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Christian Education in Ecuador

STEVE SAAVEDRA

An effective educational philosophy bridges not just one cultural chasm but three in Latin America.

Quechuas spilled forward with enthusiastic laughter and brilliant smiles. Something had connected.

The church in Latin America is growing at an unprecedented pace. Despite the staggering growth, though, there are problems. Foremost is the abysmal lack of formal training of church leadership. Blistering growth leaves poorly equipped leaders vulnerable to unorthodox teachings and burnout, and the congregation to bickering and splintering.

The church's need for mature, well-trained leaders and teachers stimulated Group Publishing in April of 1995 to sponsor two Christian education workshops in the colorfully diverse country of Ecuador. The "Revolutionizing Christian Education" workshops challenged over 200 Latin Americans to examine the ways they communicate gospel truth.

The people featured in this article reflect the diversity of Christian peoples in Latin America. Their involvement tested the ability of an effective educational philosophy to bridge not just one cultural chasm but three.

Manuel Quishpe Pinduisaca is a Quechua pastor from the impoverished countryside of the chilly, wind-swept southern highlands. Manuel is a typical Quechuas. He's timid yet ambitious; hard-working yet gentle; gracious yet formal, almost stoic. Manuel and several other Quechuas endured relentless 10- to 15-hour bus rides along precarious, twisted mountain roads to attend this particular workshop.


The Quechuas were the most undereducated segment of the workshops. Unaccustomed to anything but rote teaching, they seemed uncomfortable with a form of learning that incorporated the learners' experiences and insights. Reserved and reluctant during active learning activities, and soft-spoken in their native tongue during small group interaction, it was difficult to gauge whether the workshop was connecting with them.


Toward the end of the workshop, leaders Thom and Joani Schultz focused on a change of heart by relating the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale. During this activity, the participants were asked to go inside a "whale"-a huge sheet of black plastic taped to the floor and inflated by a fan.


For a while, Manuel and his Quechua colleagues stood silently watching the others file into the whale. Then, in an apparent moment of reckoning, Manuel stepped forward and made his way into the whale's belly. One by one, other Quechuas, with slight smiles, followed and lined up at the mouth of the black plastic.


When the moment came for the grand expulsion from the beast's stomach, Quechuas spilled forward with enthusiastic laughter and brilliant smiles. Something had connected. I pulled Manuel aside and asked him if he thought the workshop held any relevance for him. "Oh yes," he replied, "but we need resources that incorporate all these ideas we've discussed today. It's a big need."


Other Quechua pastors validated Manuel's response. They benefited from the workshop and were very appreciative. What we misinterpreted as dampened enthusiasm or disinterest was actually their unique outward behavior in a formal learning environment.

Nelson is in his mid-twenties, with a small build. His fair skin tells the story of the European presence in Latin America. Nelson has had the privilege of a college education and, where unemployment is rampant, a secure job in a TV station as a line producer. Living in the modern capital city of Quito, which sits in a 9,000-foot high hollow at the foot of the volcano Pichincha, he attends a middle class church and volunteers as a Sunday school teacher.

For Nelson, training opportunities are scarce and quality resources are rare gems. The materials Nelson does have at his disposal are pedagogical relics-tattered flannelgraphs, coloring books, and pointless crafts that recall a former era. These, combined with rote readings and lectures, make for an outdated Christian education program. Nelson wants more.


Even though his students are university-bound, Nelson's church doesn't necessarily encourage thinking. During the workshop, Nelson realized that he doesn't ask his students "thinking" questions often enough. Many times his closed-ended questions elicit one-word or yes and no answers. Or if an opened-ended question is asked, he might become unnerved by the students' silence and not give them adequate time to answer. In a country where rote learning and memorization are standard and where the teacher's word is seldom challenged, Nelson knows that discussion can be hard to generate. These obstacles, however, won't stop Nelson. Knowing the value of education and being committed to revolutionizing it in his own church, Nelson is enthusiastic about putting the new concepts into practice.

Nancy and Belma, in their early 30s, are mestizas (a mix of Spanish and Indian) from the dusty, noisy, crowded town of Quevedo. Set in fertile tropical lands, it is surrounded by plantations of cacao, sugar, bananas, oranges, tropical fruits, and rice.


The church is growing rapidly in Quevedo, and Nancy and Belma are self-made teachers dedicated to the special education of mentally disabled young children. For them the workshop reiterated a fundamental maxim: An educator must know the goal. Nancy and Belma believe that too many times, Christian educators innocently lose sight of what they're really there for. The end goal is true learning so students may know, love, and follow Jesus Christ. The question is not, "What were the children taught today?" but rather, "What did the children learn today?" Learning that encourages a relationship with Jesus is the real goal.


Nancy and Belma's frustration surfaced in a conversation over dinner. Their growing class of over 30 children has many unique needs, and the specialized resources in Spanish are lacking. They're feeling the heat of burnout as they carry the load of the program. Fortunately, someone in their church speaks English, so we gave them a list of English special-education resources for their reference. Even so, we felt that the help was inadequate. It was but a few feet of bridge spanning the vast chasm of resource needs in this burgeoning church of Latin America.

Steve Saavedra grew up in Ecuador and is now an audio technician for Group Media in Colorado.

In response to the monumental cry for resources, Group Publishing began to translate several key resources into Spanish this past summer. Group will partner with APOYO, a training arm of Leadership Resources in New Lenox, Illinois, and World Radio Missionary Fellowship in Colorado Springs, to distribute Spanish materials to resource-needy Latin American churches at no cost. Scheduled for release in the Spring of '96, we trust these will usher in a new era-an era of revolutionary Christian education in Latin America.

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