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Saber y Gracia isn’t teaching kids. It’s transforming a community.

By Barry Rodriguez

We were halfway to the top of Volcán de Agua. My traveling companions and I were starting to feel the altitude take its toll. The group, made up of mostly high school students, stopped at a bend in the path to catch our breath.

We threw down our packs and made ourselves as comfortable as we could, massaging sore muscles and taking sips of water from our bottles. Without saying a word, the young men naturally formed a circle around Rudi, the eldest member of our group.

Although I couldn’t understand much of what was being said (my Spanish hasn’t improved much since high school), it was clear the boys deeply respected Rudi. As he spoke of his faith and of his relationship with God, they were hanging on every word.

Out of nowhere, I was struck with an image of Jesus and his disciples. There may not have been many volcanoes in ancient Israel, but this image – a group of men taking a breather on the side of the road, the young disciples listening with rapt attention to their leader’s words – would have been commonplace in the space between the verses we read in the gospels.

Rudi (center), shares about his faith on Volcán de Agua while Saber y Gracia students listen intently

Rudi (center), shares about his faith on Volcán de Agua while Saber y Gracia students listen intently

It was a beautiful moment, and one I’ll undoubtedly remember the next time I read about the life of Jesus. But there was something a little surprising about this scene. Rudi, the man these kids were learning from… he wasn’t their pastor. He wasn’t their church small group leader.

No. Rudi was their high school principal.

Huh?!? The absurdity of that statement gets me every time. How many of your past high school principals evoke images of Jesus with his disciples?

It was an odd juxtaposition of roles, but this was only one of many moments during my time in Guatemala that left me scratching my head about what I was seeing. Saber y Gracia (Wisdom and Grace) Christian School wasn’t some run of the mill educational institution. Something was very different there.

But what was it? What made this school so different that its principal takes the role of a rabbi and nobody bats an eye? This was the question I set out to answer during my month in the village of Santo Tomás Milpas Altas.

Dreamers

When I first arrived at Saber y Gracia, I didn’t know exactly what to do with myself. My Spanish was poor, the students had no idea who I was, and it was far too early to start writing anything about the school. So I just hung out and wandered around the property, meeting students during their free time.

The students loved looking at my pictures

The students loved looking at my pictures

I quickly discovered how much the kids loved looking through my pictures. The entire first week was filled with shouts of, “Photo! Photo!” whenever the recess bell rang (it took them another week to learn my actual name). I’d grab my iPad, sit down on a low cement wall and flip through photos from Kenya, Haiti, India, Ukraine, Cambodia, etc. while a giant mass of red-uniform-wearing students pressed in from every side to get a glimpse.

During one of these photo-sharing sessions, I flipped through shots of my visit to Rome when one of the students grabbed my arm and asked me to back up. José, a 10th grader, wanted to see the photo of Trevi Fountain again. I went back to that photo and he began gesturing excitedly and talking about something.

In my broken understanding of Spanish I heard, “Something something horses something god something water something horses.”

I was lost. Did he just really love horses or something? Was he excited that someone once carved a horse out of marble?

José, who is fascinated by Greek mythology

José, who is fascinated by Greek mythology

No. As it turns out, José is absolutely fascinated by Greek mythology. Although he had never seen Trevi Fountain before, he immediately recognized Poseidon, the god of the sea, and his team of winged horses. As we spoke more (through an interpreter), it was clear José had a hunger for knowledge about history and mythology and would gobble up any resources on the subject he could get his hands on. I would not be surprised if José became an archaeologist one day.

To be totally honest, I was quite taken aback by José’s eagerness to learn. I’ve met countless kids in many developing countries, and it is a rare thing to find one whose worldview expands beyond their own little slice of the globe.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realize José wasn’t the only kid like this at Saber y Gracia. In fact, over my four weeks with the school, I met many who have visions of a future far grander than I would have ever expected.

