Monday, November 29, 2021

Ann Hidalgo: Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana and a New Vision of Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Ann Hidalgo. Dr. Hidalgo is a missionary for Global Ministries and professor of theological sciences at Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana in Costa Rica.

I write to you from San José, Costa Rica, where I teach as a professor of feminist theology at the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana (UBL). A Methodist institution, the UBL has a long history as one of the foremost ecumenical Protestant centers of theological education in Latin America. In fact, next year, the UBL will begin celebrating its centennial.

From its earliest beginnings in 1922 as the Biblical School for Women and its formal establishment as the Biblical Institute of Costa Rica the following year, the institution has evolved continually to meet the changing needs for theological education in the region. In 1941, it was renamed the Latin American Biblical Seminary to mark the establishment of correspondence courses throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in 1997, it received formal Costa Rican accreditation as the Latin American Biblical University. Today it offers degree programs in theology and biblical studies at the bachelor, licensure, and masters levels, as well as a variety of certificate programs.

I first visited the UBL in 2013 when I was a doctoral student at Claremont School of Theology. At the time, I was preparing for my qualifying exams. In addition to my time spent in the library (marveling over the Spanish-language resources from Latin America that are seldom available in the United States), I sat in on some classes and participated in the weekly chapel services and other events. I was fascinated by the depth and richness of the classroom conversations, teaching, and preaching. In other circumstances, drawing a community together from different countries, denominational backgrounds, and genuinely different life experiences might be a recipe for conflict and discord, but, at the UBL, I experienced warmth, curiosity, generosity, a passion for learning, and a deep desire to develop the skills necessary to be of service in the churches and in society.

Last year, I accepted a position as a missionary with GBGM, and in December, my husband and I moved from the United States to Costa Rica. In January, I began teaching courses in feminist theology at the UBL. While the pandemic sent nearly all of our residential students home and moved all classes online, in this first year, I have taught students in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain. The UBL’s other online events, such as lectures and conferences, have regularly attracted participants from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond.

These experiences might suggest that I would have something to say about the connection between mission and theological education.

I have to confess, however, that I am as unlikely a missionary as you can imagine. Or, at least, that is how it seemed to me.

To start with the obvious, I am not a Methodist. I am a Catholic who typically attends church with my husband, an ordained pastor with the Disciples of Christ. Fortunately for me, that did not prove to be an obstacle for working with GBGM. Next, I am not ordained. While not a requirement for my position, GBGM’s application is full of language asking for call stories and visions of ministry. To me, as an academic, the application felt quite foreign.

But perhaps most significantly, my academic work has focused on the decolonial critique of the Christian churches in Latin America. From this perspective, the work of missionaries—whether in the 16th century or today—is more often seen as the source of problems than of grace. The decolonial perspective has rightly identified instances in which evangelism served as one arm of a larger political and economic project of domination, in which the teaching of religion conveyed a message of cultural inferiority to the recipients, in which the Christian churches failed to protect the most vulnerable, and in which newly established Christian communities were expected to remain subservient and were not encouraged to develop local leadership and authority.

During my application process, I was surprised to learn that GBGM has retained the title missionary, while other denominations have adopted titles like mission coworker to signal an updated vision of ministry. My experience as I filled out my application was one of mixed feelings: I was thrilled about the possibility of returning to the UBL to teach and, at the same time, genuinely uncomfortable with the title of missionary.

I wish I could tell you that this internal argument is a thing of the past. I can, however, share with you two hopeful signs that I have found encouraging.

The first is the GBGM motto for ministry: from everywhere to everywhere. As I participated in the training sessions, I was pleased to see that these were not empty words. The approximately twenty members of my training cohort came from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, significantly reducing my fears that GBGM’s work was yet another act of United States-based cultural imperialism.

The second emerged in a conversation with Dr. Elisabeth Cook, the rector at the UBL. While describing the many relationships that the UBL maintains with churches, denominations, nonprofit organizations, and other funding bodies, Dr. Cook explained that the UBL occasionally has refused funding offers when the donor organization was unwilling to relate as an equal partner. As an institution, the UBL is willing to forego much-needed cash if the other organization intends to impose projects or activities that are incompatible with the UBL mission. Again, I was grateful for this encouraging bit of news that contradicted my (admittedly pessimistic) view about how loudly money talks.

The UBL itself has become for me a symbol of mission. It is committed to reading the signs of the times in order to adapt to better meet the needs for theological education in the region. It acknowledges and celebrates its roots as a mission project and its long history of collaboration with a variety of Christian churches, but it is not willing to compromise its institutional identity in order to balance the books. Likewise, it is dedicated to walking alongside its students throughout their educational journeys and its graduates as they engage in their ministries in Latin America and beyond.

Despite my misgivings, this is a vision of mission I can embrace.

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