Retired mission co-worker reflects on 35 years of service in Colombia

Alice Winters says theological education is key to community transformation

September 8, 2015

Alice Winters

Alice Winters

LOUISVILLE

The Rev. Alice Winters is a retired PC(USA) mission co-worker who trained leaders in Colombia for 35 years. The Rev. Juan Sarmiento, international evangelism catalyst with Presbyterian World Mission, recently interviewed Winters about the critical global issue of Training Leaders for Community Transformation.

How do the development of leaders and evangelism work together in Colombia?

The Colombians that I know have a very spontaneous and joyful way to evangelize. When I arrived, I had to work in the jungle where there were many congregations made up of new believers. The leaders were humble peasants, mostly recent converts, who invited their friends and neighbors to their homes to hear the Word of God. They hadn’t even attended elementary school because there were no schools in the jungle, but they longed to understand the Bible and to teach it better. So I organized a program of theological education by extension. One representative from each congregation came to a regional center for Bible study, and each would then share what they had learned with the leaders of their congregation. But I began to understand that the lack of basic education created difficulties for the reading of the Bible.

One of my students approached me and asked if I, as a North American missionary, would say that it was true that a man had walked on the moon. “Yes,” I told him, “it was true.” "But how is that possible?" he exclaimed, "The moon is so small!" So I decided to incorporate some science in the study of theology.

Eventually, our regional center became a Bible Institute incorporating a complete education program approved by the government, always linking everything with theology.

Today, alumni from both the Bible Institute and the university are very active in evangelism. The Rev. Milton Mejía, who is the newly elected executive secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), is one of our graduates. Many others have become professors at the Reformed University, other universities, Christian schools and Bible schools, or in the training of leaders in local churches. They evangelize, start new congregations, direct choirs and orchestras in churches and communities, lead programs for youth and children, and establish counseling centers and community development projects. In addition, many graduates are professionals—from lawyers to electricians—who have studied theology because they want to know the Bible in order to evangelize and counsel their clients. Our students and alumni are also helping communities that have been forcibly displaced by the violence in Colombia.

What are some examples of holistic and community transforming evangelism in Colombia?

Jesús, who was a student in the Bible Institute, came from the small mountain town of Saiza where he pastored a large congregation. He invited me to Saiza for an evangelistic campaign and also to help them organize a pig breeding project so that farm families could have more income and more meat to eat.

The project was not carried out because six weeks after my visit Saiza was no more. Paramilitary troops stormed the village, ordering all the men to the central square in order to execute them. However, one of the paramilitaries approached Jesús and whispered in his ear, "Pastor, I know what you've done here. Don’t let them kill you—run!” So he ran and everyone else followed him. The paramilitaries fired indiscriminately and managed to kill a few people, but it was not the slaughter they had intended. Jesús hid in the bush that night not knowing what had happened to the townsfolk. The frustrated “paras” burned the church and other buildings in the village, and then left.

Days later, the entire population of the Saiza region, about 3,000 people, had come down from the mountain—a new wave of Colombians displaced by violence. The country has more than 5 million displaced people, and the church has responded at the local, national and international levels. In the region near Saiza, churches organized to provide food, mattresses and other necessities for refugees who left everything behind. The church where the Bible Institute met managed to get an old unoccupied building and equip it as a shelter where the family of Jesús and others could be safe.

Nationally, the Colombian Presbyterian Church (IPC) has programs in many congregations and communities that have suffered as Saiza did. The programs help the displaced people organize themselves, earn a living and defend their rights. The Reformed University involves its students in these activities as part of the study of theology, challenging them to investigate ways to serve more effectively.

In addition, the IPC has joined other denominations as they raise their voices in defense of human rights and the quest for peace. Because of this, the church—including pastor Jesús and myself—began to experience threats. We invited the PC(USA) moderator to come witness the reality of our situation. Out of those conversations the Colombia Accompaniment Program was born.

Each month, North Americans from the Presbyterian Church and other denominations volunteer to accompany IPC leaders in their ministries. When they come back, they communicate what they have seen not only in their local congregations, but also at the offices of the United States Congress. The presence of these accompaniers helps ensure that the violence will not go unnoticed. They also highlight the life and joy of the IPC churches in their reports.

The Reformed University of Colombia.

The Reformed University of Colombia. —Photo provided

How would you answer the common objection that theological training is a waste of time?

One of the things I used to tell my students is that the study of theology would not give them power in their ministry or in evangelism. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But theology itself gives the Spirit something to work with.

