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Rethinking Priorities

A letter from Elisabeth Cook serving in Costa Rica

March 2016

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Dear Partners in Mission:

As I write this letter Semana Santa (Holy Week) is coming to an end. In Costa Rica it is for many a time to get away to the beach for a few days of rest and recreation. For others, a time to catch up on work. I enjoy the empty roads and the freedom of movement that comes from a seemingly empty city. It is also a time of remembrance and celebration for the life we have been given through Christ and the task of resurrection we are charged with daily. I look back on my months of Interpretation Assignment last year, grateful for the chance to share with so many congregations and persons who support the mission of our church. Thanks to all of you who hosted me and opened your hearts and homes to me during that time.

UBL students from six different countries gather under the bamboo at the center of campus. Upper right hand corner, our new logo, "Think, Create, Act"

UBL students from six different countries gather under the bamboo at the center of campus. Upper right hand corner, our new logo, “Think, Create, Act”

Amidst the many administrative duties involved in my work at the Latin American Biblical University (UBL), I enjoy the opportunity to share in the struggles and joys of the students who are nearing the end of their studies. I returned from my Interpretation Assignment to find Juver Rimari, from Perú, working furiously on his thesis. Juver came to UBL at the beginning of 2014, and it has been wonderful to see him grow in confidence and in his ability to study and teach the Bible. Juver’s thesis is on the Sabbath of the land in the Old Testament, and his concern arises from the abuse of the environment and struggles over the land in his region of Perú. Environmental justice is a key issue in Latin America and the Caribbean today, and the struggles of environmental movements are met with serious opposition. Less than a month ago Honduran student Juan Hernández shared an email concerning the murder of Berta Cáceres, an indigenous woman from the Lenca people and environmental activist who led successful fights against dam building companies in her country. Juver’s thesis is not just about the Bible, it is about justice, life, and the protection of the rights of the indigenous peoples in his country and many others.

Macoy Montenegro, also from Perú, just finished his thesis this past week and will be waiting anxiously to hear from his reviewers as we go back to work tomorrow. Olga Patricia Agudelo, a Catholic nun from Colombia, Michel Monterrosa, an Episcopalian priest from El Salvador, and Irene Aramayo, a Methodist from Bolivia, are also moving forward with their thesis work. For many of these students finishing their degree has been a dream long time in coming, and a tremendous challenge in the midst of personal and ministerial responsibilities, as well as financial limitations. Some are not quite sure what they return to in their countries, but they are clear in their commitment to ministries of transformation among their people.

Approval for the UBL’s online bachelor’s programs is taking longer than anticipated. Unfortunately the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. But we have been advised that an initial review of our proposals indicates that we have prepared well for the task at hand. By Semana Santa next year we hope to be officially online. As I accompany trial online courses with a small group of students, I have been realizing  how communication technology has changed the world we live in and the way we interact. In spite of the distance I am in constant contact with students and their everyday lives, their struggles to juggle ministry, work, study, and family, and the difficult and often violent contexts so many of them live and work in the midst of. As faculty we are challenged to encourage learning processes in contexts of online interaction that we ourselves are sometimes uncomfortable with.

Celebrating with Macoy at Wednesday Worship before his return to Perú.

Celebrating with Macoy at Wednesday Worship before his return to Perú.

A significant challenge for the UBL this year has to do with finances. Although as a non-profit educational institution not affiliated directly with one denomination, the institution has dealt with financial issues continuously, the past couple years there have been signs that change is needed on a much deeper level than perhaps ever before. The world of theological education in Latin America was shaken by the unforeseen, for many of us, closing of a more-than-hundred-year-old seminary in Argentina.  Similar challenges are being faced by seminaries in other countries. Finances, government requirements for accreditation, and changes in church and society demand a second and third look at the way we engage with our mission in this context.

This is not unique to UBL or to Latin America, of course. As many of you are aware, the PC(USA) Mission Agency has been going through a similar process for several years. Thanks to many of you, designated giving has increased, and there is hope that significant cuts in mission personnel will not be necessary. But budget limitations have made a reorganization at the Louisville offices necessary, and the prospects for mission co-workers, although improved, are still uncertain.

As has been necessary for the PC(USA), at UBL as well we are taking a good look at our strategical priorities, our strengths and weaknesses, the resources we have, and those we need. Trimming down expenses means looking at who we are, what we are called to do, and how we do it. It is not an easy task, as we bring along with us over 90 years of history. That history calls us, however, to be faithful stewards of what we have been given, and what is shared with us by partners around the world. It calls us to be ready for necessary changes, and to look beyond the immediate circumstance to the role of this university in responding to critical needs of Latin America and the Caribbean into the future.

We are focusing in on strategic areas for the work of UBL, specifically gender justice, ecological justice, and socioeconomic inequality. I ask for your prayers as we move forward to incorporate these critical strategic concerns into all areas of institutional life, including academic programs, administration, publications, and our everyday activities on and off campus. I have the opportunity to be a part of this process and am aware of the tremendous importance of the decisions that are being made. Much of my history is tied to UBL, not only as the place where I have served for some 25 years but also as an institution tied to my family history. My father studied at the then Latin American Biblical Seminary—a precursor to UBL—and was a visiting professor for many years.

On a more personal level, I am grateful for a wonderful caretaker who is living with my mother. Since they are a block away I am there several times a day, and my brothers on weekends, so we are ensured that her needs are met at all times. Not having had the experience of living near my grandparents who served as missionaries in Argentina, I celebrate family get-togethers when my nieces and nephews have the opportunity to learn from and share their love and support with my mother. Some may wonder why my family lives in the same country in which I serve. It is a long story, but to sum it up, my mother came to Latin America as a missionary some 60 years ago, met my father in Guatemala, and they have lived in the region ever since.

My goals for this year include finishing up a full draft of my doctoral dissertation by the end of the year and continuing to contribute to the work of the PC(USA) partner institution where I am privileged to serve.

Finally, I thank you for your prayers and your financial support of Presbyterian World Mission and of my ministry here in Costa Rica. I invite you to continue supporting this ministry we share, through your voice, your daily living, your financial contributions, and your prayers for all of us and the work we do together for God’s justice and peace in this troubled world.

I end with an Easter meditation shared on Facebook by Texia, a soon-to-graduate student from Chile (translated by mission volunteer Margie Miller):

“What is resurrection? Resurrection is when we roll away the stone of prejudice and indifference and raise from the dead the one who has no hope, the one who in his/her loneliness and poverty feels abandoned, the one who has lost everything because of injustice.  There is much to be done in order to exclaim, ‘Ah!  Resurrection!’ But it is still possible; Resurrection is making LOVE a reality.”

May we, each and every day, make the Risen Lord present for those around us.

In peace,
Elisabeth Cook

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