From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Oscar Bolioli returns as Methodist leader in Uruguay

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Thu, 27 Feb 2003 16:07:08 -0600

Feb. 27, 2003	News media contact: Linda Bloom7(212) 870-38037New York
NOTE: A photograph is available.

By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) - When the Rev. Oscar Bolioli first served as president of
the Methodist Church of Uruguay in the 1970s, that country's military regime
tried to expel him because of the church's support of families of political
prisoners and outspokenness on human rights issues.

Eventually, as the end of his term neared, he moved to the United States,
knowing that he would be in danger once he left the highly visible church

But now, after 22 years with the U.S. National Council of Churches, the
68-year-old pastor is returning to his roots. In March, he again becomes
president of the Methodist Church of Uruguay, an unpaid position similar to
that of bishop. This time, he brings along two decades worth of experience
with churches and social issues in Central and Latin America and the

Bolioli was a teen-ager when he made his personal commitment to the church,
later attending Union Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was
working in an ecumenical position when the 1973 military coup occurred in
Uruguay. "We, as a country, had never had that experience, so we didn't know
how to handle an abusive situation," he recalled.

With many Methodist pastors and lay people in prison, Bolioli found himself
"in the middle of a critical situation" and did his best, as the
denomination's president from 1974 to 1979, to lead the church in advocating
for the religious care of political prisoners and for protection of their
families. U.S. churches supported Uruguayan Methodists in their cause, he
said, but the military government was resistant, and limited progress was

"During the time of oppression, we were the only church who dared to confront
or disagree with the government," he added.

When he arrived in the United States, he thought he might take a
congregation, but decided to work for the New York Council of Churches. After
determining he could still not return to Uruguay, he became director of the
Latin America and Caribbean department of the National Council of Churches
and Church World Service, its humanitarian agency, in 1981. He remained in
that position for 18 years before becoming the NCC's associate general
secretary for international relations. He retired from the agency in

Bolioli said he quickly discovered that some counterpart programs in Latin
America were operating "in the opposite direction" of the NCC and CWS. In
Chile, for example, the CWS license for humanitarian goods was being used to
import Volvos and color televisions for the officers of Augusto Pinochet,
Chile's dictator.

So he spent five years dismantling all CWS offices across Latin America and
beginning new programs, set up by locals, which allow program beneficiaries
and donors to sit at the same table and decide jointly how money is used.

The impact of Bolioli's work during his NCC career has not gone unnoticed by
church leaders across Latin America.

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on
Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, witnessed that appreciation when
he attended a celebration of Bolioli's ministry by the Cuban Council of
Churches in February.

"Person after person talked about the important role that Oscar serves, and
served, beginning in 1964," he said. "Oscar began to build relationships that
continue to unfold today."

Bolioli himself lists his top achievements with the NCC and CWS as creating a
new model for relationships between the churches of the South and churches of
the North; helping bring reconciliation in Latin America, such as working on
a peace agreement for Guatemala; creating a Latin American network to address
the issue of street children; and working for the return of Elian Gonzalez to

And he has never forgotten Uruguay. Through his NCC office, Bolioli has
assisted family members and others pressing the cases of 165 Uruguayans who
disappeared between the 1973 military coup and the restoration of democracy

Although the dictatorship is over, he said he will face a new kind of tyranny
in Uruguay: economic tyranny. The government doesn't shoot people, he
explained, but kills them through hunger. Corruption and misuse of funds have
"built a terrible sense of frustration in the people."

The government does not know how to deal with the economic crisis, according
to Bolioli. A political leader told him recently that the only institution
that the Uruguayan people trust is the church, he said.

Though small, with about 20 congregations, the Methodist Church has earned
trust because of its outspoken presence in society. He hopes to build upon
that trust by educating both lay people and the general public "in what we
call faith and citizenship" and making sure they are fully informed about the
economic crisis. With financial assistance from the World Council of
Churches, the church plans to host five or six informational seminars this

On a more practical level, the Methodist Church, with the support of the
United Methodist Committee on Relief, opened soup kitchens in Uruguay last
summer after the collapse of the banking system. By the end of the summer,
the kitchens were feeding 8,000 people, and Bolioli is talking with UMCOR
about assisting with other economic-related programs.

Uruguay's economic situation also has caused serious psychological problems
among its population. "Middle-class people have been made poor in less than
three months, and they don't know how to be poor," he explained.

The pastor hopes the denomination can help fill the moral vacuum the economic
crisis has created, and he has set a goal of 10 percent growth in membership
each year.

Bolioli's wife, Stella, is also from Uruguay and expects to retire this year
from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in New York. Married for
almost 43 years, they have four children and seven grandchildren.

# # #

*Bloom is United Methodist News Service's New York news director.

United Methodist News Service
Photos and stories also available at:

Browse month . . . Browse month (sort by Source) . . . Advanced Search & Browse . . . WFN Home