By Tom Hare, Casa Belize Coordinator, Saint Louis University
In November 1989, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador. Ten years later, a young couple from the United States, Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz, opened Casa de la Solidaridad to commemorate the lives and commitments of these martyrs.
Since 1999, Casa has been a thriving academic home to visiting students from American colleges and universities for a semester of academic, community, and spiritual reflection and immersion in El Salvador. The success of its praxis-based approach has led to an expansion of other Casa programs in the Philippines and Argentina, as well as a center for Central American students, Centro Ignacio Ellacuría (CIE), named for one of the martyrs, Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. Now, twenty years later, Casa is poised to open its doors yet again, this time in Belize.
Casa’s model begins by making a preferential option for the poor. Teaching and learning strives to be rooted in solidarity with those on the margins, those in society who are excluded or disadvantaged, and those whose dignity has been violated. Over the course of a semester, students spend two full days per week accompanying community members in marginalized neighborhoods. This experience then informs classroom discussion and personal and community reflection on the local reality – discussions that often involve questions of social justice and vocation.
Following this model, Casa Belize, open to students of all majors, promises a semester immersed in the diverse culture, ecosystem and history of Belize. Students will explore academic perspectives on the social realities of Belize, Central American and Caribbean regions; live simply in community with fellow students in an on-campus residence; and be invited to share their spirituality – no matter their faith tradition – with that community. Reflections based on Ignatian spirituality, and a community retreat during the semester, will provide additional opportunities to process the experience abroad.
Casa Belize is delivered in partnership between Saint Louis University (SLU) and St. John’s College (SJC) in Belize, with the support of Centro Ignacio Ellacuría (CIE) at the UCA in El Salvador. Rev. Chris Collins, S.J., Assistant to the President for Mission and Identity at SLU, is excited that the University is spearheading the program. He says, “Living in community in another culture, studying with Belizean peers, and being deeply engaged in experiential learning for a whole semester will have a profound impact on the lives of students for years after they graduate.”
SLU and SJC will welcome the first semester-long study abroad students from SLU and AJCU partner schools to Casa Belize in Fall 2020. “Casa Belize will provide a great opportunity for students to experience the wonderful people of Belize and to grow in their understanding of the Jesuit mission of inspiring ‘the service of faith and the promotion of justice,’” says Bryan Sokol, director of the SLU Center for Service and Community Engagement. This exploration of place and purpose will be brought back to the classroom through a variety of course offerings that will satisfy core and major requirements.
In addition to supporting the growth of the Casa model and running academic programs for Central American students, UCA’s CIE supports faculty and staff from AJCU institutions who desire to implement praxis-based learning in the Ignatian tradition. As one example, CIE has coordinated a delegation of representatives from AJCU institutions, who will be traveling to El Salvador this month to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the UCA martyrs. In February, CIE will coordinate an immersion experience for participants in the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP). CIE also provides short and long-term opportunities for Jesuits who are interested in learning about Ignatian pedagogy.
CIE is proud to support Casa Belize and looks forward to continuing its partnership in the years to come. Kevin Yonkers-Talz, co-founder of Casa de la Solidaridad and CIE says, “For twenty years, we have witnessed the power of Casa’s unique pedagogy of solidarity. These praxis-based educational experiences grounded in Ignatian spirituality have and continue to transform the lives of our students. I have had the privilege of witnessing this firsthand. Now that we have alums from 20 years ago, we are able to see how transformation continues through their vocation and as they have families of their own. I am really excited that SLU and SJC are launching Casa Belize and look forward to partnering with them going forward.”
For more information on CIE, visit uca.edu.sv/cie or write to Kevin Yonkers-Talz at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Casa Belize, visit slu.edu/study-abroad/casa-belize.php or write to email@example.com. Applications for the Fall 2020 inaugural class at Casa Belize are being accepted and are due by January 31, 2020.