This year, Hans and Priscilla Breekveldt mark 30 years of service in Argentina. Here, they share some of their stories from the last three decades.
As we stepped off the plane with our one-year-old daughter, Rebecca, in arms, we were in unfamiliar territory. Buenos Aires, Ezeiza International Airport, April 1993. We were excited to serve the Argentine church, but couldn’t help feeling a bit apprehensive about what lay ahead. Our language coach, Joanna, had provided us with the rudiments of the Spanish language, Hans had worked with international students in London (a UCCF ministry that included a hospitality scheme), and Priscilla’s parents were missionaries in South East Asia.
Initially, we were welcomed by the leader of the Latin Link Argentina team and his family. We stayed with them for a couple of weeks to go through the orientation process and to find a flat to rent.
Although our language learning curve shot up, our first friendships with Latinos were made with bi-lingual folk. We were welcomed with open arms by porteños (Buenos Aires residents) like Sonia, David, Pablo and others with some international experience. It wasn’t the open arms that struck us at first, though. It was the kiss planted on both cheeks with every greeting that took some getting used to. Even men would rub stubble with each other.
Another custom we learned early on was drinking mate. It involves drinking a hot infusion made from dried leaves of the yerba-mate plant. The infusion is traditionally sipped through a metal straw known as a bombilla from a hollowed-out gourd known as a mate. This social activity is deeply ingrained in Argentine culture. Friends, family and colleagues take turns passing the mate around and sharing the drink. It is a symbol of friendship, hospitality and camaraderie. Few lectures or Bible studies take place without being interrupted by the occasional slurping sound or students refilling their thermos with hot water. Drinking mate is not only a source of cultural identity for many Argentines; it is a way of staying connected to one’s community and maintaining a sense of belonging.
We celebrated our first airconditioned Christmas as guests with Hebe and Gabriel. Their warm hospitality and genuine kindness reminded us that we are connected as members of God’s family, even though our biological relatives were on the other side of the world. Family is big in Argentine culture. Every year Rebecca’s kindergarten celebrated Grandparents Day, by holding a party for the children and their ‘grandies’. One dear lady from the church realised that Rebecca would be suffering the absence of her four grandparents that day. Priscila Terraza was a widow, had children but no grandchildren and was a lovely Christian. We had become friendly with her and she agreed to become Rebecca’s ‘adopted Grandma’. With the blessing of her two European counterparts, she fulfilled that role with commitment. She made a point of getting in touch when Rebecca celebrated her 15th birthday, a special celebration for girls, equal to a ‘coming of age’ ceremony. We had long moved away from Buenos Aires by then.
That first year we also had the opportunity to enjoy hospitality with a Mennonite family in the interior of Paraguay. In many respects it opened our eyes to rural life in many of Latin America’s republics. The vast distances, the sweltering heat and the much slower pace of life contrasted with what we were used to. Later on in our ministry, this experience with the Guaraní Indians would be replaced by visits to Wichí villages in Northern Argentina.
In the first decade of our work with Latin Link, Hans was connected to three seminaries as an Old Testament lecturer. One was a missionary training center in the Northern zone of Buenos Aires. To illustrate the power of a meal, we prepared some Indian food at home and invited a group of students. Eating a very mild curry from rinsed banana leaves with only your right hand made an impact and was quite a unique experience. Afterwards we reflected on the book of Ruth, where Boaz doesn’t give Ruth some money to supply for her needs. Instead, he invites her to share a meal and thereby incorporate her into his inner circle. Monica, one of those students who partook that night, is still a missionary in Northern Africa.
We are no longer strangers, but beloved guests
The second decade of our ministry was spent in Salta. Hans became Coordinator of Clergy and Lay Training for the Anglican Diocese and Priscilla became leader of the Latin Link team.
Dozens of Step teams stayed in our homes, often for orientation or debriefing. It was not unusual to have six girls occupy mattresses in the living room, whilst another half a dozen boys were strewn around a closed-off gallery at the back of the house. Similarly, over the years, dozens of Striders made our home a bolt-hole for their days off, nicknaming it “The Refuge”. Two of these Striders are now Stay members in our Argentina team. We are still in touch with many others, some of whom work within Latin Link, have become full-time Christian workers or pastors.
As members of the San Andrés Anglican church, and with two teenage children, Priscilla got more and more involved in local youthwork. A prominent feature of our kitchen is the big table. For years, after the Sunday-morning church service, scores of Salta youngsters would congregate around it and we would serve the bunch a hearty meal. The table-talk that ensued was often fascinating, and not only for an evaluation of the sermon or the worship. The majority of teens and young adults came from broken homes and the stories and jokes created a positive and enjoyable atmosphere during mealtime. We realised that sharing food and engaging in banter and conversation lead to a greater sense of belonging and strengthened significant friendships. The discussions also provided opportunities for learning. Exchanges about lifestyles and perspectives broadened their knowledge and understanding. And afterwards there was always the mate drinking, some boardgames or a soccer-match on TV. These relaxing Sunday afternoons were important moments for expressing care and accompaniment.
Between 2000 and 2010, Hans travelled a lot to visit indigenous Anglican churches in the far North of Argentina, organising Bible schools and teaching the Old Testament. The students playfully nicknamed him Tutsag Lanek, which means “Hair of Smoke” in the Wichí language. His European white hair stands out, but it also spoke of respect for the seniority the light scalp signaled. For six years Hans was a special assistant to the Bishop. During one particularly grueling trip to visit the communities, an entire Wichí family moved out of their house for two days. The aim was to provide the Bishop and his side-kick secretary with a base to work from and a place to rest. The tiny village church bent over backwards to make them feel at home; freshly caught river-fish, homemade bread and a roasted kid-goat completed the hospitality. This was a very humbling gesture of costly grace and the experience stayed with Hans for a long time.
No longer guests, but “You belong”
The last ten years have seen our children going through Argentina’s free(!) tertiary and university education and Rebecca gave us an Austrian son-in-law. Many of the youngsters that hung around in our kitchen moved on; some have abandoned the faith, some have launched successful professional careers while others continue to struggle. Our kitchen table has contributed to a dozen marriages and at least three young adults have gone to Bible College; one enrolled in an Apprenticeship Programme for Christian leadership last month. Intentional discipleship has its highs and lows, its victories and tragedies. On one occasion, a young man who was part of this circle of youngsters, managed to obtain a copy of our front door key during the week. Whilst we were at church and he was under the influence of cannabis, he managed to find some cash in our house and stole it. The quick actions of one of our colleagues resulted in the recovery of the Argentine pesos and US dollars.
Both of us are now ordained vicars and on the Pastoral Team of the San Andrés church. Four years ago, the congregation started a feeding programme for homeless folk and twice a week around 40 hot lunches are served in an atmosphere of welcoming acceptance. There are the true down-and-outs like Franz, barefoot and struggling with substance abuse. There are the frail and elderly, abandoned and looking for some friendly chat. For others, two free meals a week makes a huge difference on a tight budget, suffering from high inflation. “They treat us differently here” was one of the comments we overheard. As the team was finished cleaning, another lady said “Why do we need to leave? This is our home!”
Towards the end of last year Priscilla was invited to join the Argentine National Committee of the internationally recognized Perspectives-course. It is an academic distance-learning course that teaches church leaders and interested Christians about cross-cultural missions, and it has been hugely successful.
If you would like to support Hans and Priscilla Breekvelt click here for their fundraising page.