This past week we held our national IMI retreat. Integral Mission Initiatives (IMI) is a relatively new project for CBM Bolivia, so you may not have heard of it. It's a collaborative effort between several of our Bolivian partners—the Baptist Seminary, the Center for Integral Mission, and OBADES. Together, CBM alongside the directors of these institutions, work to empower and train churches to actively identify and serve needs within their communities.
IMI specifically supports a select group of churches across the country who have started projects that reach out to their neighbours in practical and necessary ways. Sometimes it’s caring for the elderly or children who suffer neglect, other times it’s investing in at-risk teens or vulnerable women. There are even some churches who are working proactively to care for the environment!
The team mentioned above collaborates to provide participating churches with technical and theological training throughout the year. Our biggest event however, is a retreat which brings together leaders from each of the projects. This two day event strives to help church leaders acquire new skills and gain tools to strengthen their programing. There is also a strong focus on Biblical study as participants listen to speakers and explore the theological basis for serving as a missional church.
Many churches that step out and take on this kind of initiative can end up feeling alone and discouraged. With this in mind, leaders had formal and informal time to talk about their challenges, solutions, resources and overall experience throughout the weekend. One of the central goals of the event was to facilitate conversation between participants, particularly those running similar projects, that could allow to encouragement.
Sara, who runs a project on the boarder of Argentina for preschool children from vulnerable families shared: “I had no idea so many other churches were doing stuff! Our project just started this year and I’ve been able to learn so much from people here with more experience. I have a network of people I can now go to for help and advice.”
Mildred, who runs a sports camp for at-risk teenagers said: “Before this retreat, I had never really considered the impact that our project can have on the volunteers who come to help. By treating our volunteers with appreciation and recognizing their participation as an opportunity to disciple them, I think we can make our project more sustainable.”
Freddy, a pastor from Santa Cruz whose project we talked about in a previous blog said: “I thought that the only resources we had were in our own church, but after getting ideas from other projects, I was able to recognize some opportunities for support that I had never considered before. For example, we can invite people from other churches close by to come volunteer with us!”
Leaving the retreat, the leaders expressed feeling empowered in their work and encouraged to know that they have a network of friends around the country they can call on. They felt united in their mission to share the Gospel in Bolivia through word and deed.
Recently the department of Santa Cruz held their “jovenes” camp. “Jovenes” technically means “young people” but the lines are blurry as to who that includes. The core group of over 100 youth tended to be between 18-28, but there were fringe participants from 12 to 35 years old!
Tim and I were asked to be camp speakers and had a blast working with this group of young adults. Aside from our responsibilities as speakers, we played field games, joined group competitions, enjoyed times of worship, made lots of new friends and got very very little sleep—some parts of camp are the same no matter where you are.
During the camp, pastors and leaders throughout the department of Santa Cruz periodically dropped in. This was great because it’s an easy way to connect with a whole lot of people at once. We enjoy these events because we get to hear from numerous people, helping us grow in our understanding of the unique cultures in different regions of the country.
CBM’s mission is to partner with local churches around the world to bring hope, healing and reconciliation through word and deed. This month we experienced this happening in a beautiful way. Vida Nueva (New Life) is a church in the city of Santa Cruz who has stepped out in faith to serve their community and CBM was able to encourage their leap of faith through its Integral Mission Initiative program.
Vida Nueva church was growing concerned about the increasing level of vandalism, crime and unemployment in their neighbourhood and recognized a correlation with the high number of teenagers dropping out of school. Vida Nueva desired a way to speak into the lives of these struggling teens. After building relationships with the principals of two high schools in the area, it was agreed that each school would send 40 students with the lowest grades to participate in an academic support program based out of the church.
With a rotating schedule of volunteers with various strengths, the church has committed to tutoring these students to help them raise their marks, stay in school and realize their potential. The program also provides lunch as good nutrition is key to learning. Knowing that many of these teens have other personal issues, Vida Nueva is also working to provide mentorship as they walk alongside them in their day-to-day.
A small team of professional social workers and phycologists from within the church are also providing a drop-in counseling service each Friday afternoon to support parents around themes such as marriage, parenting techniques, work stress, etc.
Overall, the hope is that as relationships are established, not only will grades improve, but when families in the neighbourhood face challenges or crisis, they will see their local church as a safe place to receive holistic support.
