The ecumenical cause has faced many setbacks in Latin America. The first “Evangelical Congress” was held in Panama City in 1916. The second one was held in Havana in 1929, when delegates expressed a desire for an international and interdenominational federation of evangelical churches. The attempt to form a continuation committee, however, was frustrated by economic and political problems. Another conference—the “First Latin American Evangelical Conference,” often referred to in this part of the world as CELA I—occurred in Buenos Aires in 1949. Again, no permanent organization materialized. CELA II, which met in Lima in 1961, decided to establish an ecumenical structure, but no practical steps were taken until representatives of several national church councils met in Rio de Janeiro in 1963. The “Provisional Commission for Latin American Evangelical Unity” (UNELAM) came into existence in Montevideo in 1964, with a membership of nine national councils and various independent churches. CELA III, held in Buenos Aires in 1969, committed to UNELAM a number of tasks. In the succeeding years (for a time under the able leadership of Emilio Castro, the present-day Director of the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism), UNELAM through a number of conferences and publications actively prepared the ground for a Latin American council of churches. Finally, at the meeting of WCC-related churches, which took place at Huampani (near Lima, Peru) in November, 1977, the delegates decided to convene an “assembly of churches” to be held in Mexico in September, 1978. They wanted to organize this council with the hope that this new body would promote Christian unity, foster discussion, rediscover the prophetic role of the church in Latin American, make Christ’s presence visible, and coordinate the efforts on behalf of human rights and the elimination of poverty and hunger.
The assembly took place at Oaxtepec (a holiday center in Mexico) last September. Three hundred forty people representing 110 denominations and ten “ecumenical organisms” in nineteen countries attended. Organizers made a special effort to attract denominations that are unrelated to the ecumenical movement. Representatives from many of these churches did attend. It was obvious that a workable Latin American council of churches needs theologically conservative churches. However, the executive committee that was elected to carry out the decisions of the assembly does not reflect the Protestant constituencies in Latin America, which are overwhelmingly Pentecostal. The executive committee consists of five Methodists, three Lutherans, one each from Anglican, Baptist, and Salvation Army ranks, and only two Pentecostals. Such a leadership will find it difficult to truly represent the majority of Protestants. Nevertheless, delegates decided to establish the “Latin American Council of Churches” (in formation) (CLAI), with the understanding that the membership and organization will only be made definite at the next assembly, which will take place within the next four years.
The creation of the new organization meant the demise of UNELAM. The official objectives of CLAI were: (1) to promote the unity of the people of God as a local expression of the universal church and as a sign of a contribution to the unity of Latin American people; (2) to encourage evangelism in the churches; (3) to cooperate in the search for adequate guidelines for a faithful interpretation of the Gospel; (4) to help discover the mission of the church in the continent particularly in relation to the poor and oppressed; (5) to deepen the search for Christian unity, recognizing the riches present in the diversity of traditions and expressions of the Christian faith; and (6) to promote theological reflection so as to attain a true autonomy of the church in Latin America. Federico J. Pagura, bishop of the Methodist Church in Argentina, was appointed president of CLAI.
While the assembly was in session, President Somoza of Nicaragua was trying to wipe out the widely supported movement attempting to overthrow him. The assembly sent a cable urging him to resign, a letter to UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim asking him to intercede to end the bloodshed, and a letter to the people of Nicaragua expressing solidarity with them in their plight. Another letter, addressed to President Carter, asked him to free four Puerto Ricans who have been imprisoned for more than twenty years. A letter was also sent to the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), composed of all the Roman Catholic bishops, which wished them God’s presence at their forthcoming meeting.
The main document issued by the assembly was an 800-word “Letter to the Churches.” The letter defines Christian unity as “a reflection of and a participation in the love unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” confesses “our indifference to the cry of the neglected, the oppressed and the needy,” and asks Christians in Latin America “to respond to the demands of justice of God’s Kingdom in terms of obedient and radical discipleship.” There are paragraphs about “Power Structures” (in which “true demonic powers of oppression and dehumanization” are entrenched), “The Neglected Sectors of Society” (the children, the young, the elderly, and the women), “Native Peoples” (deprived of their lands, exploited, and discriminated against), “Pastoral Action on behalf of the Broken and in Defense of Life,” “Ecological Responsibility,” and “The Situation in Nicaragua.” Echoing the World Council of Churches (WCC) statement of faith, in the closing paragraph the assembly acknowledges “Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures” and “a common calling.” The delegates hoped that during formation of the new ecumenical structure “the Holy Spirit may call the churches and ecumenical organisms in the continent to join the Council, which will be a visible expression of our unity.”
In 1910 representatives from Latin America were excluded from the conference in Edinburgh that led ultimately to the WCC. Many people doubted the propriety of Protestant missionary work in this region.
Understandably, most Protestant churches have resisted the ecumenical movement. With approximately 350 denominations throughout Latin America, Protestantism has rightly been described as “divided and fissaparous.” Christian unity needs a boost. The Oaxtepec assembly is only the latest of many attempts to create a Latin American council of churches. Whether it will turn out to be only another attempt or a significant organization remains to be seen.
C. René Padilla is the director of Ediciones Certeza, the publishing house of the International Fellowship of Evangelical students in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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