In the early fall of 2004 I received an invitation from the president of Ecumenical Theological Seminary (ETS--Philippines) to teach a course on Constructive Theology. Without any reservation I expressed my delight at the invitation and my willingness to do it according to my availability. Aside from the issue of timing, I also needed financial assistance to do this as volunteer work. Thanks to the Mission Volunteer program of the Global Ministries (of the UCC and Christian Church--Disciples of Christ), I received the financial support I needed to do the volunteer work. ETS promised to provide food and lodging. So I flew to the Philippines on July 27, 2005 to do this work. From Manila I took a six-hour bus trip to Baguio City (north of Manila) where Ecumenical Theological Seminary is located.
The Ecumenical Theological Seminary (ETS) is a seminary of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. It is almost in its tenth year of existence and its work of training ministers for the denomination. Most of its students are from the northern part of Luzon (three major geographical divisions in the Philippines--Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao). A good number belong to the indigenous population. The seminary also has an extension program with sites even in the southern part of Luzon. Since it is not yet stable financially, it relies on part-time and visiting professors. I played the role of a visiting professor.
My primary assignment at ETS was to teach Constructive Theology (also called systematic theology) to middle-level students. More specifically, I was asked to teach them how to construct their theologies. With this specific goal in mind, rather than a general survey of doctrines or theological movements, I focused on helping students acquire or develop skills in theological construction. Since my field of expertise is in Constructive Theology, I accepted the opportunity with joy and confidence.
The actual teaching was not, however, easy. There were a few challenges that I had to deal with. I could not teach the way I normally did at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (Minnesota). Not only was the educational background of my students uneven, it was lower than the typical mid-level student pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. A couple had college degrees and the rest had high school diplomas. In addition to this challenge, another matter was the medium of instruction. The students were from various ethno-linguistic groups, so I had to use English to communicate to my students. There were times when I used the Tagalog language, but my proficiency in that language is very low, which is also the case with some of my students. It could have been better if I knew how to speak Ilocano (another major regional language), but that was not the case. At any rate I had to overcome these challenges in order to accomplish my goal: helping students to acquire skills in theological construction.
I came to my first day of class ready with my lecture notes. After a half-day of engagement I decided not to bring my lecture notes to class and started to work from the students' location. With my experience of pastoral ministry in rural Philippines and teaching in another but somewhat similar context (Myanmar), I started from the students' location and experience. I introduced them to some models or frameworks on how to start to organize their theological views. Also, I introduced them to various sources and ways of interpreting texts and (con) texts. The days were long (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday) and the progress was slow but steady. I guided the students through the whole process of organizing and writing and re-writing. At the end of the course the students presented their works. I gave them feedback on their papers and then asked them to re-write. Of course some did better than others, but I could see in each student a developing skill in theological construction.
I know very well that what I did was only a moment in the life and educational journey of a few ETS students, but it was a significant moment for me and, I hope it was for my students as well. I wish I could have done more, but even in that limited time I was present when they needed me. Put differently, could this be an instance of our principle of “critical presence”? I am inclined to believe it is, for I was there at the point of their need. And being present at the point of need is a personal joy.
Thanks for the opportunity to serve God’s people through the mission volunteer program of the Global Ministries.
Eleazar Fernandez served as a short-term volunteer in the Philippines in Baguio City, Philippines. He taught a theology class at Ecumenical Theological Seminary.