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a report by Ron Copeland
“Anguish, injustice, violence, misery, lost Faith, lost hope” – these are words that Willi Hugo Perez used to describe life for many of his fellow Guatemalans. Perez is a 2004 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and the new academic dean of SEMILLA – the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary. He returned to campus for a visit in early February.
According to Perez, 53 percent of Guatemalans existed on less than a dollar a day from 1995 to 2000. But none of this is new. The country has experienced centuries of invasions, occupations, dictatorships and exploitation, most recently culminating in a brutal and horrific civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. Perez says this is particularly discouraging because the civil war “began after a period of progress and democracy (1944 to 1954) which was interrupted by a plot planned between conservative militaries, oligarchic groups, and U.S. intervention.”
The life of Willi Perez is tightly interwoven into the story of his country. In 1975, when Perez was just 10 years old, his father was assassinated and the family home burned. His father, a poor, hard working farmer, was killed by soldiers for the “crime” of organizing the farmers in his small village into a small agricultural cooperative.
One night shortly after his father’s death, Perez awoke crying. Suddenly, he realized his mother was there and she embraced him. She took him outside to a small hill, and said “Look up.” It was a wonderful night. The stars were shining brilliantly, lighting up the night sky. And his mother said to him, “Don’t be afraid. The light still shines in the darkness.” When he looked at her, his mother’s face was filled with peace, even in the midst of great suffering. Perez has never forgotten that night or his mother’s words.
Over the years, Perez has devoted his life to the work of the church in Guatemala. He also works with Red Paz - The Peace Network – a Mennonite organization providing Christian peace education and training in nonviolent conflict resolution. Then Mennonite Central Committee partnered with the churches and Eastern Mennonite University to bring Perez, his wife Elena and two sons Pablo and Diego, to Harrisonburg, Va., for training. He chose EMS because he wanted a strong theological grounding for his work. In the spring of 2004, Willi earned a masters degree in arts and religion from EMS.(Read more about Perez's message, which focused on Jesus and the road to Emmaus.)
During his time at seminary, Perez's English language partner was none other than seminary dean, Ervin Stutzman, who speaks of Perez with something of sense of wonder: “Willi is a very special person. He brings together, in an important way, both evangelical concerns and social concerns.” Stutzman stresses that bringing these two concerns together are especially important in the Central American context where most religious groups often emphasize one of these concerns to the exclusion of the other.
Stutzman believes that the seminary was able to help Perez acquire skills related to living into this passion, emphasizing that the “seminary exists to serve the Church, and the seminary’s relationship with Willi is a wonderful example of this ideal in action."
And serve the Church he does. In addition to serving as coordinator of Red Paz, in August 2004 Perez was appointed dean of the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary SEMILLA (Spanish – seed). The “campus” of SEMILLA spans Central America with seven study centers from Guatemala to Panama. The seminary, which focuses on training church leaders already involved in ministry, serves nearly 500 Mennonite churches representing more than 20,000 believers.
According to SEMILLA’s brochure, “Many Mennonite pastors and leaders in Latin America have had little formal theological education. SEMILLA uses a distance education model in which students come together, in their own country, for four to six one-week courses per year. This permits students to study in their ministry setting and immediately put their studies into practice.” In addition to the seminary proper, SEMILLA includes a congregational resource center, service and learning opportunities for North American students, a publishing company, and a guesthouse for international students and visitors. SEMILLA’s mission: To prepare men and women to follow Jesus Christ faithfully and, thus, to live out the reign of God with justice and peace today.
Perez visited the EMS community Feb. 7-9 and spoke at Martin Chapel. Many of his former classmates were excited to see him, and waited in line for a hug, a handshake and word with him before and after the service. Perez was visibly moved as he began his talk, holding back the tears as he said the seminary holds a special place in his heart.