Sundays have new significance for Saturnina Flores and her daughters. In the morning they attend worship. In the afternoon, the 27-year-old mother of two plays soccer. Her life has changed.
Soccer brings back memories of her teenage life in La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital city. Years back, Flores enjoyed playing football on Sunday afternoons with her team, Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn), which won second place in one local tournament and received the prize of a cow.
It’s been a long journey from Nuevo Amanecer to the Faith and Hope Lutheran Church, a congregation of the Bolivian Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELB), located in the slums of Santa Cruz, the country’s largest city.
Flores used to work as a seamstress, sewing up to 300 pairs of jeans per week. When she lost that job in 2011 she found both work and support at the IELB congregation. She now works at the Lutheran school as a housekeeper and janitor to supplement her $90 monthly income at a small restaurant.
Mother of 10 year-old Reina and six-year-old Michel, Flores was born in the mountain region of Illimani. She was the only daughter among seven children in a poor household. At the age of five, she was given up to a well-off family for care, but she ended up as a manual child laborer, feeding cattle and enduring physical beatings and other forms of abuse from her foster parents. Upon learning about their daughter’s predicament, her parents took her back home, only to send the then nine-year old to work for food in La Paz.
In the city, Flores at the age of 16 befriended Ivan. He later abandoned her after learning that she was pregnant with his child. Disappointed that their daughter had become an unwed mother in her teens, her parents arranged marriage with another man 20 years her senior. During their 10 years together, he subjected her to physical and emotional violence and during that period she lost three babies, but she also had her second daughter. The situation was aggravated by mistreatment from her mother-in-law. Things got worse, and when her husband attempted to kill her, Flores escaped to Santa Cruz, where she eventually got the seamstress job.
“The church is a blessing for me and my daughters,” says Flores. “Working as a janitor helps me pay the rent for my house. Only God knows my life and I am hopeful for the future.”
The IELB Faith and Hope congregation has around 200 members who support each other in the midst of difficult social challenges. In recent years, several families moved to another area of the city in search of better livelihood and many of them are no longer able to come to the congregation due to the long distance.
The congregation comprises families that are mainly headed by single mothers. It supports members with skills training to generate income from selling products such as jewelry made from recyclable materials. It also runs a Lutheran elementary school and a kindergarten.
The IELB Santa Cruz congregation hosted representatives of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) member churches in Latin America and the Caribbean for a regional meeting last September, called to assess how to best equip churches for their respective ministries.
The Faith and Hope Lutheran Church pastor Rev. Juan Carlos Chuyma thanked the LWF for coming to Santa Cruz.
“To host the regional gathering is meaningful for us. It is an opportunity to let our sisters and brothers know about the service we are providing. We support more families and aim to enhance education through computer classes, bakery training and accounting studies,” he said.
The IELB has 22,000 members organized in 105 congregations served by 26 ordained pastors. It supports community members including women’s groups through livelihood projects dealing with education, water supply and food security.
Edwin Mendivelso is a journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia.