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Eduardo and Odalis Vásquez stand by the first letters of their names on Montevideo’s Rambla, an avenue on the Río de la Plata.
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Photo by Erik Tryggestad

‘Peace for my city’

In Uruguay’s capital, a Church of Christ was dying. Then a wave of immigrants brought new life.

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MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY — “Welcome to the best-kept secret in South America.”

That’s how Eduardo Vásquez described his adopted home — Uruguay, a teardrop-shaped nation sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. He and his wife, Odalis, moved here from Venezuela in 2015 with their two children.

The couple, who met at the Mérida Church of Christ in western Venezuela, left their homeland in the midst of the political and economic turmoil that followed the death of President Hugo Chávez. The family made a new life among the 3.3 million souls in this sun-drenched republic, which has enjoyed a stable democracy since the mid-1980s while avoiding the controversies and corruption that plague its neighbors.

@christianchronicle MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Uruguay’s got talent! A street performer named Santi spins soccer balls and juggles knives — all while unicycling. Erik Tryggestad is reporting on the Iglesia de Cristo (Church of Christ) in this South American capital and happened upon this performance (and gave the performer some well-earned tip money) #uruguay🇺🇾 #montevideo #streetperformer #unicycle #iglesiadecristo #juggling #uruguaysgottalent ♬ What a Year – Inner Circle

The nation also has the highest cow-to-human ratio in the world, nearly 4 to 1. 

Here, grilled meat is an art form.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Vásquezes joined a host of joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers along Montevideo’s Rambla, a palm-lined avenue on the Río de la Plata.

Joggers, dog walkers and volleyball players enjoy a sunny Saturday afternoon on Montevideo’s Rambla, a pedestrian avenue that winds along the Río de la Plata.

Joggers, dog walkers and volleyball players enjoy a sunny Saturday afternoon on Montevideo’s Rambla, a pedestrian avenue that winds along the Río de la Plata.

“It’s an estuary, actually, not a river,” said Eduardo Vásquez, who earned a master’s in geoscience here. Now he teaches for a university. His wife, who has degrees in English, does billing for the University of Utah Hospital. She works from their home, a small apartment atop a massive shopping complex. Shoppers can enjoy yoga classes, a grocery store with self-checkout and a theater showing “Kung Fu Panda 4” in IMAX.

The Vásquezes’ kids, ages 15 and 13, opted not to join their parents on the Rambla. Instead, they got a pizza from the Sbarro in the mall’s food court.

The family misses Venezuela, of course, but they’ve carved out a good life in this Switzerland of Latin America, as it’s known. Uruguay welcomed them the same way it welcomes refugees and immigrants from across the region.

Only one aspect of life here failed to exceed their expectations — at first, anyway.

The church.


Related: Church member named president of El Salvador


A once-thriving church

For all the peace and prosperity that the country enjoys, Uruguay may be the continent’s most secular state. Rates of atheism and agnosticism are high compared to the rest of South America. The country has rebranded religious holidays, replacing Holy Week with Creole Week, celebrating the heritage of the gaucho, a kind of Latin American cowboy and folk symbol.

The El Chaná coffee building in Montevideo once was home to a growing Church of Christ.

The El Chaná coffee building in Montevideo once was home to a growing Church of Christ.

In Venezuela, the Vásquezes were part of a congregation with a vibrant young adults ministry. In Montevideo, they found a 30-member Church of Christ made up largely of aging widows. They met in a huge, historic building that was falling into disrepair.

“It was depressing,” Odalis Vásquez said.

It wasn’t always that way. Three decades ago, Churches of Christ spread across the city. One congregation had 200 members and sponsored a choral group.

Myriam Irgoyen has stacks of photos from those days. After a recent Sunday worship, she and her daughter, Ximena Ramírez, shared them with a few of the church’s Uruguayan members.

Irgoyen, 83, was one of the early converts after pioneering missionary Evert Pickartz and evangelist Juan Urriola came from Chile. Urriola was preparing to become a Catholic priest when his studies led him to a different understanding of the Gospel — and to Churches of Christ. In Montevideo, Urriola got to know Luis Ramírez and invited him to church. Ramírez asked Irgoyen to join him. They were dance partners in an intercultural program that practiced traditional folk dances by the Río de la Plata.

Photos from a collection of longtime church member Myriam Irgoyen show the Montevideo Church of Christ in its heyday in the 1990s.

Photos from a collection of longtime church member Myriam Irgoyen show the Montevideo Church of Christ in its heyday in the 1990s.

The couple married, and Irgoyen was baptized in 1969. Four years later, folk dances became illegal after a military coup. Decades of dictatorship followed — much of which Irgoyen and her husband spent in another South American nation, Paraguay, as missionaries.

Democracy returned to Uruguay in 1985. Two years later, Herrera died and Irgoyen returned to Montevideo. By then, missionary Dan Coker was working with church leaders to purchase the former corporate offices of coffee company El Chaná.

