No More Holy Week

by Dirk Hinnenthal

Dirk (Germany) and his wife, Milca (Uruguay), serve full-time in Uruguay.

Politically, Uruguay has been stable ever since a 12-year military dictatorship ended in 1985. The country enjoys a moderate climate with no regular inclement weather events, an abundance of water from several lakes and rivers and access to one of the largest aquifers on the planet, the Guaraní Aquifer. The abundance of fertile soil in South America enables the prosperous agricultural industry to produce beef and milk as well as wool and rice, a supply that is distributed well beyond the continent’s borders.

To understand Uruguayan society, we must look at its history. The Spanish conquered and colonised it in the 16th century, bringing Roman Catholicism with it, and independence was attained almost 200 years ago. But more recent history set the foundation for what we see today – a secular society that is, by declaration, spiritually neutral.

In the early 1900s, José Batlle y Ordóñez had a significant experience with religion, which triggered what we grapple with today. He had recently been inaugurated for his second term as president when his 18-year-old daughter died. A clergyman offered to pray so Batlle’s daughter could get out of purgatory. Batlle was so outraged that the man would suggest his daughter was in purgatory that he campaigned for far-reaching reforms that substantially diminished the Catholic Church’s influence. Around the same time, the government renamed the country’s Holy Week as Tourism Week. This was not Uruguay’s first conflict between church and state. Fifty years earlier, the government took control of many burial practices, which had previously rested with the Catholic Church. Additionally, crucifixes were banned in public hospitals.

The political elite of the 20th century became strongly influenced by France. Since many sought their education and philosophical guidance there, the writings and thoughts of Voltaire and Rousseau thus found their way into South America. An elder put it this way, ‘Our nation is in the same spiritual state as the one from which we sought advice.’ One saying expresses the general sense: cada loco con su tema (everyone lives according to his or her own crazy idea). Culturally, it is ‘develop your own belief’, ‘respect the views of other people’ and ‘truth is negotiable’. As a result, we live in South America’s most humanist and secular society.

Religious Freedom
In our churches, we can preach freely and there is an ongoing tent evangelism ministry, which, at times, receives some support from local authorities. In other areas, restrictions are becoming tighter. One must not speak about God in public schools, for instance. Despite increasing secularism, the brethren movement has been present in Uruguay since 1882, starting with a young Englishman who served in Argentina and began visiting Uruguay from there. The early years of the 20th century saw the first assemblies established in Montevideo, the capital. The assemblies have made great progress, especially in the last 30 years, in commending national workers.

Bible literacy must increase if we are to be a people ready to effectively share the Word with others.

Church Ministry
Milca, my wife, was born and raised in a Christian family in Montevideo. She became a believer, aged 17, while listening to a gospel message on the radio. I was born in Germany. As a backpacker, I did a fair bit of travelling throughout the world. Then, when I was 29 years old, the Lord found me while I was facing yet another bout with depression. Milca and I met later in Uruguay, where I had begun preparation for serving my Saviour. We married in 1997 and had three children: Lynda and Rudi were born in Uruguay, and Sophia during our years in Texas, USA. From there, Comunidad de Amor, a Hispanic assembly in Houston, commended our family in 2013. We live in the department of Colonia, 110 miles from the capital city. Colonia offers good road connections along the western part of the country and, from there, to Argentina. travellers can reach Argentina by crossing a bridge that spans the river that gave our country its name: Uruguay is a word that comes from the indigenous Guaraní language and means ‘river of the painted birds’.

So there are many towns we can visit from where we live and, since congregations here tend to be small, our visits are a welcome encouragement. Sometimes, only one believer is responsible for every Bible study and gospel message. He might also have to roll up his sleeves when maintenance work calls. And he may be the only one who drives to all the children’s homes, taking them to the church and back. Our Colonia assembly, where I serve as an elder, is in the process of reunification. A division that occurred before our time here has now been overcome. We are serving among two dozen additional believers who were largely unknown to us previously. Milca has a counselling ministry, often by phone, with believers and other women; she receives many requests for help and prayer.

In our ministry, we also interact with other conservative Bible-teaching congregations and I have received speaking invitations from several churches. In one case, this led to regular teaching and visiting in the most populous suburb of Montevideo, where a large Jewish community resides. For a long time, I, as a German, felt awkward about interacting with and befriending Jewish people. However, my awkwardness eased significantly when a man we used to visit later said to someone, ‘This man Dirk is the only German friend I ever had.’ Thank you, Lord!

Mission work here typically emphasises outreach to children, as it is surprisingly easy to bring children to our local chapel and hold a Bible school with them. Parents usually happily let their children go, despite being not easily convinced to attend any meetings themselves. Likewise, youth meetings take place regularly and several campsites operate in Uruguay. During the school holidays, many children and teenagers go to Bible-based summer camp. At the end of the school year in December, some parents come to see their children act in a drama or recite Bible verses. At these festive events, many parents hear the gospel for the first time.

Beyond the Local Context Translating books and other materials into Spanish has been part of my ministry for many years. These projects continue rolling in without interruption. We reach out through ebooks and printed matter, including a paper that covers relevant issues. The dissemination of literature and correspondence courses goes beyond the brethren assemblies. Bible literacy must increase if we are to be a people ready to effectively share the Word with others. Many Christians do not go far when it comes to studying the Bible on their own. Pray for an increased desire to study the Word. Another way we reach beyond our local context is by teaching in the online seminary that the brethren founded to serve students from all over Latin America.

We are currently offering the third year of the baccalaureate programme. It is uplifting to see a Zoom screen full of Christians from all walks of life and ten different countries – all desiring to dig deeper into the Word. I was also invited to contribute to a radio ministry in El Salvador, a 144-episode series that teaches through the Bible; many of which have already been aired. Keeping up courage can be a challenge for those in ministry, as things progress slowly in Uruguay. Pray for our spiritual courage and for Uruguay, for Christians to study the Word and share the good news.

Adapted from an article first published by CMML, Missions Sep/Oct 2023.
Dirk and Milca Hinnenthal:

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