Volume 5 Number 2
by Barbara A. Chaapel
When Patricio Proaño left his home in Quito in 1977 to study at Princeton Seminary, he had no idea that twenty years later he would begin the first Christian university in Ecuador.
“I was just a ‘little pastor’ [the way Ecuadorans refer to lay pastors] and worked as a photographer to pay the bills,” he explains. Though the United Evangelical Church of Ecuador, born in the missionary movement, ministered to the small Protestant population of Ecuador, its pastors seldom had theological training.
The dream of one man changed that.
Unsinkable, Proaño started again. This time his vision was for a Christian undergraduate university that would include theological training. The Protestant church in Latin America was growing, and 1996 would mark the 100th anniversary of its formal presence in Ecuador. After several starts and stops, with waning commitment from ecumenical leaders who had at first been enthusiastic, Proaño gathered three friends in 1995. They began asking high school students questions: Would you be interested in a Christian university? Would your parents send you to one? What would you study? Would you be interested in working in the church?
The small research project netted support, enthusiasm, prayers. With now a group of sixteen leaders from other institutions, on April 15, 1996, Proaño inaugurated “by faith” the Universidad Cristiana Latino-americana (Latin American Christian University in Ecuador).
“By October 1996 we had 120 students and twelve teachers,” Proaño says. Hard work and intricate legal steps over the next four years resulted in the university’s legalization by the state on March 15, 2000, with Proaño as its first president.
The university has nine academic programs (biomedics, computer science, psychology, theology, business administration, tourism, graphic design, and communications) and 1200 students (all commuters) and inhabits a building given by the United Evangelical Church as well as a ten-story hotel it is renting to buy.
And Proaño isn’t done yet. “Our goal is 5000 students in three years, and branch campuses to join the main campus in Quito,” he says.
For that, his years at Princeton Seminary were a model.
“Learning was exciting at Princeton,” Proaño remembers. “Liberation theology was brand new and the three of us from Latin America kept pushing our fellow students and the faculty to discuss it. James Cone’s first book came out while I was in seminary, and feminist theology was beginning. I studied at Princeton with Gustavo Gutiérrez, and heard Moltmann lecture on the theology of hope. After the lecture, his first questioners were the Latin Americans. We wanted to know what hope meant in social and political terms, in real life.”
Proaño and his contemporaries “pushed the question of the poor,” admittedly a “hard thing to do in Princeton,” he says. “But we saw our role as making people reflect about the world perspective, about how what they were studying in the classroom related to their responsibility as world citizens and Christians.”
These are not just words to Patricio Proaño. Each degree program at his university takes five years and includes required community service. Students work as volunteers with NGOs while they read books and take exams.
Proaño believes education is the key to his nation’s future. “Public education, along with the economy, is in crisis in Ecuador,” he explains. “Political instability leads to corruption. I want the values of higher education to be Christian values, and so we teach leadership, ethics, and philosophy in all nine of our schools.”
Proaño’s vision is nothing less than educating a group of intellectual Christian men and women to help lead his nation. “I hope that our graduates will one day change Ecuador. I hope they will learn that power struggles about money lead to corruption, and that they must do battle with the corruption and injustice in our culture.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary