Dr. Gerald Schlabach will be leading a class in Guatemala on “The Church in Latin America” in January. “This is the best thing I do as a professor,” says Schlabach, who was awarded the university’s Service-Learning Faculty Award in 2012 thanks largely to leading or co-leading the class roughly every two years since 2000. “Guatemala itself makes a great co-professor,” he notes, and UST benefits from longstanding relationships with local partners. Through its VISION program, the university has been sending students to San Lucas Tolimán to work in projects organized by the Catholic parish there for two decades, and the course incorporates many elements of the VISION program. Drawing on eight years living and working in Central America earlier in his career, Schlabach has developed additional partnerships in Guatemala City and Santiago Atitlán.
While course work engages the history and contemporary challenges of churches throughout Latin America, Guatemala provides a poignant case study. In addition to lectures and readings, students have opportunities for site visits, field research, and practical experiences that allow them to become immersed in Guatemalan society in a short amount of time. They are able to observe various models of church engagement with the needs of the Guatemalan people, from traditional forms of popular Catholic piety to Pentecostalism to liberation theology. As students develop personal relationships with the Maya of the Guatemalan highlands who host them, the oppression of the Maya over the five centuries since the Spanish Conquest invites special attention. The Maya provide a vivid example of the struggles of many other marginalized groups in Latin America. Students inevitably encounter the theological question of how best to “inculturate” the Christian gospel in diverse cultural settings, thus respecting the cultural values and strengths that are indigenous to a people.
Along the way, the course introduces students to the politics, history, and economy of Guatemala in order to join with Latin Americans in reflecting theologically on the meaning of the gospel in its historical context. Theological topics explored often include evangelization, christology, sin, martyrdom, poverty, the nature of the church, the Eucharist, and the Church’s role in both the Guatemalan peace process and in the defense of human rights.