Journey Woman

Austin missionary brings prayer and health care to the Bolivian countryside

Kara Kemerling<br>
(photo courtesy of
Kara Kemerling
(photo courtesy of

Santa Cruz is a large, semiarid, semirainy region in eastern Bolivia, bordering Brazil and Paraguay. The province is best known as the last stop on the revolutionary trail of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine Marxist and medical doctor who caught a bullet there. But Santa Cruz is also the first stop on a different trail, taken by Kara Kemerling of Austin, a twentysomething product of the conservative religious proving ground at Baylor University. Almost two years ago, Kemerling left her comparatively comfortable existence in Texas, determined to become a missionary.

To reach Santa Cruz, you take a big Pullman bus down from the mountains surrounding La Paz, the Bolivian capital.

To reach Kara, you board a microbus from Santa Cruz, the provincial capital of the same name, to a town called Ascension -- and another minibus to the village Urubicha. If the minibus isn't running, there's a motorcycle taxi that will carry you past the burned fields and forests being cleared for cattle ranching.

When you arrive in town it's easy. "Everyone knows where the gringos live," Kara explains in her directions, "and there's only one tall gringa in the village, and that's me."

Like Bread and Water

When we visit, Kara is house-sitting for a family affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. She's sitting in the front study of the missionaries' home -- rain pouring down outside, the ground melting inexorably into mud. An untethered horse grazes contentedly in the front yard.

Kara is tall and dark, with a big, slow smile. She represents the good side of what has become one of the ugliest eras of ugly American, and she chose, or had chosen for her, what until very recently was a great place to be if you were going abroad. Luckily for Kara, in the current political upheaval most Bolivians still seem to be working out their hostilities toward the Spanish. Nobody has yet focused much attention on Uncle Sam.

"Maybe this sounds presumptuous," Kara says, as she explains her mission, "but I do believe that everyone needs God. Not like they need gravy to go with their mashed potatoes, but like they need bread and water."

Kara has spent the afternoon talking to local Indian boys who seem amused at her efforts to learn their dialect. The boys speak Spanish as well, but many of the women of the village do not, and her success in this part of South America is tied, to some degree at least, to how well she masters the local tongue.

When the boys leave, she explains the position she now holds in Urubicha, where there's a Catholic Church with an Austrian priest and a German nun, a couple of other Protestant congregations, and the Southern Baptists, usually represented by the family of missionaries, whose extended household includes two children, two dogs, a dozen chickens, and Kara Kemerling. From time to time Kara catches a glimpse of the local Peace Corps volunteer -- also from Austin, a graduate of what is now Texas State University -- who rides a motorcycle and specializes not in saving souls but in digging wells.

"I think the phrase 'I need God in my life' sums me up," Kara says, when asked how it feels to be transplanted to rural life. "I can truly say that I would have packed my bags and gone home before now if I did not have a close relationship with him."

Despite the remoteness of the location, Santa Cruz is, in fact, a surprisingly cosmopolitan province, well-traveled religious ground even before the arrival of the Baptists. The Catholic influence has been prominent for the last few hundred years but is declining. There are now Mennonites, speaking an obscure German dialect, who have traveled down from Mexico in search of new land. Japanese immigrants, as well, arrived after the last big war. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, bringing religion of a different kind, also has an official presence in the province. The multiple culture shocks for a newcomer in Santa Cruz can be intense.

Kara is hanging tough. The two-year assignment ends in January. She has spent the whole time in South America, with no opportunity to visit home.

Learning and Waiting

Kara is not just interested in the spirituality of the community but also the social dynamics here, particularly how men and women interact. She has noted that the women in the village seem to do the lion's share of work. She recalls seeing a couple making their way through the undergrowth and semitropical foliage: The guy had the machete, taking an occasional swing to clear the way, but his wife was carrying the load. Kara thinks that's a good metaphor for much of what she's seen in Bolivia.

Her duties include teaching. She teaches, or learns, about Christ and simple health care. Her other responsibilities include collecting hens' eggs and trying to keep the well operating. She has a budget and a salary from the ministry in Texas and her own responsibilities. She's immersed in two foreign languages. Her title, bestowed by the Southern Baptist Convention, is "Journeyman": a kind of apprentice position that doesn't require seminary experience.

"I did not always want to be a missionary," she says. "But I have always been drawn to people from other cultures, interested in how they live, what they believe, that kind of thing. After I graduated from nursing school I really wanted to go on an 'adventure' right away. But after praying and waiting, doors closed to that opportunity, and I moved back to Austin to get some experience as a nurse." In Texas she worked for the Sisters of Charity, which she considered "great preparation for nursing in Bolivia, or [for] anything ... emotionally, physically, and mentally. [But] I started feeling restless in my second year ... so I applied to a couple of organizations, to see what my options were."

She escorts her visitor back to Ascension, where Kara will visit other missionaries, one of whom is an old American jazz musician ailing with cancer. After the visit, maybe she'll log on.

The last we see of her, she's walking down the road to the pension behind the gas station, to take a hot shower. Life is good. It's just not easy. Except for Christ, she's alone. end story

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Bolivia, Kara Kemerling, Santa Cruz, Southern Baptist Convention

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