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Latin American Mennonite scholar makes history

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Jaime Prieto is making history in more ways than one. Jaime Adrián Prieto Valladares, professor of theology at Latin American Biblical University in San José, Costa Rica, delivered the 54th Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College Oct. 30-Nov. 1--only the second time in the lecture’s history that the speaker was not from Europe or North America. Prieto is the author of the Latin American volume of the Global Mennonite History Project, initiated by Mennonite World Conference in 1997.

Mark Jantzen, assistant professor of history at Bethel College, said when he introduced Prieto’s second lecture that it represented a "shift away from the North to the global South." Prieto’s writing for Mennonite World Conference is "a groundbreaking work," Jantzen continued, "the first comprehensive history of Mennonites in [Latin America] in any language."

Prieto’s lectures focused on some of his work from the history project, which he began in 1999. Besides being in Spanish, with English translation, these lectures were different from many past ones in their focus on oral history. The first one, "El cáracter poligenético de lost Menonitas en América Latina (The polygenetic character of Mennonites in Latin America)," laid out three typologies for Latin American Mennonites. Each of the next three lectures looked at one of these types by drawing heavily on one or two stories of Latin American Mennonites that illustrated the type.

"Oral history has been and continues to be part of the memories of God’s people," Prieto said, "yet oral history has long been discredited by historical scholars. In a relatively recent history like this one, oral history should be considered a living archive, not just a source."

The three types Prieto laid out as a way of understanding Mennonites and their history in Latin America placed churches into these categories: those started by workers sent from missionary societies in the United States and Canada (e.g., the Mennonite church in Argentina, dating from the 1920s); those founded by immigrants, mostly from Europe, who were considered to be citizens of their country of origin and spoke that language (e.g., the Mennonite churches in Paraguay and parts of Mexico); those indigenous to their country, though perhaps with some early contact with North American missionaries (e.g., the Evangelical Mennonite churches in El Salvador, the K’ekchi’ Mennonite church in Guatemala).

"We need to re-create the stories of the small miracles of faith in our communities, because that is where God is," Prieto said. "We need to hear from people about their context and what they deal with day to day. It should be a dialogue--there is a lot to learn and a great deal to teach.

"Sometimes we spend our words badly," he continued. "They go in one ear and out the other. Stories tend to stick with us."

Prieto’s own story is remarkable. He was one of the youngest children in a large Costa Rican peasant family from Cartago, at the foot of the Irazú volcano near San José. His mother died before Prieto was old enough to remember her. He and a younger sibling grew up in a children’s home.

Prieto’s mother was Catholic and his father was evangelical. At age 13, Prieto began attending a Mennonite church. In 1980, he enrolled in Latin American Biblical Seminary, now University, where he was a student of General Conference Mennonite Church mission worker Laverne Rutschman and his wife, Harriet--who taught Prieto Old Testament and English, respectively--now of North Newton.

"I remember him as friendly, enthusiastic and alert," Laverne Rutschman said. He recalled that Elsa Thomas, a Latin American Biblical Seminary faculty member who had studied in Germany, was instrumental in helping Prieto get a scholarship to go to the University of Hamburg, where he stayed for seven years studying Anabaptist history. Prieto earned his doctorate from the University of Hamburg in 1992.

Prieto said that much of his interest in oral history and the contributions of people whose voices are seldom heard--such as women, children, ethnic minorities and indigenous people--has personal connections. Although he was the only one in his family to finish secondary school, much less earn advanced degrees, he still stays in touch with his brothers and sisters, including regularly spending time in the campo with his extended family.

Prieto’s wife, Silvia de Lima Silva, the chair of the Bible department at Latin American Biblical University, is Brazilian and of African heritage. The couple met at Latin American Biblical University. They have a son, Thomáz, and attend the Nuevo Pacto (New Covenant) Mennonite church in San José.

In considering his groundbreaking work as a Latin American historian of Latin American church and Mennonite history, Prieto pointed out that it is not only the Latin American history but also that of the churches in Africa and Asia that have much to say to their North American counterparts.

"A significant contribution of Latin American theology is looking at the ecosystem and how human beings relate to the earth," he said. In his final Menno Simons lecture, Prieto used Hurricane Katrina as a metaphor for the earth’s response to its mistreatment by people.

He also stated strongly that Mennonites have a responsibility to be more explicit about the gospel message of peace. "It’s been 50 years since World War II--here we are and we haven’t made a lot of progress, even though we could have [in reducing militarism]," he said.

Prieto recently completed four years as president of Latin American Biblical University. He and Silvia are currently on a mini-sabbatical in Brazil, although Prieto spent two weeks in the Newton-North Newton area and two more weeks in Goshen-Elkhart, Ind., in large part to do research in the two Mennonite historical libraries and archives located on the campuses of Bethel College and Goshen College. After the first of the year, Prieto will return to teaching theology, history and missiology at Latin American Biblical University. The Latin America volume of the Global Mennonite History Project is slated to be completed in the next year.

Heidi Regier Kreider, pastor of Bethel College Mennonite Church, whose family hosted Prieto for much of his stay in Kansas, said of him in the introduction to his final lecture: "Two things strike me about Jaime--how young he seems to be giving such a scholarly lecture, and that he’s going places in the wider Mennonite world."

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