By Felipe Elgueta Frontier*, www.puertachile.cl
“Bridging Gaps” is a program of the Faculty of Theology of the VU, Amsterdam, with support of ICCO and Kerk in Actie. Interculturality is its central axis. In its last version (August-November 2013), it brought together 14 theology students –7 women and 7 men from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. We all stayed in a Carmelite monastery in Amstelveen, next to Titus Brandsma Kerk -BTW, I couldn’t believe the beauty of its surroundings. The first intercultural experiences happened within the group -especially in the kitchen!
Every week at the VU, two students from the group had to share a presentation about their respective countries, taking their religious, economical and political contexts as a starting point for posing theological questions. We also had to visit numerous churches, ministries and museums in order to be immersed in the Netherlands’ history and present reality. At the same time, each one of us had to work on a research under the guidance of a professor. For some people in my group, this became a chapter in a thesis.
There’s a special connection between my country and “Bridging Gaps”. Hans de Wit started this program after living several years in Chile during the final part of Pinochet’s dictatorship. The oppression of the Latin American people is the starting point for several books he wrote, including a commentary on Genesis, which was the first theological book I ever read. In 2012, Professor Hans visited the institution where I’m studying -the Evangelical Theological Community– and invited us to apply for “Bridging Gaps”. Two other people from my institution had already taken part in the program.
I wasn’t so enthusiastic about this initially, but I applied anyway because my teachers and classmates insisted that it was a unique life experience. They insisted that I was the right person for this because I was one of the very few students of the institution who had the English skills required for “Bridging Gaps”. When I was already in the process of applying, Professor Hans mentioned that the VU was associated to the Mennonite Seminary and I could do my research with Fernando Enns. Only then I understood this was a really unique opportunity for me.
My church was founded in 1986 as an independent Evangelical community. We discovered the Anabaptist tradition later, and officially became an Anabaptist-Mennonite church only a decade ago. So, my three months in the Netherlands were a “pilgrimage to the source”, visiting the “hidden church” in Amsterdam and Mennonite churches in other cities, having classes on Peace and Justice with Fernando Enns and Christiane Karrer, and sharing meals, worship and stories with my classmates, including Notsen Ncube from Zimbabwe -and “Bridging Gaps” too- and Andrés Pacheco from Colombia, who was a kind guide for Notsen and me.
Since I have a degree in sciences and I’ve been co-working with a science and faith program in Spain, I wanted to explore what the Mennonite theology had to say about these topics. So, following Fernando Enns’ suggestion, my short “Bridging Gaps” research was an exploration of Gordon Kaufman‘s theology. Really fascinating. It was a first step toward my dream of starting a constructive dialogue between believers and non-believers in my country.
While I was in the Netherlands, it was the 40th anniversary of the military coup in my country. That same day, September 11, our “Peace and Justice” class started with a devotional by Cocky. “Today we remember the victims of terror in Chile…”, she started. It’s something so natural to speak about that in Chile, but hearing it from someone from another country and being myself a kind of “representative” of that suffering people in that foreign country… it was just overwhelming. A week later, I was at the Nieuwe Liefde for the presentation of “40 years 40 stories”, a book about the Netherlands’ solidarity with the Chilean exiles. I had never experienced a September 11 commemoration like that. I will never forget it.
On the tram, in the street, at the VU, I saw so much diversity. I also saw so much cooperation between different denominations and between Catholics and Protestants. I began to think that my country doesn’t like diversity; we try to be as homogeneous as possible, which is expressed very tragically in the violent way we treat our LGTBQ people, our indigenous peoples and the immigrants from neighbouring countries. Churches are no better: because diversity is not acceptable within them, divisions are the rule. We have more than a thousand Evangelical denominations! Being in the Netherlands made me much more sensitive to these issues.