Dan Coker in his Toluca, Mexico, office in 2001.

Dan Coker in his Toluca, Mexico, office in 2001.

Coker, a cultural anthropologist known among Churches of Christ as “the dean of Latin American missions,” envisioned the facility as the future home of a Christian university for all of South America. Coker’s alma mater, Abilene Christian University in Texas, used the building to house students in its study abroad program. In 1993, new missionary families — the Elliotts, the Roanes and the Sparks — arrived from the U.S.

A decade later, most of the missionaries had returned home — and a few Uruguayans had joined them. Others passed away, some drifted away and only a handful remained to carry on the work. By the time the Venezuelans arrived, the small congregation was unable to maintain its large facility, and the city’s strict historic preservation laws made it impossible to renovate.

After intense discussion and prayer, the congregation made the gut-wrenching decision to sell the building. A few heartbroken members left the church, but most remained. They worshiped together in a temporary facility — a karate dojo — as they looked for a new home. ACU found a new facility for its students.

Myriam Irgoyen looks over a collection of photos from the Montevideo Church of Christ's heyday.

Myriam Irgoyen looks over a collection of photos from the Montevideo Church of Christ’s heyday.

Irgoyan’s daughter, Ximena, remembered the childhood years she spent in the El Chana building. The decision to leave was painful, she said, but so was “seeing it decay the way it had.”

Her mother, meanwhile, found herself asking God, “Now what are you going to do with us?”


Related: Reaching the (nearly) unreachable


Finding peace beyond logic

Perhaps God helped the church find its new facility, a four-story storefront across the street and a few doors down from the El Chana building.

Eduardo Mesa unlocks the meeting place of the Montevideo Church of Christ before Sunday worship.

Eduardo Mesa unlocks the meeting place of the Montevideo Church of Christ before Sunday worship.

On a recent, sunny Sunday, church members waited outside for Eduardo Mesa, a native Uruguayan, to pull up on his motorbike and unlock the gate. Inside, an upturned wooden pallet, adorned with flowers, welcomed visitors with Jesus’ words taken from John 1: “Antes que tu amigo te invitara, yo te vi.” (“Before your friend invited you, I saw you.”)

Soon, the first-floor auditorium held nearly 60 Christians — kissing each other’s cheeks in greeting. The church’s new evangelist, Manuel Herrera of Venezuela, led hymns, including “Te pido la paz para mi ciudad” (“I ask you for peace for my city”).

@christianchronicle MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Welcome to the best-kept secret in South America. Uruguay, a small nation of 3.4 million people nestled between Argentina and Brazil, enjoys a good standard of living and political stability that can be elusive in other countries on the continent. It’s also one of South America’s most secular societies, with higher percentages of people who identify as atheist or agnostic than its neighbors. The Montevideo Iglesia de Cristo had more than 60 worshippers on when The Christian Chronicle visited Sunday — from Uruguay, Venezuela, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and even India. Enjoy this hymn from the Sunday service and look for more coverage soon in the Chronicle. #montevideo #uruguay #acappella #sundayworship ♬ original sound – The Christian Chronicle

Carlos Pérez, a refugee from Cuba, delivered the sermon — part of a six-month study of Ephesians. The book tells how the peace of Christ broke down cultural barriers between Jews and Gentiles in the early church.

Carlos Péerez Fernández, second from right, and fellow church members gather to pray and prepare before Sunday worship at the Montevideo Church of Christ.

Carlos Péerez Fernández, second from right, and fellow church members gather to pray and prepare before Sunday worship at the Montevideo Church of Christ.

“The peace we get is outside of human logic,” Pérez said. “That’s why the world can’t understand how we can praise and sing and give glory to God, even in the difficulties.”

“The peace we get is outside of human logic. That’s why the world can’t understand how we can praise and sing and give glory to God, even in the difficulties.”

After the sermon, church members passed the unleavened bread and fruit of the vine to commemorate the Lord’s Supper. Then Mesa led a prayer for the church’s newest attendee — Ayshrya, newborn daughter of Anush and Sravanthi Saramekala. They moved here from Hyderabad, India, to work for a software company. 

Church members waited patiently as Anush Saramekala typed out a message of thanks on his phone and translated it to Spanish. Before they left, a church member gave the couple a gently used pack-and-play crib for the baby.

Eduardo Vásquez welcomes Ayshrya, the newborn daughter of Anush and Sravanthi Saramekala. The couple moved to Montevideo from India about two years ago. Anush reads the words of welcome through a translation program on his phone.

Eduardo Vásquez welcomes Ayshrya, the newborn daughter of Anush and Sravanthi Saramekala. The couple moved to Montevideo from India about two years ago. Anush reads the words of welcome through a translation program on his phone.

“These people have become family for us.” Sravanthi Saramekala said as her husband slung the collapsed crib over his shoulder.

