If the Calvin-Hope game isn’t shown in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, this year, it won’t be for lack of fans. More than 30 Calvin alums live and work in this mountainous Central American capital — an all-time record here for Knights per manzana (a Honduran unit of measurement similar to an acre).
Some of them are missionaries. Others are volunteers at organizations that fight for justice and against poverty. Many are teachers at schools that use the attraction of an English-language education to bring children from unchurched families to Christ. All of them bring a desire to be “agents of renewal” in at least a small corner of the world, and a willingness to do so for minimal compensation. And all of them, when they return to North America, will take back valuable lessons that Honduras and Hondurans have taught them.
This cross-pollination process is at least as old as Calvin’s off-campus programs in Honduras. In 1996 Kurt Ver Beek ’86 and Jo Ann Van Engen ’86, former Christian Reformed World Relief Committee workers, started Calvin’s Third World Development semester in Honduras, which currently occurs each spring. They also lead a Third World Development interim, and for several years they also oversaw Calvin social work majors who were doing their practicums in Tegucigalpa. In 2001 Calvin added a fall Spanish semester in Honduras.
More than 20 of the Calvin alums currently working in “Tegus” have graduated since these programs started. Ten of them participated in one of Calvin’s semester or interim programs in Honduras, and most of the rest say they were motivated to come, at least in part, by reports from friends who did.
“I think it’s pretty cool that their experience was exciting or interesting enough that they want to do something more,” said Ver Beek. “But I don’t feel that that necessarily has to be in Honduras; I get just as excited when former students end up working in Zimbabwe or Thailand.”
“The fact that they want to learn more is a form of helping because tomorrow they’re going to be leaders who influence decisions that affect countries like Honduras,” said Pablo Villalta, Spanish professor for Calvin’s Honduras programs.
Their recruiting trip to Calvin last year was so effective that they had to cancel a visit to another school in order to hold a second day of interviews with Calvin students.
“Seeing so many Calvin grads who are excited about giving up a couple of years, experiencing something new and influencing some kids is a pretty awesome testimony about the type of graduates that come from Calvin,” said Joe.
The International School was founded 15 years ago as a cheaper alternative to other bilingual schools and as a mission that would focus on providing Honduran children with an education that is both academically sound and Christian. In the school’s short lifespan its student body has swelled from 400 to nearly 1,000, a testimony to its effectiveness.
The International School provides its teachers with housing in middle-class neighborhoods and pays them a small stipend. But the job is no cakewalk.
For one thing, teachers have to adjust to a different management style. “It feels like some crazy combination of laid-back, last-minute chaos,” said Clinton Weening ’04. “But it always does get done in the end.”
They also face a more Arminianist form of Christianity than Calvin grads are used to. “Let’s just say that they’re not very familiar with TULIP,” said Kate VanNoord Kooyman ’02. “I feel a responsibility to teach grace, forgiveness — the opposite of the moralism that’s so abundant here.”
And for those without a teaching degree it’s an extra challenge. “It’s hard,” said Brad Veldkamp ’04. “There are lots of things to think about — classroom management, learning styles, pacing the material to challenge but not leave kids behind — and none of those are very easy things to master.”
Teaching alongside Calvin grads and other North Americans (other well-represented colleges at the International School include Hope and Gordon) helps relieve the tension. Group dinners, Bible studies and chats about Calvin professors and favorite Grand Rapids locales take the edge off the homesickness.
But being surrounded by so many familiar faces can also be a hindrance. “It is definitely true that you can be here and stay in your comfort zone,” said Erek Kooyman ’02. “I have found that it is important to be intentional about integrating yourself into the world around you.”
Many of the alums say their Calvin education prepared them well for teaching here and inspired them to reach out to students in a foreign country. “I think that I was given a real sense that I could ‘be the change I wish to see in the world’ from being at Calvin,” said Kooyman.
Learning While Teaching
While on a Calvin Spanish semester in Honduras in the fall of 2003, Cornell did an ethnographic study at Juan Calvino (Spanish for John Calvin), a Christian Reformed elementary school — and within the first minute of being there, she was offered a job.
Although many aspects of the school frustrated her, a talk with Professor Villalta helped her see these as opportunities instead of faults, and she decided to return as a sixth-grade teacher after she graduated in May.
“I was given a real sense that I could ‘be the change I wish to see in the world’ from being at Calvin,” — Erek Kooyman.
And teach she did: math, science, spelling, language, English conversation, American history, art, music and physical education.
Most of her nine students came from humble backgrounds, and only three were Christians. “Missions is about filling the actual needs of people and their spiritual needs,” said Cornell. For her, that meant teaching her students both to speak English and to feel Christ’s love.
But more than she taught, said Cornell, she learned: from the boy who sold tortillas on the corner, from the owners of nearby pulperías (tiny grocery stores often run out of people’s living rooms). And from her three Honduran roommates: “All of them grew up in poverty,” said Cornell. “They talked about things like having to split one egg between three people for breakfast. Can you imagine?”
Now back in the States, she hopes she’s brought some of these lessons with her. “In Honduras I wasn’t always running around like a chicken with its head cut off like I did in the States,” she said. “When people wanted something from you, you actually had time to give.”
Working for Justice
The couple lives in Nueva Suyapa, a community on Tegucigalpa’s outskirts that is burdened by unemployment, poor infrastructure and occasional gang violence. It’s also bursting with resourceful, faith-filled people, the couple said.
Melanie, as an intern for the Association for a More Just Society (AJS), works in Nueva Suyapa and other poor communities throughout Honduras, helping people whose legal rights are being trampled or ignored.
Kevin runs a photography class for at-risk youth and works with donor relations for Genesis, a community center that provides loans, education, healthcare and childcare for Nueva Suyapa residents.
Living in Nueva Suyapa has taught them a lot. “Everything here is so communal,” said Melanie. “A family in Nueva Suyapa can fit six to eight people in a house that in the U.S. we would say could only fit two.”
“When you see how smart people are here and how well they adapt to their situation, you realize it’s just situation and oppression that keep them in poverty,” said Kevin.
Both AJS and Genesis have a history of working with Calvin grads. Melanie is the fifth Knight to intern for AJS since its founding five years ago, and a number of Calvin social work students — Melanie included — have done their practicums through Genesis. Calvin grad Dan Kokmeyer ’02 designed and maintains Genesis’ Web site.
“In general, all the Calvin grads we’ve worked with bring a social sensibility, show a lot of respect for the culture, and have been very responsible and disciplined,” said Carlos Del Cid, director of AJS. “And almost all the Calvin volunteers bring something different from other volunteers: a profound theological foundation.”
NOTE: Other Calvin alums in Regus include Ken Vanderwal '81, who, along with his wife, Sally, has been a Christian Reformed missionary in Honduras for close to a decade; Ellen Macleod '85 and Paul Van Tongeren '89, also Christian Reformed missionaries; and Sarah Lawrence '03, currently a teacher at Academia Los Pinares, a bilingual Christian school.
Abram Huyser Honig is an alumnus of Calvin’s Third World Development semester in Honduras. He currently lives in Tegucigalpa, where he works as a freelance writer.
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