No More Holy Week for Uruguay: Ministering This Spiritually Neutral Country
By Dirk Hinnenthal
Imagine a wrestling match: two huge fellows with a small-looking judge between them, struggling to keep them at bay. Well, that is how Uruguay looks on the map. The illustration is befitting since in my conversations with older, well-educated believers in Christ, I have learned that Uruguay has been quite smart in handling its two giant neighbors, Argentina and Brazil.
Our country of service possesses only 1.8 percent of the US land area. Uruguay is actually about the same size as the state of Missouri but with only a little more than half the population, so there is more space per capita here. The abundance of fertile soil in South America enables the prosperous agriculture industry to produce beef and milk as well as wool and rice—a supply that is distributed well beyond the continent’s borders. Uruguay enjoys a moderate climate with no regular inclement events and an abundance of water from several lakes and rivers, the southern coastline, plentiful rainfall, and access to one of the largest aquifers on the planet, the Guaraní Aquifer. Politically, Uruguay has been stable ever since the end of a 12-year military dictatorship in 1985.
Tourism Week replaces Holy Week
To understand Uruguay as a society, we must look at its history. The Spanish conquered and colonized it in the 16th century, bringing Roman Catholicism with it, and independence was attained almost 200 years ago. But more recent history set the foundation for what we see today: a secular society that is, by declaration, spiritually neutral.
In the early 1900s, President José Batlle had a significant experience with religion, and it triggered what we grapple with today. He had recently been inaugurated for his second term as president when his 18-year-old daughter died. A clergyman showed up at his residence and offered to pray so Batlle’s daughter could get out of purgatory. Batlle was so outraged that the man would suggest his daughter was in purgatory that he pushed a far-reaching campaign of reforms that substantially diminished the Catholic Church’s influence in the country. The fact that, around the same time, the government renamed the country’s Holy Week as “Tourism Week” may come as no surprise.
This was not Uruguay’s first conflict between church and state. Fifty years earlier, the cemeteries had been secularized. The government took control of many burial practices, which had rested with the Catholic Church previously. Additionally, the government banned crucifixes in public hospitals.
The political elite of the 20th century became strongly influenced by France. Since many sought their education and philosophical guidance there, the writings and thoughts of Voltaire and Rousseau thus found their way into South America. One of the older Christian men with whom I love to speak put it this way: “Our nation is in the same spiritual state as the one from which we sought advice.”
As a result, we live in South America’s most humanist and secular society. One saying expresses the general sense. Try to say it; it’s simple: cada loco con su tema. Everyone lives according to his or her own crazy idea. Develop your own belief. Respect the views of other people. Truth is negotiable.
There is freedom of religious gathering. Inside our churches, we can freely preach, and there is even an ongoing tent evangelism ministry, which, at times, receives some support from local authorities. In other areas, restrictions are getting tighter. One must not speak about God in public schools, for instance.
Despite the increasing secularism, the Brethren movement has been present in Uruguay since 1882, starting with a young Englishman who served in Argentina and began visiting Uruguay from there. The early years of the 20th century saw the first assemblies established in the area of Montevideo, the capital. The assemblies have made great progress, especially in the last 30 years, in commending national workers. At a yearly missions conference, these workers have ample opportunity to report on their work.
Milca, my wife, was born and raised in a Christian family in Montevideo. She became a believer at age 17 while listening to a gospel message on the radio. I was born in Germany. As a backpacker, I did a fair bit of traveling throughout the world. Then, when I was 29 years old, the Lord found me while I was facing yet another bout with depression. Milca and I met later in Uruguay, where I had begun preparation for serving my Savior. We married in 1997 and had three children: Lynda and Rudi were born in Uruguay, and Sophia during our years in Texas. From there, Comunidad de Amor, a Hispanic assembly in Houston, commended our family in 2013.
Churches here and there
We live in the department of Colonia, only 110 miles from the capital city. Colonia offers good road connections along the western part of the country and, from there, to Argentina. Travelers can reach Argentina by crossing a bridge that spans the river that gave our country its name: Uruguay is a word that comes from the Indigenous Guaraní language and means “river of the painted birds.”
So there are many towns we can visit from where we live, and since congregations here tend to be rather small and the progress slow, our visits are a very welcome encouragement to a worker or pastor. Sometimes, only one believer is responsible for every single Bible study and gospel message. He might also have to roll up his sleeves when maintenance work calls. And he may be the only one who drives to all the children’s homes, taking them to the church and then back. Many hats the believer must wear! Hence, great benefits result from visiting and encouraging the Lord’s servants.
In our ministry, we also interface with other conservative Bible-teaching congregations. The dissemination of literature and correspondence courses goes beyond the Brethren assemblies, and I have received speaking invitations from several churches, sometimes resulting from my acquaintance with a pastor.
In one case, this led to regular teaching and visiting in the most populous suburb of Montevideo, where a large Jewish community resides. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, these visits were truncated to merely virtual presence, but the doors for further cooperation are now open again. For a long time, I, as a German, felt awkward about interacting with and befriending Jewish people. However, my awkwardness eased significantly when a man we used to visit later said to someone, “This man Dirk is the only German friend I ever had.” Thank you, Lord!
Outreach to kids and their parents
Missionary work here typically emphasizes outreach to children, as it is still surprisingly easy to take kids to our local chapel and have a Bible school with them. Parents usually let their children go confidently while they are not easily convinced to attend any meetings themselves. At the end of the school year (in December), some parents do show up, if only to see their kids act in a drama or recite Bible verses. At such a festive event, many hear the Gospel for the first time.
Likewise, youth meetings take place regularly, and several campsites operate in Uruguay. During the school vacations, many children and teens go to Bible-based summer camp.
Beyond the local context
Translating books and other materials into Spanish has been part of Dirk’s ministry for many years. Interestingly, such projects continue rolling in without interruption, so we reach out through e-books and printed matter, including a paper that deals with relevant issues.
Another way we reach beyond our local context is by teaching in the online seminary that the Brethren founded to serve students from all over Latin America. We are currently offering the second year of the baccalaureate program. It is uplifting to see a Zoom screen full of Christians from all walks of life and some 10 different countries—all willing to dig deeper into the Word.
Milca carries on an important counseling ministry, often by phone, with believers and other women who call on her. Milca is a prayer warrior and receives many requests. Please remember to uphold her in your prayers.
Lastly, following an invitation to Central America, I began contributing to a radio ministry in El Salvador. A 144-episode series that teaches through the Bible is underway, and many of the messages have already aired.
Prayers for Uruguay
Please pray for Uruguay and the Lord’s work here. Our Colonia assembly, where I serve as an elder, is in the process of reunification. A division that occurred before our time here has now been overcome. For us, this reunion means serving among two dozen additional believers who were largely unknown to us previously—exciting times! Please pray for a fruitful joining of God’s servants.
Also, Bible literacy must increase if we are to be a people ready to effectively share the Word with others. Many Christians do not go far when it comes to studying the Bible on their own. Please pray for a desire to study the Bible.
Keeping up courage can be a challenge for those in ministry, as things progress slowly in Uruguay. So pray for our spiritual courage.
Dirk and Milca Hinnenthal are commended from Comunidad de Amor in Houston, Texas.
Originally published in Missions magazine, September/October 2023. For more content, sign up for a free subscription (US) to Missions at CMML.us/magazine/subscribe.