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A Trip Back to Paraguay

February 21, 2007

Frisco Gilchrist - Paraguay (former missionary)

As I grow old and recognize the strength of my Church habits, I sometimes wonder why.  In the midst of changing theological understandings, adaptations to cultural situations, a growing insistence that I want to be a world citizen, and the freedom to "break loose" in retirement, I continue to seek out the fellowship of the Church wherever I go.  Why?

A serendipitous trip back to South America last August helped me identify a couple of aspects of working within and for the church that have been major enrichments of my life.  I call them "community" and "integrity."  I risk sounding like a self-satisfied, ego-building something-or-other to write about them -of which I am, of course, guilty!

Upon arrival in Paraguay, where my late wife and I lived and worked for more than twenty years, I was overwhelmed with welcoming  "abrazos" and enthusiastic remembering of what we shared 30, 45 and even 50 years ago.  I felt like I had come home (or maybe, gone to heaven).  I was in a community where I still "belonged" after a 30 year absence.  There were numerous regrets that the time on this visit was too limited; and requests that I plan to come again with more freedom to stay in homes -both the comfortable kind and very humble ones.

The "son" who long ago informally adopted me as a second "father" showed up repeatedly, offering transportation to wherever I might want to go, or to run errands for me like he used to do.  The woman, who had faithfully anticipated my wife's every need in 1995 when she returned in a wheel chair, took over my shopping list for Paraguayan lace requested by a niece and did my shopping for me.  The five day schedule, that planned a maximum use of precious hours and still considered an old man's limitations, had been arranged by the husband who over the years has become the expert in such planning for his church.

These were not friends I had acquired individually a long time ago.  They are part of the Disciples of Christ community in Paraguay that brought us together and taught us to live together and care for each other. Since we were not in Paraguay on a Sunday this time, all this happened outside the formal context of church services.

The telephone rang at the desk of the hotel where we were to spend the first night in Paraguay almost as soon as we arrived, and the clerk wanted to know if there was a "Don Frisco" in the lobby.  There was, and I immediately found myself talking to an excited woman who reminded me that she lived with us for a few months back in 1976 while trying to finish her university degree in a troubled time of political repression.  We had not seen each other since before the night that both she and I were toted (separately - she from the University) off to jail by police.  Now, she and her husband were on their way to the hotel (yes, cell phones in Paraguay) to see me.  We had so much to talk about that evening that I missed the first meeting with Disciples in that city completely.

A little later, the woman's brother also joined us and further animated the conversation. He had been hired by me as a professor at Colegio Internacional thirty some years ago.  I no longer remember details of that hiring, but I'm sure that what I liked about him was his ideals and convictions more that his professionalism.  He was young and inexperienced at the time, but he cared about people, about justice and human opportunity.

These folks are Catholics and represent another layer of community that I enjoy in Paraguay.  We were never a close knit community in terms of frequently being together to support each other, but we were strongly bound together by our ideals and by the conviction that injustices of Paraguayan society had to be confronted and changed.

My favorite agronomist/economist and the already mentioned scheduler of events had collaborated - again - to set up a meeting with the community of activists who worked out of Friendship Mission social center in the early 1970s.  I learned at that meeting that we are still a community, because nearly thirty people showed up - after 30 years!

That brings me to the other word: "Integrity."  It may be an old fashioned word that we don't use much today, but I grew up thinking it was important and haven't changed my mind.  It's best not to get pushed around by circumstances.  When you decide who you are and what you stand for, stick to it.  Some ideas have to change when one arrives at new understandings, but life goals can remain: continue to live up to your ideals.

Even allowing for the fact that all of us tend to put the best possible face on what we are thinking and doing when asked to talk about it, that session with Friendship Mission companions of years ago was an impressive recital of human integrity!  Everyone made it clear that they continue to be involved in efforts to change Paraguayan society.  Even though some of them suffered prison and abuse and/or exile after the 1976 repression, no one feels sorry for him/her self nor has given up on what they think is important.

"Integrity" was written all over the political prisoners we visited in three different prisons in Peru.  I had never known any of them before.  I knew a little bit about the revolutionary uprising in that country about fifteen years ago and the brutal way it was put down by the Peruvian military; and I knew the difference between the Revolutionary Movement Tupac Amaru, to which most of these prisoners probably had some relationship, and the Shinning Path revolutionaries of the same era.  Fortunately for me, the story of my one night in a Paraguayan jail and the reasons why that happened seemed to be sufficient passport into the confidence of these prisoners.

What I was privileged to hear was not how difficult years of imprisonment had been (although it was obviously anything but comfortable!),  nor crushed spirits, nor any backing away from the ideals that had led to the uprisings, but concerns for the future of their country.  I was inspired by their concerns for justice - not for themselves, but for everyone - and by their awareness of the needs of the poor and the dispossessed.  I was reassured that human integrity is with us still.

Frisco Gilchrist
Former missionary to Paraguay

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