Bolivia is a country that loves celebration so what better way to launch a project than with an over the top inauguration ceremony. On the night of the launch, the church filled up with project volunteers, church members, students, parents, teachers, and even reps. from the municipality. Seeing members of the community filtering through the front doors of the church to celebrate an exciting opportunity for their teens was reminiscent of a portion of the Sermon on the Mount:
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. ~Matthew 5:16
At one point in the evening, a teacher from one of the high schools stood up to share a few words. She shared that while she grew up in the church, she hadn’t set foot in one for 8 years. You could tell there was a long story and deep hurt behind her statement. She went on to acknowledge that what brought her back to the church that night was witnessing this selfless act of love towards her students and she thanked God for the work being done through the church. Seeing the care and concern the church had for these kids whom she herself cared deeply for, reminded her of Christ’s love; she saw good deeds and glorified her Father in heaven.
One of our favorite projects here is the Casa de la Amistad (Friendship House). The Casa works with vulnerable children whose parents live in prison. Working with these kids is no easy task; not only do many of them have behavioural issues, but most come with heartbreaking stories. Carla and Fabiola—who have become two of our personal heroes— have both been working at the Casa for well over a decade. Carla, a trained psychologist, is celebrating her 20th year and Fabiola, who teaches the youngest age group, is in her 16th year. We recently interviewed them both to hear a little from these two amazing and inspiring women.
What has kept you here so long?
Carla: I love the kids! I’m happy here because I know we're making a difference in their lives. The kids know they’re loved here and many of them don’t feel loved at home or get the attention they need.
Fabiola: Yes, the kids keep you coming back day after day and year after year. We do this work to show them God’s love, so it’s worth it even though it’s hard.
What is the best thing about working at the Casa?
Fabiola & Kallie
Fabiola: One of my favourite things about working with kids is that moment when you’re able to capture their attention and inspire their imaginations. With the little kids especially, I love telling Bible stories. Many times when you try to teach children they get distracted or don’t want to pay attention, but when they get
pulled in by a good story, you can tell they are processing and really learning about God’s word or other important material.
Carla: My favorite thing is getting visits from ex-beneficiaries. Of course not all of them are thriving, but I would say close to 90% have left and are living good lives. Many have gone to school, found stable jobs and are making an honest living. We’ve helped them break the cycle. We’ve seen a real change in their lives.
What are some changes you’ve seen over the years?
Carla: We have less staff now. We’re trying to fill in the spaces with volunteers, but it’s a struggle. Some kids need more help and attention than others and it’s hard to balance all the work. But for my kids, I don’t mind working hard.
Fabiola: Yes, now we have less staff and a heavier workload. This can affect the level of attention we are able to give to the kids. Carla used to be a full time psychologist and was able to work closely with the kids to counsel them and build up different capacities. Now because of staff cuts, she has to be in the class room as one of the teacher’s full time while still trying to offer counseling when she can get volunteers to cover. We’ve also had to take on many more administrative tasks than previously. It’s been a learning curve.
What’s the hardest thing about working at the Casa?
Carla: The kids come with a lot of trauma. Many of the kids have suffered abuse or violation, they come with a dark past. They’re used to a negative family structure and it’s very hard to break down those barriers both with the children and the parents. We’ve seen success and changes but it’s a process. Often times we do workshops with the moms or the kids around a certain issue we’ve noticed, but its hard to create long-term change.
Sometimes it feels like we’re taking one step forward and two steps back. Everyday we’re fighting to make lasting change.
Fabiola: For me it’s difficult to not be able to give the kids everything I know they need. Even the simple things, for example, I would love to be able to bring the kids to a park and give them a place where they could run and have fun and be kids, but being in the center of the city, there aren’t many green spaces around. You always wish you could do more to make their lives better.
What do you do to take care of yourself?
Carla: We support one another as a team. It affects us to see the suffering of the kids, but when we meet together as staff, we share what we’re going through and help one another as much as we can.
Fabiola: We also receive great support through different professional development workshops that our program manager Marcia organizes. This includes external support from a network we've grown over the years.
What would you like to share with churches in Canada?
Carla: Thank you so much for the support you’ve given us. You’ve helped hundreds of families, and the kids and parents who have come through Casa have been forever changed. You’ve played a big part the in the transformation of their lives. Please keep supporting us.
Fabiola: Please remember all of us at the Casa! Your prayers and support over the years have made an immeasurable difference in so many lives.
Any prayer requests?
Fabiola: Pray with us for the kids we have with us now, but also the children who have had to leave the program. Over the years, there are those who come from such difficult circumstances and touch your heart, but because of instability in their lives they quit coming to the project. I always think about them and pray that they are alright. I pray that wherever they are, God is with them and protecting them.
Carla: We just had three little girls ages 5, 6 and 7 taken into protective custody last week because they were violated in the prison. Their younger 2 year old sister was also found to be suffering from malnutrition. Please pray for them.
