Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos offers its students more than an education.The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. – Lamentations 3:22-23, NLT
My dad is the first of nine children and my mom the third of seven kids. They raised my two younger brothers and me in a very small rural town in El Salvador. My grandparents were farmers and life was not easy. My great-grandfather was a pastor who modeled true ministry to everyone in town. We learned a lot from him, especially to love people no matter who they are or where they come from.
In the fall of 1989 my mom was pregnant with my younger brother, and my dad was pastor of a church in Colonia Zacamil, San Salvador. Some dissent arose in the congregation, and my dad had to leave the church. I was eleven years old, and we literally had no place to go. It was a very difficult time for our family.
Throughout my life I have encountered people who I have considered angels of God because they went out of their way to help us. At that time a woman from a previous church gave us a place to live for free. We stayed in that house for three months, but there were so many drug addicts in the neighborhood that my parents knew we had to go somewhere else.
My dad found another house, but the day we moved, the landlord changed his mind, deciding not to rent the place to us after all. When we got there, with all of our belongings, he had changed all the locks without any notice.
We went to my grandma’s home for a few weeks until my aunt found us a house. Shortly after we moved into it, the civil war exploded around us. The guerrilla offensive was centered in San Salvador in the area where we were living. Our house became our shelter for twenty-five days – we couldn’t leave, we had no water, no electricity, and very little food. Most of my dad’s eight siblings and their families stayed with us during that time – about thirty people altogether. We prayed, sang, and read the Bible together.
During that time I had my twelfth birthday. It was the best birthday I’d ever had. My family was with me and we rejoiced together. And we had fun as well. Somehow my grandpa managed to get out to the store – you could only go out of the house with a white flag during the day – and he got me a piñata. But because we had a curfew, we couldn’t make any noise. How can you break a piñata without any noise? Well, we whispered!
When this crisis was over and the extended family prepared to return to their homes, it felt like we couldn’t let go. We’d spent day and night together for almost a month, and even though there had been truly frightening moments, we had also had a wonderful time together with grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.
In December 1989 a few days after the offensive was over, my relatives returned to their homes and my dad traveled to the United States. Eventually he was called to pastor a Covenant church in Turlock, California, in the midst of a growing Latino community. Leaving our family in El Salvador was the most difficult experience of my life. I loved all that I learned from them, and I had learned to deeply appreciate time with family. Our lives were miracle after miracle as God held us together in the most difficult times.
Like any other teenager I found life to be pretty confusing at the age of thirteen. That feeling was intensified by leaving friends and family and going to a new place where I had to make new friends, where I missed my family and had to learn a new language. It was a difficult time for me. I couldn’t see the big picture, of course, but God did, and he showed me ways to trust him, even when I didn’t feel good about my situation.
One of my favorite verses is Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (NIV). This verse reminds me that even though sometimes it may feel like God has abandoned us, the Lord sees us through every crisis in our lives.
Around the time we moved to Turlock, the Lord was working in the hearts of a few men and women who were committed to develop a school in the Los Angeles area to train Latino leaders for ministry in the Covenant churches. That school became Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos, or CHET.
When I started looking for a job in 1999, doors unexpectedly opened for me to work at CHET. I was excited about doing ministry in this type of setting. Education is very important to me, and at the same time serving others is a significant focus for everyone on the CHET team. I loved the opportunity to help others to be successful.
CHET had an extension campus in Turlock, and I helped with the administration there for several months. Then when my husband, Walter, and I moved to the Los Angeles area, I began working at CHET’s main campus.
The school has grown into a wonderful ministry that serves Latinos of all walks of life. We serve more than 600 students every semester, half of them men and half women. About seventeen denominations are represented, and students come from about seventeen different countries. Our vision is to train Latino leaders who will transform communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a staff we are missionaries in our own backyards. We come from different backgrounds, struggles, and many paths of life which have transformed us along the way.
I have been at CHET long enough to know the students and to hear some of their stories. I know that each of them has the potential to become doers of God’s word. Seeing lives transformed right in front of my eyes is wonderful. We all have a story to tell about the Lord’s faithfulness. One graduation day I was helping one of our students fix his cap. It was the first time in his life that he had worn a cap and gown, and he cried tears of happiness. It was one of my favorite moments with a student.
