Swords and Selfies

Less than thirty years after Martin Luther’s death, in the town of Riobamba in the Spanish territory known as the viceroyalty of Peru, and at the foot of what was then considered the world’s highest mountain, a man simply known as “the Lutheran” arrived. The story goes that he was suspected of being Lutheran because he talked about being saved by Jesus without a word about the Virgin Mary or any of the saints.

Coat of Arms in Riobamba

“The Lutheran” didn’t last long in Riobamba. The townspeople’s suspicions quickly turned into hate, and then into action. With the fervor that accompanied the festival of Saint Peter, the man who represented salvation by grace alone was dragged into the town square in front of the cathedral and hacked to death with swords. When word of the action reached Philip the IV of Spain, the king he was so impressed with the enthusiastic execution carried out by the people of Riobamba that he granted them the great honor of a royal coat of arms for their town. The year was 1575.

443 years later, fellow Lutheran missionary Nathan Schulte and I walked into the town square of the same village (now in the country of Ecuador). We saw the same facade of the church in front of which “the Lutheran” had been executed (the rest of the building was destroyed in an earthquake, but the ornately carved stone facade that presided over the martyrdom in 1575 still stands today). High on the municipal building at the center of the town’s coat of arms, a Lutheran face looks out over the square with two swords pointed towards it.

And we took selfies.

But I didn’t go all the way to Ecuador for a selfie. I made the trip (I live with my family in Mexico) to take part in a little of the work there in Ecuador and join Nathan and Phil Strackbein (the other missionary who lives in Ecuador) in a full day of planning of how the precious message of salvation by grace alone would be taken to the people of Ecuador. Our missionaries have only been in Ecuador for six months, but, so far, they are being met with more open doors than swords.

Carlos Fernandez and his wife Graciela study the catechism with Missionary Johnston in Argentina

My trip last month not only took me to Ecuador, but also to Paraguay, Argentina, and southern Mexico. At those stops I met people who, as they take classes online or in-person, were sharing it with others. I spent two entire days studying with a man in northern Argentina who, at the end of my last day, showed me the lot he owns where he plans to build a church and where the pure gospel will be shared. I visited the humble home of a man in southern Mexico who filled his small living room with family and friends so that we could talk about Jesus.

As I had the privilege to move freely and study the Bible with people in Latin America, I couldn’t help but think of “the Lutheran” of Riobamba, perhaps the first Lutheran in this part of the world. How could I complain about staying in an accurately-priced $13-a-night hotel room or spending half a day in a Paraguayan bus station when I compared what I had to go through to those who have gone before? By God’s grace, 501 years after the Reformation, we have an open door for the gospel in places where once we did not. Through online classes, on-the-ground missionaries, occasional visits and, above all else, by the power of the life-changing gospel, people are telling people, disciples are making disciples who make disciples, and the name of Jesus is being shared in Latin America.

Written by: Rev. Andrew Johnston, Missionary in Latin America

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Mexico – Not Quite Potlucks and Pipe Organs

I’m a pretty WELSie (WELSy?) guy. I could bore you with details, but suffice to say I feel pretty connected to a lot of people in our synod. And I don’t consider that to be a bad thing of course! I truly enjoy seeing how God has woven together people to do his work. I enjoy a good potluck with a long line of Midwest-made casseroles. I enjoy a pipe organ blasting out the old Lutheran favorites.

But I live in Mexico and I serve as missionary in Latin America. My background and what I enjoy might not matter all that much.

In this part of the world very, very few people share my commitment to potlucks and pipe organs. Much more troubling is this: very few people share my Spirit-given understanding of God’s commitment to mankind in his Son Jesus Christ.

While the souls of men are dying (to quote a favorite hymn), you’ve got to ask yourself again and again and again:

Is the most effective way to share the Gospel the way I/we are doing it? Maybe it doesn’t need to be said again (but probably should be stated anyways) that the message will not change. Pure grace is non-negotiable… as is every other stroke of the inspired Scriptural pen.

A fellow missionary on our Latin America Missionary team, Terry Schultz, recently came to Mexico. Terry is a Doctor of Ministry with coursework in Ethnomusicology. Until his recent visit, I wasn’t 100% what that was.

As we toured around Mexico, celebrating the Reformation with a few of the widely scattered Lutherans in this country, Terry shared his songs. Songs designed to share the unchangeable message in ways that make sense to the people who are hearing them.

The confession of sins is there. The song of praise after the absolution is there. The Song of Simeon. Even a Kyrie. Many of the hymns have lyrics ripped directly from the pages of the Bible. To a pretty WELSie (WELSy) guy like me, the music was unfamiliar. Prior to spending the last 11 ½ years in a couple different countries thousands of miles south of the “WELS heartland”, to be honest the beat pounded out on a conga drum probably would have made me at least a little bit nervous.

