Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

‘Like someone popped a bubble and let me out’

Guatemalan theology students share stories of transformation with PC(USA) visitors

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

A Presbyterian Mission Agency delegation dines with students and faculty of CEDEPCA’s Biblical and Theological Seminary. Among the diners are the Rev. José Luis Casal, director of World Mission, at left in the back row, and the Rev. Valdir França, World Mission’s coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, three people to Casal’s left. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

GUATEMALA CITY — Pastors in Guatemala may not have the graduate-level educational background that their Presbyterian counterparts in the U.S. bring to ministry.

But the passion for their calling and the skills they’re demonstrating as they either prepare for or hone their ministry were on display last week at the offices of CEDEPCA,  the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America, a longtime partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

About a dozen students and two of their instructors dined with a delegation from the Presbyterian Mission Agency after students had discussed either the churches they serve or the work they plan to do once their university-level education is complete.

One woman said at first she thought the questions she was raising in class were “irreverent. But they’ve freed me to go deeper and not feel like I’m a sinner.”

“I don’t like to do housework, and I don’t like to be at home,” another woman told the delegation. “My father is a mason, and he taught me to build things. I didn’t fit the image, so I wasn’t seen as a good woman. Coming here to (theological training at) CEDEPCA, it was like someone popped a bubble and let me out.”

“I’m a mother of three sons and I have a husband, so I’ve raised four people,” she joked. “People scold me a lot (for non-traditional views) like my father used to, but I say things intentionally to provoke change.”

The Rev. Arnoldo Aguilar, coordinator for CEDEPCA’s Biblical and Theological Seminary, said the students study hard to first identify and, in most cases, let go of traditional teaching.

“Pastoral preaching and practice can interpret poverty, violence and suffering as God’s will, reinforcing a patriarchal society where women are marginalized and systems of injustice are supported,” he said, his words translated for those who needed it by mission co-worker the Rev. Leslie Vogel, World Mission’s regional liaison for Mexico and Guatemala. “We Guatemalans are very religious, independent of whether we have studied theology or not, and our churches have been the birthplace of culture, values and principles. Everything is seen as God’s will, and (to traditionalists) God wants the status quo. If a woman suffers violence, the conclusion is that it’s God’s will.”

“Our methodology is ‘See, Judge and Act,’” he said, and “judge” means “using critical thinking about the Bible. How are we called to respond as followers of Jesus? Then we take action.”

According to Carolina González, a professor at the seminary, some students travel for hours from their homes to Guatemala City to take CEDEPCA’s low-cost courses.

“One student described CEDEPCA’s Biblical Institute as a lighthouse,” she said. “Students replicate these teachings in their churches, and it’s very moving to hear their stories.”

“I was raised with the idea of a punishing, distant God” one female student told the delegation. “Coming to CEDPECA has been freeing because I’ve come to learn how God really is. But I’ve found there are people who don’t want to receive that message because of the situation they grew up in.”

One male student said that the changes CEDEPCA helped bring to his theology and preaching has helped cut the membership of the church he serves from about 300 to 50 people. But he wasn’t complaining.

“Changes are almost never well received, but change is necessary,” he said. “What was true 20 years ago may not be true now. We can’t expect different results if we always do the same thing. We are in a post-modern era, but people are reticent and resistant to change.”

However, he added, “a generation of youth is questioning now more than ever.” Then he paraphrased one of his favorite theologians: “When I know all the answers, they ask me new questions.”

“I have to study here,” the pastor said, “because I can’t transmit what I don’t know.”

Asked whether they’ve encountered resistance in the churches they serve, one woman said she’s had to learn patience. “I’ve learned to put myself in the shoes of other women and understand it is not easy to change night into morning,” she said. “The option is to walk with them at the pace that they go and see what we can do together in the future.”

“I am single mother,” one student said. “I hope what I’ve learned here will have repercussions for my daughter.”

The Rev. Valdir França, World Mission’s coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean and a member of the delegation, said he likes CEDEPCA’s model of personal transformation.

“We came here (on a trip that also included time at the U.S.-Mexico border) and we have seen the wall,” he said. “But the more difficult walls are the ones in our minds, which distance us from each other. I am really happy to hear your stories this morning.”

“The only objective of mission is to reach the hearts of people who need it,” said the Rev. José Luis Casal, director of World Mission. “The Word is liberating because it helps brings down the structure that made you poor.”

“We believe in this work,” Aguilar said. “We believe that Christian people need to know and practice another way of living the gospel.”

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.