Perhaps you’ve heard buzz about CBM’s #SheMatters campaign which is working to create discussion around difficult issues facing Indigenous women today. This June She Matters’ spokesperson Cheryl Bear, came to Bolivia to learn from Indigenous women here and listen to their experiences. Cheryl is an award-winning singer/songwriter from the Nadleh Whut’en community in Northern British Columbia who shares about her culture and faith through story and song.
Of course we couldn’t have a singer come visit without having a few concerts! Pairing stories with her music, Cheryl was able to unpack some of the prevalent challenges facing both indigenous people and women. Her stage was also shared with local artists who brought their own passion and experiences. For the first concert, our survival skills were tested as we drove along hair-raising roads to an isolated location, hiked down an escarpment and across a river, finally arriving at the event. We were able to arrange transportation for people from 8 different local communities with whom we have relationships, and after traveling hours to attend Cheryl played to a packed house.
The two main Indigenous groups that Cheryl was able to connect with were the Quechua and Aymara. As is often the case, the cultural exchanges involved a lot of laughing and a lot of eating! In Cochabamba the Quechua women’s association modeled clothing from around Bolivia and prepared a typical dish from each region. After traveling to the Lake Titicaca region, members of the Aymaran women’s association invited us to participate in a tradition meal called an “Aptapi” where they lay cloth on the ground and spread the food out like a picnic buffet.
As much fun as sharing food and dress is, the real connecting happed when stories were shared. One of the highlights of the trip was when Cheryl had time to sit down with the mothers from the Casa de la Amistad program. These women deal with the double stigma of being indigenous and also having their spouses serving jail time. As soon as Cheryl started recounting some of her experiences, the heads of all the women began to nod in agreement. They too shared about how difficult it can be for indigenous women to get work, how they feel misunderstood and excluded by society, and they shared their own experiences of suffering discrimination and violence. Different parts of the world, different languages, same story.
Many women shared that the most encouraging part of Cheryl’s visit was knowing that they were not alone in their struggle; they had already found strength in each other and now they have another sister from the other side of the world who walks this road with them. They journey together in sorrow, but also in hope.
This month we had the opportunity to host the Praxis program in Bolivia. Praxis --practice,asdistinguishedfromtheory-- is a for-credit trip offered to Canadian seminary students that allows them to get out of the classroom and into the field. These students together with their prof. joined a group of Bolivians to explore the course’s theme: environmentalism and the response of the church. The accompaniment of Bolivian nationals also adds an element of cross-cultural learning.
To help us explore the intersection of environmental care, faith and the role of the church, we were able to hear from a number of international and national speakers. This included presentations and workshops from A Rocha Peru, Oxfam Quebec, local environmental groups and government representatives. Collectively they enlightened us on environmental challenges both globally and in Bolivia, how we can make a difference personally, and how the church can be a positive force for change.
Together we visited projects in El Alto, a city filled with migrants, of whom many left their homes because they could no longer survive in the rural areas as a result of climate change. We also ventured to agricultural areas to learn how environmental degradation is effecting the lives of project beneficiaries struggling to live by subsistence farming. Through the testimonies of local Bolivians and with our own eyes we saw the effects that our collective abuse of the environment is having on everyday life.
The positive impact Praxis is having with our partners here in Bolivia is already evident. Some leaders have been inspired to implement environmental components into their ministries by integrating stewardship theology into Bible teachings, others to educate around recycling and sustainable living practices, or even mobilizing churches to plant trees. We're looking forward to seeing more initiatives take root in Bolivia and Canada in the near future.
We often wonder what goes through the minds of our project beneficiaries when we visit with Canadian teams. How do they see us? What do they make of the work we’re doing? This past week we got a unique opportunity to see our Chagas project through the eyes of a ten year old girl when she took our phone to take pictures while a team from New Brunswick worked at her house.
When Canadian teams participate in our Chagas project we try to partner them with families who need extra help with the labour work involved in renovating there homes to help prevent the disease. This particular family in the community of Mataral consisted of 9 people living in one small room. A second room was being built by the man of the house when he suddenly passed away as a result of Chagas last year, leaving the room without a roof. Salome, the matriarch of the family lives with 5 of her children, four of which are quite young (ages 3 to 15). An adult daughter and her two children also live in the home. Lastly, Salome's brother-in-law who is deaf and mute makes 9.
Helen is the oldest grandchild at 10 and after commandeering Tim's phone she proved herself a budding photographer. The following are a small selection of her pictures and photo-documentation of the trip from 4 feet.