Lizette Hernandez is the Mennonite Hispanic Initiatives Intern for Virginia Mennonite Missions.
Every Monday night, a group of over 20 students gather together to engage in a biblical-theological class in one of the classrooms at Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. This might sound like a regular seminary class at EMS, except that the class is taught in Spanish and the students are all Latinos who are being trained through the Instituto Biblico Anabautista “IBA” (Anabaptist Biblical Institute).
IBA is an educational program for adults that provides a Spanish-language biblical and theological training for members and leaders of Hispanic congregations within Mennonite Church USA and beyond. The program was founded in 1988 and is actually operating 42 active learning centers in local congregations across the country where volunteer tutors teach the classes. The students each receive a theological studies certificate or diploma upon completion.
The Harrisonburg IBA center has been operating for the last 10 years, using the EMS facilities that were graciously open for the program. The institute was launched in the area by the Mennonite Hispanic Initiative (MHI), a ministry that focuses on planting and encouraging new Spanish-speaking communities of faith and missional-minded leaders in the area. IBA is a program that adapts very well to the needs of the Hispanic community. The program is very flexible because it can be offered to people at all educational levels, it is affordable for a community with limited income, and it is also accessible, since anyone who wants to acquire biblical instruction but can’t pursue a more formal theological education, has access to biblical training with our once-a-week for 12 weeks course schedule. We have 22 students enrolled in the program and two tutors are currently teaching the classes. Five of those students are about to graduate in the coming months.
Our typical students are active leaders and committed Christians within their local congregations. They serve in different ministries. Some are church planters, Bible teachers, worship leaders, and pastors.
In addition, our IBA center is rather unique since it is the only center that enrolls non-Mennonite students. Five different congregations and various denominations are represented in our center, making it an exceptional place of Christian fellowship where we learn from each other and build relationships across denominational lines. We are building an understanding that we live in covenant with one another as we follow Christ. Our students represent a community of immigrants from places like Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Cuba, who bring distinctive perspectives to the discussions, broadening our understanding of what it means to follow Christ in a global world.
In our classes, we learn together to contextualize the good news of the gospel in our particular time and place, in conversation with Scripture, context, history, socio-cultural elements and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We process our shared paths as an immigrant minority in this country and reflect on how we can respond faithfully to the demands of the kingdom of God from that standpoint, while still being congruent with our particular values, identity and cultural backgrounds.
Students have grown in their ability to engage the biblical text not only in theory, but in their daily lives and ministries where they serve. We constantly challenge students to replicate and multiply whatever they are learning with others and to see themselves in mission with God in today’s world.
We have the blessing of having several students who are actually pastors and who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to acquire theological training. They can all attest to the ways IBA has helped them build up a healthy theological and biblical foundation to their own faith and calling. Some of them, who aren’t Mennonites, have expressed a deep appreciation for Anabaptist theology and have embraced and re-appropriated core Anabaptist values like discipleship, community, peace and justice.
The early church in the book of Acts 2:42 determined that teaching was one of their main communal practices: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to prayer” (NIV). Therefore, we envision IBA will continue to support the teaching mandate of the church by promoting learning communities where we all grow, mature and foster healthy ministries as described in Ephesians 2:21-22: “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”