I looked at my phone early on the morning of Aug. 5 and saw that Pastor Erwin Mirabal, president of the church conference Red de Misiones Menonita de Venezuela, had died of COVID-19. We had been praying for him for two weeks. His condition was stable the day before. His death was a shock for many.
The global pandemic is peaking later in Latin America than most other regions. Reports coming to Mennonite Mission Network told of economic hardship; pandemic restrictions stopped people from working as day laborers or selling in the streets. Mission Network supported partner churches have been reaching out to help the most vulnerable people with food.
Now, as the virus spreads more rapidly in Latin America, prayer chains are active for people who are sick, and we mourn deaths together with partners. Mission Network relates with Venezuela through a partnership including Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (IMCOL) and Central Plains Mennonite Conference (CPMC).
We have made partnership visits together in Venezuela since 2013. Colombian leaders have known Erwin much longer. On Aug. 13, we were among those who gathered on Zoom to record tributes for Erwin for the Spanish podcast Merienda Menonita.
Sharing our reflections helped our healing process. I have translated some excerpts of the testimonies, beginning with an introduction given by Peter Stucky of Colombia.
As a young man in the 1980s, Erwin traveled to a workshop taught by John Driver in Colombia. (Driver served with Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network.) Erwin didn't understand much at first. But he kept reading Driver's writings, which led him to passionately embrace and practice the Sermon on the Mount. He sought more opportunities to study, and the Seminario Bíblico Menonita de Colombia under Alix Lozano's leadership developed seminary education in Venezuela. Erwin guided students in developing churches, and soon the Venezuela Partnership was formed.
Erwin inspired many people in Venezuela and beyond, as these testimonies demonstrate:
- Lozano and Ricardo Esquivia had long-term relationships with Erwin. Ricardo Esquivia said, "I met Erwin about 25 years ago. … It really impacted me to visit Venezuela again last year and experience above all the commitment that he had for his people, his place, his country. He expressed the hope that something would change, that it was going to change."
Lozano said, "My memory of Erwin is the fascination he felt for Anabaptism. He found in following Jesus his reason for being and his practice of life. Another aspect that was very challenging was his practical living with the most marginalized people in society through forming humble faith communities, such as Isla Margarita and then in Caracas .... I would like to bring to memory the words of Hans Denck, 'No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life.' I think this is a description of Erwin Mirabal."
- Holly Blosser Yoder, who coordinates CPMC's involvement, shared, "I saw Erwin as a type of Paul the apostle … traveling among groups of believers, teaching them and encouraging them, building up their fellowships, empowering them for compassionate ministry and service in their communities."
- Now with Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, David Boshart traveled three times to Venezuela in his former CPMC role. He said, "I was impressed with Erwin's humility combined with his entrepreneurial vision. This unusual combination of gifts has been a key factor in the amazing growth of the food grinding enterprise, the cooperative games for peace ministry, and, most importantly, the seminary program. I was always impressed by the way Erwin modeled humble, servant leadership and the obvious respect everyone in the church held for him and the way they listened intently when he did speak."
- Carlos Moreno coordinates the IMCOL missions committee. He said, "Something that I always liked about my brother Erwin was his respectful way of saying things. I also liked his loving and tender way with his community, his family, and all the people who were close to him. … At some point we were talking about whether he had the intention, or if he wanted to leave Venezuela due to the difficult situation and have the possibility of coming to Colombia. He told me, 'Well, my place, the place where God has called me, is here, and this is my community. These are my brothers and sisters whom I want to accompany and serve.'"
- Oscar Herrera, who also visited Venezuela representing the IMCOL missions committee, said, "Erwin was convinced that Anabaptist Mennonite theology is relevant in this historical moment in Venezuela amid the violence that began in this time of crisis in this country … He considered that sitting at the table as Jesus did with his disciples was a blessing, like a privilege and a miracle before the Lord, a joy, a celebration."
Since Erwin's death, Mission Network has continued to accompany the people of the churches in Venezuela. His wife, Haydee Vegas, talks about their deep desire to continue despite the pain of loss. Their daughter, Helena Mirabal, shared, "Seeking Jesus is the best way. Outside of him there is nothing, not even in moments of pain and affliction. During the most terrible thing we can be going through, Jesus is there; he is always there. With human hands and feet."