Christian scholars from more than eight countries across Latin America came together in January for a conference where they were able to share challenges and nurture their vocations.
“It was a very special meeting because in most Latin American countries there are few spaces and opportunities for Christian professors and academics to share their challenges and dreams in the university context,” shares Sarah Nigri, former General Secretary of ABUB, the national movement in Brazil, who now serves as a mentor to LCI Catalysts. “Many feel alone and don’t have peers in the faith.”
IFES’ vision of seeing Christians on university campuses thriving together in witness and whole-life discipleship applies not only to undergraduates but also to faculty members, researchers and graduate students.
How can Christian scholars be empowered to engage with the university and bring their Christian voice and service into the conversations and culture of academia? Scholars from Latin America have told the Logos and Cosmos Initiative that fostering a supportive network of peers is important in helping them live out their unique calling to the academy. But such opportunities for connection are often rare.
Thirty-five scholars attended the two-day Christian Scholars Gathering, which took place in Chile. It is believed to be only the second such conference in the region, and the first took place almost a decade ago.
“There were high hopes about bringing this community together, to exchange ideas, learn from each other and pray for each other,” Sarah says. “These hopes were not only met but exceeded! I have no doubt that we all came away strengthened to face the challenges of our contexts and encouraged to celebrate and cultivate the vocations that the Lord has given us.”
The conference was the culmination of a project led by Chilean physicist Pablo Gutiérrez. As an LCI Catalyst from 2021 – 2023, Pablo partnered with GBUCH Chile, the IFES national movement, to develop a network of Christian scholars in his country. His plans for a national conference evolved into a regional gathering and he joined forces with regional LCI staff and a few other scholars to organize the event.
“Christian scholars have a very specific call,” explains Pablo. “Events like this help to strengthen a network of scholars interested in integrating science and theology, each one from their own workplace.”
“Participants appreciated the uniqueness of being together and the opportunity to discuss the challenges and joys of teaching and research with peers,” he says. “The image of the road to Emmaus comes to mind: two people on the road, discussing what happened, and then Jesus came along and gave them a new meaning.”
The main talks were delivered by Vinoth Ramachandra, former IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement, who invited participants to read his new book God’s calling and the university ahead of time.
Participants also attended roundtable discussions on the challenges of being a Christian scholar (in the face of the “publish or perish” culture); pastoral challenges of Christian scholars (mental health, family, church and students); and the challenges faced by women in the academy.
“The academic environment is often not receptive to children and families,” shares Sarah. “Because of the “machista” culture in which we live, academic women feel these difficulties more acutely than most men. At this meeting, we were able to talk about relevant topics, such as gender inequalities at university and the challenges of academic productivity.”
In addition to being an LCI mentor, Sarah is a mother of two young children. She has a master’s degree in political history and hopes to resume her studies at some point.
“For me personally, the scholars gathering was a remarkable meeting because I was able to travel with my family and meet and get to know other families who share a love for Jesus Christ, the student mission and the university.”
Scholars connecting with students and staff too
Gustavo Sobarzo, who helped organize the scholars gathering, explains that it was held in the middle of a week-long training event for student leaders and staff from IFES national movements in the Southern Cone sub-region (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay).
“We intentionally designed it this way to energize the interactions between the scholars and the staff and students,” he says. Gustavo is the Tier One Training Coordinator for the LCI in Latin America and IFES Subregional Coordinator for Latin America’s Southern Cone subregion– positions which he holds alongside his academic career as a professor of veterinary microbiology.
“Both events had their own program but shared meals, devotions and free time,” Gustavo says.
Sarah affirms that the set up worked well: “This strengthened the bond between professional academics and student ministry – something which is very precious.”
Several members of the LCI community contributed to the training for national movement staff and student leaders. Gustavo and Catalyst Lorena Brondani led an Engaging the University workshop; LCI staff members Jouseth Moya and Alejandra Ortiz led a workshop about women in ministry; and LCI staff member Josué Olmedo led a workshop about vocation and work.
One joint event that brought both gatherings together was the launch of Catalyst Lorena Brondani’s new book “Authentic,” which was published in January by Editorial Certeza. The book is the culmination of her LCI project from 2022 – 2023, in which she captured the stories of six Christian, Argentinian women in academia who have attempted to integrate their Christian faith, university careers and their relationships/family life. Find out more on Lorena’s blog.
As part of their LCI-funded projects, several Catalysts in Latin America are already helping connect scholars at different levels. Lorena is leading a mentoring and research group for Christian “mother-scholars” from across the region. In November 2023, Deborah Vieira, held a conference for Christian scholars in Brazil, which attracted 150 students and researchers connected with ABUB. See the LCI’s Latin America projects webpage for more information.
In terms of region-wide gatherings and networks, Gustavo hopes that the momentum gained from the conference in January will continue.
“I have a special calling to keep this going,” he says. “We are still working out concrete plans for the future, but we plan to have a few more online meetings. Our dream would be to make this into an annual meeting.”