Stories of My StudentsOctober 14, 2008
Angelica is a single mother of two children, Nahum, who is 19 and Luz, who is 7. She was married twice, and divorced twice, both times abandoned by the father of her children. She has no steady income and lives in a simple concrete block home a home that measures 7' x 5' provided to her by a ministry of the Church of Christ. She feeds her family by selling food in the streets, baked chicken until her oven broke down, and now cheese. It is hard work to sell food, and on a successful day she makes around 100 lempiras ($5.29). On less successful days she may clear only 25 lempiras ($1.33) despite working all day. She also grows corn and vegetables in her garden to feed her family, and to pay the costs for Nahum to go to take the bus to the university. Sometimes the 15 lempiras ($.80) daily that he needs is more than they can pay so he misses class.
Angelica lives in the neighborhood of La Era where the Theological Community of Honduras is located. La Era is a poor neighborhood mostly made up of single mothers and their children. A friend told Angelica that she could study a bachelor's degree in theology at very low cost, and she arrived, delighted, in July. Soon, Nahum decided to study theology alongside his mother.
Angelica arrived at the seminary and begin studying a few short months ago, and all of her teachers noted an almost-defeated woman, a woman who wanted everyone to know of the difficulty of her life circumstances, a woman who told us all repeatedly how very, very tired she was of working hard day after day and never, ever having enough. She complained bitterly of the injustices of her life, of the struggle to survive. She hoped that we could provide her a steady job. We couldn't. But, we listened, and we taught her theology and we listened some more. We pointed out her amazing perseverance and the gumption she had to come and study, the hope she showed in believing that she could get a bachelor's degree in theology. We agreed that her circumstances were terrible, unjust, and difficult and we talked about it in class, how oppressive systems worked against her and how we believed that the role of the church was to work against this oppression.
She said nobody had ever told her that before.
It is a sad fact that most of the theology taught in Honduras is very dogmatic, concerned principally with personal piety and maintaining rigid sexual roles and ethics. Few offer opportunities for leadership to woman, and certainly not to a twice-divorced single mother. Many preach a "gospel" of prosperity that blames the poor for their circumstances. Most are anti-ecumenical with extreme bias against the Roman Catholic Church in particular. When our students here an alternative we often find them to be hungry for what we teach.
After only a few short months of studying, we notice a different woman in Angelica. She is getting good grades in her classes. She arrives to class with a smile, she does her homework, she is always prepared, she participates actively in class, then she leaves to go and sell food in the streets to support her family. She still complains, but less. She still wants us to know of how unjust her situation is. Her life situation hasn't changed. She still wants us to know she is living in miserable poverty. Her family still struggles and is lucky to eat twice a day.
But, she is a woman who has rediscovered the hope that access to liberating theological education brings as she dreams of a different future for herself and her children.
Roberto Efraín tells of his arrival in Costa Rica to study with a scholarship through the Theological Community of Honduras at the Latin-American Bible University (UBL). "We didn't bring dollars," he says, "and nobody would change our lempiras for us. After three days we were finally able to go to an exchange house, but they gave us a terrible exchange rate. For our first few days in Costa Rica we were hungry. We couldn't buy food."
For many students like Efraín, the opportunity to study in another country at a prestigious university is one they could only dream of. Many never had left their village until they come to Tegucigalpa to study, and then they are invited to go to Costa Rica to study at an accelerated pace, with world renown professors for two months.
Efraín struggled at first not only with knowing how and where to exchange money or buy food, but with his classes. His elementary and secondary school preparation were not up to standards needed for success at UBL. But, his professors patiently worked with him, giving him needed intensive reinforcement in basic reading and writing, helping him to learn to manage a computer, and helping him learn how to do investigations in the library. With great pride he tells us that he was able to maintain a B average in his classes while in the UBL.
Efraín now returns to continue studying at the Theological Community. He continues pastoring at his small church in rural Danli where he uses what he has learned in the UBL and at CTEH in his sermons and Bible studies. He travels to his church on his motorcycle, and sleeps on a church pew two nights a week, on the nights when he has evening prayer service and youth group at the church (and Efraín is a BIG guy!). Efraín is excited to share what he learned at UBL with his congregation in rural Danli. He says he knows how it changed his way of thinking and he is excited to tell others!