One student I met wants to become an architect. Another wants to study accounting in college so she can open a restaurant. I even met a sixth grader who wants to become a systems engineer when he grows up. What kind of sixth grader knows what a systems engineer even is?!?

I was blown away. Here was a school in a poverty-stricken community, attended by the children of farmers and manual laborers, yet full to the brim with dreamers, with learners, with visionaries.

I want to reiterate how crazy this is. The vast majority of young people in the poor communities I’ve visited around the world do not have a vision for their lives beyond what their parents and their parents’ parents have done. Yes, a few might beat the odds and break away, but it is absolutely normal for kids in communities like this to drop out of school early, get low-paying jobs, and watch as the cycle of poverty continues its endless spiral in their lives.

But not at Saber y Gracia. Something was different there. These kids had dreams.

What in the world was going on?

Thinking Critically

I began to get my answer one morning when Rudi, the school’s principal (and now a dear friend of mine), gave me a tour of some of the classrooms. We looked in on several different age levels while he described to me their philosophy of education.

It starts all the way back in kindergarten, he explained, as we walked into a classroom full of adorable little ones. Saber y Gracia puts a lot of emphasis on critical thinking, instead of just rote memorization. While most schools in the area have their kindergarteners mindlessly learning the letters of the alphabet, SyG’s students are taught actual comprehension.

The Saber y Gracia kindergarten class, dressed up for career day. Even at a young age they are taught how to dream for the future.

The Saber y Gracia kindergarten class, dressed up for career day. Even at a young age they are taught how to dream for the future.

He pointed to the alphabet on the wall and described how they take things slowly, helping the kids understand how each letter is used and how they interact (Q and U get married, of course!).

It takes time. And this has actually caused some conflicts with several parents at the school. Rudi told me they come into his office and confront him, complaining, “This other school’s kindergarteners are already on the letter ‘S.’ Our child is lagging behind!” Rudi graciously listens to their frustrations, then explains (I’m paraphrasing here), “Yes, but most of the students from that school fail their college entrance exams. Far more of Saber y Gracia’s students pass because they’ve learned to think for themselves.”

As he explained this to me, I couldn’t help thinking back to my own education. Reading comprehension and critical thinking were at the very core of how I learned. And that was in a public school. I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated just what a solid education I received. This type of learning simply isn’t the norm in rural Guatemala.

I was astounded to see the quality of education these students received.

I was astounded to see the quality of education these students received.

We continued our tour, looking in on several different age levels. In one of the classes, we met a high school senior named Ángel who had been assigned to the school by a social worker. He told us, “I know God had a plan in it, because if it wasn’t for this school, I’d be lost.”

What does Ángel want to become after college? An auditor.

Again, what?!?

Ángel, who wants to be an auditor when he graduates

Ángel, who wants to be an auditor when he graduates

These kids are receiving a world-class education. Critical thinking and a focus on comprehension makes Saber y Gracia’s students unique. But I knew that couldn’t be all. A solid philosophy of education isn’t enough to explain why the students I met had such boundless confidence in their own potential. I knew there had to be something more.

And guess what. There was.

Father

Every Monday morning at Saber y Gracia, the students crowd into their multipurpose meeting hall (really just four adjacent classrooms with their walls removed) for chapel: a time of singing, prayer, and teaching. The music is loud, the kids are packed in like sardines, and everybody has a blast.

Chapel happens every week while school is in session, and I got to sit in on it four times. The highlight of each always ended up being Rudi’s message to the students.

The students crammed in for Monday chapel

The students crammed in for Monday chapel

Every week he cast a vision for the kids about what they could be. He drove home the idea that they are each children of God and that they can become anything they want if they work hard enough. Normally, this “reach for your dreams” message would strike me as cheesy and saccharine. As a suburban American, the phrase “you can be anything you want” has become cliché. But in those Monday morning chapel sessions, it struck me as completely relevant and down to earth for where these kids are.