The more we study the Bible, the more questions arise. Who was Jeremiah? When did he live? Who did he speak to and what did his message mean to them? What meaning do his words offer for our current situation? These questions lead to fascinating and never ending study. I have been a professor of the Bible. I know and teach Hebrew and Greek so that we can read the Bible in its original languages. But I do not have all the answers, and I continue to enjoy studying the Bible to understand it better.

Other questions also come up: Why are there so many churches? Why do some churches baptize children and others don’t? How do we know that God exists in three persons? These are questions that people ask us and we also ask ourselves. There are no easy answers, and there is not always a single answer to these questions, but research and discussion with others enrich us, giving new dimensions to each issue to better help those who seek to understand the faith.

In other words, we study theology in order to engage in a more transformative and effective evangelism as well as to evangelize ourselves, because knowing theology means discovering and understanding better the good news of the gospel.

What do Presbyterians gain from participating in our denomination’s mission work?

They can use the materials the PC(USA) has developed for mission education in the local congregation as well as those prepared for congregations planning short-term mission trips. They will discover how mission personnel and national church leaders are trained, how they teach health and disaster response, and facilitate self-support projects for rural and urban communities around the world. They will also see how the transforming power of the gospel is proclaimed in many different contexts. Some of the participants will hear God's call to be trained themselves for missionary or pastoral work.

Presbyterians in Latin America, Africa and Asia are minorities in their countries and typically poor. The Latin Americans I know tithe more faithfully than the Americans. Still, funds are needed for mission work in the world.

The PC(USA) pays to send and support mission workers. It does not contribute to the support of sister churches abroad, but instead facilitates projects and helps fund new initiatives. Through the years, we have fostered the growth of God's mission on every continent. However, our funding has dropped dramatically in recent years. If funding does not increase soon, we will have to reduce our mission personnel presence in this world, where God has called us to proclaim his message of hope. The future of our mission work depends on the Spirit of God and offerings from all congregations.

And more than anything, we need to pray for God's mission in this brokenhearted world. Let us pray for our sister churches, for the countries where they are, for mission workers, for the leaders of the PC(USA) and for our presbyteries. Pray also for the work in our own neighborhoods. Let’s be creative in responding to the realities here and abroad, learning from the example of our sister churches in other countries. Let us love the world that God loves so much!

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To contribute to the Training of Leaders for Community Transformation campaign, please visit pcusa.org/give/E052151.

  1. Similar stories can be told about Presbyterian mission work and distinctive efforts in the area of education and illiteracy campaign in the Middle East that contributed to the rise of the Arab Consciousness and revolt against the occupying Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Missionaries at that time insisted on using the Arabic language, the language of the people instead of the Turkish, the language of the occupier, by secretly printing all their educational resources in Arabic and continued learning and teaching in the language of the people themselves. The first to introduce the press into the Arab World were the Presbyterian missionaries. While support to overseas missions must continue to be one of the priorities of the church, what can we do differently to strengthen this work? In what ways can we utilize the diverse gifts of people among ourselves here in the USA who themselves are the product of former missionaries effort? What are the denomination's priorities today that may motivate its member churches to strengthen their efforts in partnering with a denomination with declining resources? How can we let go of our ill practiced bureaucracies, unhealthy love for power and control and live up to our commitment to gracious giving and servant-hood leadership models similar to that one mentioned in the above story?

    by Raafat Girgis

    October 23, 2015

  2. Thank you for this interview. It is inspiring and helpful for others involved in similar ministries and passionate about training leaders. What a legacy Alice leaves behind. Very special and noble lady.

    by Bob Rice

    September 9, 2015

  3. Dear all, I share your admiration for Alice. Thank you for your continued support to our efforts for Training Leaders for Community Transformation

    by Juan Sarmiento

    September 9, 2015

  4. No doubt Alice is unique as a person and what she had been called to do. Having known Alice for more than 30 years she would be first to tell you about the people (Colombians and PC/USA missionaries)who preceded her in ministry and their faithful ministries. Presbyterians have much to be thankful when it comes to the impact of the PC/USA in Colombia.

    by Quentin Small

    September 9, 2015

  5. I am sure Alice does not remember me but I will never forget her and the mission talk she gave at SCPC in MO. She is just as vibrant today as she was then. She is truly a saint

    by Carolyn Newcomb

    September 8, 2015

  6. I heard both Alice and Milton speak at General Assembly once. It's hard to imagine two braver, more committed Christians. This piece speaks to how important it is that the work goes on. Thank you, Alice.

    by Mike Ferguson

    September 8, 2015