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Ethnic and religious demographics

Many Latin American countries, such as Bolivia and Peru, have large indigenous populations. Argentina has few indigenous people left. The vast majority of people in Argentina trace their family ancestry to Europe, especially Spain and Italy.

Many Latin American countries, such as Bolivia and Peru, have large indigenous populations. Argentina has few indigenous people left. The vast majority of people in Argentina trace their family ancestry to Europe, especially Spain and Italy.

Since Spain was the main colonizer in Latin America and the Caribbean, Spanish is the most widely spoken language and Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion. The national government pays salaries and subsidies for the Catholic Church but not for other religious groups.

In a presentation at the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship, IRA pastor Gerardo Oberman said that 90 percent of Argentina is nominally Roman Catholic but few Catholics regularly attend worship.

Most Protestant churches in Argentina developed from historic European traditions. The IRA was formed by Dutch immigrants. Oberman and historian Robert Swierenga have both written about this history.

Evangelical Protestantism is growing much faster in Central America than in Argentina. Pentecostalism took hold in the 1970s and is the fastest growing segment of Protestants in Argentina.

“The Protestant minority to which the rest of us belong, we’re the ones with problems. We’ve lost a lot of members,” Oberman said. He recently accepted a call to an IRA congregation in Buenos Aires that has 250 families on the membership rolls but averages only 40 people at Sunday worship.

Political and economic influences

In his 2008 presentation, Oberman explained that for decades, small Protestant denominations helped people preserve their ethnic heritage, whether Dutch and Reformed, German and Lutheran, or Scottish and Presbyterian. They combined forces in an interdenominational Protestant seminary, Evangelical Institute for Higher Theological Studies (ISEDET). In general, though, the “churches in the beginning did not work for enculturation,” Oberman said.

Since 1930, Argentina has roller-coasted through popularly-elected governments and military dictatorships. During the “dirty war” (1976-1983), thousands of people were disappeared for speaking out against injustice or working with the poor. Catholic and Protestant churches hesitated whether to speak outremain silent, or support the government. Many people lost faith.

“Military dictatorship was a very strong shock for the church. We were inundated with stories of people going missing, being tortured, and killed. Churches formed an ecumenical movement and called people to work with mothers of desaparicidos,” Oberman said.

Several churches began adapting an activist phrase, poner el cuerpo, in their approach to Christian outreach and worship. Roughly translated, it means to put your whole body into action or put your life on the line.

“After the 1980s, churches started becoming more involved with social issues and having a dialogue with people. We’re more vocal in political life,” Oberman said.

Seeing Jesus in others and serving their neighbors led churches to discuss worship changes. “We saw that worship could not use language only for those who started the church. We changed our Scripture version to one everyone could understand,” he said.

Meanwhile the percent of people in poverty rose from only 5 percent in 1970 to 50 percent in 2003. Banks failed and many middle-class people lost their life savings. The country restructured debts, increased gross domestic production, and reduced unemployment. Still, deep class divides persist. A quarter or more of Argentines are now homeless or live in shacks and do not earn enough to meet basic needs.

Where faith meets life

As the Reformed Churches in Argentina began asking what God’s good news is in their situation, they could have tried one-size-fits-all solutions that help other churches grow quickly. But Oberman said at the 2009 Calvin worship symposium that importing mass culture forms, whether the Purpose Driven model or music of Latin American superstar Marcos Witt, is like planting artificial flowers in your garden.

The IRA learns from other Christian movements. “The slogan of Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is ‘stop suffering.’ They have prosperity celebrations that incorporate oil of olives from Israel or put salt on the floor and have you walk on it with bare feet,” Oberman said.

The takeaway for him is that tactile worship is important but must also be biblical. That’s why his church in Mar del Plata incorporated biblical traditions in prayer, such as anointing with oil or laying on of hands.

“Before we import someone else’s music or worship practices, we need to ask what ideology it clothes in spiritual garments. We seek success in the Word of God and theological reflection. Our music, our songs, our lyrics, and our worship point toward a completely different model. We seek to create communities committed to life, justice, and the transformation of the world,” he explained.

Hope amid pain

Oberman’s song “Con Gratitud” ends “With gratitude we come to you, Lord, singing, dancing, serving in love. For what you have done and will do and because your grace never fails” (rough translation).

He helped produce an Advent liturgy series on imagining peace. One liturgy (see pp. 61-66) begins with worshipers waiting outside a closed door. After a brief epistle reading, they are invited to greet each other with “Through Christ we have access, because he is our peace.”

Then they enter the worship space singing “El es nuestra paz” (He is our peace) and carrying items to decorate the communion table. As they stand around the table, someone reads, “In Christ, our peace, we gather as a community…that acknowledges we depend on the generous hand of God….”

