Missionary Diary: drought in Montevideo

Joy Oliveira Woolmer and her husband Pedro are missionaries with Church Missionary Society (CMS). They have three young children and have been living in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay in South America, for several years. Here they serve alongside the local staff and students of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) movement in Uruguay. 

After being in Sydney for five months on home assignment, we knew that settling back into Montevideo would have its challenges. Transitions tend to knock us about, and so we braced ourselves for the shock of re-entry: the noise (and smell!) of living in the city-centre, the adjustment to life and work in Spanish, and the reality of being so obviously foreign to everyone around us.

But we weren’t at all prepared for the drought situation that awaited us: Montevideo was on the verge of running out of clean drinking water. The reservoirs, we were told, would run dry in less than two weeks. The solution, as we waited for rain, was to mix the freshwater that used to flow freely from our taps with saltwater from the Rio de la Plata … plus a good dose of chlorine to kill the nasties!

Joy, Pedro and their children at Sydney airport, about to head back to Montevideo.

Our water was practically undrinkable. Having enjoyed Sydney’s almost-sweet-tasting tap water for the previous five months, this was a smack in the face. And it got worse. As the water levels kept falling, higher percentages of river water were supplemented. Medical experts became increasingly concerned and advised against using tap water even for preparing food. So those who could afford to buy bottled springwater did. For others, this was too expensive. And despite all the health warnings, they had to make do, accepting the cost to their health.

Yes, this country has experienced a physical drought for the past three years. But it has suffered a spiritual drought for much longer.

Almost four months on, we’re thankful that God has sent rain. Although the drought continues, the situation is much more hopeful. We are able to turn on the tap for a glass of water again! But the past few desperate months have been a very tangible reminder of just how essential water is to life. When the water is bad, all of life is affected. Without it, we die.

This is just as true of our spiritual lives. There is a great need for Uruguayans to have ready access to living water. Yes, this country has experienced a physical drought for the past three years. But it has suffered a spiritual drought for much longer. God’s word, which gives us eternal life, is not flowing freely here. It’s not easily accessible to those who seek it. And it’s not abundantly available to those who need it.

Pedro studies the Bible with students enrolled in MOCLAM – a theological training program for Spanish-speaking Christians.

We see this both within and outside our churches. In fact, precisely because God’s word is not flowing freely in our Christian gatherings, it is not flowing out to those outside. Having moved churches in the past year, we have had the privilege of hearing the testimonies of people at our new church.

Sadly, many have told similar stories of disillusionment and discouragement as they have sat under increasingly wayward teaching. Some have experienced deep heartache as they have fought for gospel faithfulness and have been pushed out of their churches. Many had been looking for years before finding a church that preaches the (whole) gospel, week in and week out.

They are so thankful for this church that we attend together, but ache for family and friends who are left behind and don’t have the same access to God’s nourishing word. It is as if some have grown accustomed to brackish water and don’t know what they’re missing out on. They don’t even seem to know how bad it is for them.

… large sections of God’s word remain unfamiliar or unknown to them.

In our interactions with university students, we have met others who have grown up in Christian families, are actively serving in their churches, and yet feel unsure about using the Bible as the sourcebook for life, growth and maturity. In theory, they know that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In practice, however, large sections of God’s word remain unfamiliar or unknown to them.

Attendees at the Comunidad Biblica Universitaria (the local IFES group) annual camp.

The keen and curious have been given many Christian books for encouragement and answers, and yet when it comes to finding meaning from the Bible itself, they don’t know where to start. These students desire a deeper knowledge of God’s word, a greater confidence in its authority and a daily experience of its relevance to their lives. They sense, however, that this is not their reality. So how are they supposed to bring God’s life-giving word to the non-Christians around them? As their universities and workplaces become increasingly secular and liberal, Christians are feeling crowded out.

As one university student shared with me recently, on some days, he feels he should just try and stay invisible, quietly finish his degree and get out of there as fast as he can. We don’t think he’s alone, and the result is devastating. Many non-Christians don’t know any Christians – at least that they are aware of. Where would they go for living water? What would make them even want to find it?

So what does life-giving ministry look like in such a context? We are convinced that our ministry must be about doing all that we can to bring people (anyone and everyone!) into meaningful contact with God’s word. This shapes our more structured ministry activities with the Comunidad Biblica Universitaria (the local IFES group), as well as our more spontaneous, informal ministries to the individuals around us. It means sharing the Bible’s treasures with those who don’t yet know of its value, showing its relevance to those who doubt and making it accessible to those who want to know more.

We must also resist the temptation to appear as “the experts” with all the answers.

It also means allowing God’s word to teach and transform us, so that we might be living examples of its power. We prayerfully search out opportunities to share the comfort or rebuke about something we’ve read recently. We show how the Bible relates to our experience of the world, with all its beauty and brokenness, and yet points to a hope this world doesn’t offer. But we must also resist the temptation to appear as “the experts” with all the answers. Because we don’t have them! Rather, we become learners with them as we study God’s Word together, so that they can have the tools and confidence to understand it for themselves.

It means sticking with Spanish, their heart language, even though it makes complete fools out of us! It means taking time to learn how they think, so that together we can work out how to ask good questions of the biblical text and how to find answers. It also means looking out for godly men and women who can be trained to do this with others.

There is so much joy in this work. But it’s also far from easy. I often moan to my husband that it’s tiring “being so intentional all the time!” We rejoice as people engage with the Bible and delight in God. And we despair when old habits win out and eagerness stops short of becoming perseverance. Even when we see growth, we wonder (and worry!) whether it will continue and bear lasting fruit. But we must keep offering the Word, so that many more might come to understand “the whole counsel of God”.

As we open up the Bible with others, feeling clumsy as we do, we also have confidence that God will speak and teach them, as he does us. During the most desperate months of Montevideo’s drought, we prayed that God might bring rain. In his kindness, he did. The Paso Severino dam, which is Montevideo’s main water source, has risen 56 per cent from a meagre 2 per cent just under two months ago. What a reminder that our God is an abundant and generous God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous! So while the situation may seem desperate, we do not lose heart. Rather, we pray to the Lord who is both willing and able, that he might send a downpour and break this spiritual drought.