ELKHART, Ind. — Willi Hugo Perez was 10 years old when he lost his father. During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, Marco Tulio Perez was accused of being a communist, tortured in front of his family and then killed by government soldiers in 1975. That turned Willi Hugo, a Catholic, into an angry youth with a shattered faith.
Forty-two years later, Perez is the head of SEMILLA, the Latin American Mennonite seminary based in Guatemala City, committed to spreading Christ’s message of peace, love and reconciliation throughout a region still beset by violence. Military hostilities may have waned, but domestic violence, human trafficking and gangs demonstrate much work still needs to be done.
“The only hope for Central America is following Jesus Christ,” said Perez, who was visiting the United States in early June. “The Christian church has to go to people who are suffering. It means a church that can walk with people . . . and offer healing, restoration and compassion.”
SEMILLA, sponsored by 10 Central American Mennonite conferences, has nearly 700 students in three programs: certificate, bachelor’s degree and licenciatura, which is between a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
“For SEMILLA, it doesn’t mean teaching theology only as a mental exercise but getting people to live the values of Jesus Christ,” Perez said.
He recently received his doctorate in sociology and political science from the University of Santa Monica in Spain. His dissertation focused on Central American Mennonite responses to violence in their communities.
Perez knows what it’s like to be a victim of violence and in need of help. When he was 20 years old, 10 years after his father’s death and long estranged from the church, he found himself wondering if God could really help him. He started attending a Quaker meeting to find out.
“I found a lot of support through the people of that community,” Perez said. “That brought a lot of healing and restoration to my life.”
It also brought romance. Perez met Elena, a young woman in the fellowship, and they soon married. After several years, the couple moved to Guatemala City, where they didn’t find local Quakers to worship with. Attracted by the Anabaptist emphases on holistic ministry, community and discipleship, they joined a Mennonite congregation. But Perez still found it difficult to embrace nonviolence.
Elena, who is on the pastoral team at their 60-member congregation, said prayer was a major reason her husband was able to move past his anger and hatred.
“Little by little his character began to change,” she said. “Little by little God was making this transformation.”
Perez put those changes to use as director of Redpaz, an inter-faith Central American peace network, before attending Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va. He then returned to Guatemala City, where he held several positions at SEMILLA before taking the top job 12 years ago.
Most students participate in distance-learning education. Classes in the certificate-level program are offered in collaboration with 15 Mennonite conferences. Students in the higher-level programs take intensive, short courses that meet in 15 study centers scattered throughout Central America.
Perez also touted the importance of building theological bridges. More than 20 percent of the school’s students come from faiths other than Anabaptism, including Catholicism.
“It is very important to make connections between all of us,” he said.
Perez has dreams for SEMILLA’s future, including expanding its programs to other Latin American countries. The seminary is exploring possibilities in Chile, Cuba and Puerto Rico. He wants to expand CASAS, a short-term language and culture immersion program for North Americans. He would like to start a master’s program to develop scholars in addition to pastors and other church workers. Perez even harbors thoughts of a full-scale Latin American Mennonite university.
Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge is finances. With an annual budget of less than $700,000, SEMILLA is already a shoestring operation. About two-thirds of its income comes from CASAS, a seminary guest house, publishing house and souvenir shop. Tuition is a limited source of revenue, as many students need to rely on scholarships, and the supporting conferences have their own financial struggles.
That makes donations from the United States and Canada vital to the seminary’s stability.
“SEMILLA works very hard at being self-sustaining, but there’s a gap,” said Elkhart resident Charles Geiser, the school’s North American representative and a longtime Mennonite Central Committee worker in Latin America.
A North American SEMILLA Supporting Board, which met June 5-6 on the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary campus in Elkhart, works at raising awareness. The board encourages participation and solicits funds for the school.
SEMILLA has a cooperative peace program with Bluffton University and is working with AMBS to develop an online library for Spanish readers. Other possibilities include joint SEMILLA-AMBS online courses and internships for AMBS students with SEMILLA.