Mission Stories: Bolivia

Julie K. Wietzke

Pedro Abel Beltrán Callejas didn’t know much about Jesus while growing up in Bolivia; he was, he admits, a nominal Catholic at best. But he’s discovered in the past three years that it’s really all about Jesus—and for that he is grateful.

FINDING THE GOSPEL

Abel, an English teacher at a local school, was first introduced to the Lutheran church about 11 years ago. He and his now wife, Maria, were looking for a church in which to get married in La Paz, Bolivia, the country’s third most populous city with a population of 2 million. They discovered Redeemer, where they met Julio Ascarrunz, the congregation’s pastor. After some classes, the couple got married in the church and became members.

But after two years, they decided to leave because they observed congregational issues they didn’t like. “We went to different churches, but we were not glad with those churches,” says Abel. “We felt sad because we didn’t know where to go. We were like orphans.”

One day, Maria went home to discover that their home had been broken into. Their doors were destroyed, and they didn’t know what to do. Abel went to see their former pastor, Julio. “We decided to try [the church] again,” says Abel. “This was the only place where we heard what the Bible says.”

After they rejoined Redeemer, Abel met Missionary Lawrence Retberg, who was offering classes to Redeemer’s church leaders. “The congregation had heard about WELS and asked that a WELS missionary come and help them with doctrine and other matters,” says Missionary Philip Strackbein, now serving in La Paz. Retberg traveled to Bolivia two to three times a year to offer classes.

After Retberg had taken church leaders through a doctrine course, conditional fellowship was set up with this group of five or six churches, of which Redeemer was the largest. But some members were still struggling with the doctrine and correctly putting it into practice. Strackbein and his wife arrived in 2011 to work more closely with the congregation and its leaders.

“One of those leaders was me,” says Abel. “I invited him to meet at our apartment. The story starts there. Thanks to God, I learned many things. I really understood what God wants to say in the Bible.”

That was a big step for Abel, who says he never really knew anything about doctrine. “Everything I knew was superficial, and I occasionally repeated what others had said,” he says. “However, I strongly felt the curiosity of learning all about God but couldn’t because I didn’t know where, when, or how to start.”

Unfortunately, while Abel was learning more about Jesus and salvation, others in the church were struggling with the correct Lutheran doctrine—even disagreeing and rebelling against their pastor for preaching the truth.

In April of 2012, Strackbein and Ascarrunz, along with several other congregation members, stepped away from Redeemer to start a new congregation and synod, the Iglesia Cristiana Evangélica Luterana Confesional (the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Christian Church or ICELC). Beltran and his wife soon followed.

“It was totally different—different in the sense of no more problems, no more gossiping. When I was in this church Redeemer, I hated the word Lutheran,” says Abel. “When we opened the [new] church and I attended, we learned many things—beautiful things—so this idea disappeared.”

He continues, “I know now the kind of person I am—a miserable sinner who really needs a Savior. I am conscious that the words of God may touch and hurt deep inside our souls, but I also know that there is a super-great consolation as well—the gospel!”

SHARING THE GOSPEL

While the church is small—there are only 17 baptized members—the members’ hearts and their dedication are huge. “Every one of them has been trained in evangelism, and they all practice it,” says Strackbein.

That’s not easy in a land where free salvation through Jesus is scorned. “The society has been so steeped in the idea that man has to obey that when they hear something different—even though the end result is so wonderful, that we truly have a free salvation—it’s just something all the churches leaders reject and go against the people who proclaim it,” says Strackbein.

“When I am with people who go to different churches in La Paz, I always feel like I’m talking with people who have been slapping God,” says Abel. “I want to teach but I can’t because I know I am going to be rejected.”

That rejection doesn’t stop the members of ICELC, however. Members practice witnessing to each other through role playing so they are prepared to defend scriptural doctrine. Then they take the message to the people of Bolivia. Sometimes it’s through public presentations at the hotel where the congregation worships. Sometimes it’s through conversations members have with people they meet in their daily lives.

Take Alfredo Jara, for example. He travels throughout Bolivia for his job and shares the gospel message wherever he goes. At one small town, Unión Tunari, he discovered a church with no denomination or doctrine to speak of. Strackbein, Ascarrunz, and Alfredo have since traveled back to present the basic law/gospel teaching and other doctrinal courses, though it is often difficult to get there because of impassible roads.

Or Rolando Mena, who plays violin during the congregation’s worship services. He studies at the university and is always talking about the message of God with his colleagues.

And Abel? He is sharing the message of free salvation with his parents. “Last time, [my father] said, ‘When are we going to meet again? I want to know more,’ ” says Abel. “I would like to open a church [where he lives].”

Abel continues, “I am really glad to be part of this ministry since I have learned many things about what God did for me and what he wants me to do, to be, and to say. Thus, with profound gratitude, I try to do my best in every single activity.”

Those church activities include conducting the liturgy during worship, leading Bible studies, and training members in evangelism. Strackbein also continues to train Abel so he grows in his knowledge and understanding. “It is kind of difficult to say which class I appreciate the most,” says Abel. “I think all subjects I have learned up to now with Missionary Strackbein are attached branches belonging to a main idea—Jesus. And that’s what I really appreciate the most.”

Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ.


 

Iglesia Cristiana Evangélica Luterana Confesional

Baptized national members: 17
Number of congregations: 1
National pastors: 1
National evangelists: 5
Preaching stations: 1
National Bible Institute students: 4
National seminary students: 1
Visiting instructors: 1

Unique fact: Missionary Philip Strackbein’s main focus in Bolivia is training members for service. The congregation’s pastor and five other congregational leaders conduct the ministry, including preaching, teaching, visiting the sick, and outreach. Strackbein also serves as the theological education contact for the 1LA team.

 

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 103, Number 1
Issue: January 2016

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