Darrow Miller and Friends

Healthcare and Development: Learning from the Mennonite Colonies

Years ago, some Mennonite colonies settled in the “Green Hell” of Paraguay’s Gran Chaco. Their story is an illustration of how God works through people to heal the land and build a nation.

Like a Mustard SeedIn his book, Like A Mustard Seed: Mennonites in Paraguay, Mennonite author Edgar Stoesz tells this fascinating story. Stoesz answers the question, “How did they prosper?”

We have written about the Mennonites in the Gran Chaco before (see the list of titles at the end of this post.) In this continuation of the series, we will look at the role that healthcare played in the ultimate flourishing of the Chaco.

The Mennonite settlers came to Paraguay’s Gran Chaco in waves:

  • In 1927 the first wave arrived from Canada to establish what became the largest colony in the Chaco, the Menno colony.
  • In 1930 the second wave rolled in. These were survivors of the Russian Revolution and civil war. They fled Russia and settled in the Chaco and established the Fernheim colony.
  • In the 1940s, following the oppression of Communism in Russia, more Mennonites fled to resettle in Paraguay.

All three waves came as pioneers to settle a strange and hostile land. Like Old Testament Israel, they believed they were led by God to leave their homes and establish themselves in a foreign land, a place God would provide. They often came poor, with only the clothes on their backs. They trusted God with their lives and their future.

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Frank Schoepgens photo

They came to the harsh “Green Hell,” and many died in the early years. Many returned home in defeat. But some persisted and turned the wasteland of the Chaco into a garden.

They came in poverty to an impoverished land. Yet they had their God-given vision, their careful planning and well-ordered lives. They brought a passion for hard work and a willingness to suffer. By these fundamental virtues such pioneers succeed.

But one thing pioneers largely forgot: healthcare. As Edgar Stoesz points out, “Ironically, Mennonite colonists, who in other things were so thorough in their planning, were inexplicably negligent where health was concerned.”  They did not plan for illness. As a result, the pioneering generation included no doctors, nurses or healthcare professionals.

They came to Paraguay just as many other refuged people and missionaries come to a new and inhospitable place. They came trusting in God for provision and protection. Stoesz writes, “When illness or accident occurred, they prayed for grace to accept it as God’s will. When death occurred, the community rallied, and somehow life went on.”

In the first few years, they were faced with non-potable water and a wasteland that did not easily yield the food needed for nutrition and healthy and sustained growth. In the early years many died of hunger and many more were plagued by diseases such as trachoma, malaria, and stomach parasites. These diseases, in addition to starvation, led to untimely deaths. These deaths depleted families and the human life blood of the colonies.

But the colonists learned from these consequences of inadequate planning. In 1941, 14 years after the first settlers arrived, the first resident doctor, John R. Schmidt, came to the colonies. Schmidt brought with him his wife, Clara, a registered nurse. In 1943, Clara established the first nursing school to train healthcare professionals for the colonies.

In the early 1950s, beginning with Dr. Wilhelm Kaethler, a new generation of Paraguay-born Mennonites began to establish a medical “network” for the colonies and their indigenous neighbors.

In the mid-1940s the first dentist came to the colonies. The first mental health facilities were established in 1962. Eventually, the colonies established modest elder-care facilities for the growing senior population needing care beyond what families could provide.

Today, Stoesz writes, Paraguayan Mennonites “enjoy a quality of healthcare equivalent to and at points superior to what their Canadian and American cousins receive.”

Development—of individuals and of communities—must be comprehensive. There’s no such thing as piecemeal development. The Mennonite colonies in the Chaco learned a hard lesson in not planning for needed healthcare in the colonies. But they learned from their mistakes and eventually established a health network within the colonies that served both the Mennonites and their indigenous neighbors.

  • Darrow Miller

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