With social, political and religious ferment at an all-time high in Puerto Rico, life is good and fascinating at the Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico (Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico), says acting president and dean of academic affairs the Rev. Jose R. Irizarry.
“We are in a unique position to be a crossroads of study and conversation because of our history and credibility,” Irizarry tells the Presbyterian News Service while here to represent the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Committee on Theological Education at the denomination’s General Assembly Mission Council meeting. “We are a focal point for examination of religious and political issues in Puerto Rico.”
Currently celebrating its centennial anniversary, ESPR was founded in 1909 by five denominations — Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Evangelical Church. They have recently been joined by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The seminary, which is in covenant relationship with the PC(USA), is the only accredited Spanish speaking Protestant seminary in the U.S. and Canada.
“There is now a Spanish speaking Catholic seminary,” Irizarry says with a glint in his eye, “but, of course, we helped them get started.”
Like many other regions of the world, Puerto Rico has seen a proliferation of religious groups, particularly Pentecostals, in recent years. As those churches mature and become part of the Puerto Rican mainstream on an island which has always been predominantly Catholic with a sizable Protestant minority, “safe space” for political and religious dialogue has become increasingly important, Irizarry says.
“Pentecostals have become a very important voting bloc,” Irizarry says, “which places us in the middle position. As Presbyterians, we are committed to understanding the breadth of the evangelical movement in Puerto Rico and to be constructive in promoting religious and political understanding.”
ESPR has a current enrollment of 240 students — 90 percent of them are from Puerto Rico and the other 10 percent from other Latin American countries, primarily Cuba, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. The number of Pentecostal students is growing, Irizarry says, “so we have for the first time a faculty chair in Pentecostal studies so we can all learn how to engage in constructive dialogue.”
Theological and political tension in Puerto Rico has historically been between Catholics and Protestants. That tension, Irizarry says, “is now more between Protestant and non-denominational independent churches. Because of that our relationship with Catholics is more engaged and less combative.”
In this changing political, cultural and religious environment, Irizarry continues, “our seminary is space for conversation about mutual learning and construction of shared knowledge and shared faith.”
That broad vision of theological education has always been present at ESPR, says Irizarry, who has been at the seminary for two years after serving as dean of D.Min. programs at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
“We prepare men and women for ministry in the church, but not exclusively as pastors,” he explains, noting that most PC(USA) congregations in Puerto Rico are too small to afford full-time pastors. “We have a significant number of second-career people who are active in their churches preaching and doing pastoral work but not as ordained pastors.”
These lay leaders “see what they do as ministry,” Irizarry says, “and seminary education gives them the chance to enjoy being intellectual equals of the pastors.” With the growing theological diversity on the island, “students say it’s very important to learn about people of faith who see the Bible and the world very differently and to be able to engage in constructive dialogue and ministry with them,” he adds.
All PC(USA) seminaries “are embracing and adapting to diversity,” Irizarry says, “but we alone were built that way.”
ESPR focuses heavily on pastoral leadership, gathering pastors once a month for theological conversations about the role of their churches in Puerto Rican societal issues. In recent months, guest speakers have included a retired Puerto Rican Senator who spoke on politics and religion and a university science professor who spoke on the relationship between neurological science and religion.
“Our continuing education is about religion in the real contexts of the churches,” Irizarry says, “because we send too many pastors out to churches that don’t exist any more.”
ESPR also focuses on “conveying that theological formation is the right of all the people of God,” he adds. The seminary used to require a letter of recommendation from a church or colleague as part of the admissions process, “but we found that requirement is against our philosophy, so we eliminated the requirement,” Irizarry says.
As in the U.S. seminaries, ESPR “is pondering how we train leaders of immigrant fellowships,” he continues. “They obviously already have the leadership abilities, but need training in particular skills and sensitivity to language, culture and actual ministry contexts.”
So ESPR has partnered with the GAMC’s New Immigrant Groups Ministry to provide special training at the Stony Point Conference Center in New York. The first group of 10 students graduated in May, Irizarry said, and included students from Pakistan, Africa, China and Latin America. ESPR is also developing a cooperative program with the Ecumenical Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, another PC(USA) partner institution.
“We appreciate our covenant with the PC(USA) because it acknowledges the historical memory that is part of our identity,” Irizarry says, “and keeps us connected to a network of PC(USA) institutions that have human resources we can count on.”
For its part, ESPR offers to the PC(USA) “a cultural perspective that focuses on the social role of the theological institution and the service role that it must play to marginal churches and people,” Irizarry says. “Small churches are valuable churches. Ethnic churches in rural and urban areas are valuable churches.
“We are best at contributing critical knowledge of how to attend to ethnic churches and the Latino/a populations that are growing everywhere.”