At the beginning of the history of Christianity course I taught at the end of last year here at the Latin American Biblical University (UBL) I asked the students to share experiences they had had in history classes while they were in school.
When Ana Maria was 10 years old the teacher had all of the students line up with their history books in their hands. The teacher went down the line, ripping out the pages that referred to the most recent history of the nation.
The country was Chile and the year was 1973. A coup, organized by the CIA, had just overthrown the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and installed Augusto Pinochet as dictator. The authorities of the new regime set out to erase the memory of what had come before.
Much of what I do when I teach the history of Christianity is help students locate their own stories within a broader framework, both within the histories of their respective countries and within the transformations that have changed the social and religious landscape of Latin America in recent decades.
Beyond this, I hope students come to see their own stories as part of the history of what God is doing in the world as they come to understand their own memories in a new way.
At this moment I am teaching 10 students in Peru, Honduras and Curacao. Though distance courses do not offer the same kind of face-to-face interaction as happens in a classroom, the technologies available today allow us to develop relationships.
I began the course by asking each participant to write an autobiographical reflection about the ways they have been engaged in different faith communities. Their essays show the changes occurring in Latin America. They also paint a portrait of the students who turn to the UBL for theological education.
As I read through their papers I was struck immediately by the religious transformation these students have experienced. Only the two youngest students, young men in their mid-20s named Joel and Ruben, were raised in Protestant churches. Most of the others grew up in families who considered themselves Roman Catholic, even though the Roman Catholic Church had little or no pastoral presence in the rural areas where they lived.
At some point in each of their lives they were introduced to some form of the Protestant church through a family member, a teacher or a classmate. All except one of the students now identify as Protestants. The one exception is Marianela, who grew up in an active Roman Catholic parish in Curacao, a Caribbean island nation that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Marianela was inspired by the nuns she knew growing up to join the order of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
The personal stories of my students confirm how this religious transformation in Latin America has been linked to the processes of urbanization. Carlos, Leandro and Augusto, all students in Honduras, wrote about how their families migrated from the countryside to the city in search of employment. As economic conditions and land-tenure policies greatly reduced the viability of small-scale farming, millions moved into the barrios that grew up around the cities.
Life in urban areas brought new difficulties as well as contact with new religious communities. Jobs in the formal economy were scarce and families mobilized all of their members to survive in the informal economy.
Leandro writes about selling homemade candy on the streets as a child. As a young adult Leandro couldn't find work in Honduras, so he migrated to the United States and worked there for several years. Though these students remember migration to be the result of family circumstances and personal decisions, their stories point to collective processes that have shaped current realities in Latin America.
Though the urban areas to which the families moved had more schools than the rural areas they had left, the children did not necessarily have access to education. Carlos in Honduras writes that he was the only one of his brothers that his family sent to school. He went to work as a carpenter as soon as he finished primary school. He was able to finish high school as an adult years later.
Juan also writes that he did his secondary studies as an adult. University studies remained out of reach. Jose Angel of Peru describes how his hopes of studying at a university in Peru were dashed due to the economic circumstances of his family and lack of government policies promoting access to higher education.
All of these students describe their faith journey as one that has led them to embrace more open and holistic understandings of the gospel. As adults they have all looked for and found church communities through which they can use their gifts to serve others.
Suyapa is the national coordinator for women in the Lutheran Church of Honduras. Jose Angel and Gregorio are pastoring churches in different communities in Peru. Leandro is part of a group of people from different churches who have come together to help young people who are at risk.
The Latin American Biblical University has become part of the faith journeys of these students. For Gregorio, his studies have taught him how the read the Bible in a critical way. He also writes of learning to do theology with a Latin American vision. Juan writes of how he has learned that God's grace is mediated through a variety of faith communities. Marianela says she had wanted to study theology for a very long time, but she never imagined it would be through an ecumenical university.
The stories of these students are part of the larger story of Jesus’ followers that stretches back across the centuries and encompasses the entire world. You are part of this story as well. Through your prayerful support of Presbyterian World Mission, you help make possible theological studies here at the Latin American Biblical University for these students and many more.
Thank you so much for your gifts and your prayers. If you and the congregation to which you belong have not yet connected directly with a mission co-worker, I invite you into the circle of those who support me and my work with these students through prayers and directed giving. I look forward to hearing from you.
For Karla Koll, the Latin American Biblical University (UBL) campus in Costa Rica is a place God's Word and God's presence in the world can be encountered in new ways. Today she is helping UBL’s students discover how they can more faithfully and effectively serve Christ’s church. In addition, Karla's work at UBL gives her the opportunity to help Presbyterians in the United States “be drawn to greater commitment to work in God’s mission for the fullness of life for all.”
To visit the web pages of all PC(USA) mission workers, click here.