A letter from Karla Koll in Costa Rica
Dear companions in mission,
Greetings in Jesus' name from Costa Rica. March has arrived and with the new month comes warmer weather. We seem to have gone overnight from the coolest part of the year here to the warmest. The sunshine is nice and the lack of rain makes it easy to get around without a car. This warm weather should last for the next two months.
The start of the academic year at the beginning of February brought some new students to the campus of the Latin American Biblical University (UBL) from Peru and Honduras. They have joined students already here from El Salvador, Chile, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. A few more students should come in early April for the beginning of the next bimester. The students bring their life stories and the struggles of their communities with them. I'm enjoying the opportunity to get to know each one of them as they adjust to life in Costa Rica. I ask your prayers for them. Many have left spouses, and in some cases small children, in their home countries.
Currently I am teaching two distance courses, one on the history of world Christianity from the 16th century to today and another course on the history of the church in Latin America during the same period. By teaching the two courses together, we are able to explore the intercontextual relationships that constructed the Atlantic world and turned Christianity into a truly world religion. For their initial assignment I asked the students in Peru, Honduras, Germany and Curacao to reflect on their relationships with different Christian communities and traditions throughout their lives. As I suspected, the journeys that have brought these believers to study with the UBL have often taken them through experiences in several different denominations. Many have also been involved in efforts to improve the lives of people in their communities. I'm hoping we will continue to get to know each other as they open themselves up to learning from Christian communities in the past.
Part of my duties as mission professor here at the UBL includes organizing study programs for visiting groups from outside of Latin America. Last month I had my first experience with a group organized by Primetimers, an educational and service program of the United Methodist Church for older adults. Eleven people, most of whom are retired educators, came together here in Costa Rica to spend 10 days learning about the country and about the work of the UBL. Their experience included lectures on different aspects of Costa Rica's history, trips to various sites around the country, and interaction with UBL students and professors. They were a wonderful group. In March I'll be working with a small group from a campus ministry at the University of West Virginia who will be combining a couple days of study with work on new housing the UBL is constructing. A group of Methodist pastors who received a grant from the Institute for Clergy Excellence to explore issues of faith and economics will be coming to Costa Rica in April to learn about the teachings of different theological tendencies, namely liberation theology and prosperity preaching, on economic issues. We at the UBL are glad to have this opportunity to be part of the spiritual and theological formation of people from outside the region.
In 1986 I went to work in Nicaragua for the Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College. At that time, the CGE worked with visiting groups of church people who came to Central America to see for themselves what was happening here. The CGE still works with church groups, but it also offered a semester-long program for undergraduates on social change in Central America. The nine students in the current program will be here in Costa Rica for the month of March. I'll have the privilege of leading them in an encounter with Latin American theology. I hope they will catch of glimpse of how theology can orient action and inspire hope. I am somewhat nervous about connecting with them, but my own undergraduate, my daughter Tamara, assures me I will be able to do so.
In addition to classes and groups, there is plenty of ongoing work at the UBL to keep me busy. We are writing or rewriting syllabi in preparation for offering courses online. We spend a lot of time in meetings dreaming of how we can continue to offer theology education to people throughout the continent. I feel very blessed to be part of this collective.
My husband, Javier, says the work on our farm in Nicaragua is going well. Soon the waterwheel will be installed in the river to pump water uphill to irrigate the pastures. He hopes to be able to come to Costa Rica by the end of March to spend some time here with me. We talk or text every day.
Alvaro Perez is the director of the Harry Strachan library at the UBL. When I came to Latin American Biblical Seminary (SBL) as a student 30 years ago, Alvaro had already been working in the library for 2 years. Alvaro traces his interest in library work to a woman missionary who lives in the small town where he grew up. She took an interest in Alvaro and taught him typing and English in addition to some library skills. She also introduced him to the library at the SBL. When he was asked to organize a meeting for seminary librarians from around Latin America in 1983, Alvaro went to the library science department of the University of Costa Rica for help. The university sent Lorena Quiroz as a consultant. Alvaro and Lorena have been happily married now for 28 years. They have two grown sons and a 4-year-old granddaughter named Daniela.
In 1988 Alvaro decided he needed some professional training, so he went to the University of Costa Rica to study library science. When he finished his degree, the SBL made him director of the library. In 2000 he finished a master's degree. He loves his work. He has been able to travel throughout Latin America and interact with the theologians whose books are on shelves in the library. It pleases him when former students send copies of the books they have written. Work in the library of the UBL requires a lot of creativity because financial resources are scarce. Alvaro requests prayers for the work of the library, that we will be able to offer information services to students and researchers throughout Latin America and the world.
I love historical novels that can provide me with insights into the periods I am exploring with my students. As I prepared the history courses I am currently teaching, I read Leo Africanus, the first novel by Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf. Johannes Leo Africanus, whose original name was al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, was born in Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula, around the time the city was conquered by the Spanish crown in 1492. Exile takes the family to Fez in North Africa. As a young man Al-Hasan participated in a variety of trade and diplomatic missions. In 1518 he was captured by Spanish corsairs near Crete and sent to Rome. Eventually he was baptized by Pope Leo X. His autobiographical writings describing his travels through North Africa provide us with fascinating firsthand accounts of interactions between different religious groups. The novel tells the history of the first decades of the16th century from the perspective of the vanquished, a perspective we don't often hear.
Ash Wednesday falls on March 5 this year. Lent is a time to reflect on brokenness in the world and in our own lives. As we open our hearts to the pain in the world around us, we discover God suffering with and for the world. May our Lenten journey this year bring each of us closer to God and to God's desire for justice.
In the hope of God's coming Reign,
Rev. Dr. Karla Ann Koll
Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana
San José, Costa Rica