‘We didn’t feel like aliens’ 

Most of the members stayed after worship for a time of reflection, prayer and snacks. They stepped away, a few at a time, to talk to The Christian Chronicle as Odalis Vásquez translated. 

Marcia Altagracia Liriano

Marcia Altagracia Liriano

Marcia Altagracia Liriano moved here in 2014 from the Dominican Republic. Her son-in-law followed, and then her daughter. Two of her sisters moved to Uruguay as well. She loves the mix of nationalities in the church, she said. She was baptized in her home city, Santo Domingo. Her sisters weren’t. They began attending the church in Montevideo and were baptized here.

 “She just keeps bringing people,” Odalis said with a laugh.

 Pérez, who preached the sermon, was baptized in Santa Clara, Cuba. He and his family made a long, perilous journey here through Mexico, Panama and Brazil in 2022. Cuba’s faltering economy was the reason for their move, said Pérez, a physical therapist.

“But we didn’t want to give up our faith,” he added. In the Montevideo church “we didn’t feel like aliens or outsiders. … They involved us as if they had known us our whole life.”

“We didn’t want to give up our faith. We didn’t feel like aliens or outsiders. … They involved us as if they had known us our whole life.”

Mesa, who unlocked the church gate, and Emanuel Peraza, who taught the youth group’s Bible class, are natives of Uruguay. They remember the heyday of the Montevideo church in the 1990s.

While they’ve experienced a few hiccups and misunderstandings as they’ve transitioned to a multinational, multicultural church, the effort has been worthwhile, Mesa said.  

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” he said. “The Word of God is the same, and we are all the same.”

Fanny Muñoz and her husband, Emanuel Peraza.

Fanny Muñoz and her husband, Emanuel Peraza.

When Peraza was asked how he’s adapted to his foreign brothers and sisters, he couldn’t help but grin. A few minutes later he introduced his wife, Fanny Muñoz, a Venezuelan. They married about two years ago.

When the Venezuelans arrived, “we were going through a downfall, passing out, passing away,” Peraza said. “The immigrants brought with them something warm. And I believe that is essential for Uruguayans to understand the Gospel.

“Right now, with Uruguayans, they don’t want to hear about church. But we are open to discussions of faith in general.”

Herrera, the church’s new evangelist, plans to use material from ministries including Apologetics Press to reach out to people in his adopted home.

Evangelist Manuel Herrera prays after leading the hymn “Èste es el Día” (“This is the Day”) during the Montevideo Church of Christ’s Sunday worship service.

Evangelist Manuel Herrera prays after leading the hymn “Èste es el Día” (“This is the Day”) during the Montevideo Church of Christ’s Sunday worship service.

“I believe that apologetics is a good way to make us think,” Peraza said, “but the solution will be the warmth.”

For example, “We have a friend; his name is Jesús — a flesh-and-bone one!” Peraza said with a laugh. When Jesús, an immigrant, had extra food, he took some to his Uruguayan neighbors.

“And they were weirded out by it,” Peraza said. “We don’t do that in Montevideo!” 

But when Uruguayans receive hospitality, he added, they feel compelled to return the favor.

 

An ‘urge to work’ and grow

Nearly a decade after their arrival in Montevideo, the Vásquezes still miss Venezuela. 

But they are encouraged by their small-but-growing congregation.

And while Irigoyen misses the church’s old days in the El Chaná building, she sees the immigrants as an answer to her prayers.

“Thanks to the disgrace of another country,” she said, “they came here with this urge to work for the church and to help it grow.”

Leonardo Sanchez passes a communion tray during the Montevideo Church of Christ’s Sunday worship service.

Leonardo Sanchez passes a communion tray during the Montevideo Church of Christ’s Sunday worship service.

Patricia Lazaga, another of the church’s longtime Uruguayan members, takes a more reserved approach.

“There’s a lot of work to do — with our kids and the youth — for this legacy to continue,” she said. The past decades have taught her that it’s better to “stand by ourselves” than to rely on “expectations of support” from abroad.

Eduardo and Odalis Vásquez stand by the first letters of their names on Montevideo’s Rambla, an avenue on the Río de la Plata.

Eduardo and Odalis Vásquez stand by the first letters of their names on Montevideo’s Rambla, an avenue on the Río de la Plata.

Rather than seeking support, the church is working in partnership with Georgia-based Latin American Missions in an effort to revitalize a Church of Christ in Salto, a small city in western Uruguay. Only a handful of members remain, but the ministry plans to send a ministry student from Mexico to work in Salto later this year.

“There are Christians in other parts of Uruguay, not just here,” Lazaga said. “It’s our task to help find them so that we can keep growing together.”

“There are Christians in other parts of Uruguay, not just here. It’s our task to help find them so that we can keep growing together.”

Filed under: Abilene Christian University Churches of Christ in Uruguay Dan Coker Evangelism immigration International Latin America News South America Top Stories

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