Sunday school works a little differently at Casa Horeb, a Mennonite congregation in Guatemala City.
For 10 hours on Sundays, before and after worship, the congregation transforms into a more traditional school, helping adults and children who never completed school attain state equivalencies.
Educacion para la Vida (Education for Life, better known as EduVida) began about five years ago when the grandmother of two children at Casa Horeb died, and they were returned to their aunt, who lacked the resources to send them to school. The congregation had recently been invited to take part in an education program, so EduVida director Elena Bercián said Casa Horeb decided to help others realize opportunities available to them.
There were five students that first year, then 12 in 2015. EduVida grew to 85 students in 2017, and in January 123 students began in levels similar to primary through high school.
“In addition, the Department of Education has asked us to give coverage of another education center that wasn’t totally authorized, and there’s 150 students there in addition to ours,” she said. “There’s a lot of administrative work, but it gives us joy to serve in this way.”
Benjamín Sywulka, an elder at Casa Horeb, said roughly 1.4 million Guatemalans are illiterate. There are 2.5 million students in the education system, but outside there are 800,000 13- to 18-year-olds who never finished school.
A little education can go a long way. He said that while the minimum wage is about $380 a month in urban settings, the average wage in rural areas is only about $153. A bigger difference is the money that can be made working for a legitimate company versus doing cleaning or gardening at somebody’s home.
“If someone can go from an informal job to a formal company doing the same job, it’s a doubling in salary, even for a maintenance worker,” Sywulka said. “The problem is, 70 percent of the economy is informal. Even if you do get the education, there aren’t enough formal jobs to go around, but it does increase their chances.”
Classes at Casa Horeb are compacted into long Sundays because accreditation requires courses to be offered for at least 10 hours a week.
“There’s just no other way for people who work full-time Monday to Saturday and who spend two hours going to work and coming back on the bus each day to do it otherwise,” Sywulka said. “So you’re talking about schedules from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. at night. Sunday’s their only day off, and they’re investing that time in their education.”
A lot with a little
Funded entirely from Casa Horeb’s budget, the program began with teachers from the congregation and has since drawn others teachers to greater participation in church life.
Casa Horeb tries to pay each of its 13 teachers a stipend of $80, but this is challenging for the church of about 100 people.
“We can only do it for the five or six who have no other income source,” Sywulka said, noting Bercián doesn’t receive a salary. “$80 may sound like a little bit, but for us it’s a lot. The entire church’s budget is $1,500 or $2,000 a month, so EduVida is proportionally a big project for us, both in terms of time and money.”
Women in the church sell food to support EduVida. One key teacher hasn’t been taking his medication for a year because he can’t afford it but continues “working” on the Sabbath.
“We can’t keep growing it without more funding, but miraculously we keep growing,” Sywulka said.
Impelled by God’s love
The church is inspired to carry on, in part due to the influence of SEMILLA, an Anabaptist seminary serving Latin America that is also located in Guatemala City.
Bercián’s husband, SEMILLA President Willi Hugo Perez, told Tabor College students in chapel on April 3 in Hillsboro, Kan., that God calls followers to imitate Christ as agents of life, justice and transformation.
“The love of God acts in us, impels us to worship him and follow him, and also to serve in his transforming mission,” he said. “The fullness of being people of faith is reached when, out of love, we become a balm for the wounds and sufferings of the world.”
As Casa Horeb has reached out into the community with EduVida, Bercián says God has reached out and into the church.
“I think we’ve learned to develop other capacities, other values and knowledge,” she said. “Most of all we’ve received love from the students. They are very grateful because they come from very different contexts in life.
“The majority come from contexts of violence or gangs, and the majority of our students have been women or abused girls. The boys who have not had opportunities are at risk of being incorporated into gangs, but here they find love, respect, security.”
For more information, visit eduvida.gt.
Seize the day to serve God
Offering government-approved education in a church setting can be tricky. Because proselytization in this situation is forbidden, EduVida director Elena Bercián said, the relationship with state officials was bumpy at first, based on their assumptions about evangelicals.
“Bit by bit we’ve been able to achieve a relationship that is very good, and the Ministry of Education now uses the church as a location for some of their trainings,” she said. “. . . It’s a bit curious, because the coordinator is always asking about the Mennonites. They’ve done their investigation of who the Mennonites are, and they feel a lot of admiration for the vocation of service the church has.”
Part of the government’s continuing curiosity is based on the church’s ability to do so much with only volunteers.
“We don’t receive supervision, because the classes are on Sundays,” Bercián said. “They don’t understand how we can do this on a day of rest.
“But to seize it as a day of service to the Lord with people who come to us, Sunday is a tiring day, but in the lives of the students it gives energy. They take advantage of this, and we have beautiful stories of transformation.”