Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Building schools in Azul, Argentina, is good for one congregation’s soul

We went there to work, but they wanted us to be their friends,” says Elizabeth
Paul, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church (ELCA), Bloomington, Minnesota. On her first
mission trip to Azul, Argentina, she found “an instant relationship with the
people that I hadn’t anticipated. I was struck with how warm and open they
For Diane LaFontaine, “It was the people who drew me back for my second
trip.” Those we’d gotten to know welcomed us like family, and we recognized
some of the children in the care center although they’d grown in three years.
I would encourage any church to get involved in a mission into another
St. Luke’s maintains a mission partnership with Transfiguracion Lutheran
Church in Azul. “We connected through Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry,
Minneapolis,” Says Pastor Mark Schoenhals, associate pastor at St. Luke’s,
who was returning for his fourth trip,’” Schoenhals says. “The vision is to
keep the two partners on an equal footing.
“Rather than have someone come and tell you what you need, two churches
accompany each other in joint ministry,” Schoenhals further explains. “For
four decades the church in Azul wanted to build a child care center. We sent
our first financial support in 2002. Property owners there, Angel Pellini and
Oscar Scappini, donated land. Building was begun, and Transfiguracion
started bringing childcare staff on board.”
Schoenhals, Paul, LaFontaine, and eight others from St. Luke’s, plus two
translators, traveled to Argentina March 26-April 7, 2008. St. Luke’s
members contribute to a capital fund that has underwritten construction,
staff salaries, and two meals a day for 50 pre-school children. Nutritional
deprivation was a prime motivator in getting the project underway.
“Th initial purpose was nutrition,” Schoenhals says. “These kids were eating
only once a day. Originally care was offered free, but now half of the families
are paying about a quarter of their costs. Transfiguracion also contributes,
from rent it collects on apartments the church owns.”
“The children had learned a song in English to welcome us,” Paul says. “We
played with the children, trying not to disrupt the teaching. We brought along
several hundred dollars’ worth of new toys. We also served lunches, helped in
the infant room, and did some painting and sprucing up in the afternoons.”
At St. Luke’s, Paul is director of children’s ministry, specializing in ages birth
to fifth grade.
“Play is a universal language,” she says, “and my Spanish got better while I
was there. A group of four-year-old girls, in particular, followed me around
and helped me with my language. I was touched when one of them, Paloma,
said [in Spanish] ‘Thank you for all the beautiful new things.’”
“If you had told me five or six years ago that I’d be wanting to learn Spanish
at my age, I wouldn’t have believed you,” LaFontaine says. “That changed
with my first visit to Transfiguracion Church. I’ve stayed in touch with some
of the people through e-mail and instant messaging.”
“We have funny conversations in bad English and bad Spanish. My Spanish is
gradually improving. After the 35W bridge collapsed, I received two text
messages within 45 minutes. It was astounding to me that the story was in
the news there immediately.”
In 2006 LaFontaine and her family hosted Facundo De Oliva, grandson of one
of the Azul property owners who donated land for the care center. “Facundo
is involved with Greenpeace in Argentina. He picks up gleanings by hand after
corn has been harvested and sells what he collects to help feed the hungry.”
“Facundo had a great time in Minnesota. He was also part of the South
American delegation to the national ELCA youth gathering in San Antonio
that summer. Back in Argentina, he took a folk dancing class and sent me a
video.” LaFontaine, an office manager, was one of the lay members of St.
Luke’s making this year’s trip.
St. Luke’s members made mission trips to Azul in 2003 and 2005, and
Schoenhals paid an additional visit in June 2007. “Our habit has been, if we
travel, they get to travel,” he says. “We had four visitors from Azul in 2004,
and we’re hoping a group will come in either Fall 2008 or Spring 2009. The
purpose of our mutual visits is both relationship building and strategic
“Our strategy for 2009 is to help the church there get a pastor. They’ve been
completely lay led for four years. It’s clear that the future of the congregation
is linked to the child care center. We see the families of the children at the
center as future members of Transfiguracion Church.
“We also look to add more rooms to the center,” Schoenhals says. “The
Argentine government has told the staff they need either to add space or to
limit the age group served.” St. Luke’s and the government each pay half of
the staff salaries.”
Paul adds, “Noelia Fleites, the childcare director, explained to us some of the
other Argentine government regulations regarding pre-school education. For
example, by law all children 45 days of age or older are mandated a right to
“For infants this included being sung to, being read to, learning to share, and
getting enough ‘tummy time’ so that their muscles will develop adequately.
All of this will transition into learning their letters and numbers.” Paul looks
forward to returning to Azul.
Sandra Scappini, an Azul social worker, selects the center’s teaching staff,
who themselves need economic assistance. “The teachers are on a work
welfare program,” Schoenhals says. “The city of Azul is so grateful for what
we’ve done that they sought the title of Sister City with Bloomington. What’s
really happening here is intercultural learning that creates a larger sense of
God’s work in the world.”