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'Retirement' for the Rev. Oscar Bolioli Means
Hard Work with Uruguay's Methodist Church
By Chris Herlinger for
Ecumenical News International*
1) The Rev. Bolioli with a memento of thanks presented by the Cuban Council of Churches (Havana, 2/03);
2) closing news conference, in Guatemala City (4/02), of a consultation, which the Rev. Bolioli led in organizing, of key members of civil society and the churches to restart Guatemala's stalled peace accords;
3) in prayer together with Cuban and U.S. church leaders (Havana, 2/03);
4) in Chile, talking with relatives of the 'disappeared' (Santiago, 12/01).'
February 14, 2003, NEW YORK CITY -- At a time when many people his age would be thinking of retirement, Oscar Bolioli, 68, is returning from New York to his native Uruguay to become president of the country's Evangelical Methodist Church.
Bolioli, a Methodist pastor, today concludes his work as Associate General Secretary for International Relations at the United States' National Council of Churches (NCC), whose headquarters are in New York.
In an interview with Ecumenical News International shortly after his appointment was announced, he acknowledged he had been "dreaming of returning to Uruguay and just sitting on the beach."
But, he explained, "that won't be happening."
Bolioli returns to Uruguay to help a church experiencing internal problems, including financial woes. Furthermore, he said, he wants to stand in solidarity with a country whose economy is in collapse and that is feeling enormous pressures because of its dependence on economically troubled Argentina, its immediate neighbor.
It will be the second time that Bolioli will hold the unpaid position of president of Uruguay's Methodist Church, which has 20 congregations and about 3,000 members.
Bolioli was first president from 1974 to 1979, and under his leadership the church became known for its defense of human rights during an era of military dictatorship.
"We want to recuperate that [activist] role again," Bolioli said, adding that the church can have a role in "building an economy from the point of view of the poor, not the rich."
To those in the US churches who have admired Bolioli for his principled stances or have criticised him for being too political, such words come as no surprise.
During his nearly 20 years with the NCC and with Church World Service, the global humanitarian agency of the NCC's 36 member denominations, Bolioli has acted as a prod in efforts to place the relationship between the churches of Latin America and United States on a more equal footing.
Having first visited Cuba in 1964, he has been a prominent figure in expanding relations between churches in Cuba and the US. He has also helped lead efforts to promote the peace process in Guatemala following a 35-year armed conflict and to foster human rights and combat impunity in countries emerging from military dictatorships, including Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.
Though proud of these accomplishments, he is also saddened by what he believes is an increasingly pragmatic bent on the part of mainline Protestant churches in the US, what he calls a "neo-liberal attitude" that puts a premium on quick results at the expense of "a longer vision."
But if he is critical of church pragmatists, he also questions those, such as himself, who were influenced by the trends of liberation theology, which emerged from Latin America in the 1970s, incorporating elements of pastoral and social action with Marxist economic analysis.
"Liberation theology was elitist," he said. "We were thinking about the poor and we weren't of the poor. We made many mistakes."
In 1986, while Director of the NCC/CWS Office on Latin America and the Caribbean, Bolioli took a sabbatical to live in poor communities in Honduras, Argentina and Haiti, an experience that gave him a deeper appreciation for the culture of the poor, and taught him that educated leaders "could not be 'in the know' - we all must learn together.
"I started to learn a lot from non-intellectuals," he said.
Economic matters have engaged Bolioli throughout his career and the economy is clearly on his mind as he begins preparations for returning to Uruguay.
"Isn't it time for the church, in collaboration with others," he said, "to build up society and pay attention to those who are not normally listened to?"
* (c) Ecumenical News International, www.eni.ch. Used with permission.
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