Students from across Central America gain theological training through the Course of Study in El Salvador.
The Course of Study in Ahuachapán, El Salvador
by Jorge Alberto Ochoa Lonji
One morning in December 2014, as I walked with a multinational group of fellow faculty members along an unpaved street in Ahuachapán, a small city in El Salvador, one of the teachers stopped to pet a dog that had come out to greet us. A flock of chickens in the middle of the road barely seemed aware of our presence since nothing could interrupt their search for food. When our group finally arrived at the New Jerusalem Church of the Evangelical Methodist Church in El Salvador (IEMES), one of our waiting students announced: “The teachers have arrived!” The students’ one-week Course of Study was about to begin.
About 70 students, both women and men, had assembled for this Course of Study. Most had come from Central American Methodist churches in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (including some indigenous Guatemalans). The churches of all four countries had devised an approval process to determine their students’ eligibility for theological education or layleader training.
A Week of Lifetime Learning
The week of study opened with a worship service led by the pastor of the host church, the Rev. Martha Landaverde Rodríguez. She was the first woman to be ordained as an elder in this Central American region. Now she was inviting us to develop a deep faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, to practice a healthy devotional life, and, through discipline and study, to increase our biblical and theological knowledge from a Methodist perspective. In every worship service during the week, people of different nationalities sang hymns of praise and shared in a liturgy designed to help us worship God with both our hearts and our understanding.
The Rev. Juan de Dios Peña, president of the Evangelical Methodist Church in El Salvador, coordinated the course schedule as El Salvador’s host for the Central American visitors. Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric—a professor at Duke Divinity School and senior strategist for its House of Hispanic Studies—introduced the teachers and explained how the Course of Study was developed. He had been a key participant in developing the Course of Study and was continuing to provide leadership. A wonderful team of collaborators from Duke Divinity School and its House of Hispanic Studies, directed by the Rev. Ismael Ruíz, provided resources. The general boards of Global Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry also played essential roles in the development and success of the curriculum, while providing valuable study resources. For example, the Rev. Edgar Avitia, Global Ministries’ Executive Secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, maintains close communication with the regional leadership. He attends most of the Course of Study sessions, at times presenting papers on the structure and mission of The United Methodist Church and of other Methodist churches and missions in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Among the teachers, a balance is maintained between men and women, clergy and laity. Different nationalities are also represented. For example, during the course in December, a Russian woman served on the faculty. Some of the teachers are well known for their expertise in a particular area; others, for their work experience with Hispanics and Latin Americans. Still others are young teachers with a great passion to serve God in Hispanic and Central American communities. Some are graduates of Duke Divinity School or other universities in the United States. Also serving as faculty are graduates of ISEDET, an ecumenical seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the Methodist Seminary in São Paulo, Brazil; the John Wesley Methodist Seminary in Monterrey, México; and the Methodist Dr. Gonzalo Báez Camargo Seminary in Mexico City.
A Central American Context
Central America is a subcontinent with an abundance of natural resources, magnificent beauty, and volcanic activity. Along with México, which is considered part of North America, the region is the cradle of the great Mayan civilization. Its people are most hospitable. At one time, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, said of the Salvadoran people: “With this people it is hard not to be a good pastor.” His words ring true for Salvadorans and Central Americans in general.
Nevertheless, the region has suffered through wars in recent years. Its scars are new and some wounds are still breaking open today. The Central American countries have suffered, and continue to suffer, recurring economic crises. Many families today have members living in different countries, some having left home in search of work and economic advancement. Our Course of Study takes these harsh realities into account.
During their week of study, participants are given at least one opportunity to visit places outside the classroom. Their time for relaxation is brief, since their courses are extremely intensive, but students appreciate the break. They have time to visit the countryside, view a volcano or an archeological site, or relax at a park or a coffee shop. On the bus during a recent trip, a Guatemalan pastor and student, Germán Ramírez—from the National Evangelical Primitive Methodist Church of Guatemala—taught us a beautiful song: “America Will Be for Christ.” This was an affirmation that, throughout the length and breadth of the Americas, more than 35 nations will follow Christ.
The courses often empower women who attend and help to restore their dignity. Pastor Martha Landaverde Rodríguez, who was taking an advanced course of study, commented: “These courses provide opportunities for women to share the gifts that God has given us and receive training that enables us to better serve God. We have seen women who came to the courses as lay leaders and are now serving as pastors in local churches—not only in El Salvador but also in other countries. Ministry for women is difficult,” she added, “because of the machismo (male dominance) that prevails, even within the churches, based on biblical references that are used to deny women leadership in ministry. In addition, deeply rooted customs and beliefs have been engrained in women themselves. Therefore, being in a course like this one, backed by institutions of world Methodism, contributes to a change of attitude. That way, equality can become a reality in the Methodist churches of Central America.”
The courses have also enabled both men and women in their pastoral work to preach and teach Methodist doctrine to their congregations. “These courses have been a great blessing in my ministry,” says Pastor José Miguel López Guerrero of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Nicaragua (IGLEMEN). “We have studied the meaning of infant baptism and the sacraments. We have been able to provide instruction for brothers and sisters who come to the Methodist Church from other denominations. For me,” he adds, “as a Methodist pastor, these courses are a victory that our Triune God has given us, a gift to accompany us on our path.”
The Course of Study they follow also enables pastors and laity from various Central American countries to live and work together as one body of Christ. A young adult layperson from México, Abraham Isaí Olivo, is part of a missionary family based in Honduras. “The courses have made it possible for me to know Methodists from different countries,” he says, “broadening my knowledge of their culture, speech patterns, food, and points of view about theology.”
Pastor Carlos Eduardo Cornejo, also a pastor of the Honduras Mission, noted: “Since I began the Course of Study, my life has been transformed. I have developed strong bonds of friendship with my classmates and teachers. The content of the classes is applicable to our ministry and to life in general. It has enabled us not only to learn from our coursework but also to become a community without boundaries, living in harmony with one another.”
At the closing worship, a Nicaraguan pastor said he wished the course could go on past the allotted week. But he was encouraged as he thought about what he had learned and what he would share with his congregation. As students returned to their native countries, they knew that they had more to do in order to pass their courses. Yet, they now feel much better prepared for their work in carrying out God’s mission. There is no doubt that Central American people long for this process of learning in order to make God’s reign fully visible.
Jorge Alberto Ochoa Lonji was one of the faculty members providing theological training in the Course of Study in El Salvador. He is an Itinerant Presbyter of the México Annual Conference of the Methodist Church of México and a Wesley scholar. Currently a special student at Duke Divinity School, he serves as pastor at La Trinidad UMC in Sanford, North Carolina. This article was originally published in the May-June 2015 issue of New World Outlook magazine. Used by permission.
Jorge Alberto Ochoa teaches at the Course of Study, New Jerusalem Church, El Salvador, in December 2014. Photo: Courtesy Jorge Alberto Ochoa Lonji
Students participating in the Course of Study at the Colegio Metodista Ahuachapaneco in El Salvador. Photo: Courtesy Jorge Alberto Ochoa Lonji
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