Chicago Couple Serve in Ministry With Copacabana Community
By Rev. Skip Hodges, Global Ministries Missionary in Bolivia
April 29, 2013—When a three-week blockade of the western Bolivian community they serve made life uncomfortable, Individual Volunteers Deborah Rissing and Jeff Wasilevich could easily have gone to Peru.
Instead they stayed in the town of Copacabana, on the border with Peru, providing a ministry of presence to the community where they have lived and worked for two years. Their decision may not have surprised their Copacabaniño neighbors.
As a result of two years of diligent work and constant presence, the husband-and-wife team from the Chicago area has become a part of the community. They have learned Spanish and are making great strides in learning to speak Aymara, a very difficult, 2000-year-old indigenous language spoken in that region of the Andes.
Their vote is not only accepted but expected during neighborhood and community meetings.Through their ministry, Mission Fronteras, they help with sustainable agricultural, education and healthcare projects. They are also an important part of the Methodist churches in the area.
Deb and Jeff chose to stay the community in late March when residents of Tiquina, a pair of towns on opposite shores of Lake Titicaca between the rest of Bolivia and Copacabana, blockaded the only route to Copacabana.The blockaders’ concern surrounds a proposed bridge over the Strait of Tiquina, which would eliminate the ferry crossing. The ferry is the only connection to Copacabana without traveling through Peru.
Food, cooking gas and most importantly visitors were blocked from entering Copacabana.The blockade was in place over Holy Week – Copacabana’s most lucrative week of the year – adversely affecting many individuals, families and businesses.Toward the end of the blockade in mid-April, food was beginning to become scarce.
Deb and Jeff could have left, but they decided to stay with their community. Even after 250 national police were dispatched to the Copacabana area to disrupt the blockade, Deb and Jeff stayed.They stood in line with more than a thousand people to exchange an empty cooking gas container for one of 1,000 canisters of gas the Bolivian Navy shipped in as emergency relief.
A friend asked via Facebook if they felt in danger because they were Americans.
Jeff replied, “Not in the least. We are considered Copacabaniños and part of the community. Everyone in town knows us. The military personnel are not from Copa and I think they gave a questioning look or two seeing a Gringo in the crowd, but they assume I must belong if I am there ... and especially since Dorita (a neighbor) and I were joking around and carrying containers together ... She was joking that they probably think she and I are a couple.”
Deb and Jeff, very different in appearance from the other Copacabaniños, demonstrated the love of Christ as they stayed instead of comfortably waiting out the blockade in Peru.
After much negotiating between the government and the communities, the blockade was lifted. Life in Copa is returning to normal. As it does, their neighbors will long remember Deb and Jeff’s lovingly sharing their solidarity and the presence of Christ, continuing the ministry of Individual Volunteers and of The United Methodist Church in this very impoverished region.
The Rev. Dr. T.D. Skip Hodges is a missionary of the General Board of Global Ministries assigned to work with the Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia.