A native Paraguayan finds motivation from the gospel to revisit her country and share the message of Christ with residents there.
Earlier on in her life, Juliana Kennell left Paraguay with the desire never to return. Now, years later, time and again she has gone back to the country. The change of heart, she says, can only be accredited to God and his powerful Word. After finding a Lutheran church in the United States, Juliana realized she could find ways to help others in South America learn more about Christ.
Early years in Paraguay
Juliana was born and raised in Asunción, the capital and largest city in Paraguay. She lived with her mother, who raised her and sent her to a Catholic school. “It was an all-girls school run by a nun,” Juliana says.
When she was older, Juliana got married and had a child. Her mother moved to New York, but Juliana remained in Paraguay with her family. Her life quickly took a troubling turn when her child passed away at the age of six. “I was very hurt and felt very bad,” she says. “It took me years to move on.” She found her life empty.
During this sad time, Juliana’s mother developed a heart condition and grew ill. “She invited me to go see her in New York,” Juliana says. Accepting the invitation, Juliana recognized the chance to move on from her past. “I closed the door on Paraguay,” she says. “When I left, I said I would never come back.”
A new life in Florida
Juliana stayed with her mother in New York for some time. Eventually, when she was again single, she moved south to Florida and began to rebuild her life. One evening, she went fishing at a beach park. During the outing, she met LaVon. The two exchanged phone numbers and two years later, got married. A little later, the couple had a child they named Abby. Life in Florida was a new beginning.
After LaVon and Juliana got married, LaVon wanted to see the place Juliana had come from. Even though Juliana had vowed never to return, she decided to take a trip to show him what life had been like. When their daughter Abby was just nine months old, they made their first visit back. “My stepdad has a ranch, and LaVon loved it there,” she says. The couple appreciated the way their daughter was welcomed and appreciated in the setting in Paraguay.
They returned to Florida and soon began thinking about Abby’s education. She was just a toddler, but based on their assessment and comments from others they felt it might be helpful to have their daughter in an environment where she would feel challenged.
One evening, the family went out to dinner. While there, they struck up a conversation with another diner who intrigued their daughter. During the chat, they realized the person was the preschool director at a nearby WELS school.
Based on the initial encounter, LaVon and Juliana decided to check out the preschool. The place offered a program for children prior to preschool, and they opted to enroll Abby in it. “We started with the school and really liked it,” Juliana says.
Soon their toddler was exposed to chapel and the Bible. The couple watched as their daughter developed in a Christian environment. It was a place that Abby visibly enjoyed.
At the time, the family was attending a different evangelical church. While they went regularly, they didn’t find clear teachings regarding the law and gospel. They also came across few resources when looking for further instruction for their daughter.
The situation led them to turn to Ascension Lutheran Church, Sarasota, Fla., the church connected to the preschool Abby was attending. “I wanted her raised in the truth,” Juliana says. The preschool director invited them to try a Bible class. They soon discovered the church offered a Bible study for adults and a Sunday school for children.
Growing in the Word
Juliana appreciated the chance for her daughter to learn more about the Bible and soon found herself absorbed in the Word too. “I knew very little with my Catholic background. I never understood the Bible,” she says. From her past church experiences in Paraguay, she remembered not being able to ask questions to gain a deeper knowledge.
In the Lutheran church, the Bible was explained, and Juliana learned of the free and full forgiveness offered to her from Jesus. She was eager to study, learn more, and become a member. “I fell in love with the church,” she says. She was drawn to the opportunities to talk about God’s World and apply it to daily life.
Living in Florida, she was far from her other family members. Yet she found a sense of belonging in the congregation. “That is the amazing part of Ascension. It’s a small church and feels like family,” she says.
Reaching out back home
LaVon and Juliana kept making trips to Paraguay and discovered they could help those living there. The elementary school, for instance, had a green board that was nearly the same color as the chalk they used. This made it difficult to read what was written on the board. The couple came up with an idea to take slate-colored paint for the board when they next visited.
During following visits, Juliana brought clothes and supplies for family members, friends, and community members. “We started helping people,” she says. On one occasion, the family noticed that elementary children were drawing water from an open well every day for school. They helped oversee a project to put in a cistern and change the well structure, making it an operation that used gravity to draw water. This created a safer source of water for the children who used the well every day.
Back home, the family continued to attend Ascension and grow in the Word. “I like the Bible classes,” Juliana says. “The more I learn, the more I know and can share with others.” Over time, LaVon and Juliana realized they could do more to help those in Paraguay; they could help with the spiritual need they had observed. “The priest comes just once a year,” Juliana says. “The Spirit led us to the opportunity to bring the gospel to the village.”
Juliana felt God had put her in a position where he could use her to share the message of Christ. “I can explain things in my own language, and I have the experience from the time I spent there before,” she says. She could relate to the people and bring the gospel to a place that was hungry for it.
Now Juliana has made numerous trips to Paraguay. Her congregation got involved, and the pastor and other members organized a mission board called Solo Cristo. They also reached out to WELS World Missions and are working with missionaries to spread the gospel further there.
Juliana recognizes her mission efforts stem from the Word being present in her life. “It’s not what I did; it’s what he did,” she says. “He put us together to work for him.”
Read more about how Ascension is involved in outreach in Paraguay at ascensionwels.org.
Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 106, Number 9
Issue: September 2019
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