This constant focus on God’s abundance, Christ’s provision, and the Spirit’s creative work leads Oberman to say, “What lies ahead is marvelous. God has given us the privilege to live in a time of dizzying change. What our generation is experiencing is unique.

“And in the midst of these changes, as people who have received a special calling from God, we cannot hang back watching history pass by. Our vocation is to become part of history, to seek meaning to guide the lives of those of us who believe in the permanent values of a kingdom that transcends little earthly kingdoms.

“Together with those whose hearts have been broken, their pockets emptied, their dreams undone, their horizon clouded…we can go on building hope, singing and celebrating faith in a God who owns no shares on Wall Street but rather in humanity.”

Argentina Through U.S. Eyes

Mar del Plata is a beach resort town on the Atlantic Ocean and is also in Argentina’s poorest province. Gerardo Oberman was, until recently, pastor of a Reformed Churches in Argentina congregation in a poor neighborhood of Mar del Plata.

The church provided space for a municipal youth orchestra to rehearse. As often happens when urban churches share their building with the community, the tiny Mar del Plata church got robbed. Thieves broke in and stole computers, printers, violins, violas, and cellos.

The congregation didn’t have money to replace all that. They asked their denomination for prayers and asked a small group from Calvin College to come do a fundraiser. Thanks to the robbery, they received new instruments, drew hundreds to classical music and Christmas concerts where Oberman shared the gospel, and built relationships across socioeconomic and national borders.

Poverty and hospitality

Calvin College orchestra conductor Robert Nordling and five students visited Argentina for five days in December 2008. In Buenos Aires and in Mar del Plata, they played concerts with youth orchestras.

“In Buenos Aires, we spent time with people who were not wealthy by American standards but were very affluent compared to those on the outskirts of the city. Miles and miles of dilapidated shacks—made of cardboard, metal, and scraps—extended as far as I could see,” Sarah Wittingen said.

Nordling described the poverty in Argentina as “enormous. We played with a youth orchestra in Buenos Aires. Its director runs music lessons for 200 students, ages 8 to 18, with 14 music teachers, all out of his tiny house. Our Calvin music department has 14 faculty members.”

The Calvin group commented on the hospitality they experienced and saw between Christians and non-Christians. Nordling said, “It was obvious to us that for Gerardo and the Mar del Plata church, if you don’t act for justice then you don’t really believe it.”

The youth orchestras the Calvin group played with include both affluent and poor students. “Making music together is a way to find solidarity with other cultures,” Nordling said.

“Argentineans greet and say goodbye to one another, us included, with a kiss on the cheek. A simple kiss breaks down so many boundaries that we’ve unconsciously put in place in our culture.

“I know that many of the students in the Amadeus Youth Orchestra did [JOAN: didn’t?] believe in God or did not attend church regularly if they did, but it was obvious that they felt very comfortable interacting with Gerardo and going to church to hear us play a Christmas concert in conjunction with a short sermon,” Wittingen said.

Mutual respect

The Calvin students enjoyed being invited to tango clubs. “One of the friends I made in Mar del Plata asked me whether I believed in God. I said yes and asked her in return. Her response sounded as though she believed there was a God, but did not really believe that you could have a relationship with him,” Paul Nienhuis said.

“Although our lifestyles did not align perfectly with those of some of the non-believing Argentineans we met, I felt no tension between us. Christianity did not seem to make them completely uncomfortable.

“We had a concert in Gerardo's church, and many of the friends we made from the orchestra, who did not attend church normally, showed up. All the songs we played were Christmas songs and the explanations that Professor Nordling gave greatly reflected our belief and response to Jesus Christ. It was amazing to see how intently and respectfully our new friends listened to everything said and played,” he said.

Fundraiser exceeded expectations

Nordling said it can be hard to get a good turnout for classical music but a media blitz of radio ads, posters, and flyers did the job. Mar del Plata residents filled all seats for the free concert led by youth orchestra conductor Guillermo “Willy” Sotelo, Nordling, students from both orchestras, and orchestra teachers.

“We played in a 1150-seat gorgeous theater. The city’s minister of culture made a presentation and thanked Calvin for the instrument donations,” Nordling said.

They played music from Elgar, Mozart, Dvorak, contemporary American composer Elliot Carter, and Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

“The audience was very enthusiastic. At intermission, Gerardo thanked them for coming and asked if anyone would like to make a donation. What came in wasn’t all from one or two big donors. They collected bags and bags stuffed with small bills.

“Gerardo was hoping for 550 pesos, but they got 2500 pesos. That’s more than $700 and will make a major impact on the youth orchestra,” Nordling said. He also brought along classical music that the orchestra may legally duplicate.