While cheap gas prices were celebrated in the United States, in Venezuela the low cost of oil has led to painful shortages in everyday needs, such as food, electricity and medicine.
The once-thriving Venezuelan economy depends greatly on exporting oil. Previously, when oil prices were high, this income stream allowed for low national production, permitting the government to increase imports and maintain large subsidies for its citizens.
“During our visit, just about every conversation included talk about the local economy,” reported Marisa Smucker, Mennonite Mission Network church relations associate, after visiting Venezuela in March 2016. Smucker was part of a partnership visit, including also Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (Colombia Mennonite Church) and Central Plains Mennonite Conference.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela's inflation is the highest in the world and is expected to rise to over 500 percent this year.
When the Venezuelan Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Oriente (Evangelical Mennonite Church of the East) prepared their plans for 2016, they included work like “continue with support for elderly people in the lines to buy food. . .develop in the month of May 2016 the first session of ‘Cooperative Games for Peace’ in Caracas, concretely in the schools.”
It is common to find people waiting in long lines outside of grocery stores, waiting for a chance to get the minimum basic needs for their families, with many people being turned away with little to nothing. Some wait times are measured in days, not hours.
Mennonite church leader Erwin Mirabal navigates these realities every day. He and his family moved to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in early 2015 in order to expand ministries on the mainland, having witnessed the value of the Anabaptist message on Isla Margarita.
“The confrontation has intensified,” said Mirabal. “The lines to buy food are endless, and the cost of food is unattainable, and humiliating fights break out in the lines.”
As one way of responding to the needs around them, on Fridays, Mirabal and the other church members take coffee and arepas to people who live on the streets. Arepas are usually made of corn, but since corn is expensive, they make them now from plantains, potatoes or yucca. They also take chairs to elderly people to make it easier for them to wait in line.
In the afternoons, Mondays through Fridays, church people spend two hours with neighborhood children, helping with homework.
“It’s natural to blame the government and think there is nothing ordinary people can do,” said Linda Shelly, director of Latin America at Mennonite Mission Network. "Yet, Erwin shows that there are things they can do through the church. Small actions can have a powerful witness.”
In a June letter, Mirabal wrote that “in the midst of this difficult situation, the seminary in Caracas, Margarita, and Yaracuy experience growth. . . . We continue forward with our proclamation of the gospel, with our call to abandon individualism and this materialism that passes above the most elementary principles of coexistence.”
Mirabal reports that principles of Anabaptist Christianity like community and nonviolence are very attractive in Venezuela today. The seminary that they started with the help of the Seminario Bíblico Menonita de Colombia (Biblical Mennonite Seminary of Colombia), continues to grow.
The Venezuelan seminary attracts a wide variety of students; many are not Mennonite and some are not even Christian. Students report that they sign up for courses simply because they want to learn about the Bible. Sometimes, that simple act can lead to a commitment to the Christian faith. Some people on the streets who have received food from the church have also chosen to participate in the seminary classes and are enthusiastic about what they are learning.
The seminary reaches out to independent churches and offers to teach courses in their congregations. The hope is to spread knowledge of and commitment to Anabaptist theology.
Approximately 70 students participate in the ongoing seminary program on Margarita Island and in Caracas and Yaracuy on the mainland.
Marianela Verde, a seminary student, shared about her favorite seminary courses and workshops. She said, “For me, it was the Christology class. It permitted me to see who Jesus Christ is and how to convey him to other people.”
As a final project in this course, to illustrate servant leadership, Marianela painted a picture of a young woman helping an older woman. Mirabal believes it is this kind of servant leadership that the church can offer Venezuela today.