Silvia and Arturo Finis: Dialogue with an Adventist couple committed to international development

From the Ecuadorian Andes to the desert mountains of Tajikistan and several other places in between, Silvia and Arturo Finis have served one goal: to advance the cause of international development, with a singular motive of spreading God’s care and love to those in need.

Arturo and Silvia have many stories to tell. Stories of the faraway lands with vibrant cultures and fascinating people. Stories of the joys and challenges of service to God helping communities meet their particular needs. Stories of how this service has impacted their life and family. Soon after they were married in 1998, they began an international adventure in humanitarian service that took them far from their native Argentina.

While studying theology at the River Plate University in Argentina, and later international development with Andrews University, U.S.A., Arturo felt he had been called to become involved in relief and developmental operations. He was part of various relief teams accredited to work in crisis situations such as the terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires in 1994, local emergencies in Argentina, and Hurricane Mitch in Honduras in 1999.

Silvia shared his passion and participated in local activities with young people that prepared her for the greater international adventure with Arturo. She also studied at River Plate University, where she obtained degrees in accounting and business administration. Later, she was part of the relief team that served the victims of Hurricane Mitch.

Together Silvia and Arturo have spent nine years working with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Ecuador, South America, and in the Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. They have two sons: Pablo, 8, and Nicolas, 6.

How does working on the international scene enrich your life as a couple and as a family?

Arturo: Working away from one’s home country has its challenges and opportunities. Cultural adaptation can be difficult. Working away from home and familiar surroundings is not easy. But there are blessings as well – the opportunity to spend more time with each other as a couple and as a family. As a family, we have enjoyed exploring many new things, new landscapes, new cultures, new people, new ways of doing things. A new environment is a great learning center.

Your children spent the first years of their life in a multicultural context. Was it difficult for them to adapt?

Silvia: For our children, the diversity became the routine; that was all they knew. What was difficult for them was leaving one place, where their friends were, and moving to another one completely unknown. Such moves are emotionally tough on children. But once in the new place, it doesn’t take long to make new friends or to communicate with them. Even acquiring a new language becomes easy. Kids are like sponges! They absorb new things – friends, customs, language – quickly.

Silvia, your kids were very young when you were in Central Asia, and you stayed at home to look after them. What were your personal challenges during those times?

The main challenge was communication. When we arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, we didn’t know any words in Russian, and I just couldn’t figure out how to say the simplest of things. English helped a bit when we were in Kazakhstan and a lot in Azerbaijan, and that certainly changed things. After two years in Central Asia, we managed to use some Russian, enough for survival.

In spite of language difficulties, I was able to relate to people. In a way, you don’t need language to recognize common affinity in another culture, particularly among women. I was attracted to their spirit of hospitality. In Dushanbe, when Arturo returned from his activities, we used to take our kids to a park near our home and while they played, a lady would come close to us and try to say something. Sure, we may have appeared as strange to them as they were to us, but they appeared to be so genuinely interested in us as a new family to the neighborhood. They kept us company, played with the kids and would even walk with us to our home on the way back. And if by any chance we happened to run into them another day, they would greet us as if we were their best friends.

Arturo, what were your main joys while working as ADRA director in Ecuador?

Ecuador was my apprentice school. I had done my ADRA internship in Lima, Peru, and had gained a lot of experience, but in Ecuador, I was all by myself in terms of responsibility, and that was different. I was very young and had to gain the respect of the local authorities and other colleagues. Ecuadorian people were very supportive of our work. The leaders of the Andean communities of Guantubamba didn’t spare any effort to pave the way for one of our projects there: a water distribution system that would bring water to all the homes around that area.

n What about your experience as ADRA director in Tajikistan?

