New Horizons

The Challenge for the Gospel in Uruguay

Jonathan B. Falk

When I was introducing our prospective ministry in Uruguay to your churches during our furlough last year, I often made the statement that, as far as we knew, Margaret and I were the first Presbyterian missionaries to set foot in Uruguay. But after doing some research during our Spanish-language studies in Montevideo, I need to retract that statement.

Scottish Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century

Dr. José Alberto Piquinela, the former archivist for the Methodist Church of Uruguay, recently published a volume entitled The History of Protestantism in Uruguay from 1808 to 1880. According to Piquinela, a handful of Scottish settlers landed in southern Uruguay in 1849, where they were visited periodically by the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Buenos Aires, Argentina. But of greatest interest is the record left by the Rev. Lachlan M'Neill from 1866 to 1877.

Mr. M'Neill, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, exercised an itinerant ministry for those eleven years, visiting four preaching stations in towns along the Uruguay River (which forms the western boundary of Uruguay). He was able to conduct monthly worship services in each of the four towns. The attendance at the services averaged between twenty and thirty persons. One of the more interesting points of M'Neill's journal was the celebration of a Scottish Highland wedding in the town of Salto, complete with bagpipes!

According to the sessional records that remain, Lachlan M'Neill carried out a faithful ministry of family visitation to the ranches, or estancias, of the Scottish settlers. It was said of M'Neill that "he lived on a horse." The records also include accounts of crossing flooded streams, breaking bones when falling off his horse, encountering villages in mourning from cholera epidemics, and having to make detours during the civil wars that troubled the early years of Uruguay's history. Dr. Piquinela summarizes his account of Lachlan M'Neill's ministry by observing that he left a colorful and moving record of his adventures in Uruguay. Sadly, these records are all that remained of Presbyterianism in Uruguay—until about four years ago, when a work began in Rivera, Uruguay.

There is no record of any worship services being conducted at any of the four preaching stations after 1877. The Presbyterians simply vanished. Dr. Piquinela surmises that the Presbyterians may have joined other Protestant churches that still exist in Uruguay. My fear, based on the general decline of the Protestant churches in Uruguay, is that the children of Presbyterians may have been lost to the world.

A Comparison with the Situation Today

It has been instructive for me to compare the history of Scottish Presbyterianism in this country with our own church here today, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Uruguay. Like the Scottish church, we have four regular preaching stations—two on the Uruguayan side of the border and two in Brazil. On occasion, worship services are conducted in other locations on both sides of the border. And, similar to the first Presbyterians in Uruguay, we average between twenty and forty persons at our worship services.

However, the differences between the two groups of Presbyterians are striking. Unlike the Scottish church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Uruguay was established by native Uruguayans, not by immigrants. The instrument used by the Lord to start this church was the growing body of Reformed literature written in, and translated into, Spanish and Portuguese.

The Present Situation

At present, Gustavo Mello is the only ordained minister in the Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada in Rivera. He also works full-time as a policeman in order to support his family, but he plans to retire in a little over two years to carry out his duties as the pastor of the church.

Marcos Lara is a ruling elder and licensed to exhort. Because Marcos is fluent in Portuguese, he spends Tuesdays and Fridays conducting Bible studies in the preaching stations in Brazil. I have the pleasure of working with him on Thursdays in Barrio Mandubí at a Bible study in Spanish. On Saturday evenings, Marcos leads the young people's Bible study, which often reaches an attendance of fifteen or more junior and senior high school students.

Readers of Telenews may remember the prayer request made last summer for elder Henry Vega. Henry suffered what was first suspected to be a cerebral hemorrhage, but later was diagnosed as meningitis. We give thanks to God that he survived the illness, but it left him with some disabilities. In particular, Henry suffered some memory loss. We praise God that we have seen improvement in Henry during the four months we have been in Rivera. He is now able to pray publicly in the worship services, exhort briefly, and occasionally conduct the hymn singing. Henry's wife, Cristina, heads the Sunday school program in Mandubí that ranges in size from fifteen to twenty children.

We are learning that Rivera has its own unique challenges for ministry. It is located on the border with Brazil in a district called La Frontera, or the Frontier. It is not the secular wasteland that one finds in the capital city of Uruguay, Montevideo. The Mormons have erected six large edifices that are, happily, largely empty of worshipers. There are numerous storefront Pentecostal churches, with their own bands of apostles and prophets. A large "health and wealth" cult from Brazil has built an imposing cathedral in order to prey upon the souls and pocketbooks of the local population.

To be sure, there are some historic evangelical denominations represented in Rivera. But most insidious is the growing presence of the Brazilian spiritist cults like Macumba and Candomble. These cults are a syncretistic blend of African animism and Roman Catholicism. According to a veteran Protestant missionary in Rivera, their teaching is beginning to make some inroads into the evangelical churches.

Elder Marcos Lara observes that the evangelical churches in the Frontier rely on revivals to rouse their members and adherents out of periods of backsliding. Temptations of the flesh abound on the Frontier. Alcoholism and drug addiction are serious problems; broken marriages are the norm. Many children are being raised by their grandparents. It is difficult to find believers who are wholeheartedly committed to following Christ and faithfully submitting to the leadership of their church. I suspect that many pastors and sessions in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church would make similar observations about the religious climate of many places in North America!

The evangelistic zeal of the brothers in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Uruguay has been a great encouragement to me, as well as a goad to my own efforts. Pray that we will be able to train the leaders to disciple and to catechize the members of their church in the Word of God and in the sound doctrine of their own secondary standards. Pray that we will be able to guard the flock from the false teachings that abound in Rivera, and to encourage one another to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Reaching Montevideo with the Gospel

Pray as well that we will be able to implement the hope of the leaders of our local congregation. Pastor Gustavo and elder Marcos have expressed a desire to plant a Presbyterian church in Montevideo, some three hundred miles to the south. More than 60 percent of the population of the country lives in the greater Montevideo area. Margaret and I spent twelve weeks there, studying Spanish at the Academia Uruguay.

Our instructors were all graduate students at the University of the Republic (Universidad de la República), Uruguay's huge public university, and were typical of the young adults we met in the capital city. They were, in most cases, a generation removed from the Roman Catholic Church, utterly secular in their outlook, and politely incredulous that people like us believed the Bible to be the Word of God. We struggled to find an evangelical church in our neighborhood that preached the gospel of God's grace.

It will be a considerable challenge to establish a Presbyterian church in a secular environment like Montevideo. Pray that God would prod Spanish-speaking pastors and families to leave comfortable ministries in North America to go out as missionaries in order to reach a nation that is largely ignorant of biblical truth. But more urgently, pray that God would raise up evangelists and church planters from within the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Uruguay who have the vision and the gifts to reach this lost generation for Christ.

The author is an OP missionary to Uruguay. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2009.

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