Meeting Jesus in another culture

A woman standing in a room with a group of children sitting at a table
Esther Aguilar works with children in her classroom at Samuelito, a daycare run through the ministry of Mennonite churches in Bolivia and supported by Mennonite Central Committee through the YAMEN program. MCC photo/Rachel Watson

Before Esther Aguilar began her Bolivian adventure, she asked God for one thing: to teach her in a deeper sense the commandment where Jesus says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. (…) A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 37-39).”

Although she had grown up hearing this commonly used verse, Esther Aguilar was ready to be challenged to understand what it meant to love others from a different culture and to meet Jesus in a new part of the world.

Through YAMEN (Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network), a joint service program through Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference, God placed her in Samuelito, a daycare for children in Bolivia that is a ministry of the Bolivian Evangelical Mennonite Church.

Before working at Samuelito, Esther Aguilar had never worked with children before. She recalls those first days as an education and health-care assistant, trying to navigate children’s screams coming from multiple directions and learning how to change a diaper for the first time. “I remember the first time putting it on backwards!” But instead of shutting down, she remembered the verse she was asking to be transformed by. She thought, “How should I react better in this moment and what can I do about it?”

Although Esther Aguilar came from another Spanish speaking-country of Honduras, she still found that adapting her language was key in figuring out how to relate and care for vulnerable children. 

“We’re all Latinos-as and share cultural things at a minimum level,” she said. “But I’ve had to adapt my language even here. I’ve had to adapt my way of speaking to children of different ages. Like different ways to call their attention or to correct their speech. Understanding and communicating with each child differently is a way of empathizing with them,” she says.

During her time with YAMEN, from August 2022 to July 2023, Esther Aguilar learned to love each child who came through Samuelito as an individual. It was a test of patience, but she strove to create a safe space where they could freely express their range of emotions within a day.

Another way she practiced “loving thy neighbour” was by becoming part of the fabric of a new Mennonite church community in Bolivia, Sinai Mennonite Evangelical Church. At first, she was afraid to get involved with a new church. She remembers feeling out of her comfort zone and vulnerable to attend church camps by herself for the first time. But looking back, she feels joy about this part of her experience because it taught her that the kingdom of God reaches far past her home church in Honduras, Evangelical Mennonite Church of Santa Rosa de Copán.

Esther Aguilar’s new workplace, home and church community were avenues of deeper cultural connection and a place to practice living out the day-to-day messiness of loving her new neighbours, children’s screams and all.

“When I began to embrace this culture, I started to feel a bit more ownership and began to understand what it’s like in other people’s shoes in the context of Bolivia,” she explained.

“I have learned to love the Lord in another church, in a different home and have learned to love myself.”

The Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) program is a joint program between Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee. It places emphasis on expanding the fellowship between churches in the Anabaptist tradition and developing young leaders around the globe. Participants spend one year in a cross-cultural assignment starting in August and ending the following July.