Lessons From Two Missions
By Nancy Weber Vyhmeister
During a recent trip to a Vyhmeister family reunion in Argentina, my family and I observed two very different missions.
The first was San Ignacio Miní, an old Jesuit mission in the province of Misiones. On a frosty, foggy morning our family of nine (parents, kids, grandkids) visited what is left of the mission. Its overwhelming architectural feature is the ruined church, 243 feet (74 meters) long and 79 feet (24 meters) wide, built of red sandstone and adorned with religious carvings. Surrounding the church are the remains of the priests’ rooms, schoolrooms, varied shops, and, finally, the small dwellings of the local Indians.
This mission was one of several in the area; it was founded by two Jesuit priests in 1610. The intention was to help the Guarani Indians become Christians, learn to read and write, and acquire marketable skills. In the middle of the eighteenth century some 3,000 Indians lived at this mission, attending daily Mass, learning and practicing building and agricultural skills, and acting like Christians. As long as people stayed at the mission they were safe from marauders and able to maintain a decent standard of living.
In 1767 the Jesuits were ordered out of the region by the colonial authorities, and the Indians went home to the jungles. No more school. No more Masses. No more work. No more mission. The buildings were destroyed in 1817 and lost to the jungle until 1897. Restoration of the ruins began in 1940. San Ignacio Miní is now considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
As we walked the mission grounds we tried to reconstruct the past. Had these Indians really become Christians? What leadership roles did they have in the religious life of the mission? What happened to their Christianity once they moved back to the jungle? It seemed that mission, as such, had ceased when the religious leaders returned to Europe.
River Plate Adventist University (Universidad Adventista del Plata [UAP]). That mission began with the arrival of Jorge Riffel and several other families from Kansas, United States, in 1890. It has continued to thrive until this day. Here is the story.A week or so later we had occasion to consider a second mission: that of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Argentina. On a chilly Sabbath afternoon we visited the church and museum at Crespo Campo, not far from what is today
In the second half of the eighteenth century, many German Lutherans took refuge in Russia under Catherine the Great. A century later they felt increased pressure to find a better life elsewhere. Some moved to Brazil, others to Argentina, and yet others to the United States. Most were farmers and deeply religious.
Riffel and his family heard the Adventist message in Kansas. The more Riffel learned, the more he wanted to share his convictions with his friends in Argentina, where he had lived for a few years. Early in 1890 he and his family, together with several other families, traveled to Buenos Aires by ship. From there they took a boat up the Paraná River to Diamante. Riffel and his party were met at the port on a Friday afternoon by a traditional Russian wagon and their friend Reinhardt Hetze. They talked about the Sabbath all the way home to Camarero—only some 15 miles (25 kilometers), but a long trip in those days. By the time Hetze drove into his yard, he had made up his mind. He would keep the Sabbath!
Riffel and Hetze began preaching among the Russian-German colonists and soon had a group of converts. Hetze baptized them in a nearby creek, and they began meeting regularly. Only in 1894 did the General Conference send Frank Westphal to organize the 36 believers into a local church. Westphal then left the fledgling church to strengthen other believers, and Hetze kept up his preaching and baptizing. The new members put up a small church, which now houses the museum we visited. In 1896 about 150 people attended the first camp meeting in Crespo.
In 1898, as the church members met with visiting pastor Westphal, they were surprised to see a young man coming up the road carrying a suitcase. When Luis Ernst arrived, the group was amazed to hear that he had come from Uruguay to attend school because he wanted to become a pastor. “Well,” they decided, “that means we need to start a school!” That was the humble beginning of the Camarero school, which later became River Plate College, and now is River Plate Adventist University, which offers 30 majors, including medicine and graduate degrees in theology, to its approximately 2,500 students.
From this school, workers have branched throughout all Spanish-speaking America. Beyond that, they have traveled to Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States. In addition to the graduates who became church workers, thousands of graduates have supported the church as lay members.
Today students from the UAP continue the tradition of mission. Participation in the student missionary program is encouraged and even required in some programs. Throughout Argentina the activities of church members bring in new members. As an example of these activities, on July 31, 2010, more than 400 Adventists from Buenos Aires and the UAP converged on the city of Rosario to help local members with “Impact Rosario.” On that Sabbath some 120,000 books were distributed throughout the city before the members met for an afternoon celebration of the day’s activities.
During our family outing to the UAP, we took time to visit the local cemetery. Many of God’s faithful servants rest there. Foreign missionaries, local missionaries, lay missionaries—all await Christ’s call. Our interest was one special gravesite—that of my parents, Charles and Hazel Weber, farm manager of the college and dietitian at the hospital, respectively. At that gravesite we took time to remember their selfless service and to recommit ourselves as a family to God’s mission on earth.
Two missions. Two results. The difference? Lay participation. In the Jesuit missions the priests were the only religious leaders. In the Adventist mission there were few paid pastors for many years, and the tradition of lay involvement grew.
Perhaps we in the developed world need to remember that the pastor is not the church. Instead, we, the members, are!
For more information about River Plate Adventist University, or Universidad Adventista del Plata, go to www.uapar.edu/es.
Raised as a missionary kid, Nancy Weber Vyhmeister, a professor emerita of Andrews University, is now promoting mission in Yucaipa, California, where she lives.