Building a Road Across the Chaco by Clair Brenneman

Dear Friends,
We have finally arrived home after spending time in the Chaco and Peru.  Our time in South America was very meaningful and we are grateful for the experience and safe travels.  Several of you asked for my report that was presented Thursday, at the conference on the Trans Chaco Highway.  That report follows and I hope I am not excluding anyone who requested the report.

Clair Brenneman

When I was 14 years old I recall our church minister making an announcement that farmers in our home community were encouraged to bring their donated horse drawn equipment to a central location to be shipped to refugees in Paraguay.  Little did I realize that 5 years later I would be going to Paraguay.

When I came to Paraguay, I realized the difficult and discouraging situation of the Mennonites.  I was reminded of the children of Israel in Exodus 16 during their resettlement where it says “and you, Moses and Aaron have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

I thought of the parallel situation of the Mennonites having been resettled in Paraguay.  But the immigrants in Paraguay did not remain complacent.  They followed the cloud and the pillar of fire.  They built institutions of health, education and evangelism so that today their numbers have more than doubled and rather than the 3 original synods, you now have 8 synods to include the Spanish and the Indigenous and are cooperating together to host MWC, 2009.  You are to be affirmed and we thank you.
In Paraguay I was sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and for the purpose of this report I will use the acronym MCC.  At that time MCC had a program called PAX.  PAX was the latin word for peace and it was a program where young men would serve as conscientious objectors rather than being in the military.  Over 1700 young men served in the PAX program in over 40 countries and Paraguay was one of those countries.  In Paraguay one of the projects was to build the Trans Chaco Highway.  When the Mennonites came to Paraguay, most of them were farmers by trade.

In the Chaco, they could raise crops, cattle and have dairy products, but the problem was they had no way to market the products.  The construction of a market road from Asuncion to the Mennonite colonies seemed to be the answer.
Paraguay officials were skeptical that the project could be done but MCC was the driving force that took the initiative which sent the national highway into motion and brought it to its completion.

The construction of the highway took place from Asuncion to the colonies in the Chaco and from the colonies to Asuncion.  It started at both ends.

Several facts about the Trans Chaco Highway:

  1. Until the tsunami hit  S.E. Asia in 2004, the construction of the Trans Chaco Highway was the largest single project for MCC, dollar wise and adjusted to inflation.
  2. The length of the highway is 250 miles or 398 km.
  3. It took 5 years for its construction.
  4. Over 40 pieces of heavy equipment were used in the construction.
  5. Approximately 50 PAX boys served 2-3 years during the construction.
  6. Oct. 4, 1961 the remaining link from North to South was connected at km 219.
  7. Today more than 50 % of all dairy products in the country of Paraguay come to Asuncion on the Trans Chaco Highway.
  8. The Trans Chaco Highway was later extended by the government into Bolivia and is now a segment of the Pan American Highway.

    Now a few of my memories:

  • I recall when Orie Miller, one of the founders of MCC, would come to visit the road project.  His humble and gentle spirit reflected the MCC philosophy.
  • I recall when a PAX boy heard of the good hunting in Paraguay, he got on the airplane in Philadelphia, Pa. carrying a shot gun and a rifle.  He did not have to go thro security.  Times have changed.
  • I recall following ostrich down the highway at 35-40 miles an hour until they became exhausted and then ran out into the jungle.
  • I recall the close bond that we PAX boys had with each other and the worship experiences we had.
  • I recall shooting a wild hog and the rumor was that if the bullet only injured the wild hog, the hog could be dangerous and subject to attack.  After shooting the hog and the dust had settled, I could not see the hog nor the other PAX boy  who was with me.  Then I heard the voice of the other PAX boy and he was hanging onto a tree branch about 6 feet off the ground.
  • I recall visiting a church service with an indigenous group of believers.  We sat in A structure built with mud and a thatch roof and sat on logs.  Following the service we walked to a pond where 32 of our brothers and sisters were baptized by immersion.  Today that group of believers is now a part of a synod that is sponsoring MWC in 2009.


In closing, I will read part of a report written by Menno Wiebe, one of the PAX boys.

    1. “Coordinated by MCC and Mennonite colony administrators, approximately 50 PAX men, many from the U.S. who chose “peace work” rather than serving with the military in Vietnam, teamed up with workers designated by the Chaco colonies and national soldiers.  Their conversation while sipping terere (a kind of tea) during breaks did much to generate cross cultural understanding.
    2. While operating an earthmover as one of the PAX men, I remember observing a wholesome paradox unfolding before my eyes.  Next to me, a Mennonite peace worker, was a uniformed Paraguayan soldier name Roja.  Together we worked at building a road in his country.
    3. Harry Harder, a supermechanic from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, had left his work as a John Deere specialist.  He was now inspecting the new road, driving a khaki-colored military jeep with a Paraguayan military official at his side.
    4. The PAX guys were housed in military barracks next to the construction project.  They slept on army cots and ate with soldiers in uniform, now their friends.
    5. Paraguay was plagued by memories of vicious internal warfare.  Its president at the time, General Alfredo Stroessner, came now and then to visit the project, giving the PAX men a rare opportunity to exchange ideas with an official of his military status.
    6. Paraguay’s economy and that of the Chaco Mennonite has flourished since completion of the Ruta Trans Chaco.  A greater mutual understanding between the Paraguayans and the once immigrant Mennonite likewise is on the increase.”
    7. I am grateful to MCC and the Paraguayan Mennonites for my experience in Paraguay.
    8. No, MCC is not a perfect organization because it is made up of humans including the former PAX boys which added to its imperfections.  My hope and prayer is that MCC and the Mennonite fellowship in Paraguay will continue to follow the cloud and the pillar of fire and be deeply committed to the teachings and examples of Jesus.

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