Learning to Be the Church

A letter from Tracey King-Ortega, Regional Liaison for Central America, based in Nicaragua

April 2017

Write to Tracey King-Ortega

Individuals: Give online to E200518 for Tracey King-Ortega’s sending and support

Congregations: Give to D507539 for Tracey King-Ortega’s sending and support

Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).

 


Dear Friends,

Wrapping up a session on Reformed identity, PC(USA) mission co-worker Karla Koll, who serves with the Latin American Biblical University (UBL), asserted that “if you don’t leave with more questions than you came with, we’ve failed.” The eager and inquisitive participants from the Presbyterian Church of Honduras did indeed leave their three-day encounter at a retreat center just outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with more questions as well as more knowledge and a solid commitment to discerning the call of the church.

I sat back and looked around our meeting space. Twenty-seven (predominantly lay) leaders from primarily rural, impoverished communities. Their educational levels range from second grade to university, with a group average of about fourth grade. Two of the students especially struggle with basic reading. They are from 16 to 67 years of age. All have challenging stories and humble backgrounds. And they all share a love for learning, for their church, and for God. They consider themselves fortunate to have been selected for this program that they hope will quench their thirst for a better understanding of the Bible and how to be the church.

We have been working toward the realization of this dream of a theological education program for the Presbyterian Church of Honduras for over 10 years now. It seems crazy, but it’s true. At my first meeting as regional liaison with the leadership of the Presbyterian Church in Honduras back in 2005 I heard these leaders asking for theological education. And at every meeting with them since, this has been repeated. Repeated enough that we began figuring out how to make it reality. No wonder there was such excitement stirring as we—in coordination with a mission partner, the Latin American Biblical University—finally launched a two-year theological education and leadership development program for 40 Honduran pastors and lay leaders at the end of January.

One important component of the shared vision for this program is to strengthen the church by broadening the leadership of the denomination. Space for 40 students allowed for the opportunity to invite in and build up women, youth and other lay leaders who have previously not had access to national trainings.

In the weeks leading up to the first training session I made many calls asking for a list of participants. Honestly, despite agreement on the need to have participants represent a broad spectrum of church constituents, I feared that the Honduran leadership would select only pastors (who also have very low levels of formal education and training), or only men. A complete list of invited participants never became manifest, and my fears remained until we were there all together. Finally together, I looked around the room and saw many new faces. The learning was under way and I was consumed with an affirming “A-ha!” moment. This theological education program is exactly what they have been asking for. The people we wanted to be here are here. It is a good sign for the future of the church. This is how we deepen our roots and grow a church. This is evangelism. Theological education is where it is at.

As we rooted our study in scripture I was overwhelmed with a sense of hope for real, sustainable transformation in these primarily rural communities. Through the questions they are raising they are learning to articulate their faith in ways that affirm life and are not just a rejection of those whose Christian practices differ from their own. In a context of high animosity between Catholics and non-Catholics this is extremely important. I was seeing the value of theological education and learning to read the gospel in ways that embolden the church to be an agent for change. Neither a spectator of the surrounding world, nor a distractor from it. A community that inserts itself in the lives of the people, feels with them, and works toward life with dignity for all. As stated in a meme floating around the Internet this Lenten season, “We will never change the world by going to church. We will only change the world by being the church.” Through this program, we use scripture to learn about and discern together how we are to be the church. Our studying makes us stronger and more coherent, thereby strengthening our testimony.

During our three days together we organized the students into regional teams that will accompany each other in small-group work over the course of the next two years. In this first half of the year the courses they are working on are “The Ministry and the Ministries,” “Introduction to the Bible,” and “Ethics and Spirituality.”

We are fortunate to count on two Latin American Biblical University graduates in the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. Integral to the program, Betzabé Reyes and Blanca Aida Rivas have been contracted to serve as facilitators and coaches for the students by traveling around the country to meet with the participants who have been organized into regional clusters, checking on their work, and leading discussions about their studies. It is fun to get updates from them via Whatsapp or Facebook and encouraging to know that this program is moving along. These visits are key to keeping the students on task and learning between the national workshops that are scheduled three times a year. And they are happening!

Making this dream possible will require about $35,000. Broken down, that averages out to less than $1,000 per student for two years of theological study, but it still feels like a daunting amount to have to raise. However, having built a strong Honduras mission network steadily over the past couple of years, we took the leap and committed to making it happen. Unexpected gifts from congregations and presbyteries have affirmed that decision, though we are still far from reaching the amount needed to cover all the costs of the two-year program. My deepest gratitude to those who have given to this transformative program. And thank you to those who have contributed to my sending and support costs. Without such support for me as I facilitate these kinds of activities such transformation would not be possible. I look forward to seeing this theological education initiative grow into a thriving program that will bear countless fruits. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, but it does present real hope. We are investing in church growth to grow the kingdom. This program was years in the making and perhaps it will take years to see the fruits, but I trust that this is what we are called to do. Your continued prayers and financial support will be key to making that happen.

Blessings and peace,

Tracey


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