From the Reformed Quarterly Spring 1988 Bulletin.
Mention the Mexican Yucatan to most folks and they’ll tell you about their latest trip to Cancun, an expensive resort on its eastern coast. But the real world of the Yucatan is far from the glitz and glamour of Cancun. The land is poor, and so are its people. With virtually no education, they are destined to stay that way.
A brilliant ray of hope is shining, however, and it’s emanating from a small but growing seminary called San Pablo in Merida, Yucatan’s capital. Begun in 1981 by aggressive Mexican evangelical leadership, it could be on its way to becoming the center of theological education in southern Mexico. San Pablo is the only Presbyterian seminary in the Yucatan and the only major center for theological training closer than Mexico City — more than 1000 miles away. Enrollment stands at fifty-five, with a graduating class that has jumped from six to twenty-four in only six years.
Several of its Mexican leaders are RTS grads – Moises Zapata, his brother Aaron, and Pablo Estrella. Another graduate, Bryce King, raises his own support as an MTW missionary and teaches Biblical theology at the school.
Few areas in the Western Hemisphere have seen a response to the gospel of Jesus Christ as has the Yucatan peninsula. However, even though numerous churches exist, they are often led by dedicated but untrained laymen — untrained because they cannot afford seminary. Traveling to Mexico City and renting living quarters is very expensive. Moreover, after a taste of urban life, some never return to the relatively barren Yucatan. If they do, readjustment to a rural lifestyle is difficult.
Ideally located, San Pablo is now providing these rural Yucatan pastors with the training they need. At the same time, however, the seminary also wants to train the increasing number of urban pastors.
“The Mexican church is moving to the city,” says Bryce King. ” To have a viable ministry, an urban pastor must have at least a high school and preferably a university degree. We are committed to raising the educational level of the Yucatan church by challenging more university students and graduates to study at RTS and return to teach at San Pablo.”
Moises Zapata, who is himself a civil engineer, has been working tirelessly for years to accomplish this goal. Since graduating from RTS in 1984, he has persuaded two other civil engineers (his brother Aaron Zapata and Pablo Estrella), to study here. Both are now ordained ministers and teach at San Pablo. Leticia Mediera, an English teacher, and Ricardo Santana, a medical doctor, are now at RTS and scheduled to return to San Pablo.
“I want to see twenty masters degrees among the faculty at San Pablo as soon as possible,” says Moises. “When the current students at RTS finish, we will be halfway to our goal. And we already have good prospects for future students.”
Mexican students can afford an RTS education only through the scholarships provided by YES — Yucatan Educational Services. Born out of Moises’ burning desire for other Mexicans to receive quality education, the organization was set up by interested Christians in the United States.
PRACTICAL CURRICULUM AND DEDICATED STUDENTS
The seminary’s four-year curriculum is eminently practical, with education and evangelism high on the priority list. In fact, during the first semester students take only evangelism and Christian Education — and must pass both courses before they may continue the program. San Pablo’s leaders feel strongly that a pastor should know how to evangelize and teach, then be able to train other people to do it. If he can’t learn these skills, they reason, he should find another line of work.
A School of Christian Music began in the fall of 1987, and a School of Christian Education will begin this fall. Zapata also hopes to see a School of Missions soon. Since seminary leaders realize that future pastors will come from Mexican youth — Mexico’s average age is twenty — professors are developing an urban youth work program which would allow high school students to study at San Pablo for a year before entering the university, where the majority of professors are Marxist. The program will provide leadership for Christian university ministries and recruit future seminary students.
The seminary not only trains new pastors, but also provides continuing education for those already on the field. An extension program has brought RTS professors like Dr. Simon Kistemaker and Dr. Richard Pratt to lecture.
The dedication of San Pablo’s students is truly amazing, for they study under adverse conditions. Since the seminary has no central campus, classes meet in a borrowed church education building designed for children; thus chairs and tables are excruciatingly tiny. Some blocks away the small, inadequate dormitory is literally collapsing; students study with plaster falling on their heads. The library and seminary offices are still more blocks away, making organization of activities very difficult.
IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
Due to its ideal geographical location, San Pablo has the unprecedented opportunity to fill several critical needs facing the church in the United States, Mexico, and their neighbors to the south.
One of the most desperate needs in Mexico today is good Christian study material. Although Spanish devotional literature abounds, good theological works on a layman’s level are very scarce. Ordering translations from United States Christian organizations is expensive and frustratingly slow.
With the recent funding of a printing press, San Pablo could become a major Christian printing outlet for the Yucatan. Already Moises has been translating by hand. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he and his wife Lourdes have spent hundreds of hours translating several important articles and books, one of which can take four to six months.
San Pablo fills a second serious need in the affordable and accessible seminary training it provides for students from South American countries who are having trouble getting into the United States. Virtually any citizen from a Central or South American country can enter Mexico.
Finally, San Pablo stands ready to train both Latins and Americans for work in the United States with the growing Hispanic population — now the second largest minority and, in ten years, predicted to be the largest. Dr. Richard Pratt, assistant professor of Old Testament at RTS, feels the ministry to Hispanics is so important that he recently took a group of students to study at San Pablo. In the mornings they examined Hispanic culture and religions, and in the afternoons they built bookshelves for the seminary library.
In Pratt’s opinion, “If the church is to be relevant in the southern portion of the United States in the next 50 years, we must be relevant to the Hispanics and sensitive to their needs” now. Whether our students go as missionaries to Latin America or not is beside the point; we’re all eventually going to be missionaries to Latinos.”
The challenge awaits, and San Pablo is ready. How exciting to see what God will do with such a willing servant!