Simple Acts of Faith: My Little World in Argentina

When my husband, Frank, and I arrived in the Chaco region of Argentina in 1995, our children were 2, 5, and 8 years old. We had already experienced four years in an urban slum area of Buenos Aires and were quite happy to move to a rather rural area in the north of the country. Resistencia, the province capital, is a dusty, wide-spread city with paved streets around the government building. We decided to move to a poor quarter with unpaved streets and tiny houses.

While in Chaco, we were part of a small international team (the Equipo Menonita), which served the independent, indigenous churches of three different ethnic peoples.

Chaco is a massive plain of thorny bush; small churches are spread throughout the region. Just like the other team members, Frank travelled hundreds of kilometers to visit the churches and their pastors, collaborate in Bible translation, and study the Toba language and culture. Every week, he was away from home for several days.

Entering Holy Ground
I had to learn to get along in the new environment. Many times, I wondered what Jesus wanted me to do besides raise the kids. Since I wanted to get to know my neighbors, I began visiting them. These visits became the door to the hearts around me. I had many profound experiences in the hours sitting in the shade with my neighbors. It was a lot more being than doing.

It was like entering holy ground. I heard family stories—both joyful and sad. I learned about traditions and pride, shame and illness, suffering and resistance, cooking menus and convictions.

Plus, my neighbors got to know me. I shared life with them—I talked about how I loved Jesus, read the Bible, and longed for justice and peace. I shared not only my successes, but my troubles and frustrations as well.

Much later, when I had developed a deeper friendship with them, some of the women explained that I had seemed strange to them in the beginning. For instance, my three kids and I shared one bicycle to get food for a whole week, and we had no house maid. The women explained that they weren´t sure whether their children would be safe at my house because our children did odd things like climb high trees and swing on long swings. Our kids could sleep in the tent in the yard and run in the rain. However, the other children loved to play at our house, so little by little the women gave in. It was giving and receiving.

Since there were many things to learn (e.g., where to buy what vegetable, how to sleep in hot temperatures, what to do when rain turned our street into ankle-high mud, where to send our children to school), I was thankful to have my special teachers, my neighbors.

The Wisdom of Doña Rosa
Across from us lived Doña Rosa. She was dynamic, had work since she was a child, and had raised seven kids. She welcomed us from the first day we arrived. In order to save the expensive tube-gas, she would cook in her iron pot on an open fire. My children loved to drop by just before noon. With a big smile, Doña Rosa opened the lid and let them have a look and a smell into what she was cooking. Occasionally, our kids decided to eat at her house before crossing the street to eat at ours.

Doña Rosa was my informal teacher of life in the neighborhood: who was who, what to do with a flea invasion, what were the dangers for kids, how men and women relate, etc. She gave me one of her best hens and her ten eggs. The hen decided to hatch them, and twenty-one days later I was the proud owner of eleven chicks.

Doña Rosa had a life-rooted wiseness and was able to comfort and council me. Because she would spend hours sitting under the trees in front of her little house, she was aware of everything on the street. This is how she noticed our son, Johannes, escape almost daily to an illegal videogame station a block away. I thought he was playing with other kids. ″Did you notice that Juani [his name in Spanish] is at the videogames almost every day?″ she asked. ″I think he is trying very hard to make friends because he invites the other little boys with his money. Or, might it be your money?″ There was no accusation in her voice, just a motherly concern.

The Contentment of Damiana
Then there was Damiana. She lived around the corner in a tiny brick house with five of her nine children. She had grown up in the Chaco bush and had learned how to survive in poverty. Well equipped with pride, she had decided not to depend on social welfare. Every day, she mixed ten kilograms of flour with shortening, salt, and water and started the hard work of kneading. She then made a fire, formed fifty flat bread, and baked them on a grill.

Once they were baked and crunchy, one of her children carried them around the neighorhood. I went to visit Damiana almost every week for many years and was fascinated by her wisdom and patience. One day I visited her, and it was raining. It had been raining for ten days and mud was everywhere. My children´s clothes were dirty, and because of the humidity, nothing dried. I was sick of the rain and mud and bored because we could hardly leave home. So I went to visit Damiana.

In her house, the unplastered walls were too thin to keep the water out, so it ran in little streams down to the muddy floor. The small room was filled with beds—the only places one could sit. When I arrived at her house, she put the water kettle on the fire and served hot sweet mate. We sat and watched the rain falling. I sighed and she looked at me. ″How can you stand this? When will your things dry again—the pillows, the matresses….?″ She served another mate and smiled at me: ″It´s simple!″ she responded, ″When the sun comes out, we carry the things outside and they dry. It has always been like that.″

Damiana and I became close friends, although we were from seemingly different planets. With every visit, I sat a time in her little world. We talked about the joys and difficulties of raising kids, what vegetables were growing well in our gardens, and our chickens and their eggs.

One day, I brought leftover bread to feed her hens. It was dry and the hens couldn´t peck it, but we sat and watched them try. When I got up and stepped on the bread to break it into smaller pieces, Damiana was upset. Bread is holy, she said, and you shouldn´t step on it. I learned there were many holy things for her.

God was holy, too. But because all the men in her life had treated her poorly or had left her, God too seemed far away and unreliable. I started to share my experiences with the close Jesus I knew—the one who walks with and stays with us. Because reading was difficult for her, she soon asked me to read the Bible to her. So I read the stories of Jesus and his encounters with people.

Holy Moments of Change
During that time, a new family moved into the house in front of Damiana. They were believers and became members of a small, Pentecostal church on our street. The young husband, Ariel, was clever with practical things and offered to help Damiana around the house. The children of both families strengthend their bonds of friendship. Damiana began going to the church’s evening services and on my visits she asked me to pray for her sorrows.

One evening, rain and strong winds loosened the electrical cable which led to Damiana´s house. For hours, Damiana didn´t have electricity. When Ariel got home from work, he offered to fix the cable. It was already dark and still raining, and the cable was hanging from the mast. Ariel got a ladder, climbed up, and did what he could. But in a moment of inattentiveness he touched the current and fell in front of the horror-stricken Damiana. She screamed, and neighbors called an ambulance; however, since the streets were so muddy, it couldn´t get to Damaina´s house in time. When a taxi driver finally arrived and took Ariel to the hospital, it was too late. He had died in the car.

We all went to the death watch, grieved, unable to say a word, simply mourning alongside the wife and children. In spite of the calamity, Damiana continued visiting the small church and received comfort. She kept walking in faith and kneading her bread.

Meanwhile, our children grew older. I started to work in bilingual training My visits became less and less frequent.

But I had learned a lesson: daily life is holy. It is full of God. When you share it with others, you enter holy ground. That is where faithfulness, care, struggle, joy, and hope occur.

Jesus visited people in their homes. So simple, so meaningful.

″The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.″ – John 1:14

Ute Paul, born in 1962 in Germany, is a teacher of religious education, music, and German. With their three children, she and her husband, Frank, served in Argentina from 1990 until 2008, first in a slum area of Buenos Aires, later in the Chaco region as members of the Mennonite Team which is accompanying the indigenous independent churches. The couple lives in Germany and are part of the Reichelsheim Fellowship.