Here’s why. As I was preparing one of the next steps for this issue (see “Pray” after this article), I gave several Saber y Gracia students the chance to share any prayer requests they might have. I expected lots of, “That I do well on exams,” or “That my family’s crops grow well this year.” Imagine my surprise, then, when almost every single student jumped immediately into describing his or her broken family.

“My father has left us and is living with another family now.”

“My dad is unfaithful to my mom.”

“My parents are divorced.”

“My dad ignores us on the street.”

It was the same story over and over and over again. Student after student faced the chaos of a broken family, the emptiness of an absentee father, and the heartbreak of shattered promises.

In conversations with Lauren (a teacher at the school) and Rudi, it became quickly apparent that these were not special cases. The difficulties these young men and women face are all too common in Santo Tomás. That’s why Rudi’s “reach for your dreams” message seemed so utterly relevant in chapel.

You see, these students need someone to believe in them. They need someone to draw out their passions and gifts and dreams. And that’s exactly what Rudi does. In a community plagued by absentee dads, Rudi takes on the role of a father, offering encouragement, love, and advice.

During one chapel session, for example, Rudi spoke passionately to the adolescent girls in attendance. He explained that boys who want to sleep with them don’t respect them and that they should wait to have sex until they are married. Again, old news for someone like me who grew up in the American Evangelical Church, but these are kids who haven’t had “the talk” with their parents, who haven’t been told they have value, that they’re worth it.

The teachers at Saber y Gracia have stepped into the role of parents to their students

The teachers at Saber y Gracia have stepped into the role of parents to their students

Sitting in that crowded room week after week, I was in awe of the paternal care Rudi took in leading these kids. And that awe only grew when I realized his team of teachers takes the same posture. These educators are involved in their students’ lives. They take an active interest in their emotional development. They are, quite simply, parents to their students.

This is so much more than just a school.

Infused with Christ

Critical thinking, paternal care, love… It is completely apparent to me that Saber y Gracia is a school set apart from the rest. Something is different there. It is one-of-a-kind.

But there is one more thing that makes Saber y Gracia phenomenal: everything, everything they do is infused with Christ.

This is significant. Although Guatemala is highly “Christian,” the vast majority of Guatemalans are Catholic. Their “faith” is often composed of rituals, icons, and strict traditions. It’s not uncommon to find people who believe if they participate in an Easter parade, they are somehow earning the forgiveness of their sins.

Saber y Gracia, on the other hand, is focused on faith, and their leaders constantly encourage students to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Worship songs and Bible lessons are just the beginning. Classes routinely bring in biblical themes, teachers often share their own faith journeys with students, and prayer is completely common at the school. Never is this more apparent than at Campamento, the annual Saber y Gracia high school camp.

Campamento is one part summer camp, one part youth-group retreat, one part prom. The weekend is a three-day fire hose of games, worship services, and small group sessions. It’s easily the highlight of the year for the high school students at Saber y Gracia, and I got the chance to participate.

I won’t get into all the details of what went on (see video below), but suffice it to say, I got to see a whole different side of Saber y Gracia. The kids were unleashed to worship like crazy. Without grade school students around, the teaching got deep and personal. The Holy Spirit was moving powerfully. At one point, I even got to play a part in one student’s experience.

The Father’s Embrace

The worship band had just kicked off a new song, the brass section blaring their instruments full blast. All the kids screamed with glee and started clustering into raucous dance parties around the room.

I shot video for a couple of minutes, then put down my camera and joined in the fun. I latched on to the end of a conga line, soon finding myself in a circle of jumping, dancing, laughing teenage boys. As we shouted the lyrics to “El Señor es Mi Rey” (“the Lord is my King”), I thought I’d start a dance-off.

Worship time at Campamento wouldn’t be complete without a full brass section blaring full-blast!

Worship time at Campamento wouldn’t be complete without a full brass section blaring full-blast!

