From Snow-Covered Peaks to Tropical Forests

EARLY IN THE SECOND HALF of the last [19th] century , a number of Waldensian families left their homeland in the Alps because of the social and economic hardships of the time and settled in the young Latin American nation of Uruguay, and near the border in neighboring Argentina. Settling in the forests in the Rio Plata (River Plate) district, they applied their agricultural skills, and created communities much like the ones they had left in the Alps. Today, after about 130 years, these communities have 24 established churches, and 48 places of worship looked after by 22 ministers. There are approximately 12,547 members of these churches today in Uruguay and Argentina. Together they make up The Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio Plata.

The Waldensians contributed to the development of these two Latin countries through their deep religious faith, and also by applying their considerable knowledge of farming. The Rio Plata Church is a rural church. Its administration center, the Casa Valdense, and its social institutions—homes for the elderly, a childrens’ home, a home for the disabled, and a social service center—are situated in the areas where the original settlers lived. Having its administrative center in the interior of Uruguay gives the Waldensian Church very special characteristics, since the other Churches there (Protestant as well as Roman Catholic) have their centers in the capital cities of Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

After the development of rural settlements, many families moved to urban centers where new communities were founded—first in the towns of the interior, then in the capitals of Uruguay and Argentina. The Church in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, was formed to serve the young people who came to the city for university studies. The formation of this Church was of particular importance for it forced the Waldensians to reflect on ways of witnessing to the Gospel in a big city. It also has benefited the rural settlements, since many who have received university training have returned to the interior to work there.

Mission and Social Contributions

The Waldensian community in Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires, has unusual characteristics since it is a congregation that includes members of the French Reformed, and German and Swiss immigrant communities also. The Evangelical Reformed Church of Buenos Aires is a multi-lingual congregation (Spanish, French, and German). It is a community made up of very different members: from “big city professionals” to uprooted peasants from the country.

Establishing congregations in these capital cities has brought about significant changes in the Church’s attitude towards missions. Uruguay is called a “dwarf with the head of a giant,” for more than half of its three million inhabitants live in Montevideo. In Argentina the situation is similar: Buenos Aires, like Montevideo, is a seaport city; it has seven million inhabitants. Obviously, work in these cities is very different from that in small interior towns! Helping people deal with the problems of urban life has become a significant part of the mission of the Waldensian Church.

The first contribution of the Waldensian Church to the surrounding society was through its creation of primary schools. A hundred years ago, the first high school in the interior of Uruguay was opened by Waldensians in Colonia Valdense. It was a very important event. Waldensians reproduced in the “new world” what they had many years before accomplished in the Waldensian valleys. They established a central school, several smaller localised schools, and a high-school to guide students to university studies. These schools, though built upon the evangelical beliefs of the Waldensians, were not limited to Waldensian children. When, in 1927, the government was able to take charge of these schools, the Church handed its education centers over to the Government. Having created centers of education, the Church turned to other social concerns, and established homes for the elderly, for homeless children, and for the disabled.

Politics, Change, and the Future

The Church of the Rio Plata Area has always had the firm intention of being a Church without geographic frontiers, in loyalty to the Waldensian tradition of not being limited or defined by nationality. This separation between church and state became evident when the Rio Plata area went through periods of dictatorial and military control. For the Waldensian Church it was not easy to maintain its unity under the threat of dictatorial governments. There were always people who advocated alliances and agreements with the official authorities. At that point, the strong relationship that had been maintained with the Waldensian Church in Europe was of particular importance for solidarity and support.

In 1965, the Waldensian Church resolved to change the status of the South American congregations, which, up to that time, had been considered a “district” of the Italian Church. The Waldensian Church became one Church subdivided into two areas: The European area, with its annual synod in Torre Pellice, and the river Plate area, celebrating its annual synod in one of the local congregations in either Uruguay or Argentina.

Today, the social problems of the two countries on the Rio Plata raises questions about the life of the Waldensian Church. Uruguay has a birthrate of 50,000 children per year, and statistics indicate that in recent years 50,000 young adults have emigrated per year in search of a better life-for political reasons, and for economic reasons. A potential crisis has been looming for many years over the agriculture of the region; this affects the life of a Church whose main roots are still in agricultural communities.

Argentina has been struck by a series of economic and political crises in which the people have been led to a deep mistrust of institutions. Knowing their country to be one of the world’s richest in resources, they are nevertheless faced with the reality of an overwhelming foreign debt. A major food producer, they find they are unable to feed their own children.

The Waldensian Church of the Rio Plata must respond to these and other challenges. To be able to find answers, the Church must reflect upon its past. It must not lose its memory—a memory shaped by an ancient heritage of confessing the Faith in difficult situations. CH

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #22 in 1989]

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