For Bolivians, better homes and longer lives

Carl and Diann Franson are relatively new to foreign mission work, but they have dived in deep. The semi-retired pastor (who was until recently at the United Methodist Church in Sharon) has agreed to take over leadership of the United Methodist Church’s Bolivian mission project.

The Fransons, who moved to Lime Rock after his retirement from the Sharon church, are inviting the public to a Friday, Nov. 13, potluck dinner at 6 p.m. at the Sharon United Methodist Church. It will include a presentation with photos of their most recent trip, in June, to the tiny mountain villages of the South American nation. They will also show photos of urban areas where churches and day-care centers are being revitalized.

Anyone who is inspired by the talk will be offered plenty of opportunities for getting involved, from buying hand-woven wool blankets and other items made by the Andeans, to joining the  mission team.

Foundation for health

In Bolivia, mission workers are organized through an ecumenical agency that brings together about 15 groups. Their approach is basically two-fold. In densely populated cities such as Cochabamba, they are working with churches to build Sunday schools and day-care centers, and they are holding vacation Bible school sessions. In mountain villages such as Chimbota and Shapaya, they are working to eradicate a tropical parasitic disease that is dramatically shortening lives. Their solution has proven to be highly successful in just a short time.  What it requires, however, is building entirely new homes.

“They are dying young from Chagas disease,� Diann Franson said. “And the only way to get rid of it is to change their environment.�

“The solution is to build homes on concrete slabs,� Carl Franson said. “They can still use mud bricks, but they put stucco over them. The roofs are wood planks with corrugated steel over them.�

Homes have been redone in one village already; after just a few years, the disease appears to have been eradicated.

Creating infrastructure

“In the mountain villages, people just lived,� the Rev. Franson said. “There were maybe 100 families scattered around a village, no stores or cars. We tell the residents that we need their cooperation to create a basic infrastructure and government, at least a mayor and a health officer and some form of education.�

The missionary program introduced a fruit the villagers could grow for a cash crop. Families saved up $250 each to pay their one-third share of the cost of materials for a new home. They will also do their own building.

The Fransons are frank about the complexity of mission work and the impact it can have on lives. They agree there is a fine line between improving quality of life and changing a culture.

But ... more than 100 homes have now been built, with most of the private donations toward the mission coming from the Northwest Corner of Connecticut, and it’s clear that there has been positive change.

“We didn’t change the way they live, but we raised the quality of their lives tremendously. Their spirits went up with that. We gave them great hope,� Carl Franson said.

That new spirit inspired the villagers to find a way to get running water in communal bathrooms and to build septic systems. Through their own ingenuity, they figured out a way to make sure only toilet water goes into the septic tank. (A brick is used as a valve to divert shower water, which can be recycled.)

Coming together

The government is beginning to supply electricity, and Cuban missionaries have brought in solar panels.

The project is a lesson in cooperation, between villagers and between church and government organizations from many countries. Doctors and dentists are now being brought in to the rural towns, day-cares are being built and strengthened.

Young children happily carry rocks all day to help build their new family home.

“The women are so eager to work,� Carl Franson said. “They wanted to show us they are valuable and strong.�

“The first time I went,� Diann Franson said, “I never opened my mouth. I don’t speak Spanish and they don’t speak English. We have interpreters, but now we just all talk in whatever language we speak. Somehow we communicate, and we have a great time working side by side.�

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