I dropped into a squat position and started kicking my legs out in the traditional Ukrainian “Hopak” dance. They all looked at me like I was nuts. Whatever. It was fun.

After worship, we all collapsed sweaty and tired into our seats. Rudi spoke for a few minutes about the difference between religion and true faith. The kids listened attentively to his passion and conviction.

Then Rudi gave the students a chance to respond. Even though they normally don’t do this until the third day of camp, Rudi asked if any students wanted to give their lives to Christ right then and there.

Students studying during a small group session at Campamento

Students studying during a small group session at Campamento

More than 40 students went forward immediately. They gathered in a crowd in front of the stage while Rudi began praying over them. I joined the other teachers in a circle around on the outside of the students with their hands outstretched in a posture of blessing.

As we prayed, I saw one young man weeping openly in the crowd. Great sobs shook his body. Looking at him, I felt a clear nudge from the Holy Spirit to go over and give him a hug. “He needs to feel the Father’s embrace,” the Spirit seemed to say. “Go represent Him to this young man.”

I hesitated. Aw, but there are like 3 teachers closer to him, I thought. I don’t speak much Spanish. It would be awkward, right?

No answer. Just another nudge.

Alright, fine! I said in my head as I started working my way through the crowd.

When I reached the sobbing young man, I put my arms around him and pulled him into a bear hug, wondering just how awkward things were about to get for us. Immediately he turned towards me, buried his head into my shoulder, and wept for 15 minutes straight. To my surprise, the whole experience wasn’t awkward at all. In fact, it was immediately apparent that the hug was exactly what he needed at that moment.

As we stood there, surrounded by other weeping, embracing, praying students, I thought about how many of them came from broken homes with abusive and absentee fathers. I realized how significant it was for one of them to come face-to-face with God the Father.

All of a sudden, I was struck with just how crazy the whole situation was. This was a school. This wasn’t a church. This wasn’t a youth group. This was a school. In that moment, surrounded by weeping, broken, transformed, hopeful young people, the threads came together.

Saber y Gracia is providing their students with an education better than anything else around. Its teachers are giving the kids the paternal and maternal love they are so often missing at home. And in a ritualistic religious culture, they are representing life-changing faith to their students.

I had figured it out. Saber y Gracia is so much more than just a school… because it’s a ministry.

As I came to this conclusion, I realized something else: this ministry needs to grow. Reaching 264 students with this high-quality education, this paternal love, this Christ-focused message… it isn’t enough. Saber y Gracia should be reaching 500 students. Or even 1000.

This ministry needs to grow.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who feels this way. God has been putting this burden on Rudi’s heart as well.

Planting Seeds

One afternoon, I joined Rudi for a walk through his farm. The property has belonged to his family for many years, and it was the proceeds from that land’s crops that sustained Saber y Gracia in the early years.

Today, however, Rudi is interested in planting a different kind of seed on this fertile ground. As we walked between rows of freshly planted lettuce, he painted a picture of what God had laid on his heart: a new school building, large enough to educate 1000 students, centrally located to be a hub of education for underprivileged kids from all the surrounding villages as well.

Rudi’s farm: the future site of Saber y Gracia’s new campus

Rudi’s farm: the future site of Saber y Gracia’s new campus

Hearing Rudi talk about his vision for the new school, it’s clear this wasn’t about fame or numbers or influence. Shoot. If he wanted any of those things, he would have quit a long time ago! No. I am absolutely convinced this is about one thing and one thing only: changing lives.

You see, Rudi’s vision isn’t to educate kids. It isn’t even to break the cycle of poverty in their lives. It’s much bigger than that. His vision is to transform his community for the kingdom of God. He wants to be God’s instrument to bring healing to families, hope to the hopeless, and life where once there was only death.

Under normal circumstances, a school principal discipling students on the side of a volcano might have seemed odd. But after spending a month in rural Guatemala, it made perfect sense to me.

Why? Because Saber y Gracia is so much more than just a school.

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