Our experience in Tajikistan is the kind I like the most in international development! For example, we had a building project that involved different people. The Japanese were the main donors. The local Tajik people were the builders. My responsibility was to coordinate and plan the entire project. The work involved the rebuilding of a school destroyed during the recent civil unrest in Tajikistan. The community was in dire straits for not having a place for their children to study. Our donors were very generous, and the Tajik people pooled all their human resources to get the building ready on time. With everyone working together as a team, we were able to complete the project on time and begin the school on time. At the opening ceremony, the Japanese ambassador and his colleagues were present. The local people were there. Above all, the children were back, ready to begin their education. It was a joy to see the children begin their schooling. Our donors were so impressed by the quality and the timeliness with which the project was completed that they were moved to finance other ADRA projects in the region. The satisfaction was immense.

As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, how does it feel to work in largely Muslim areas?

People are people, and need is need. When love motivates our service and when we extend this service with that as our basis, we are well received anywhere. During all the years we spent among Muslim people in different countries, we never faced disrespect or felt ill at ease. Likewise, we respected their beliefs and traditions. When we were asked about our faith and belief, we would explain our stand in terms they would appreciate because they are also a people of faith. Our sole reason for being in those countries was to serve their specific development needs and put at their disposal all the resources we could gather to meet those needs. Of course, our motivation came from our strong desire to serve God wherever there was a need. And needs exist everywhere, regardless of culture or religion. Respect begets respect, and love brings out love. That’s a good thing to keep in mind when we live and work among people whose faith, lifestyle, or culture may differ from ours. All are God’s children.

What role does your own faith play in the work you do, especially when you live far away from places and people familiar to you?

It is our love for God, our faith commitment, and our love for people in need that drive us to be involved in relief and developmental work. Without that basic commitment that God has called to do us the work we are doing, we cannot even begin to understand a global ministry such as ADRA. When we begin with that trust in and commitment to God, whatever difficulties we face – electricity outages, water shortages, communication constraints, strange places to work – simply do not pose an insurmountable problem. When the tough times get tougher, the only thing to do is to believe and pray: “Lord, we need your help.” And the Lord does not forsake His own.

One personal example. Soon after we arrived in Dushanbe, our 2-year-old, Pablo, caught bronchitis and started coughing really badly. We didn’t know any doctor in town, nor did we have any acquaintances who spoke English. Telephone lines were bad. The bronchitis was getting worse, especially at night. One night we took Pablo in our arms and asked God to be the doctor. The next morning the cough had gone and recovery started. Soon he was playing as usual.

On another occasion, in Kazakhstan this time, we were travelling back from a project site up north near the border with Russia and Mongolia. There you can drive hundreds and hundreds of miles and not find a person. We had all sorts of problems on the road, and we even had to sleep in the van beside the road because the brakes were not working and it wasn’t possible to fix anything in the dark. When the morning came, the engine wouldn’t start. Again, we prayed. We were right in the middle of the desert near a deserted road. Eventually, the van started, and we managed to get to the next town by noon. We stopped to eat something and when we were ready to drive again, the engine was dead. We had parked the van right next to a house that had a private parking place inside. When the man of the house saw our distress, he offered to keep our vehicle within his property and arrange for a taxi that would take us home. We arrived home just before sunset, Friday. That was the most pleasant Sabbath we had, and only God can work that out.

One life lesson you learned?

Humility. There are so many different cultures in our world, and all of them have something special. My culture is not better because it’s mine or because it has more money. My culture is just another culture. I learned we don’t have to judge other cultures as good or bad, but we have to view them as different.

You can serve God in your own place, with people of your own culture and values, having relatives and friends close. Weighing the pros and cons of your experience, is it worth the sacrifice of serving God in lands so far and so different from your own?

Sacrifice is only one side of the coin. The other side shows you all the blessings that you are constantly receiving. Respect, solidarity, love and friendship come in the same package. We would be very happy to return to live and work in the lands where we had the opportunity to serve God thus far.

Lorena Mayer, (M.A. in International Communication, University of Southern Queensland, Australia), writes from Geneva. She?works in one of the specialized agencies of the United Nations system. E-mail: lorenmayer@hotmail.com.

Arturo and Silvia e-mail: arturfinis@yahoo.com