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Indigenous believers in Ecuadorian Amazon seek Anabaptist connections

2.17. 2020 Written By: Laurie Oswald Robinson, Mennonite Mission Network

Photo: ​Clever Mashiant, right, of the Shuar Indigenous group in the Ecuadorian Amazon reflects with Jerrell Ross Richer on following Christ in ways that are authentic in a multicultural context. Photo by Jane Ross Richer.

Clever Mashiant and Sofia Gualinga, Shuar Indigenous leaders in the Amazon region, asked mission workers Jane and Jerrell Ross Richer, “How can we become Mennonites?”

This question arose after they read What is an Anabaptist Christian? a booklet in the Missio Dei series published by Mennonite Mission Network. The material helped clarify for them the Anabaptist principles to which they previously had been exposed, and they were exploring how to make new commitments in their context.

The Ross Richers, Mission Network service workers in the Ecuadorian rain forest, shared their conversation with Mission Network’s Ecuador partnership coordinator, Peter Wigginton. Wigginton brought the interchange to the attention of highland Kichwa leaders of Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Ecuador (ICME). This Ecuador Mennonite Christian Church is a multicultural conference formed in 2018 by leaders trained in an Anabaptist theological perspective through Ecuador ministries. ICME has a priority for church planting, and worked to schedule a Jan. 11 gathering in Shell/Puyo, Pastaza Province, with the Amazonian leaders seeking Mennonite Indigenous identity.

“ICME leaders José Manual Guamán and Julian Guamán affirmed their desire to walk with brothers and sisters from the Amazonian region in consolidating a strong Mennonite-Anabaptist identity among their leaders,” Wigginton says.

During the gathering, highland Kichwa leader Julian Guamán voiced this affirmation through the metaphor of a table. He noted that all Indigenous oral history, songs, food, dress and ancestral natural medicines symbolize the legs of this table. The central pillar of the table—traditionally and historically symbolizing the Indigenous cosmovision or religion—can be transformed by the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus becomes a new type of pillar supporting the table and its metaphorical legs.

Continuing with the same table metaphor, Guamán explained that the principle pillar of the table is internal, and the rest are external.

“Often times, we focus on the external manifestations of culture, but the real work of transformation in Christ is internal,” Jane Ross Richer says. “And most of the external parts of the culture don’t need to change and should not be changed in order to follow Christ.”

Julian Guamán’s embrace of Christianity and traditional native culture is key to developing churches that are both Christ-centered and true to their Indigenous identity, Jerrell Ross Richer says.

“I hope to help Julian and other leaders from the Chimborazo highlands learn to know more church leaders in the rain forest region,” he says. “We all have much to learn about following Christ in ways that are authentic to our own cultural contexts.”

Julian Guamán gave a presentation on the culture and the development of the Indigenous churches in Chimborazo. He said the seeds planted by early missionaries in the 1950s have borne fruit in the form of 600 Indigenous congregations today.

“Interestingly, while many of those early missionaries were Mennonite, they did not focus on planting churches with Mennonite in their names,” Jerrell Ross Richer says. “It is only recently that the founders of the new ICME denomination are recognizing the importance of the Anabaptist theology brought by those first teachers and are claiming their identity as part of the global family of Mennonite churches.”

Given ICME’s conference priority on church planting, Wigginton and the Ross Richers felt it pivotal to connect the Amazonian leaders with key ICME leaders. Mission Network is increasingly involved in preparing church planters, and Mauricio Chenlo, who served previously in Ecuador and currently coordinates the SENT Network, shared about training opportunities for potential peace church planters.

In 1990, Indigenous leaders who later formed ICME were part of a larger gathering on Indigenous theological education with FEINE (Council of Indigenous Evangelical Peoples & Organizations) and one of Mennonite Mission Network’s predecessor agencies. This led to Mauricio and Sara Chenlo serving as the first workers in Ecuador from 1992 through 1995.

“Since then, ministry with Indigenous churches and communities in Ecuador has taken many forms,” Wigginton says. “We look forward to continuing to explore missional discipleship and intercultural church planting as we walk with Indigenous brothers and sisters from diverse parts of Ecuador.”

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