Reconciliation stands at the core of the gospel in the suffering and death of Jesus. “Greater love has no one than this” than a life sacrificed for others, whether friends or enemies (John 15:13; Romans 5:8-10).
Nevertheless, reconciliation embraced as a concept is easier than reconciliation walked out. The evangelical Anabaptist community of Honduras experienced this last year (Mennonite World Review, Dec. 3, 2018, “Leaders Set Example of Forgiveness in Honduras”) in an unusual display of mutual forgiveness.
But let’s go back 21 years. In the summer of 1997 an international group of 15 mission and church leaders visited Honduras to learn from its Anabaptist churches, especially the Amor Viviente (“Living Love”) church, one of the most vibrant, discipleship-oriented Anabaptist communions in the world (’97 Honduras Mission Study Trip, Salunga, PA: Eastern Mennonite Missions, 1997, 32 pp.).
In their published reflections after being hosted and taught by the Tegucigalpa mother church, they reported
–“The…people who comprise the Amor Viviente congregation are now the largest [of any congregation] that might at present comprise the Mennonite World Conference.” (David Shenk, EMM Overseas Ministries Director)
–“Honduras is one of the smallest and poorest countries of the world… How does one explain the 6000 people who gather each weekend for fellowship and meet in 650 homes groups each week?” (Carlton Stambaugh, EMM Board Chair)
–“At Amor Viviente, Pastor Rene Penalba and his team offer hope in the midst of a culture of despair… There are four pillars: 1) cell groups, 2) discipleship training for service, 3) a program of ecclesiastical work involving 80% of the congregation, and 4) missionary action… As the primary leader in the congregation, Pastor Penalba does not function as a dictator or a lone ranger. In fact, he insists that important decisions be made by consensus.” (Ervin Stutzman, LMC moderator)
–“I was amazed by the similarities that the Spirit worked in Amor Viviente and Meserete Kristos Church… [and by the humility of the leaders]… About 80% of how [we] do church is the same.” (Hailu Cherenet, MKC Ethiopia)
Yet unbeknown to the visiting team, seeds of division were already growing. Key leaders of Amor Viviente were beginning to lose their affirmation for one another. Each side was marginalized.
“Too much power in the hands of one person,” thought the AV national leadership team of Pastor Penalba, the pastor of their largest church, “and misuse of funds.” They took steps to strengthen and diversify plural leadership of Amor Viviente’s governing group.
“They’re intentionally destroying my ability to serve effectively,” thought Penalba. Mistrust grew. Each side thought themselves willing to be reconciled, but of course each was looking for change in the other, because everyone had legitimate concerns. Everyone felt betrayed by erstwhile intimate friends.
Finally, Penalba gave up. In an act of charity, he left the congregation intact with all its assets. He also left the denomination. A few months later, he started a new congregation and eventually a new network, the International Christian Center (CCI). The breach was complete.
For the next twenty years the key leaders of Amor Viviente and CCI never spoke to each other. Both groups multiplied, building on the strengths which the 1997 visitors had observed. By 2018 each circle numbered more than seventy congregations in Honduras, and each had spread far beyond in missionary activity. Yet many had been wounded and the testimony of Amor Viviente was marred.
Then last year Carlos Marin Montoya, early leader in Tegucigalpa alongside Rene Penalba and now president of Amor Viviente, witnessed the profound effects of reconciliation with a wounded married couple in La Ceiba where he served as pastor. The couple had drifted away from Christ and the church, but after Montoya and his wife reached out to them, they returned in peace with much joy.
Some weeks later Montoya’s wife asked, “What about your broken relationship with CCI?”
At first Montoya was irritated by the question, but the Holy Spirit gave him no peace. He knew there were steps he could take, hard though they would be.
At his suggestion the current pastor of the Amor Viviente congregation in Tegucigalpa began meeting one-on-one with the pastor of the big CCI congregation in the same city, searching for a way forward. Each time they met, they reported back to their denominational leadership teams and received counsel for the next step.
After ten meetings between the two pastors, the two national leadership teams were ready to meet for the first time—five from Amor Viviente and four from CCI. The senior leaders Montoya and Penalba were coming together face-to-face for the first time in 20 years.
No one knew what to anticipate. Would they really be received by the other? Was this a plot to inflict fresh wounds? Renew old accusations? As they gathered, emotions were tense.
The last person to enter the room was Penalba. When he walked in, immediately he fixed his eyes on Montoya and said, “I need a great forgiveness from you.” Montoya responded in kind. Tears flowed freely as the Holy Spirit fell and tensions broke.
“We have sinned and wounded the body of Christ,” they acknowledged to each other. “Our breach was public. All Honduras knows about it. We must also make our reconciliation public. On November 14 we will meet again in solemn assembly, give and receive forgiveness, and put our signatures to a document of reconciliation.”
So they did. Many of their pastors joined them. Representatives of radio and television stations came as witnesses, as did leaders from other denominations. Two hundred fifty people gathered. They worshipped by singing songs written by Penalba and Montoya in their younger years. They listened as an elderly Honduran church leader opened the Word. They celebrated Holy Communion. They asked forgiveness and prayed for each other. Montoya and Penalba embraced each other for a long time. They signed a humble, repentant accord of reconciliation, pledging to walk and serve together in the future.
Though it’s much too soon to evaluate the long-term impact of the reconciliation, many things have changed, all symbolized well by the long embrace between two estranged brothers. New doors for fellowship, witness, and service have swung open. The nation has witnessed an unexpected healing within a single generation of leaders. The very ones who fell apart have risen together in grace. Their world took notice.
1. Amor Viviente tried two paths to reconciliation. One was the path of truth/justice, the other the path of repentance/forgiveness. At first they focused mostly on the path to truth and justice. Who was right? Who was wrong? Can we convince each other? It was a long road. As they did, they found themselves more and more deeply divided. Eventually, they stopped speaking to each other.
2. Much later, they took another path. Instead of seeking a settlement of who is right and who is wrong, each began to ask, how have I sinned? When they did, the miracle of forgiveness began to appear. Repentant leaders asked for forgiveness with no description of the other’s wrong, and heaven came down.
3. At the end of the day, all had acknowledged that they were wrong (Rom. 3:23) before God. They stood together as ones who had missed the mark, but forgiven in Christ as they forgave each other. As far as I know, the earlier truth/justice questions remained unaddressed.
4. Sixteenth century Anabaptists answered the question of “what is true?” with simplicity. The content of righteousness is given to us in the Word of God, the Scripture and is ultimately expressed in Jesus. We go back to that Word again and again.
5. Our human discernment of what is true and just may differ. Hermeneutical communities do not reach the same conclusions. What then? We enter a realm of incredible complexity, because the question has shifted to a human question, who is right? (However, the answer lies in a different dimension to a different question, what is [God-given abundant] life?)
6. At least two paths lie before us—(1) truth/justice and (2) repentance/forgiveness. Both are important. In the experience of Amor Viviente and CCI, an initial focus on truth/justice did not lead to reconciliation. Repentance/forgiveness did. In other instances, the order may differ. But in our broken human community, both are always somehow part of God’s plan.
7. The reconciliation would not have occurred without men and women who were listening carefully to the Holy Spirit, and obeying.