10 years later: North Georgia seeds in Venezuela continue to multiply
By WARREN LATHEM
Who would award 17 Bachelor of Theology degrees, celebrate a 10-year anniversary and break ground on a new medical clinic, all on one weekend? That is exactly what the students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela did this past August.
The students successfully completed the six years of classes to earn their degrees and celebrated with their families and friends on the campus of what is the only Methodist Seminary in Venezuela. Many of these students traveled great distances and at significance expense to complete what they describe as the “best seminary education in Venezuela.” They gave testimony to how the experience had changed their lives and ministries and resulted in many new churches and missions planted and many new followers of Christ being brought into the Kingdom.
During the same weekend the students organized a great celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the seminary which included the joyous announcement of the initiation of a Master’s Degree program beginning in 2013. This degree is being offered at the consistent and almost desperate requests of the students and alumni. One 2012 graduate said it like this, “The seminary has transformed our ministries and the learning process has been so transformational, we must continue to improve our practice of ministry and our theological and biblical understanding.”
The seminary is adding a Master of Pastoral Leadership degree to its current degree programs: High School Diploma, Associate Degree and Bachelor Degree. These educational opportunities offer an accessible, affordable, practical, Wesleyan theological education which is shaping the ministries of Methodists in Venezuela as well as pastors of the Assembly of God churches, Independent churches, Baptist and several other denominations. This is a real ecumenism that has resulted in a cooperative approach reaching this nation across many denominational barriers.
Additionally, the seminary celebrated the groundbreaking for the construction of a new Medical Clinic on its campus. This need became apparent as we learned there is no medical service available in the community in which the campus is located. Two of our graduates are also medical doctors and faculty members of the seminary and are leading this effort. The funding for the construction of the first phase has been provided by the Kentucky Annual Conference of the UMC and medical practices which have a heart for mission in Venezuela. The first phase will include a reception area, office, two exam rooms, a treatment room and support areas. The second phase will commence with future funding and will include a medical laboratory, vision and dental clinics. Our prayer is this will be the seed planted which will one day grow into the first Methodist Hospital of Venezuela.
How did all this come into being? In 1995, I was pastor of Mount Pisgah UMC in John’s Creek, and met with Bishops Paulo Lockman of Brazil and Lloyd Knox of North Georgia Carlos Gonzalez, Hispanic pastor and a native of Venezuela, to discuss starting the United Methodist work in Venezuela. In May 1996, Carlos Gonzalez, Ray Lathem, and Roger and Dana Lane left Atlanta for our first venture into Venezuela. They traveled around the country, worked with a mission team from Norcross First UMC building a church in La Marita, VZ, and contacted pastors and entities who might be interested in becoming United Methodist and begin the organization of the ministry.
Unfortunately, these mission pioneers from Mount Pisgah were killed in the ValuJet Crash in Miami on May 11, 1996 while returning from Venezuela. All of their records and contacts died with them. At least that is what we thought, since no records were recovered from the crash site.
However, by the grace of God, we received pictures from the Norcross team, via the late Rev. Phill Ellington, showing them at the work site in La Marita. These are the last pictures we have of these selfless servants and martyrs for the faith.
We had no names to pursue the relationship and our grief blinded us to some obvious options that were available to us. But God was still at work.
In 1997, Bishop Luis Palomo, Bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Venezuela, contacted me to say he had received inquiries from some pastors in Venezuela asking if he would help get the Methodist work organized in their country. He said he would visit the pastors and then share with me his findings.
What he discovered was the pastors did not understand why there had been no follow up after the initial contact made in May of the previous year. They had not known the fate of those who had come to them from the U.S. As a result of this meeting, Bishop Palomo asked me if Mount Pisgah UMC would sponsor a Venezuelan national missionary living in the U.S. He would move his family to Venezuela and start the Evangelical Methodist Church of Venezuela. As a result of this request, Mount Pisgah provided all the cost for this missionary to move back to Venezuela, provided him and his family with a car, a house and expenses.
At the missionary’s invitation, I traveled to Venezuela for the first time in 1998. He was invited to preach an evangelistic crusade in Arcarigua.. While the crusade was effective in leading many people to faith in Christ, it was transformational for me because God broke my heart for the people of Venezuela. In the early morning hours of solitude and prayer, God birthed the vision of a training program for the pastors of Venezuela. This soon became the dream of starting what became the Seminario Wesleyan de Venezuela.
Subsequently, successive trips led to an Evangelistic Crusade in Barquisimeto, where I preached to 10,000, the beginning of construction of the Lugar Altissimo Church in memory of Ray Lathem and in honor of Jared Lathem, and the inaugural session of the seminary with Bishop Palomo and Dr. David Cosby teaching.
The seminary began its first session in rented space at the Assembly of God Bible Institute in Barquisimeto (SEPAD) where it continued to meet even though it had outgrown the space available.
In August 2005, the bishop and cabinet of the North Georgia Conference made a historic mission trip to Venezuela. This is the first time an entire U.S. cabinet has traveled to a foreign country on a mission trip. This was followed in January 2007 by Bishop Lindsey returning to Venezuela to teach in the seminary.
In 2007, the United Methodist Church of Venezuela was birthed through the ministry of the seminary and the first United Methodist Bishop of Venezuela was elected and the discipline of the new national Methodist church was adopted.
In the fall of 2008, the seminary purchased the current campus in Cabudare, a suburb of Barquismeto. The property has five buildings and provides room for the medical clinic and future growth and development of this essential ministry of the church in Venezuela.
The work of the seminary is supported by the U.S. non-profit, Venezuela Now, Inc. PO Box 1655, Duluth, GA 30096. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.