Bolivian Mennonite rape victims: update

A recent comment from “Margaret” to an earlier post about reports of sexual assaults of Bolivian Mennonite women reminded me that I promised to provide updates to this story if I received them. What one hears is often anecdotal, and perhaps it will continue to be largely told, or puzzled over, that way — by putting what “Margaret” was told, for example, beside what a source involved with the Casa del Mariposa, a woman’s shelter being built for Bolivian Mennonite women, was told.

The latter account, forwarded me via a letter, said they hear many conflicting stories and “were not sure anymore what is true and what is not.” But, they continued, they do often hear that it [assaults] is still happening. They then recounted that the daughter of one of the imprisoned men, allegedly the ringleader of the group, sought them out to speak with them about their sister who had been gang raped and drugged. The “boys” confessed, but she is now “not herself” and in need of professional help, which the Casa del Mariposa workers are seeking to arrange for her at a mental health facility in Paraguay.

But, I was also forwarded a report written by Jack Heppner of Steinbach, who recently spent 8 weeks in Bolivia. He worked in Bolivia with the EMMC (Evangelical Mennonite Missions Conference) for three years in the mid-1970s and one year in 1991-92. Heppner was a public school teacher, also taught at Steinbach Bible College for some 15 years, then was conference pastor for the EMMC and editor of their monthly magazine, The Recorder. Upon his return from the visit to Bolivia, he wrote the following report of his observations and conversations relevant to this subject. It includes an analysis within the historical context of Mennonite life, answers to questions many of us at a distance have, and some helpful suggestions for steps forward.

Heppner said he considers it “an open document which I have offered back to the Mennonite church and its various agencies as one voice among many related to the tragedies unfolding in South America.” He has given me permission to post it here. Your comments are welcome. If you wish to dialogue with him individually, you can contact me (see info at About) and I will forward the request.

It’s a fairly lengthy document, but credible and helpful, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in knowing more about this issue.
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An evening of prayer

I just “overheard” a Facebook conversation expressing dismay and amazement at those who schedule (church) events on the evening of the Super Bowl. Well, guilty as charged in this corner, but none of us in the small group that formed to plan a service of prayer and lament for the Mennonite women of Bolivia thought of it, frankly, and no offense was intended. None of us, obviously, are followers of football.

In spite of American football’s crowning event and the rather poor driving conditions in southern Manitoba, however, some 80 or so people gathered for the service last night at the Morrow Gospel Church.

Photo by Ray Dirks

It’s always hard to evaluate something you’re involved in yourself, and that’s not the purpose with this post anyway, except that I’d announced it here and want to say now that it happened, and say thank you too to local readers of this blog who attended. We prayed using stories, Scripture, and song, and lit candles to mark our petitions. The music was wonderful, both the congregational singing led by Christine Longhurst with pianist Sherry Toews, and instrumental music by Lilian Guenther (harp) and by Barb Hamilton (viola). In the middle of our litany of lament, Lilian sang, unaccompanied, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” — this just before a Lamentations text that includes “Pour out your heart like water before the Lord.” Music can do that for us; it pours like water.

A few lines from Leona Dueck Penner ‘s benediction sum up, I think, the “movement” that those who participate in prayer can experience.

One by one, in trembling hope,
we gathered here this evening to pray and to weep
for our sisters and also our brothers in Bolivia,
feeling helpless yet wanting to express our love and
compassion for them across the miles.

Through God’s grace, we leave now strengthened and renewed
through sorrow expressed and shared within the community of faith
in the name of Jesus who invited the sorrowful to find rest in him…. 

As for “movement” within the people for whom we prayed, that is likely beyond our means to determine. 

(Although it wasn’t the main aim of the evening, the offering raised for a women’s shelter that’s nearly completed in Pailon, Bolivia, under the auspices of the Evangelical Free Church of Canada Mission, came to more than $ 2900.) 

Re. the specific situation around the sexual assaults, the most recent news I’ve seen — though it was more editorial commentary than hard facts —  was several weeks ago now, from the Kurze Nachrichten, a German newspaper in Mexico, saying that there was to be a hearing shortly of half a dozen men held in Cotoca, with the possibility they would be released for lack of concrete evidence. (No DNA testing has been done.) A number of men are being held in a different prison. The commentary includes [my translation] that “one is struck by the fact that those imprisoned in Cotoca are not well off… and one [wonders] whether money is playing a larger role than justice and truth… Bribe money is the boss; the law its obedient slave.” But, the article goes on to say, “Three uncontested truths remain: many women were used as objects, some are still being used, and only a few people are letting it trouble them much.”

And something sweet

I had a note from Celeste Kennel-Shank of Mennonite Weekly Review that the 80-plus-year-old newspaper has launched a blog, “The World Together,” which is great to hear, and means thoughtful and interesting commentary ahead. She also told me that I won the blog naming prize, meaning they picked the blog name I suggested. Since I don’t win stuff that often, and don’t play the lottery,  I’m rather pleased for sure, and will certainly enjoy the prize, a year’s subscription to MWR.

When I worked at the MB Herald I had access to a good number of publications, from Mennonite to other religious to academic and news journals, and one of my favourites was definitely the Mennonite Weekly Review. And I’m not just saying that because they gave me the prize. MWR is not a denominational paper but seeks to serve the entire Mennonite community. I think it’s the best first source for keeping up with what’s going on in the larger landscape of Mennonite conferences, agencies, schools, and happenings. It’s somewhat more tuned to the U.S. scene but works hard to cover the field and always looks and sounds professional.

Isn’t it a sweet irony, though, being rewarded for participating in a cyber-publishing launch with a whole year of weekly ink on newsprint? Fortunately, I’m still quite attached to the old ways of newspapers, magazines, and books, even though I read a lot online as well. I received a year’s subscription to the elegant Christian Century for my birthday, so this is going to be a blessed year indeed, in terms of the mail person’s comings and goings at our front door.

Oh, and please note note that editor Paul Schrag’s first post at the MWR blog is called “Responding to rapes in Bolivia” and comments on the Bolivian Mennonite story which has been a topic at this blog a few times already as well.