It did not make the people in Mexico nervous at all. Most of the people who attended the workshops were long-time and/or lifetime Lutherans. They love the message of pure grace in Jesus. It is not an exaggeration to say that they were overjoyed when they heard that precious message expressed with music that makes sense to them and makes sense to the people outside their small gatherings whom they have an overwhelming desire to reach.

At first, Terry tried to get me to play a drum so that I could provide a little supporting rhythm as he played his music on our short tour. Me. The very WELSie (WELSy?) guy with an affection for casseroles and pipe organs. Wrong guy. Putting me on the conga is like putting habanero pepper in your 7-layer salad. But it’s not about me, is it? And if putting the Gospel to a cumbia beat gives our brothers and sisters the opportunity to share Jesus with just one more person, then by all possible means.

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. – 1 Corinthians 9:22

By: Missionary Andrew Johnston – Leon, Mexico

P.S. – Want to learn more about how World Missions and Multi-Language Publications are using ethnomusicology? Check out this video.

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At home in Mexico

My husband Jorge is from Huamantla, a city of 50,000 at the foot of a volcano called La Malinche, where every year two dozen bulls thunder through the streets, and artisans cover six miles of local thoroughfares with elaborate carpets made of flowers and colored sawdust.

I am from pleasant small-town Wisconsin, that beautiful green country of cows and cornfields and cold winters, where bratwurst has been elevated to an art form and Friday night fish fries and the Packer games are considered sacred traditions.

The story of how we met is something only God could have arranged.

Our paths crossed for the first time in the arid industrial city of Torreón in northern Mexico. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a sojourn from urban metropolises to dusty rural roads and back again.

Jorge grew up in a Catholic family but came into contact with the Lutheran church as a teen, and eventually became a member. At the urging of his pastor, he decided to begin pastoral studies. This choice led him to Torreón, where the seminary was then located. In the meantime, I was studying to become a Spanish teacher at Martin Luther College. Word came that there was an opportunity to teach English in Mexico through WELS Kingdom Workers. Very interested to be immersed in a Latin American country and at the same time use my gifts to help the local church, I applied and shortly after, was accepted. Where in Mexico was I headed? You guessed it: Torreón.

Jorge and I were friends right off the bat. We visited all the museums and parks Torreón had to offer. He introduced me to some strange new foods. I may have asked him one too many questions about Spanish. Before a year had gone by, we were engaged. After finishing college (me) and seminary (Jorge) we got married in the beautiful colonial city of Puebla. Jorge was assigned to serve in Mahahual, a remote beach town six hours south of Cancun. It was a charming and tranquil place to live, sandwiched between the jungle and the sea. God blessed us with a little girl while we served there. Several years later, Jorge accepted a call to serve in city of León, Guanajuato, where we currently live. The changes were drastic; we traveled 1126 miles to our new home, from sea-level to nearly 6000 feet above sea-level, from a tropical to a semiarid climate, from the Caribbean coastline to the Sierra Madre mountain chain.

Folks often wonder what is like for me to live in Mexico, after having grown up elsewhere. Though perhaps cliché, life is slower here. You can spend a morning meandering through the town plaza, listening to organ grinders and feeding the pigeon flocks. At the same time, you can spend months trying to get one piece of paperwork registered by the local government.

As newlyweds, we traveled with only three suitcases and a few boxes of books to our name. Though we still live with very little by American standards, we daily witness people with much less. This is humbling; the abundance in the United States is a blessing I can no longer take for granted. To all of us, on both sides of the border, our Father sends us the manna of food, of friends and opportunities. He gives us so many gifts, Himself above all.

We live very deeply in the culture, as a typical Mexican family would. Most of my day is spent talking and working in Spanish. The experiences God has given me are beyond what my younger self could have imagined, from making chileatole (a savory corn and chili pepper soup) and tortillas with my mother-in-law, to giving birth in a rustic cabin because there were no hospitals nearby. I didn’t realize when we married the magnitude of the change I was embracing. I find the differences to be even more striking as I watch our daughter grow up. She chatters away in Spanish, eats tamales and thinks every party has a piñata. Mexico runs through her veins.

This life can, at times, be lonely. There are cultural moments in which I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Years pass without seeing any family members face to face. I miss births and deaths, weddings and graduations, often communicating from a cramped internet café. I mourn the milestones missed, and yet this serves to remind me that I am really homesick for heaven, that far-off Country. All of these places we have lived – Torreon, Mahahual, León – these are all temporary cities as we continue our sojourn home. One day we will be together again at His feet.

As we lay down our roots here and yet keep our eyes heavenward, we have confidence that Christ will keep us. Whether He shields us from heartache or permits sorrows to enter our lives, we shall not fear, for our God is good and He is in control. I confess with the Psalmist, ¨The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.¨

Kerry Pamperin de Briones, Mexico