random learning and observations from argentina

i’ve just returned home from a 12 day trip to south america. it was wonderful, if not a bit long (i really missed my family!). my first weekend was spent at the EJ cumbre (YS summit) in montevideo, uruguay, which i posted about here. i spent most of the weekdays ensconced on a buenos aires hotel room, finishing writing a book for Simply Youth Ministry, called A Parents Guide to Teenage Brains. i also taught an evening course at the Instituto Especialidades Juveniles (YS institute), and had a few nice meals with friends, and a couple good walks around the city (this is my 10th time here, i think). and over the second weekend, i was in rosario, argentina, for the EJ cumbre for argentina.

here are a few totally random observations:

cultural differences. of course there are cultural differences between the U.S. and argentina. but what struck me this weekend was how strong the cultural differences were between uruguay and argentina. this was particularly interesting, as i’d been told the two countries don’t have cultural differences, or even accent differences. i think the differences, on reflection, are more about the differences in the church cultures of the two countries. the audience at the uruguayan event was wonderful, but they were substantially more subdued than the argentine audience. this crowd at the argentina event are wild, in a great way. dancing, singing, jumping around, cheering; whereas there was very little of that in uruguay. the church in uruguay, i’m told, is particularly conservative, so that might have something to do with it.

buenos aires is gorgeous. the economy is struggling, but it’s still a breathtaking city. and it feels decidedly more european than latin. i loved walking around, figuring out how to communicate with taxi drivers through my absurdly broken spanish, ordering food in restaurants (it was a little tough at the hotel’s buffet during the event in rosario, as all the entree stations were at a long counter with no menus, and i had to point and try spanglish). put buenos aires on your bucket list of cities you’d like to visit one day.

i feel a weird and wonderful connection to mike yaconelli here. when youth specialties was flirting with the idea of starting a spanish division, around 2000, it was something i was passionate about. i knew yac would have to feel something (that’s how he often made decisions). so i made sure he was present at the first event here, before we even hired lucas or officially launch (at the first convencion, we just provided the seed money, and covered our own costs to be there as speakers). yac was deeply moved by that first event, and we decided to hire lucas the day the convencion ended. in the years that followed, yac and i traveled to argentina together multiple times (5, i think). it was a very special time for me, as i got to spend extended time, just the two of us, having endless conversations and meals. mike and i found a great little cigar place off the main pedestrian shopping street, and started making daily trips there, sharing an afternoon smoke in the peaceful little courtyard behind the store. i realize not everyone who reads this will appreciate this (and might think it unwise of me to post), but it’s such a special memory for me, that i wanted to share it. jeannie (my wife) joined us on our last trip before yac died, and i later brought karla (mike’s wife), and then tic long, to that same courtyard. so, on this trip, i went there one afternoon, all by myself, and remembered what a privilege it was to have mike shape my life like he did. here in buenos aires, i don’t so much remember his wild, capricious and fiery side, as much as his gentle and warm side.

self-deprecation is appreciated around the world. america is so heavy in the global imagination, i often find that europeans aren’t very fond of america, but like americans. in latin america, they seem to be ok with the U.S. but in both places, i have found that a little self-deprecation goes a LONG ways. i really don’t speak spanish (even though i should, since i took it in college — my worst grades — and have been to various latin american countries dozens of times). in my seminars, i started by encouraging people to be very skeptical of everything i said, since i wasn’t from their cultural context. and before i went on stage for my main session talk, i briefly strung together, in my mind, the spanish words for a greeting. i said, “buenos tardes, amigos.” (good evening, friends.) lucas, my translater, said it in english! i continued, “yo soy un gringo gordo y estupido, y, lo siento, yo no hablo espanol.” (i’m a fat and stupid gringo, and, i’m sorry, i don’t speak spanish.) big laugh, and we were off to the races.

similarities and differences between NYWC or SYMC and these events. sitting in the back of the main session at the argentine event, with 1500 youth workers going crazy, it would be easy to assume i was at the national youth workers convention, or the simply youth ministry conference, in the states. the production is similar, the flow of the program is similar, the variation of elements is similar. but then, a band like this comes on, and i realize i’m not in kansas anymore, toto. (sorry the video is so blurry; but you can get a feel for some good argentine music!)

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