Poverty, Diversity and Justice – Where Academy meets the Street

By Joel Van Dyke

For years all Street Psalms training was done on an informal basis with no degree status tied to any part of our training menu. As the years have progressed, while continuing our informal training with grassroots leaders, we have also had opportunities to accept invitations into formal educational opportunities. This process began in Nairobi, Kenya with a partnership with Bakke Graduate University (BGU) where there are currently 33 Masters students and a doctoral student working on degree’s in Global Urban Leadership. There are also other cohorts of BGU/CTM Masters students in Anchorage, Alaska and Cincinnati, Ohio.

In Latin America, we were invited several years ago by the Central American Theological Seminary in Guatemala City (SETECA) to develop an Urban Missions Emphasis track using our training menu as part of SETECA’s Masters in Ministry Degree. The desire of many in the seminary is that this would expand into a full-scale Masters Degree in Urban Ministry. At this point, we are teaching two intensive classes a year at SETECA and just last week we led a course called “Poverty, Diversity and Social Justice in Latin America.”

Ron and Linda Ruthruff came from Seattle to be with us for the week and together with Liz Herrera Cabezas and myself we hosted the course for masters and doctoral students representing Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, Uruguay, Bolivia, Honduras, Argentina, El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti and the United States. It was an incredibly engaging experience with a mix of traditional classroom time, special guest lectures and excursions utilizing the city itself as the incubator of theological reflection and exploration. We spent a day with Mennonite friends who led us through their commitment to principles of restorative justice rooted in their Anabaptist tradition. We also hosted three lawyers who presented their work against the injustices done against women in Guatemala. A global research study on gender inequality targeting lack of opportunities for and violence against women done by the World Economic Forum put Guatemala at 111 of 134 countries in the world and dead last in all of Latin America. These lawyers shared with us their lonely fight against the rising tide of injustice against women in our country and their honest frustration with the lack of engagement and even interest from the church on these issues. At one point a question was asked of one of the female lawyers what she would do about the injustices against women if she were a pastor of a church in Guatemala. She became very animated in her response to the question and stepping forward she delivered a wonderful exhortation about the real needs of women in her country and issued a wonderfully articulate and stirring challenge to the church on how to respond.

On the last day of the course, we spent a couple of hours at the feet of some very surprising “professors.” We walked out of the seminary campus, crossed the street and entered a little opening cut into a large, graffiti splattered wall. This place has come to be known as “el tanque” and has become home to 35 plus street kids living right outside the large seminary walls. The kids welcomed us into their “living room” and allowed us to pepper them with questions in an attempt to learn from their stories. This experience culminated in a lunch together with the street youth and then an unpacking together of the experience back in our classroom on the “other side of the wall”. The garden of academic inquiry was irrigated by tears of passion and renewed commitment as we reflected on what happens when abstract sociological and theological concepts become real people with real stories amidst unimaginable obstacles.

Once again we have learned that asking the city beautiful questions is a far more effective process than bringing to the city a list of pre-determined answers. The city is becoming for us classroom, parish and playground in both informal and formal arenas. We are thankful for the growing number of institutional partners who have taken note of the importance and relevance of the informal, street level grassroots leadership training that we have engaged in throughout the years. These institutions have made room (with all the inherent risks) for the conversation to trickle uphill into the hallowed halls of formal education. This past week we were greatly blessed to sit in the rarely found intersection of academy and street, participating in a deep conversation around poverty, diversity and social justice with the city itself as classroom and teacher.

Joel Van Dyke is the Director of Estrategia de TransformacionCTM in Latin America