Healing in ParaguayBy John D. Roth
For many years Beatríz, a 32-year-old Paraguayan woman, suffered from a mysterious illness — open wounds on her feet, a badly swollen face, and parts of her body with no feeling at all. Four years earlier she had given all of her property to a Christian sect with the promise that God would heal her. But her condition was steadily worsening. Finally, a friend convinced her to visit the Hospital Menonita KM 81, a Mennonite clinic in rural Paraguay located at kilometer marker 81 on the highway that runs east from Asuncíon to the Brazilian border.
The medical staff immediately recognized the signs of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Within a few days of treatment, Beatríz’s condition improved. Her three children, who showed early signs of the disease, also received the help they needed.
This simple story, along with many similar testimonies, was recounted in a recent issue of Im Dienste der Liebe (In the Service of Love), a colorful 28-page periodical published three times each year by the staff of KM 81. The first issue appeared in 1952, a year after the clinic opened. In the 60 years since, it has documented the history of what has become one of the most famous hospitals in Paraguay.
In 1951, Mennonite Central Committee leaders in Paraguay invited Dr. John Schmidt and his wife, Clara, to establish a clinic dedicated to treating leprosy. Hospital Menonita KM 81 developed an innovative and highly successful protocol for the treatment of leprosy. It also initiated a comprehensive health educational program, supported a host of highly effective mobile medical teams for rural communities and established new programs for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. It did all of this while remaining committed to caring for the whole person — spiritual, emotional and physical. At the 60th anniversary celebrations in 2011, administrators reported the clinic had treated more than 12,000 leprosy patients and a total of 205,000 people.
The most recent issue of Im Dienste der Liebe provides a fascinating window into the hospital’s daily life. In an essay, Carlos Wiens, the head physician, describes an educational initiative focused on HIV/AIDS that includes medical staff and families, as well as those who are HIV positive. A description of a newly constructed Centro de Educacíon is followed by an update on leprosy treatments and several short testimonies from recent patients. Since KM 81 relies heavily on the help of volunteers, especially young people from the Mennonite colonies, Im Dienste der Liebe regularly features short biographies, photos and personal reflections of volunteers who have completed their terms, along with a welcome to newcomers. Every issue closes with a devotional by the KM 81 pastor, along with prayer requests and an appeal for support.
In the decades after Mennonites arrived in Paraguay in the late 1920s and 1930s, relations with Latino and indigenous Paraguayans have sometimes been complicated, especially as the economic gap between Mennonites and others steadily widened. Yet even when Mennonites were struggling for survival, far-sighted leaders recognized their presence in Paraguay had to include mission and outreach to their neighbors. The stories in Im Dienste der Liebe make it clear the Hospital Menonita KM 81 (km81.org) has been a positive witness to the people of Paraguay and an expression of gratitude for the homeland Mennonites found there.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.
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