Our school is a different kind of place. When students come to class they feel at home. We pray together, eat together, study together, cry together, and encourage one another. Even though we are not a church we are like one— we are a family.
We encourage our students to pursue their calling in spite of whatever obstacles they face. Many have been through a lot in their countries. We hear endless stories—of students fleeing abusive relationships, or have nothing to eat, or immigrating to the United States looking for better jobs. As we work with them, we not only prepare them for ministry, but we celebrate God’s love and provision through their testimonies.
Our first president was Jorge Taylor. His sensitivity, loyalty, and educational expertise was just the right combination to lead CHET in those early days.
When Dr. Taylor retired, Jorge Maldonado followed him, using his gifts as a curriculum-base developer. CHET grew in numbers, and he was key to helping our small team manage all we had to do. Jorge was not only a professor, friend, and pastor, but also a counselor. When my brother Sam was murdered in 2003, Jorge was there for me, listening and helping me grieve and process his death. Such mentors and friends at CHET have been a blessing for my life.
My husband and I have three children, Kevin (fourteen), Daniel (eleven), and Nina (eight); they are the greatest blessing God has given us, but also a great responsibility. In one of my many conversations with Jorge, I told him that I was worried that taking care of my children was preventing me from doing any “ministry” at church. Ministry had always been a huge part of my life, especially as my parents had modeled that to me, and I have always felt called to dedicate my life to it. Jorge helped me understand that my family was also my ministry.
When Ed Delgado became president of CHET in 2007, he encouraged me to finish school. At the time I was thinking of going back for my associate’s degree in business administration, but God had different plans. I had graduated from the pre-ministerial program at CHET back in 2000 but didn’t continue to take other classes. I had been praying for a while that God would open doors for me in college. Last semester I started taking ministerial classes at CHET, and I can’t even begin to explain how much I love them! My goal is now to graduate from the ministerial program, then earn a bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry. Eventually I hope to get my master’s degree. I know that I can continue doing ministry in my own setting here at CHET, but I am also open to whatever God has in store for me. Although I have always envisioned myself as a bridge between Latinos and other cultures, my heart is drawn to spiritual direction as well. So I will continue to seek God’s guidance for my future.
I am excited to continue preparing for the Lord’s ministry! Ed’s leadership has greatly encouraged me. Our team is small, but we are accomplishing great things through God’s help.
This month marks CHET’s twenty-fifth anniversary. I am privileged to be part of the staff and also to be a student. I am blessed to be part of history—just like those who had this dream twenty-five years ago, now I have a chance to dream for others. We are training generations of Latino leaders to serve God, not only in California but all over the world.
First Corinthians 15:58 says, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” I take these words to heart, standing firm and knowing that all I do for the Lord is not in vain.
CHET at a Glance
- Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos (CHET) was established in 1989 to provide affordable and accessible theological training and church leadership development to Spanish-speaking communities. From the beginning, CHET has worked in partnership with North Park University.
- That first year saw 25 students; in the spring 2014 semester, 636 students were enrolled, the vast majority of whom are registered part-time.
- CHET offers a bachelor of Christian ministry degree, a ministerial diploma, a pre-ministerial certificate, and a lay family-counseling certificate.
- CHET has taught more than 8,000 students, and more than 1,000 individuals have graduated from one of its programs.
- The school subsidizes the educational costs of all of its students by an average of 70 percent. The student body makeup:
- 50 percent women
- 50 percent men
- represent 17 different countries of origin
- represent 17 different denominations
- An education at CHET provides a direct route to ordination in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Nearly 70 percent of all Latino Covenant pastors have studied at CHET.
- CHET’s primary campus is in Compton, California, and it manages satellite campuses wherever there is sufficient interest. This semester, CHET offers courses at campuses in Chicago, Minneapolis, La Villa, Texas, and Tijuana, Mexico, as well as in several other cities throughout California.
- Graduates typically go on to serve as pastors, church planters, counselors, or Sunday-school teachers, though many have found other opportunities to serve in their communities.
A. Karen Figueroa is executive assistant at Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos (CHET) in Compton, California.