This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Latin Americans learn conflict-response skills

A Mennonite Brethren leader from Panama described why he was taking a course at SEMILLA, the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary in Guatemala City.

“Our pastor was killed because of conflict over his land,” he said. “Now we are confronted with hundreds of Cuban, Venezuelan and African refugees as they pass through our community. Their presence creates conflict, and these are situations we did not expect. I need to learn how to respond to these situations.”

Samuel Martinez, a Mennonite pastor from Metapán, El Salvador, said, “I need tools for building peace in a context where organized crime uses children to kill.”

SEMILLA participants from throughout Central America, including board members, gathered in February at the seminary campus in Guatemala City. — Jerry Higueros
SEMILLA participants from throughout Central America, including board members, gathered in February at the seminary campus in Guatemala City. — Jerry Higueros

The course, “New Social Conflicts: Peace and Justice Challenges for the Church,” was taught by Bob Brenneman, a sociology professor from Vermont, in February for church leaders who had gathered from throughout Central America.

About 25 Central American Anabaptist church members gathered on the SEMILLA campus in Guate­mala City to reflect on the challenges that they face in their home communities.

Many wanted to learn skills to respond to conflict. In recent decades, civil conflict plagued several Central American countries as people trapped in poverty and oppression struggled for justice against structures that favored wealthy oligarchies.

Those conflicts have passed, but their consequences remain. Many Anabaptist churches live, witness and serve in contexts that continue to be riddled with violence due to gang activity and drug trafficking. The violence drives people north looking for safety and better opportunities.

The course enabled church leaders to reflect theologically and sociologically on the challenges they encounter. The course was designed for people who want to impact their broader communities from the rootedness of their faith.

This course is one of 12 that make up the Peace and Justice Studies Certificate program, a collaborative effort of SEMILLA and Bluffton University in Ohio.

Brenneman’s book, Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America, reflects his research into Central American gang life and church life.

“I wanted students to think about resources that the church can muster in order to cultivate communities of refuge and resistance,” he said. “Churches can be places of refuge for those wounded by violence as well as sources of prophetic witness against violence.”

For her final project, Nora Marleni Martinez of Metapán, El Salvador, wrote a letter to the youth in her home church about what she learned. Her letter reads like a biblical epistle reflecting her concern and love for them as they face temptations.

She shared with them the story of a speaker who, because of anger toward her father, who abused her mother, ended up in a gang. She got involved with violence and drugs. God heard her cries. She shared how the church became her community of refuge and healing. In her letter, she calls her young friends to seek and to live God’s shalom in difficult situations.

SEMILLA works hard to be self-supporting. A language-learning program designed for North American students and a guest house provide some income. In addition, SEMILLA seeks the financial support of donors. Contributions can be sent to SEMILLA, 1104 S. Seventh St., Goshen, IN 46526.

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