Sunday, January 14, 2018

Urban Church, Global City: Montevideo


with the people of la Iglesia en Montevideo

Our journey with La Iglesia Valdense del Rio de la Plata comes to an end in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay.  It's arc of high rise apartments and hotels along la playa are reminiscent of Miami as are the well preserved streets of art deco, more than any other city in South America.
Montevideo Deco

It's appearance is expressive of the most secular and progressive country in South America. And the safest city. It is a bit surprising, then,to learn of Uruguay's high suicide rate. 

This is the  context for the ministry of la iglesia valdense . in Montevideo.  While our plan was to have  a workshop similar to what we did in Argentina, it became clear to me that the Montevideo Church may be the most important to look at because of it's history of having followed the cardinal rule of urban ministry, namely to be aware of and informed by its context. In listening to the stories of long time members, there was a conscious intentionality in how the church's ministry was lived out in the urban context.

Łux lucet en tenebras
Located in the central heart of the  city, its architecture is classic postwar modernist with the largest sanctuary I encountered in Rio de la Plata. 
La Iglesia
It's interior is classic Valdensian, filled with bright streams of natural light. The light is another expression of the  Valdensian motto, Lux lucet in tenebras, light shines in the darkness...  

The church began with a fellowship of young people in 1952 and by 1958 the church building was erected.  It's worth noting that the church is  directly across the street from the military hospital
Military Hospital
which during the junta years 1973-85 became a place of detention and torture. (On reflection, I would have liked to  have heard more from the church members about what these years were like. It must have had a chilling effect on church life to be so near.)

There were a good mixture of older members, "legacy" valdensians, a former Methodist, an Argentine and an American.  At least one through mrriage and one by choice, attracted by its history, ideas and its living faith. And one member, the President, responded wit a sigh that he had been there "800 years."
Gathered for conversation

Among concerns of the people were the suicide rate and increasing refugees/migrants from the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Republica Dominicana.

One of the richest resources of e congregation is its building, which was built to provide not only student housing but also housing for transients. And there is an appropriate sense of pride in having wanted mission as part of its  original design.

(It's also interesting that the walls outside the downstairs fellowship hall of the church have painted murals of the history of la iglesia valdense in Uruguay.) 
Historic murals

There is also a strong sense of pride in their interfaith commitments and relationships, their women association and especially the musical and choral programs of the church. Known as the "home of choirs."

Sunday was a bit of a different worship day in that Pastor Hugo Armond Pilon's ministry was up for a renewal vote and he was not there. It was also a special women's led service. Although larger in attendance than  most, the sanctuary still had a lot of empty pews. 
Sunday the women led worship

In my conversations after the workshop and on Sunday, I discovered that the original plans were even more visionary. The idea was to have a building that would essentially house all the members of the congregation as an intentional community. For its time, this was a truly unique and creative expression of urban ministry.

Although that never actually happened, a number of families did initiate the process and one current member has war memories of growing up there and the sense of community and being able to move freely from floor to floor and apartment to apartment...a true sense of community. 

Hearing some of this story helped me to understand  some of the weariness I felt from some members. They had opened their minds and hearts and had dreamed big. And there is that sense of aging with the dreams unfulfilled and wondering who new dreamers will be. 

This is a story that needs to be gone into more deeply and recorded as it was a very important experiment in urban ministry.  Something of that vision can inform and inspire a new time of visioning.

Certainly the building and its student and itinerant housing could be further developed in a number of different creative ways. Perhaps even related to refugees and migrants. It also strikes me that in this highly secular culture, the suicide rate may be expressive of a spiritual hunger. My impression of the Valdensians is that their unique spiritual culture may be especially consonant with the spiritual needs of the progressive secular culture in which they live. 

The basis for a creative progressive urban ministry that could revitalize the church and be an even more valuable presence in the city is clearly  there. 

Lux lucet in tenebras.

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