Rosa Lillian is a member of a conservative Pentecostal church in Tegucigalpa. She lives only three blocks from the Theological Community of Honduras and began studying this year. As she tell is, she was anxious to study God's word at a greater depth, and was studying at a local theological institute in her church. But, after a year, the church decided to repeat the first year of studies instead of allowing those already in the program to advance. Frustrated, she was walking home and saw the sign that said, Universidad in front of the Theological Community. When she discovered that through the Latin American Bible University of Costa Rica we were an accredited university she began studying immediately.
Rosa Lillian teaches school at a small bilingual Christian elementary school. She has been offered advanced positions already because of having taken courses at university level in theology. She is studying for a Bachelor's degree in Bible and wants to someday teach Bible to adults in a seminary.
But Rosa Lillian has faced persecution for her studies. Her church believes that the ideas she is learning at the Theological Community are "too radical". They have placed her "under discipline" for studying with us. This requires her to sit in the back pew at church, and disallows her from participating as a Sunday school teacher, member of the choir, or worship leader, all roles she previously held. She is also not allowed to participate in communion. But, she persists in her studies. One of her homework assignments required her to discuss Christian education in the church with her pastor. We were prepared to exempt her from the assignment, but she bravely went to talk to her pastor.
Rosa Lillian tells us that the theology we teach is unlike any she has heard before. She says she understands why it is called liberation theology. She talks about how important it was for her to hear alternative interpretations of the Bible that value women and the gifts they can give to the church. She discusses how she often hears theology in her church, especially prosperity theology that no longer sits well with her. She is unsure what she will do about her church membership, the church where she was raised and baptized. But, she says, she is sure that she will continue studying at the CTEH where she has encountered a life-giving, liberating word of God.
Many of you may have heard the witness of our student Blanca Aida in our visits to churches throughout the Midwest during our time in the United States. She is a woman who continues to inspire me.
Blanca Aida comes from a small village in the Department of Choluteca in the south of Honduras. Her village is on the Pacific Ocean and is a typical Honduran village with high levels of poverty, an agricultural economy, and a conservative theology.
Blanca Aida arrived at the Theological Community in January of 2007 and said that she wanted to study theology. She also said she knew that she couldn't be a pastor. I thought it was because she was female; sexism is very prevalent in many Honduran churches, even mainline protestant ones, especially in rural areas. But, Blanca Aida told me, it wasn't because she was a woman, but because she had a disability. Blanca Aida has a severe visual disability requiring her to hold her reading material only inches from her eyes in order to read.
Blanca Aida told me that in her church she hasn't been allowed to lead worship, read scripture, or otherwise participate because her disability is looked upon as demonstrating a lack of faith. She had been told that if she only had more faith, she could be healed. She had been told that she must have sinned and was being punished by God. She was told that she couldn't be a leader in the church, because she was "damaged" and "deformed," an "incomplete person".
Blanca Aida came to study and began to hear another message. At the end of 2007 she took a class on Theology and Pastoral Care with People with Disabilities. At the end of the class Blanca Aida was angry. In her class evaluation she wrote:
"At first I was angry. I realized that I had been oppressed by the church. I had been told that I couldn't be a leader because I was deformed, that I wasn't good enough, and that I wasn't complete. I had been taught that I lacked faith, because I hadn't been "cured" of my disability. The class [on theology of disabilities] helped me to accept myself the way God made me and makes me want to help others fight against injustices for people with disabilities."
Blanca Aida is now studying at an accelerated pace at the Latin American Bible University in Costa Rica, of which the Theological Community of Honduras is a branch. She is planning on writing her thesis on the church in Honduras and its response to disability. She is also the recipient of the Harold Wilke Scholarship, a scholarship provided by the United Church of Christ for students with a disability. With this scholarship she has been able to purchase a voice-activated computer with a text reader program, a tape recorder to tape lectures (since note taking is difficult for her), a lamp and a magnifying glass. In addition, she used money from this scholarship to pay for taxis (instead of the bus) because of her increased vulnerability when traveling after class at night. She had been mugged a number of times because of the dangerous, impoverished neighborhood in which she lives.
Blanca Aida credits the Theological Community of Honduras with transforming her life. In the future we look for her to transform the lives of many others, particularly those living with disabilities in Honduras.
Bruce and Linda Hanson are assigned to the Christian Commission on Development (CCD) to serve the Honduran Theological Community (CTH). Bruce is teaching HIV/AIDS education, prevention and care, while Linda is teaching theological courses.
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