Obispa — A New Paradigm in Bolivia

[1] Exactly a year after I started my term as Bishop, I found myself on the way to Bolivia. The Montana Synod of the ELCA is partnered with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bolivia, and a group of us had been invited to celebrate the church’s 70th anniversary. I had some apprehension about the visit. I was going as Bishop to church that did not ordain women. And not only that, it was a church in an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture. I wondered how effective I could be leading our group and representing our Church in accompaniment with the Bolivian church.

[2] There is a balance one has to strike when dealing with cultural differences. I had experienced it with tribal people on reservations in Montana. I was organizing immersion events on various reservations. I learned that the more traditional the leaders were, the less comfortable they were with my leadership. As I was negotiating with some leaders on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, I brought along a member of my committee, a white man a generation older than I. No matter how much he protested that I was in charge, not he, the tribal elders chose to address all their remarks and questions to him. In that my aim was for them to welcome us into their culture, rather than for us to provide them with a lesson on women’s leadership, I went along with the elders’ choice to speak with my colleague. My colleague would listen to the elders, and then consult with me. He functioned almost as an interpreter, a buffer between them and me.

[3] It reminded me of female US military officers in Saudi Arabia. Because the Saudi culture does not allow for the possibility of women serving in the armed forces or in leadership, the Saudi soldiers refer to the American women as “sir.” You can live that way for a while. But it doesn’t work in the long run. It doesn’t work because pretending to be someone you are not takes a lot of energy.

[4] The ELCA does ordain women, and have been doing so since 1970, with no strings attached. In the ELCA gender neither qualifies nor disqualifies a person for pastoral leadership. The same is not true for many of our companion Lutheran churches across the globe. Our experience of women’s ministry leadership is one of the gifts we bring to companion churches, sometimes with confidence, sometimes with fear and trembling.

[5] I did not know what to expect with the church in Bolivia. Both the Pastor Presidente (Luis Cristobas Allejo) and I were new, and had not met each other. Because Bolivia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the Lutheran church distinguishes itself by having a “Pastor Presidente” rather than “Obispo.” But when I showed up, they were delighted to call me “Obispa,” a word my Spanish teacher tells me does not exist, but a word invented for the situation that somehow pulled everything together. (Obispo is masculine and Catholic—Obispa is a new paradigm.) “Obispa” it is.

[6] Because of the difficulty of travel in Bolivia, there hadn’t been any ordinations in the country for several years. And, because of leadership turnover, the Pastor Presidente could not do the ordinations either because he had not yet been ordained himself. So the church used the occasion of the anniversary gathering to conscript both Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, and me, Obispa, to commission a dozen lay ministers and to ordain 7 pastors. Among the 7 were not only the Pastor Presidente, but 2 women, the first 2 women to be ordained in the Lutheran Church in Bolivia.

[7] It was the dream of the previous Pastor Presidente Humerto Salazar to enhance the role of women in the church. As part of that goal, he imagined a retreat center on Lake Titicaca that encouraged women to study theology. As part of the motivation, he talked a group of visiting Montanans to give him the name of a Montana woman to put on the building, and 3 years before I became Bishop, I had a retreat center on Lake Titicaca named after me. Humberto died in a car accident, but his support of women’s leadership took off.

[8] And so the ordination of the first 2 women was not only a step forward for the church, it was a tribute to their previous leader’s vision and commitment. Almost all the pastors in the Bolivian church are bi-vocational, and the 2 women, Erlini Tola Medina and Maritza Castaneta de Aslla, are no exception. Both are theologically trained. One serves as a teacher, and the other works with domestic violence. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and the Lutheran church is a church of the poor. It is made up entirely of indigenous people, including leadership.

[9] The people of the Bolivian church celebrated their 70th anniversary with feasting and singing , and making the most of the guests who had joined us. And so it was that an African man and a North American woman, he in English and she in Spanish, ordained the first 2 women in the Lutheran Church in Bolivia. And it was good.