Clad in matching blue shirts and gray sweater vests, just a few dozen students or more line the bare concrete wall of the Ebenezer Bible Institute’s cafeteria with their heads bowed. It’s lunch time.
A prayer rides atop the smell of fried plantains and carne molida (ground beef) drifting over cheap white plastic chairs and up to the sagging ceiling tiles. As institutions of higher education go, Ebenezer is a humble place, a cluster of low-rise buildings in the mountainous city of San Cristóbal in the northern Andes. It feels like another world from the imposing concrete and glass towers of Universidad Central, Venezuela’s oldest and premier university about 500 miles away in the capital city of Caracas. But as Ebenezer’s director Johnny Waldman sees it, the students sitting down to eat in the cafeteria may be the best hope for his troubled country.
Venezuela is searching for answers amid economic tumult, popular protests and national frustration. Former president-for-life Hugo Chávez ruled the nation for 14 years until his death in 2014. Chávez led the oil-rich nation on a path toward what he called “21st century socialism,” which among other things consolidated state control over the economy and nationalized a number of companies. Large-scale social programs distributed petroleum wealth to low-income Venezuelans and brought down the cost of living for many. But the president’s repressive rule and his vice grip on the economy were accompanied by an exodus of thousands of Venezuela’s elite and the shrinking of the nation’s middle class. The country has been crippled by chronic shortages of basic goods like toilet paper. Chávez’s handpicked successor, President Nicolás Maduro, took office last year and immediately faced violent protests among youth across the country fed up with the country’s dysfunction. Maduro responded with violent military crackdowns, leaving dozens dead and further eroding Venezuelans’ confidence in their government and their optimism about the future.
For Waldman, a charismatic leader who began his tenure at Ebenezer in 1986 as a resident director for the men’s dorm, the source of hope for Venezuela’s future lies in the message of the church. And the church cannot have a strong message without strong leaders, the sort he believes Ebenezer is producing.
“At this moment, Venezuela is in need of an answer,” Waldman says. “What motivates us to get up every day is because this generation that we’re forming should respond to that reality.”
Missionaries have been working in Venezuela for years to bring the hope of Christ into the midst of its behemoth challenges. In fact, TEAM’s presence in the country dates back to 1906, when missionaries with TEAM — then called The Scandinavian Alliance Mission — began establishing a church in Maracaibo, a muggy coastal city in western Venezuela. Ebenezer Bible Institute was founded in Maracaibo in 1931 as the first evangelical Bible school in Venezuela and eventually relocated to San Cristobal.
In spite of more than a century of missionary work there, Protestantism was slower to take hold in Venezuela than in other Latin American countries. Still, a mature evangelical church is emerging. Estimates of the size of Venezuela’s evangelical community range from 2 to 10 percent of the population, with church leaders claiming it is closer to 10 percent. By comparison, evangelicals make up roughly 15 percent of the population in Costa Rica, which is considered to have a very well established church.
Evangelicalism in Venezuela has enough momentum that it no longer needs large numbers of foreign missionaries serving as church planters or pastors. As in many developing countries, church growth and maturity is now hampered by a lack of what could be called ministerial human capital: formally trained pastors, missionaries and church administrators who will lead churches to adapt the gospel for today’s cultural context in Venezuela. To that end, the institute has roughly 29 full-time students, mostly enrolled in a four-year study program.
Ideally, the institute looks for students who have completed the Venezuelan equivalent of high school and who also have proven experience serving faithfully in their church. The goal is to find students with self-evident leadership qualities and to train them to be high-caliber church leaders.
“It really is not easy to find them because we have a young Venezuela,” Waldman says. “Almost 80 percent of our population is young.” In fact, according to U.S. government figures, roughly one in two Venezuelans is younger than 24 years old, and nearly 87 percent are under the age of 54.
The institute is hands-on and focuses heavily on practice. According to Waldman, 80 percent of the faculty are also full-time pastors in local churches in the San Cristobal area, keeping one foot in the trenches of church ministry and one in academia. Ruth Morales teaches counseling at Ebenezer and also works as a government substance-abuse counselor. Herself an Ebenezer graduate, Morales spent her practicum year serving alongside another Ebenezer student in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. To her knowledge, they were the first missionaries ever sent outside the country by the school or the Venezuelan Organization of Evangelical Churches, the local denomination to which the school belongs. Morales credits Ebenezer with teaching her to think less of herself and accept others for who they are, something she has used her entire life to earn others’ trust and share Christ with them. She jokes that it started with learning in Mexico to eat tortillas, hot peppers and cactus.
“I have always said, God uses Ebenezer,” Morales says. “Although I have studied in other universities, none — and I say this with certainty — none is like Ebenezer in terms of what God allowed me to learn and the ministerial character that was formed in me.”
From day-one, students are assigned chores to do around campus, a structure aimed at engendering teamwork and a sense of community. Some students say Ebenezer feels more like a family than a school. The institute is all-hands-on-deck for faculty, too, and it’s not unusual to see a teacher fixing plumbing or with his hands inside a car engine. Trade skills like those are vital for keeping the bare-bones school running. Waldman chauffeurs visitors in a blue, 15-passenger van with tattered seats that frequently breaks down (the school’s other van is more permanently broken).
To help ensure they are producing quality leaders, the school’s flagship program of study is designed so students must close their books after three years and complete a ministry practicum for their final year. Ministers who supervise the practicum must sign off on a student’s performance, effectively giving the local church the last word on a student’s graduation.
One of the institute’s most pressing challenges is training and recruiting a new generation of leaders to take the helm and contextualize its curriculum for the coming decades of church ministry in Venezuela. Waldman worries that the school has not created a “replacement generation” of leaders, mirroring broader concerns throughout Venezuela about losing academic leaders who are emigrating to other countries. He says qualified teachers are hard to come by. He would love to have a full-time professor of biblical languages, for example, someone who has mastered Hebrew, Greek or Latin. “But right now in Venezuela, we don’t have that person. We’d have to bring them in from somewhere else,” he says.
Third-year students Jonathan Pirona and his wife, Osmairy, came to Ebenezer from Ojeda City, a seven-hour drive on a good day. They say they left everything — relatives, a house and good jobs — to study and prepare for ministry wherever God sends them, “whether in this country or outside it,” Osmairy says. But while many students are open to serving in ministry abroad, they also feel they have something special to offer that Venezuela is hungry for right now.
“We have a very great deal to contribute, since we have the truth that is the word of God, and we can bless our nation,” Pirona says. “ I believe that it all depends upon the commitment we take from this place — being truly committed to making a difference in our society, in our community, because our country needs it.”
-Words by Andy OlsenDownload This Issue of TEAMHorizons