his delegation expressed that they felt they could talk as “among friends.”
First ladies, Eva Luise Kohler from Germany and Maria Gloria Penayo de Duarte of Paraguay, toured the local Maca indigenous community and a community development programme in the slums of Tablada.
The women also attended the inauguration of a large health centre for eye surgery, Fundacion Vision, co-sponsored by the German Christopher Blindenmission and a local Mennonite group of friends led by Dr Rainald Duerksen.
The German president's tour in Latin America has also included visits to Brazil and Colombia.
[From a report by Alfred Neufeld, with acknowledgments to Mennonite World Conference]