Paul F. McCleary shares how the trajectory of life was changed by a single encounter and the ramifications that were produced. The author assumed when he enrolled in seminary his future would probably involve being a pastor of a church in rural downstate Illinois. A visit to the seminary by a Methodist bishop from Latin America became an encounter that changed entirely the direction of his career from that of a local church pastor to a missionary.
The McCleary family arrived in Bolivia in the last decade before Methodism transitioned from being a mission to becoming a national autonomous church. The author shares the challenges of contributing to the formation of a new church in a developing country struggling to find its new identity.
The view of open country churches visible over the cornfields of Central Illinois, where he served as a student pastor, stands in sharp contrast to living in the poorest country in South America—a country second only to Haiti as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Methodism’s footing in Bolivia came through the fact that at the turn of the century, the Bolivian president had a daughter who was sent to Santiago, Chile, to gain a high school education not yet available to girls in Bolivia.
The author’s real education, even after a degree from college and seminary, came from Bolivia. Living among the poor and ministering to families with children is a quick course in understanding how conditions of absolute poverty shape the world in which many people live. As incongruous as it may seem, the country was rich in natural resources whose benefit failed to trickle down to improve the daily lives of the indigenous majority of society.
As the author quickly learned, as insignificant as Bolivia appeared, it was an attractive pawn in the larger context of global politics. The expansion of Nazism took easy roots in the Bolivian quest for an alternative social order different from the past. The end of World War II in Europe only served to scatter the seed to other corners of the world. There were attempts to continue it in countries such as Bolivia. Klaus Barbie was a resident in Bolivia under protective cover offered by lenient military administrations. The emergence of a Cuban presence led by Che Guevarra was an effort to establish a colony in the more isolated Eastern area of Bolivia and was another political influence.
The author shares how new theological currents were also influencing the Christian faith as an outgrowth of conditions in Latin America. These new challenges came in the form of liberation theology articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez, and identification with the poor by Paulo Freire was also gaining wider acceptance.
The author was so influenced by these ten years in Bolivia that he went on to direct three different international nonprofit organizations that focus on combating the conditions of absolute poverty on children and families. In so doing, he served as staff of the National Council of Churches, on commissions of the World Council of Churches, as president of the Non-Governmental Organizations Committee to UNICEF, and as a member of the Bishops’ Task Force on Children and Poverty of the United Methodist Church.