Sweet Home Monteverde and A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in Its Context of Conflict

Directed by Robin Truesdale, produced by Bill Adler. Self-released, 2020. 56 minutes. For purchase and streaming options: sweethomemonteverde.com.

By Nancy J. Thomas. Wipf & Stock, 2019. 436 pages. $64/hardcover; $45/paperback or eBook.

There are Quaker meetings in both Costa Rica and Bolivia, but they each got started for very different reasons, and by different groups of Friends. After the United States, Bolivia has the second largest—and Costa Rica one of the smallest—Quaker populations in the Americas. (In fact, there are Friends meetings in quite a few Central and South American countries; see map and data at fwccamericas.org.) The documentary film Sweet Home Monteverde tells the story of Quakers from Alabama becoming expatriates and moving to Costa Rica in the 1950s. The book A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent documents the history of church planting and growth in Bolivia since the 1930s by missionaries from Oregon Yearly Meeting (now Northwest Yearly Meeting).

Imagine this: the year is 1948, and the United States has just legislated compulsory registration for military service for men age 18–26. World War II is a fresh memory, and the transition of the United States into a permanent wartime economy is happening before your very eyes. You contemplate living and raising your children in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against: a “military–industrial complex.” That phrase rings in your ears as you live and work and pay income taxes, and as you worship and shape your life around commonly held Quaker values like peace and equality. It bothers you more and more; it bothers your family and Friends community.

This is what happened to a number of young Quakers who were all friends and relations. They got the idea to become expatriates in order to avoid entanglement with the looming changes in the U.S. economy, culture, and foreign relations.

Imagine, too, that you learn that Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948, the very same year. Imagine that Costa Rica’s government will allow you to live within its borders and to engage in business. You, your family, and friends have a great deal of expertise in dairy farming. You are young and as yet not established in the United States. Would you be tempted?

Families called Mendenhall, Rockwell, Guindon, and others were more than tempted: they did it. After a research trip to get the lay of the land, Friends including newlywed couples and families with young children actually moved to Costa Rica, even before finding the exact spot where they would buy land and set up their farming and cheesemaking operations. This took several years, starting in 1950, when they named their settlement “Monteverde.” The only buildings were houses left from former owners; the only road was an oxcart trail.

I had a lot of fun watching this film, seeing still pictures from the earliest days; footage from present-day Monteverde; and best of all, seeing a few of the original founders of Monteverde: its meeting; school; library; and, eventually, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. There are doubtless hundreds of wonderful stories that couldn’t be told in a 56-minute film. The idea of the courage, faith, and excitement of those young Friends was powerful indeed! And it’s wonderful to hear their reflections 70 years later. Friend Marvin Rockwell laughs often when he recalls the stories of difficulty, like expecting a highway from Texas to Costa Rica and finding that its sections didn’t meet up at the Guatemalan border. Or hauling a 200-gallon cheesemaking vat up the dirt road to the cheese factory.

I visited Costa Rica in 2019 and was lucky enough to meet some of the Friends in the film. I was fortunate to worship with Monteverde Friends, where messages were translated from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. I was also able to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a conservation area where the original Quakers left the forest intact around the headwaters of the river that supplied them. Over time, way opened to convert and expand this area into one of the largest private nature reserves in the world.

I encourage you to watch Sweet Home Monteverde, show it to children in First-day school, and learn what love has been able to do in motivating the 1950s Quakers to emigrate and present-day Quakers to accomplish in community, education, and conservation in Monteverde.

Now imagine that the time is 1930 at Oregon Yearly Meeting. You have just adopted Bolivia as a mission field. The first Bolivian Friends congregation was started in 1924, and since 1906 freedom of religion has been the law of the land. Imagine that you are called to missionary work, and way opens for you to live and work in the high altitude and somewhat rough terrain of Bolivia, planting churches that would become Iglesia Nacional Evangélica de Los Amigos (INELA), or National Evangelical Friends Church, and nurturing the relationships that would sustain those churches.

You do not know it yet, but way will open for “a cross-cultural passage over the boundary between faith in Jesus Christ and its absence,” and this will happen despite political instability, the learning curve in cultural understanding, individual tragedy, and all the conflicts that arise when we labor together. Today, INELA is a large yearly meeting of Bolivians mostly of Aymara identity. (It is not, however, Bolivia’s only yearly meeting.)

Such is your story, if you are a missionary from the United States.

If you are Bolivian, your story includes living in a country experiencing an influx of missionaries from many Christian denominations. Coming into contact with Quakers touches in you that which is eternal, and you are drawn to learning the Quaker way of worship and evangelism. You will work with U.S. missionaries and other Bolivians, mostly Aymara, to plant churches and learn to pastor them. You will be blessed with many convinced church members, and with many opportunities to labor together. There will be joy in worship and work together, and conflict as people learn; make mistakes; and correct their courses, both among the missionaries (some of whom were Bolivian), among the Bolivians, and between the two. In the end, there will be lasting faith communities that teach and guide Friends. There will be a space created for the love that allows the church to thrive.

Author Nancy Thomas, with her husband, Hal, was among the generations of Quaker missionaries to take part in this work. Over time, Nancy became clear that she was called to research and write the history of Quakers in Bolivia. This exhaustive book took years to put together. It will reward readers richly with not only a detailed text and many pictures but a glossary; index; and several appendices, including a map, a timeline, and lists of INELA presidents and U.S. missionaries. It has been published in both English and Spanish.

Karie Firoozmand is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., and the book review editor for Friends Journal.

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