Latin American Bishops Eye Initiative on Children's Issues
by M. Garlinda Burton
Each day in Argentina, 8-year-old Rosilla and her mother walk the streets of Buenos Aires, picking through garbage cans, looking for food.
Four-year-old Milivy Adams, of Camden, N.J., the child of parents reared near a U.S. Navy testing site at Vieques, Puerto Rico, is living with cancer. According to some reports, incidents of cancer are 25 percent higher on Vieques than in other parts of Puerto Rico – the remnant, critics say, of 60 years of U.S. weapons testing on the island.
In Brazil, Eduarda, 11, has worked at a Methodist-run dental clinic as a receptionist, proudly helping other children — and adults — register for services there. Born into a poor family, Eduarda says she wants to be a dentist herself and work in the clinic someday.
In the mountain city of Portisí, Bolivia, children as young as 7 and 8 — descendants of indigenous tribes — go into the silver mines with their fathers, as have generations before them. The region’s silver has made many in the world rich, but the riches have not translated into a better life for most of Portisí’s children, says Bolivian Methodist Bishop Carlos Intipampa.
"You could build a bridge from America to Europe with the bones of the children who have died in the mines over the centuries," the bishop declared. But today, he said, a new Methodist church is bringing hope, spiritual strength and a new sense of dignity to the working poor of Portisí.
Bishops of the mainly U.S.-based United Methodist Church heard these and other stories of children and families living in poverty throughout Latin America and the Caribbean during an historic Nov. 4 dialogue with leaders of autonomous Methodist churches from Puerto Rico to Ecuador. The dialogue was held during the United Methodist bishops’ weeklong semiannual meeting in San Juan.
The conversations with Latin American church leaders about the state of children in their countries comes amid the four-year United Methodist Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty worldwide, said Bishop Donald Ott, Pewaukee, Wis., who coordinates the initiative.
Leaders of CIEMAL (Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches in Latin America), a consortium of indigenous Methodist churches, called on their United Methodist counterparts to join them in addressing the particular concerns of children – and their families – who live in poverty across Latin American and the Caribbean.
One of two bishops representing the Methodist Church of Mexico, Juan Velasco Legorreta said pressing concerns for poor children include hunger, prostitution and abuse. He said Methodist churches are responding by joining with churches of other denominations and with social service agencies to sponsor feeding programs for children – especially among indigenous tribes in remote communities – parenting classes and church-sponsored schools.
While several Latin American church leaders pointed to the U.S. and European world powers – and their economic, colonial, political and military forces – as primary factors causing poverty and strife in developing nations, others also cited internal social problems.
In Brazil, 60 percent of the nation’s 170 million people are descendants of Africans, said Brazilian Methodist Bishop Luiz Virgilio Rosa, yet much of the nation’s leaders are not black; he said that racial disparity still colors the social fabric.
He said enslavement of black Brazilians continued almost into the 20th century in some areas, and the political and social structures bear the mark of institutional racism. "We are a black country, and that makes a big difference in terms of how we are viewed," said Virgilio, who is black.
"Children are discriminated against if they have a black face. Because of the discrimination, many black adults and children are ashamed of their African heritage," he said. "We have made a decision in the Methodist Church to publicly affirm Afro-Brazilians, to help them recover their heritage and to speak out in political ways on their behalf."
Bolivia’s church and society face similar challenges with regard to reaching out to children and adults from culturally marginalized group, Intipampa said. He described himself as a member of the indigenous Aymara tribe "who didn’t learn to speak Spanish until I was an older child," and he noted that the church is realizing its call to mission among Indians in the country’s remote areas.
He cited the work of a new church in the historical silver-mining city of Portisí, which, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was one of the most important cities in the world. There, Intipampa said, the average life span only extends to 30 or 35 years.
"There was a time when people would be sent into the mines and never see the light of day again," the bishop recalled. "Even today, children as young as 10 years old work the mines alongside their fathers."
Cowed by yawning poverty, men often would disappear on payday and spend their meager wages on drink, then return home and beat their wives and children, he said.
However, the Methodist Church has brought hope to Portisí in the form of prayer, Bible study, support and counseling for families and self-esteem-building programs for children.
Intipampa and other church leaders also combined biblical imagery with stories of real children to emphasize the social and economic realities keeping Latin America’s children and families in poverty.
Bishop Nelida Ritchie of Argentina drew parallels with the story of Jesus’ disciples attempting to bar the children from touching the Messiah. In heralding children as owners of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was declaring them critically important in defining the church’s conscience and mission.
"Jesus looks at us through the children’s eyes. What do they see when they look at us in the church? What are they saying?
"They are saying, ‘Do not prevent us from living. Do not prevent us by supporting unjust structures and systems, by silence in the face of escalating foreign debt and war. Speak for us and plant seeds of hope," Ritchie said.
Bishop Pedro Grandon of the Chilean Methodist Church took the story a step further. "The disciples wanted to send the children away, just like they wanted to send away the 5,000 (whom Jesus later fed with bread and fish), but God is calling us to bring transformation to our world to save children and their families."
In Chile, he said, "We’ve seen powerful nations coming to our countries and stealing our resources. Today, we have multinational corporations creating a new form of slavery. Jesus is calling us, the way he has always called us, to transform the world on behalf of all children."
The Chilean churches are also working on behalf of rural children in remote areas by supporting three schools for students with mental illness or with motor or learning disorders.
The triumphs and challenges facing their Methodist kin in Latin America topped the agenda of the 120-member Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with 8.4 million U.S. members and another 1.5 million in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
Besides the daylong dialogue, the United Methodist bishops, meeting for the first time in Latin America, joined together at the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for worship and a demonstration against continued U.S. military occupation of the island.
*Burton is director of United Methodist News Service.
Date posted: Nov 13, 2002