Adventures in Argentina, week 3

In which we preach, play tourist, meet aereophiles, consult our dictionary, find a German bakery and hear the parrots.

Sunday, March 7
We spent the night with Ernesto and Marlene Forteza, missionaries who have been in this suburb of Buenos Aires for 20 years. They have created a literal garden in bleak, urban landscape.

This morning I had a chance to preach today, with Ivan translating, at the Iglesia Biblica Bautista in Ramos Mejia. Beside the Fortezas, the Hoyts and us there were ten people.

This is, of course, a recipe for discouragement, even more so when you realize there were missionaries in this building before they came— 30 years of faithful gospel witness in one place and a congregation of 10 to 15 people? There are many reasons this might be so, none of them particularly encouraging.

One, of course, is that Catholicism has become cultural but not personal. Many people consider themselves Catholic here, but never go to their own church. It’s pretty convenient, however, to say you’re a Catholic.

This is also a middle class neighborhood. It’s easier to meet the needs of needy people, but more challenging to make headway with people who are satisfied and self-sufficient.

It might even be that the pervasive corruption in their government has deadened their respect for any authority at all, including that of God himself.

But you can’t say this is a rejection of American values. For one thing, this is America, or South America anyway. People here are a little touchy about that. And the second reason is that the Fortezas are not from the States in the first place—they’re from Uruguay. They are both native Spanish speakers.

In fairness there may be some problems with imported methods, since both of them were converted in churches started by or pastored by men from the States. They also receive some support from churches in the U.S., wiih all the expectations that might include. There is a lot for the mission and its teams to sort out in this regard.

But their hearts are broken for the people in this neighborhood. Listening to Marlene talk about their working and their waiting one has a sense of what faithfulness looks like and how exhausting it can be. But they have raised children who honor God and believers who play games and teach Bible stories to children in the park on Sunday afternoons.

And they have persevered, showing their community the constant and unconditional love of Christ, a work measured not in numbers but in sacrifices.

Discouraging? Perhaps. Meaningless? Of course not.

Monday, March 8
Monday was the most touristy day of the trip for us. I know, because we spent most of it on a tour bus.

We left the Forteza’s at 7 a.m. and took almost two hours during rush hour to get from the suburb of Ramos Mejia to the city center of Buenos Aires. About half the time we were on the oldest subway in Latin America, with rail cars made of wood and steel. We had breakfast at Café Tortoni, a famous coffee shop frequented by writers and celebrities that was remodeled in 1898.

After that we got on one of those buses that travels through the nicest part of the city, where you can get on and off at will and plug your headphones into one of ten different languages to hear about the meaning of the monuments and the names of the architects. It’s more interesting that it sounds. A lot can happen in a city over 400 years.

The weather was great and we rode on the upper deck through well-manicured neighborhoods and along broad, tree-lined boulevards. We got off at la Boca for lunch, home to the artist community and birthplace of the tango. It’s brightly painted walls reflect its history as a shanty town where people got discarded paint from the ship yards.

We also got off at Puerto Madero, which we visited when we first got to Buenos Aires on Saturday. Puerto Madero is best known as the home of Katie and Kim’s favorite places to get tea in South America. One of Argentina’s leading female vocalist was setting up for a concert, and we listed to her singing as they set up the sound system.

But then, when we left during rush hour and as people came into the city for the concert, the tour bus only traveled about three blocks in 45 minutes. Finally the driver turned away to by-pass the area altogether and finish the tour after dark.

We walked about six blocks to find something to eat and then it turned out the subway was closed. Ivan asked around until he found an alternative by bus, and we got home at 1:00 a.m., about 18 hours after we left.

It was fun.

(See Kim’s photo-intensive post here.)

Tuesday, March 9
We’re traveling today, driving back to Carlos Paz from Buenos Aires, about a ten hour trip across flat farmland. So here’s a brief and largely uninformed history of Argentina:

After the Indians, and after the Spaniards, an Argentine general named San Martin led an independence movement, along with a few other generals. They declared independence in 1810, but had no cohesive governing philosophy so it took a couple of decades to work out a sort of republic. (San Martin wanted another monarchy, but all he got was a bunch of streets named after himself.)

Since then there has been a series of border skirmishes with neighboring countries (Chile is still on the naughty list) and they were invaded by the British more than once, not counting the Faulkland Islands, which the Argentina refers to as Islas Malvinas. The last time the British left some cannon balls in the steeple of one of the churches in Buenos Aires.

Although their government has a legislative and judicial branch, the checks and balances are much weaker than in the US, so the executive branch has been less restrained. The Pink House, is where the presidents live (it sonds much prettier when you say Casa Rosada). It has been mostly filled by men and women who place their own interests above that of the people (Yes, I know US presidents do that too, but our system makes it harder to pull off).

Consequently, a lot of national assets have been sold. One government sells the railroads and the next one takes them back. Parks are sold to friends for a fraction of their worth and turned into private resorts. Some few have become rich. Many have been left poor. The infrastructure is deteriorating. Roads are crumbling and prices are rising.

It’s not politics as usual. It’s human nature as usual. Politics just flows out of that. So you can cry for Argentina if you want to, regardless of what Eva says.

