25 June 2020

Bolivian Friends: A grand and modest epic

Oscar Tintaya's original painting for the cover of A Long Walk, A Gradual Ascent

Publisher's description.

Quick quiz: which four countries of the world have the highest numbers of Quakers?

Answer: Kenya is in number one position, followed by the USA and Burundi. In fourth place by total number, and in third place by proportion of total population, is Bolivia. How did Quakers attain such prominence in a relatively small South American country?

This is the story that Nancy Thomas tells in her new book, A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in Its Context of Conflict. The particular stream of the Bolivian Friends movement chronicled in her book is the National Evangelical Friends Church (INELA, Iglesia Nacional Evangélica de Los Amigos). INELA is one of several different Friends denominations in Bolivia, but at the beginning of Nancy's account, between 1915 and 1924, parts of their story merge.

Nancy's book is just one product of a joint INELA-Northwest Yearly Meeting commission on INELA and mission history. In addition to compiling and preserving written records, the commission conducted numerous interviews with descendants of the earliest generations of Quakers in the country. The commission's Facebook page includes videos with a sampling of their work.

A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent includes an early chapter by Nancy's husband Hal Thomas on the history, worldview, social structures, political context, economic life, and language of the Aymara people who are the great majority of Bolivian Quakers. As he notes, "The Aymara-speaking people of the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes have inhabited the mountain pastures, high plains, and the breakaway valleys of what is today Bolivia and southern Peru as a significant social and cultural presence for more than nine hundred years." Their experience over the last four and a half centuries includes cycles of colonialist oppression and Aymara resistance, making 20th-century experiments in Bolivian democracy, and the honoring of indigenous identity that is part of former president Evo Morales's mixed legacy, an important part of the history.

Conflict is a recurring theme in Aymara culture and history, leading Nancy to write, "It may be an irony that this should be the setting for the development of a 'peace church' such as the Quakers; or it may be a sign of grace."

I call this a grand epic and a modest epic. Its grand scale is in part geographic -- starting from just one village church on the shore of legendary Lake Titicaca and one urban church in La Paz. A hundred years later it counts around two hundred congregations in the INELA denomination alone, with hundreds more in the other Quaker yearly meetings in Bolivia. Along the way, a sister denomination took hold and flourished in Peru, and outreach began in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. INELA, as an independent denomination, has formed strong relationships with the rest of the world Quaker family while maintaining its close fellowship with Northwest Yearly Meeting.

William Abel, 1916 (from book)
At the beginning of this epic, it's a story on an intimate scale. One young man, a son of the Kumeyaay tribe in San Pasqual, California, William Abel, became one of the very first students of the Training School for Christian Workers in Whittier, a mostly-Quaker initiative which later became Azusa Pacific University. The narrative of Abel's life, including his education at this school, interrupted halfway by eleven years of missionary service in the Philippines, is truly gripping, thanks in part to new details about his youth that emerged from the Thomases' research.

When he finished the Training School, Abel decided to serve God in Bolivia. This was a fateful decision. In Bolivia, he met and began joint ministry with three Quaker women. One of them, Florence Smith, had taught at the Training School in California. The other two, Mattie Blount and Emma Morrow, were from Westfield, Indiana (the originating point of the other major stream of Bolivian Quaker history, now associated with Central Yearly Meeting). 

During these months in La Paz, Abel met a young Christian, Juan Ayllón, who (as events unfolded) is now considered, along with Abel, the co-founder of the Quaker movement that became INELA. After this important convergence of personalities, and after only eight months in La Paz, William Abel contracted smallpox. Morrow and Ayllón cared for Abel in his final days; when Abel died, Ayllón arranged for his funeral and burial in La Paz. The commitments made by everyone involved during these eventful days and months, including the international and inter-Quaker relationships represented by these diverse personalities and the prayers of their communities, laid the foundation of the Quaker movement in Bolivia. Nancy's book leads us through these stories with sensitivity but also an earthy realism. This is history, not hagiography.

Meanwhile, a seemingly separate story was unfolding on the shore of Lake Titicaca. A Christian convert comes home from the big city and holds small meetings in his village of Amacari, forming a completely independent little Christian movement that reminds me of the Seekers of English Quaker history.

As you've no doubt anticipated, Juan Ayllón eventually makes contact with Amacari village. Those early developments, along with the shift of sponsorship for Ayllón and the young Quaker movement from Central American Friends Church (Guatemala) to Oregon Friends (now Northwest Yearly Meeting), the founding of Bolivian Friends schools, the formulation of the "indigenous principle" to guide relationships between the Oregon missionaries and Bolivian Friends, all the way to the independent yearly meetings in Bolivia and Peru that we have today -- are all part of Nancy's grand epic.

It's also a modest epic, in several senses. There is genuine heroism and amazing self-sacrifice in this movement, including, at times, serious persecution from the unsympathetic sectors of the Roman Catholic church, sometimes in combination with skeptical politicians. However, Nancy also reveals less heroic dimensions of the story: conflicts among church leaders and among missionaries, and several instances of leaders falling into various moral pitfalls, both sexual and financial. (There's also a story of a genuine, touching romance with a heartbreaking conclusion. Here is a missiological study that doesn't lack for human drama!) The theme of conflict arises repeatedly, sometimes among church leaders, often between INELA's Bolivian leadership and the Oregon missionaries, and sometimes between generations in the church. The Thomases' commitment to tell the story from both "inside" and "outside" (from the Bolivians' viewpoint as well as the missionaries') means a commitment to unvarnished truth.

Throughout the decades of INELA's history, Nancy weaves Bolivia's political developments into the narrative, as the country endures right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism, coups and revolutions, and eventually adopts electoral democracy. One very specific and illustrative case study involves the farm that the mission bought in 1947 as a source of income and a location for leadership training. As it turns out, the farm came with a whole community of farm families (colonos) that were bound to the land as part of Bolivia's hacienda system! Oregon Quakers were shocked to find themselves as, to put it bluntly, slaveholders. To make things more complicated, as the new owners sought to free the farmworking families and give them title to their plots, a few of them actually preferred the existing arrangements, but demanded improvements within that structure. As Nancy says, "... [O]ne has to ask if the mission or the OYM [Oregon Yearly Meeting], back in the 1940s and 1950s, had any sense of the gravity of owning an ex-hacienda in such revolutionary times." The story of Quakers divesting themselves of the farm and smuggling out its equipment in the dead of night is told from contemporary correspondence. Unfortunately we don't have access to much of the local non-Quaker point of view at the time.

Nancy also avoids exalting the Quaker element in this narrative. The earliest missionaries were, as she points out, more interested in planting churches in the Protestant holiness mold than conforming to specifically Quaker models. However, the Quaker element is always present as a sort of subterranean stream. The Chaco War with Paraguay (1932-35), for example, found some of the young Quaker men choosing to be conscientious objectors. The egalitarian and participatory nature of Friends governance coincided with similar features of Aymara culture. Women were central figures in the early history of the movement, and have regained influence in more recent years through their own women's organization within INELA. An increased emphasis on social justice outreach in recent decades fueled both innovation and tension within INELA's ministries.

In sum: this history balances well-sourced historical accounting (1,151 footnotes!), with a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit in raising up a people for God's service in Bolivia and beyond.

Order your paper copy directly from the publisher. Amazon has a good price for the e-book version. Nancy's blog Mil Gracias has several background articles, including these posts about William Abel: The story begins. The story continues. (The second post includes remarkable family coincidences not in the book.)

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