The Magazine

Mennonites and Mammonites...

in Paraguay.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By GRAEME WOOD
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Something's strange about Sunday-morning service at Raíces, the biggest Mennonite church in Paraguay's capital city. The pastor leads worship in Spanish, not the traditional German. A girl in the congregation wears spaghetti straps and has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder. Those electric guitars don't seem very traditional, either. Why are two guys in the back pew packing heat?

This progressive Mennonite congregation has departed in more ways than these from the customs of their forebears. Mennonites have lived in Paraguay since the 1920s, mostly in the miserably hot Chaco, a region that was barely inhabited before they arrived, and indeed barely inhabited today. For the first 70 years, they kept to themselves and preserved the pacifist and isolationist ways that characterize the sect everywhere. But now they're at the center of one of the strangest phenomena in South American politics, a saga of corruption and faith that has left these world-renouncing Anabaptists in control, for a time, of the highest worldly offices in Paraguay--and wondering whether their newfound power is a blessing or curse.

Raíces ("Roots") is the center of this transformation. It is just like any other Mennonite church, explains Horst Bergen, 41, the affable pastor who chatted with me after the service: It emphasizes peace, family values, and a righteous life. It is not traditionalist, and the members don't dress in antiquated garb. But its congregation that morning consisted mostly of converts, rather than German-speaking descendants of the Mennonites who came to Paraguay, like Bergen's own grandparents, in the first half of the 20th century. Today's Raíces community has a few converts from other Protestant sects, as well as many ex-Catholics (some bearing tattoos, and a more liberal attitude to church music) drawn by the message of peace and love on which the church is built. The spirit of peace and love, Bergen says, is why the men in the back are so discreet about their sidearms, and why they've been asked not to brandish machine-guns in the church's quiet suburban neighborhood.

The armed men are there to protect Nicanor Duarte Frutos, president of the Republic of Paraguay and a Raíces churchgoer for over a decade. Nicanor isn't a Mennonite--like 99 percent of Paraguayans, he is nominally Catholic--but his wife Gloria converted to Mennonitism in the mid-1990s. The details of her conversion remain obscure: What's known is that she sought treatment for an unspecified but serious condition at a Mennonite hospital in the Chaco, and when she left, she had become convinced that her problems related less to her body than to her soul. Adult baptism, the only kind Mennonites recognize, soon followed, and she began dragging her husband to church, even after he won the presidency in 2003. Sycophants and opportunists eased into the pews to get near him. In what some see as an effort to win the ear of the woman who has the ear of the president, a few may have taken the Mennonite plunge themselves.

The very presence of a Mennonite church in Asunción--much less one that counts Paraguay's elite as its patrons--is improbable. The Mennonites' isolation in the Chaco was deliberate. In the 1920s, the Paraguayan state invited them into the Chaco with the understanding that they would stay there, living what promised to be a difficult and hardscrabble life in one of South America's least inviting regions. The Chaco comprises 60 percent of Paraguay's land, but close to zero percent of its population. It has little water, and even Indians had more or less given it up as too parched to inhabit. The Paraguayan leaders, though, saw an upside to its colonization: Their settlers bolstered Paraguay's claim to the region in any future dispute with Bolivia.

Both countries, the only landlocked states in South America, were feeling uneasy about their economic prospects and considered the Chaco their own--in the fervent (and, as it turns out, misguided) hope that it had oil. The Mennonites were totally unaware of their being enlisted as pawns in this rivalry. When it finally erupted into the Chaco War of 1932-35, Paraguay prevailed, in part because its supply lines were shorter with Mennonite agriculture already in place. After the war, however, even with their agricultural skills, which would have been better suited to Canada or the Ukraine, the Mennonites barely managed to rise above subsistence in the poor region.