When Academy Meets Reality: A Public Confession
During my second year of Bible College, working in the informal settlements in Guatemala City, I thought I was going to save the day. All the knowledge I was acquiring at that time gave me a false idea of power and capability to provoke systemic change. The academy had become my reality to the point that I was omitting the reality outside the walls of the seminary, which was fueling my ingenuity. I was so cloistered and my view of life and ministry was so conservative that I thought the experience of a people and their anxieties was not as important as the “message of salvation.” That idea also paved the road for me to ignore God’s work and stop being surprised by His grace.
When I first started serving in the informal settlements in Guatemala City I though that I was going to change my country; I was going to be the liberator for those living in poverty and oppression. To my surprise, I was completely astonished by the magnitude of the issues facing my country. I was a middle class college boy trying to save the low income kids living in poverty, surrounded by violence, pain and suffering.
After one year I realized that Guatemala was too big to change by myself. I decided Guatemala City would be a more attainable target for transformational ministry. I really thought I was capable to affect the city in some way, and that systemic change was possible through struggle against the oppressive structures created by those in power and the ruling social class. As the time went by, I started noticing that change as I expected was not happening at all. The kids I was working with were not changing their lives and following Christ. Instead, they were getting more involved in the organized crime that rules the city. Then, I decided that Guatemala City was way too big, so I chose to focus my efforts in zone 3, which is the section of the city where drug dealers and other kinds of organized crime mix with ordinary hard working people who live in the slums. That didn’t work either and I ended up working in one street of an informal settlement called Anexo Aguilar. The work among people living in poverty and despair pushed me to find a way to ponder and rejoice in God’s work in a way that constantly challenges my worldview.
In my short experience there are four steps that I have taken in order to reflect and celebrate God’s work among the people I serve; and I have to admit that they are very important in my personal process of doing theology. The first step, as Karl Barth would say, is the “astonishment.” It is very important that everything that has to do directly with theology must be vivid, because the theology cannot be something static. Theology always is a history that becomes flesh within the experiences and actions of human beings. Theology must be lived! Therefore, it’s important that the object of every theological study and existential reflection changes its focus from ethereal and abstract ideas to the experience of our people, our relationship with God, and the images of God that are constantly shattered. That is why I need to understand what happens when the theology gets closer to the human being, when it touches me, when it becomes a part of me. Theology astonishes and amazes the human being.
That astonishment and amazement grabs the person who is involved in the theological reflection. If a person feels—like I did while I was working in the informal settlements—that nothing is astonishing, that the strange is familiar, and that there is nothing new in the theological matter, it is because this person probably abandoned incarnational theology. This “astonishment” is the root of a healthy theology. The amazement that fills existence grabs every aspect of human beings. That is why every time when we approach theology, we become constantly amazed poeple.
The second step (also according to Barth) is to place importance in being “concerned.” Theology cannot be a comfortable meditation and reflection, simply fascinated or interested in its object. This level of concern can turn into a skeptical and indifferent attitude toward theology. Even worse, it can become an attitude of rejection. That’s why theology would not be the miracle of God it is if theologians were allowed to have some reservations. “Since the Word of God, which is one of the objects of theology, is concerned with the world and the community in the world, it is concerned also with the theologian in his existence.”
The third step, which is very important, is “commitment.” This is something beautiful because it grounds me to a community and at the same time scary because I have to risk myself in the process. That intensifies the theologian’s responsibility. We need to be committed to community and to God, the object of theology. In other words, if there is no commitment, there is no true theology. This is what Barth calls a nobile officium, which is completely trusted to the human kind, but that also demands to practice everything that it implies in its complexity. The nobile officium, a noble charge, implies that the theologian is expected to fulfill his ministry. The person involved in this process is privileged to do what is expected of him or her. But he “also must do what he is chosen to do.”
The last of these steps is “faith.” Faith is very important to the process of reflecting on and celebrating what God is doing among the people we serve—doing theology—because it is what helps the theologian to recognize Jesus as God. To talk about faith is to talk about truth as an encounter that is revealed from God to the humankind through Christ Jesus. As Brunner says, faith “is a truth that is not within us, but comes to us, a truth that sets us free because it restores our true self, to be in the YOU, to be for the YOU.” This is made even clearer with his words in relation with God: “I am your Lord, you are my creature, You are my Father, I am your son/daughter.” However, it is necessary to understand that faith it is not something static that ends with an encounter with truth. It has dynamics that affect our existence. Faith is a personal act that involves everyone.
In the past year, living in a country that it is not my own, these theological steps of a journey that is just beginning have become more vivid. It is through the pain I saw and experienced working in the slums that I am now being constantly amazed by God’s grace. Since the first time I went down to the informal settlements in Guatemala City seven years ago thinking that I was going to change everything, the outcomes I achieved are completely unsuccessful by the standards for any outreach ministry. Three of the kids I worked with were assassinated, the other four still live in poverty and struggle everyday in a context of violence, drugs, and organized crime.
It has taken me eight years to realize that I never let my self be astonished by the grace, mercy, and greatness of God in that context. I was not concerned in my theological reflection nor with the community. I thought I was their savior. I didn’t commit my self completely to a cause bigger than my own image of God. And finally, I didn’t put my faith in anything else but my capability as a social advocate and “theologian.” My arrogance overcame my faith, concern, commitment, and astonishment with the Savior. I write today putting myself in a vulnerable position, accepting that I was violating the nobile officium I have been called to. In my inexperience as young minister and theologian I was blinded by my ambitions, ultimately doing violence to the people I was trying to serve.
This is where academy meets reality. This is a public confession. I see my pride, sloth, fear, and the mistakes I have made in the name of a wrong understanding of theology, a theology from above that caused pain not only to me, and that I used causing pain to the people I served. Now the question is what do I do to faithfully live what I have learned and studied? I don’t have the answer yet. But I know that the journey through my pain is the way to be constantly amazed, the way to be concerned by and with God, the way to commit my self to a scandalous theology from below, and the way to reorient my faith to encounter my true self.
 I was the perfect example of what Ivan Illich calls a “Latin American imitation of the North American middle class.” The Swaraj Foundation, “To Hell With Good Intentions,” The Swaraj Foundation [Home page On-Line]; Available from http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm; Internet; Accessed 1 April 2011.
 This was a very Marxist idea that was shattered by the analysis of Paulo Freire’s work. Freire’s proposal is that the complexity of material and social oppression cannot be grasped by the mere analysis and a singular logic of class struggle. One needs to take a detour to a more conscious class analysis. See, Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 2006), 125
 Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: an introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 63.
The Devine-Human Encounter by Emil Bruner is the title in english, but the pages are from: Emil Brunner, La Verdad Como Encuentro Trad. Heide A. de Estruch, (Barcelona: Editorial Estela, 1967), 29
Paul Tillich, La dinámica de la fe (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial La Aurora, 1976)