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A Watershed Moment in Colombia

Jim Sayers made a field visit to Colombia in May, visiting Theo and Sonja Donner and seeing the work of the Biblical Seminary of Colombia. Life is changing rapidly in Medellin.

I arrived at Medellin’s Cordova airport in the evening. Theo is tall enough to greet you over any crowd, and his tax driver took us over the mountain in the dark. As the hairpin bends pass, nothing quite prepares you for the glittering carpet of city lights that greet you. The city of Medellin is set in a deep valley, with neighbourhoods growing up all the mountainsides. It is a city and a country that is at a turning point.

The concluding of the peace deal with the FARC guerrillas last year (See GBM Herald Dec. 2016), now approved by Parliament and being put into action, is a watershed moment in Colombia’s history. FARC have completed their weapons decommissioning and now expect to participate in the democratic process. Much remains to be done, especially the reform of land law to allow displaced people to return to their homes, while other rebel groups have yet to conclude a peace deal with the Government. However, there is a tangible sense of hope, a new beginning in Colombian national life. Most of all, God has been at work through these many years of trouble, and gospel churches are growing fast.

Theo and Sonja Donner first went to serve in Colombia back in 1983, stopping off in Costa Rica on the way to learn Spanish. Theo became one of the teaching staff in the Biblical Seminary of Colombia. They lived in the middle of campus life, and Theo served as Principal for several years in the 1990s. Others took on the administrative roles over a decade ago, and Theo and Sonja were able to move to an apartment across the city. Theo now concentrates on his teaching and on writing, and is greatly valued both among the Seminary students and among Colombian churches.

About a hundred students come to study full-time at the Seminary, following a full four year course which includes the biblical languages, biblical studies that covers the whole of Scripture, a thorough grasp of theology, and subjects such as Christian worldview, which Theo teaches. While being academically demanding, the course also requires the students to be involved in local churches and other ministries across the city, combining practical ministry with their studies so that they grow both as disciples and as students of God’s Word. The Seminary exists for the churches and seeks to serve their needs. Theo described it as ‘making theological education not just about acquiring knowledge but about a transforming and growing of the person in that experience.’ Indeed, he says that those who study part-time while already in ministry become the better theologians because they have longer to reflect on what they are learning.

I had the joy of staying on campus for one night. Dark had fallen and the students were holding a football tournament in the gym, the men playing with a Colombian passion that isn’t afraid to shed blood! Their wives cheered them on hysterically behind the goal, and toddlers pottered about in football kit. Football is big in Colombia! But chat to them and get beyond the football and you find that many of them are first generation Christians, with a greater passion for serving the Lord in Christian ministry. They love the Seminary and it is stretching them as they grow in biblical understanding.

The Seminary has extended its reach by running an online course, which can be followed by Spanish speakers anywhere in the world. They also run extension courses for as many as 2000 students who take evening classes at the Seminary or study in small groups in their churches. Three of these courses operate through Prison Fellowship in the prisons of Medellin, including the once notorious Bellavista prison, so that those serving long sentences who have come to faith can be trained for ministry to their fellow-prisoners.

The Principal explained to me that in recent years they have been concerned because new students have come in with so little biblical understanding, reflecting where too many Colombian churches are today. They are now required to do a ‘Christian Foundations’ course based on the Apostles’ Creed before they move deeper into the syllabus. The students come from a wide variety of churches, some with very little Bible teaching, but the Seminary is determined to ensure that they leave equipped to teach the Bible well, and as godly disciples.

On the Sunday I was there, we went to Theo and Sonja’s church, El Redil de Poblado, a Baptist Church planted by the Fellowship Baptists of Canada. They are part of an association of fifteen or so churches, and they seem to be planting new churches quite regularly. I was impressed by the conduct of the worship and the quality of the preaching of their pastor, Carlos Mendivelso, who is a graduate of the Seminary. They have just bought a house and turned it into their church building, with plans to build a large auditorium in the garden. Until then, they hold two consecutive crowded morning services and the Church continues to grow.

El Redil de Poblado serves a middle class part of town, where new apartment blocks rise towards the sky and estate agents are selling them to the growing middle class who crowd the local shopping centre. But you don’t have to go far to find the barrios where the poor have piled their more obviously self-built homes on top of one another. One of the pressures on the cities has come from internally displaced persons (IDPs), people who have fled from rural areas because of the civil war. About 7 million people have fled their homes over the last twenty-five years, caught between the guerrillas and the Army. Many of these have settled in the shanty towns of the cities, and students of the Seminary go to work in these neighbourhoods. Churches are engaging with such communities in evangelism and Christian compassion that ministers to the whole person. Milton Acosta, a lecturer at the Biblical Seminary, movingly described to me the experience of going into an IDP community and studying the Book of Ruth with a group of displaced women. As they compared the experience of Ruth and Naomi coming to Bethlehem, they saw their own stories in the lives of two women whose husbands were dead and who had no hope. At the same time, Milton said he saw his own life reflected in the townsfolk who had done nothing to help Ruth and Naomi.

Colombia faces major challenges if such people are to return to their land and a peaceful life, but coming to the city has brought them closer to the gospel. So much can change in the coming years, and if a new generation of Christian leaders are serious about proclaiming and living out the gospel at a time of change, this can be a significant time for Colombia.

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