Listening to students at SEMILLA — a multisite seminary affiliated with 10 Anabaptist conferences in Central America and Mexico — Leonor and Jerry Kennell heard story after story of personal transformation and enthusiasm for Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective.
The Kennells, of Albuquerque, N.M., are North American ambassadors for SEMILLA, a role they took on this year. They returned Nov. 30 from a three-week trip through five countries, where they met with eight groups of students.
They asked students about their experience with SEMILLA — good and bad — as well as their hopes and dreams for the school.
One woman said she learned so much from one class that she decided to take it again, even though she passed. She comes to class in the evenings, exhausted from a day of work. But at SEMILLA, “she feels very enlivened, awakened,” Leonor Kennell said.
Students said that because of SEMILLA they are more dedicated to improving their communities. Some spoke of feeling empowered to interpret Scripture for themselves and learning to discern Jesus’ call through a community of fellow believers.
“They feel like they’ve also been given a charge to be a transforming presence in their community,” she said.
In 2015, SEMILLA will complete a five-year plan for development. As seminary leaders work to design the 2016-2020 plan, SEMILLA’s president, Will Hugo Perez, said the school hopes to strengthen and respond to growth. They want to create more space at the central campus, add online courses and resources, hire more staff and expand international partnerships and programming.
As a result, SEMILLA enlisted the Kennells to spread the word about the opportunity for those partnerships — and raise funds.
“I hope that working and walking together — Mennonites from North America and Latin America — we can contribute to building encounters, friendship and peace between our continents,” Perez said.
Since 1984, SEMILLA — which means “seed” in Spanish — has been filling this still-growing need for theological training for leaders in Latin American Mennonite conferences.
It’s caught on beyond just training pastors — to teaching community workers, leaders, the young and old, women and men. Currently there are 650 students.
The Kennells were surprised at the variety of students, especially the way they spoke of gender equality, in cultures where male power is prevalent.
“Anabaptist theology has helped them open up and affirm women in their cultures, opening the door for women to serve in pastoral and leadership roles,” Jerry Kennell said.
“Several male pastors expressed gratitude for a transformed view of their wives’ contributions,” Leonor Kennell said.
The Kennells knew little about SEMILLA before they retired and met Amzie and Elena Yoder at their new Mennonite church home, Albuquerque Mennonite Church.
The Yoders were serving with Mennonite conferences in Central America when the idea of a seminary began. They have been deeply involved with it since. Amzie still serves on the advisory committee.
Jerry Kennell said the Yoders were skilled at recruiting local leadership and then getting out of the way.
“It’s truly a Central American-owned, governed, built program,” he said. “As a result, it’s current and relevant with the needs on the ground of the countries served.”
Amzie Yoder said SEMILLA is appealing in Central America partly because of the context of poverty and violence.
He said students tell him: “Our old theology doesn’t give us any answers in light of all the violence, and Anabaptism does.”
He also credits the hybrid model, where classes come to the students in their own communities, for SEMILLA’s success.
SEMILLA has centers in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. Headquarters are in Guatemala City.
Most classes are held in churches in the evening. This enables the seminary to reach a wide range of people.
“From the beginning, the focus was to have it open for both men and women and not only pastors but [other] church leaders,” Amzie Yoder said.
More than half of SEMILLA’s funding comes from the guest house it owns and operates in Guatemala City, and a culture and language exchange it offers.
The guest house, called Casa Emmaus, can house 70 to 80 people and is rented by visitors or for gathering space.
“It’s a very busy place,” said Elena Yoder. “You see just one group after another, local and international groups coming and going all the time.”
Elena Yoder designed another piece of SEMILLA’s success, the Central America Study and Service program, or CASAS. Most of the Mennonite colleges and seminaries in North America have relationships with SEMILLA through this program. Students are immersed in cultural exchange with classes and home stays with Mennonite families.
Schools outside the Mennonite world are taking part too, including American University in Washington, D.C.
“Students who have gone through the CASAS program, many of them have had incredible, life-changing experiences,” Amzie Yoder said.
Adults wanting to immerse themselves in Latin American Anabaptism, culture and language are welcome too. Loren Johns, a professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman both took sabbaticals there.
“SEMILLA’s quite a resource for North America,” Jerry Kennell said. “It is unique in Mennonite circles because of it’s genuine bi-directional cross-border relationships.”
Amzie Yoder said sometimes North American mission workers return home “Anabaptized” — knowing more about Anabaptism than before — thanks to SEMILLA’s academic rigor.
SEMILLA would like to expand its online course offerings, which are currently free.
Reflecting on needs for the future, Amzie Yoder said, “The staff is incredibly overloaded.”
And there is great demand for more online courses and learning materials.
The Kennells look forward to spreading the stories they heard.
“SEMILLA reflects for us a very healthy expression of faith and values that we hold deeply,” Jerry Kennell said.