The United Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELU) in Argentina is one of eight partner churches of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), and is also in a companion synod relationship with the Saskatchewan Synod. Since 2002 the ELCIC has shared a joint mission project with IELU, the Patagonia Mission.
In September 2003, I traveled to Buenos Aires where I joined the Rev Angel Furlan, then President of IELU, Mr. Roberto Stein, the Executive Secretary of the church, and new pastor Rev Sergio Utz, who had been ordained just a couple of weeks earlier, and we all flew together to Bariloche, a beautiful city in the lake district of the Andes, near the Chilean border in the southern Patagonia region of Argentina. After spending the evening with the local pastor, Rev Octavio Burgoa, and council, we drove on the next day to Cushamen (where Octavio had been the interim pastor) and Esquel, both places and their Lutheran communities intertwined with the history of the ELCIC. In both places, ELCIC pastors - first Rev Ray Niebergall (with Bev and children) for eight years, then Rev Greg Kiel (with Marla and children) for three years - were instrumental in developing congregations and ministries which continue in wonderful ways even now. It is to this Esquel-Cushamen parish, the two points a couple hours apart by road, that Pastor Sergio Utz was called. It was a delight to visit his new parish with him and to see him welcomed gladly. The official beginning of his ministry was later in January of 2004.
In Cushamen, a community of Mapuche aboriginals in the high desert of the Andes foothills, the small but dedicated congregation welcomed us as we shared in the Eucharist together. We were also able to see the project sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation (made possible in part by ELCIC funding of the LWF) where five women were at work spinning wool and three more were at work weaving it into beautiful items, most of which will be sold at the Benetton store for tourists not too far away, returning some significant income to the Mapuche community.
This small group of aboriginal Christians has also been working to serve daily meals for up to 120 children and 50 adults in the town and for miles around; they are supported in this ministry financially by other congregations within IELU and have also received several substantial gifts from the ELW and others in the Saskatchewan Synod. The program has been called "Cup of Milk" but has actually been providing a filling and nutritious meal to many who otherwise would not have enough.
In Esquel we shared in the Eucharist with the Esperanza del Sur (Hope of the South) congregation, in their church built with ELCIC support, and also had a chance to visit in some homes. The interim pastor there until January 2004 (when Sergio Utz was installed) was Rev Gustavo Gomez, who serves the congregation of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) in Comodoro Rivadavia on the coast of the South Atlantic, an overnight bus trip from Esquel. Gustavo did this bus marathon twice a month throughout 2003, spending Friday and Saturday in Esquel, before heading home on Saturday night, arriving in time for worship in his own congregation on Sunday morning. Gustavo is an energetic and gifted young pastor, ordained himself for only about a year before my visit. He is married, his wife Solange is an accountant for the air force, and they have two young children.
While I was there, we made plans with Pastor Gomez for his mission interpretation tour in Canada which occurred in March and April, 2004 mainly in Saskatchewan and in Alberta as well. Pastor Utz is scheduled to visit sponsors in Canada in 2005. The Patagonia Mission Pastors are also writing newsletters for their sponsors in Canada just as the Niebergalls and Kiels did in the past.
Pastors Gomez and Utz are called by IELU to serve in our joint IELU/ELCIC Patagonia Mission. We have agreed, for the long-term, to help support these young pastors in their ministries. We hope and pray that by God's grace, and the deep commitment of many in our church, we may grow that support, in prayer, for sure, but also by means of the financial resources which God has entrusted to us, as individuals and as congregations. Over $20,000 was contributed for 2003 by ELCIC congregations and individuals through Patagonia Mission Sponsorship; our goal and hope is for CDN$30,000 per year and more, as the Spirit moves, and as we respond in faith.
-- Rev Paul N. Johnson
Assistant to the Bishop for Ecumenical Relations and Mission in the World