By Korla Masters
This past fall, I spent four months in Central America with Augsburg College's Center for Global Education. During October, we (myself and the seventeen other students I studied with) lived in El Salvador and studied liberation theology.
Korla Masters (right), with two children and Rebekah Ludolph (left) in the community of El Sontule, Nicaragua
This past fall, I spent four months in Central America with Augsburg College's Center for Global Education. During October, we (myself and the seventeen other students I studied with) lived in El Salvador and studied liberation theology. We learned about the importance of context in both the study and practice of liberation theology. As a result we spent much of our time meeting with people who have formed the academic basis of this theology - Jon Sobrino, Dean Brackley, and Padre Fernando Cardinal (in Nicaragua) - as well as those whose daily lives are given to its practice in Base Christian Communities. Often our host families for short-term stays were survivors of massacres brought upon them by the national military, whose main slogans ran along the lines of "be a patriot, kill a priest." (And the armies did - by the dozens.)
While liberation theology was our specific focus in El Salvador, we were able to observe throughout the semester the degree to which religion has impacted people's lives through decades of civil war, poverty, and oppression at the hands of US-supported dictatorships. We also saw the continued interplay between church bodies and officials and government structures in the post-war years. For example, Padre Cardinal served as the Minister of Education in the Nicaraguan government during the 1980s and oversaw a national literacy project that reduced illiteracy by 41% (from 52 to 11%) over the course of a year. Similarly, we learned about Bishop Juan Gerardi, a Guatemalan human rights advocate killed after presenting a study on war crimes two years after Guatemala's civil war ended in 1996.
Studying abroad strikes me as particularly important for students of religion because of exposure. When in a new context, one cannot help but be challenged and stretched. When talking about re-entry (to the US), we often used the metaphor of puzzle pieces, as in "I feel like I'm shaped differently now than when I left - I'm not sure exactly how I might fit into the space I left behind." This sort of growth seems similar to that which we seek as students and especially as religious studies students.