But praying would be more helpful.

Thursday, March 11
Today we had two agenda items.

First I had to meet Julio. He’s an older man, about 70 I expect, who Ivan met through their shared interest in airplanes. These are the kinds of guys who never quit drawing pictures of airplanes. In fact, we brought used airplane parts to Argentina in our suitcase for Ivan. Guys like this keep notebooks full of sketches and plans, and all of them plan to build an airplane of their own someday.

Julio actually has. So we drove to a private airport near Cordoba to adjust a few springs or something the day before his experimental aircraft would be inspected and approved for flight.

Now there’s not much I understand less than talking about airplanes unless its talking about airplane in Spanish, so I read a book on the way there. But when we got there Julio was justly proud of his achievement. He made an effort to include me, and answered my questions with patience and passion.

It’s good to see men achieve their dreams. And its good that Ivan can share in things they care about. He’s going to an air show next week where he will spend time with Geraldo, who we met in Colon, and with Julio, and with a good friend from when he was in high school here in Argentina. These are the kinds of relationship through which the gospel can ultimately be shared and understood.

Then, that evening, Katie and I had a delightful dinner with the Ramirez’s, another missionary couple our church supports. They have been in Carlos Paz for several years. They too are such building relationship—through their kids’ friends at school and their involvement in folk art and music. Tito and Adriana are excited about some teen-age boys who have started coming to church through a Sunday afternoon soccer game and about the Hoyts joining them here to build a church in Carlos Pa.: Centro Esperanza- the Center for Hope.

It’s a church being built one airplane spring and soccer ball at a time.

Saturday, March 13
Yesterday, Friday, we drove from Carlos Paz to Santa Rosa, where the Hoyts have a cottage and where Katie and I will be staying alone a couple of weeks with our trusty Spanish-English dictionary. It already turned out to be handy, getting a map of the area from a nice high school girl at the tourist office.

It was about a two-hour drive and when we got here Kim and Ivan helped us find the coffee shop with wi-fi and introduced us to some friends who can help us if we get in trouble, which is likely.

Two Georges, brothers-in-law, run a tire store and both of them and their families spent some time in the States and speak a little English. We also met the director of the Word of Life drug rehabilitation center near here, who speaks a little less.

But they are friendly, gracious people and we felt cared for when Kim and Ivan left today. We even borrowed a car from one of the Georges and drove over to Belgrano, a village about six miles away that was named after an 1800’s Argentine general by the German survivors of a ship that sank off Buenos Aries during World War II.

Yes, I know it’s a little hard to explain. But there it is, a Spanish speaking Alpine village nestled in a South American valley with palm trees. Other than the palm trees it looks exactly like Gatlinburg, with one gift store after another selling beer steins and matte’ mugs. We bought bread at a German bakery and meat at a German butcher shop.

It helps to think of Argentines as the Argentines do—a melting pot of European cultures. They think of themselves as Europeans: French, German, lots of Italians. And there is even a bit of prejudice toward indigenous peoples and former African slaves. It sounds very familiar once you think about it.

This European mindset explains the late night meals and the German bakeries and the pasta on the menu. It even explains a little of their European indifference to the gospel, although it doesn’t excuse it.

Sunday, March 14
You know you are not in Michigan anymore when you wake to the cawing of wild parrots. There is the sound of running water as well, a small creek gurgling on its way to the Santa Rosa River a block away. Across the street, you can glimpse the horses grazing in a slightly rolling, wooded pasture.

The house itself is poured concrete, with terrazzo tile floors. There are heavy shutters, of course, both for security and to block the heat in summer. The small patio in back is shaded by an ancient grape vine. The well-shaded yard is surrounded by a low stone wall with an iron gate.

On one side, perhaps a hundred yards away, is an unsightly, unfinished block home. There are several dogs and farm animals and kids. The family has no running water and “borrow” water from the neighbors’ when they aren’t home.

In the other direction the dirt road running down to the river is lined with eucalyptus trees. There are several well-kept, upper middle class summer homes with lovely yards and wide verandas. There is electricity, but no cable or phone lines.

SIxty years ago, Ivan’s parents came to this spot to camp with their children. Over the years of their ministry planning churches in Argentina they returned again and again, eventually buying three small lots and building a home, a retreat really, tucked in here along the foothills to the High Sierras. At times, between ministries, they came here to live. At other times they came to renew themselves.

Then it was a quiet, safe spot to bathe in the river. Perhaps a little less private, it’s still that. Other’s people’s children now splash along the rocky riverbank in the afternoon sun as an occasional truck or car fords the river, taking a short cut into town.

Ivan and his brothers and sister have returned from time to time, to refresh themselves or recover from trials of their own. An elderly couple in town keeps track of things, and the family has shared or rented the home to many missionaries and national pastors, some of whom they trained themselves.

We are grateful to be here, unimagined guests in an oasis of grace. No one ever imagined the rest and healing of such a spot for pilgrims yet unnamed and even unborn.

Grace is a lot like that.

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Argentina, week 3”

  1. Again I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures in my other ‘patria’ and seeing old familiar places through your fresh perspective.

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