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Young pastor’s journey led through Zen Buddhism to Anabaptism

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Caleb Lázaro, Bethel College's Martin Luther King Day speaker, has been a Mennonite for years without knowing it.

Lázaro was born in Trujillo, Peru's third-largest city, and came to California with his parents and two younger sisters when he was six years old. He is now one of three co-pastors of El Centro, a small congregation in Colorado Springs, Colo., made up mostly of immigrants from Latin America, some of them undocumented.

Lázaro was at Bethel for the second time in three months, to be part of the community Martin Luther King Jr. celebration that Bethel hosted in Krehbiel Auditorium Jan. 16. He also spoke to two Bethel interterm classes and visited informally with students in Mojo’s, the coffee shop at Bethel, and he met with Western District Conference’s Immigration Task Force.

In the fall of 2010, Lázaro made a trip to Denver to hear Irish theologian Peter Rollins speak at First Mennonite Church there. There, he met Tory Doerksen, a member of First Mennonite's pastoral staff and a Bethel College graduate who studied at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary before earning his M.Div. at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Portland, Ore.

“Tory and I really hit it off,” Lázaro recalls. “We went out to eat at a Thai restaurant and we talked theology.”

That was when, Lázaro says, he began to realize the direction his life experiences had been taking him.

For their first several years in the United States, the Lázaro family was undocumented. They knew well the stress of poverty, uncertainty and fear that most undocumented Latin Americans feel, Lázaro says.

Eventually, they became permanent residents. Two years ago, Lázaro gained his American citizenship.

Lázaro grew up in an evangelical Christian home that was open to many denominations. For 10 years, his parents’ main source of income was publishing a Spanish-language Christian newspaper.

About five years ago, Lázaro says, his parents needed a break from their work and went to Colorado Springs for a vacation. “They saw so many churches and ministries there,” Lázaro says, “but almost none ministering to the immigrant community.”

Lázaro’s parents heard a strong call to move to Colorado Springs and start just such a ministry. Their son was not immediately convinced but within six months, he heard God calling him, too. Now he, his father, Jaime Lázaro, and Wilmer Villacosta, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary campus in Colorado Springs, co-pastor El Centro, which currently has around 45 regular attenders.

However, to get to this point, Lázaro told a section of the Bethel College senior capstone class Basic Issues of Faith and Life, he had to take a journey through atheism and Zen Buddhism to find his way back to Christianity.

He credits the writings of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a poet and peace and human rights activist, whom Lázaro has also met, with helping him “reclaim my Christian roots.”

“Thich Nhat Hanh has written a lot about Christianity,” Lázaro says. “He encourages Christians to go deeper into their roots. He sees the power in Christianity, and thinks Christians should hold onto that.

“I love my roots,” Lázaro adds. “I love Jesus, I love that God was willing to die on the cross for us and I love teaching from the gospel.”

His attraction to Zen Buddhism and its monastic tradition has led Lázaro into a relationship with Catholic monasticism as well. He is currently enrolled in a spiritual formation program at Benet Hill Benedictine Monastery in Colorado Springs.

Another of Lázaro’s major influences is Martin Luther King Jr. who, he told the Bethel College audience at the King Day observance, was convinced by a letter from Thich Nhat Hanh to speak out against the Vietnam War.

King first did so publicly at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated. At the Bethel King Day event, Sammie Simmons, Newton, read excerpts from that speech right before Lázaro’s address.

From Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King and, most recently, the stories of Dirk Willems and other 16th-century Anabaptist martyrs, Lázaro has come to embrace nonviolence and radical love of others, even those who might be considered enemies.

For Lázaro, part of his challenge has been to accept El Centro attenders who are part of the vast military community that exists in Colorado Springs, and the fundamentalist Christian culture (Colorado Springs is perhaps best known in evangelical Christian circles as the home of Focus on the Family) that is often tied to it.

In his Jan. 16 presentation, Lázaro said, “We aren’t celebrating Dr. King, but his radical compassion, his burning love for the good and the evil, his compassion not just for the oppressed but also the oppressors. Dr. King teaches us that if we want real change and liberation in the world, we must first expose ourselves.”

And that informs the pastoral philosophy at El Centro, Lázaro says. “We believe that we can’t evangelize unless we’re also willing to be evangelized, to be transformed by the people we’re preaching to.”

The large majority of El Centro attenders come from Catholic background, and the pastors have allowed how they do worship to be shaped in some ways by that, with communion every Sunday and a more liturgical order of worship.

But transformation goes both ways, and so it is that El Centro is moving toward becoming a congregation of Mennonite Church USA.

Sometime after he met Doerksen, Lázaro was invited to be a resource for Senior High Snow Camp at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, a role he just reprised for Junior High Snow Camp Jan. 20-22. He spoke at the Mountain States Mennonite Conference meeting last summer, where Bethel College President Perry White heard him and knew Lázaro would be well received at Bethel – as he was when he spoke in a Bethel convocation in November. And he attended the Mennonite convention in Pittsburgh last July as a sponsor for the First Mennonite of Denver youth.

Lázaro’s father, Jaime, brings the passion for advocating for the marginalized, particularly immigrants; Lázaro has the ties to contemplative traditions; and Wilmer Villacorta the feminist perspective and critique of patriarchy, Lázaro says. In addition, “we wanted El Centro to be a church that preaches nonviolence. All that together was adding up to Anabaptist theology, and I realized it when I met Tory.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the “Washington Monthly” annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

Sidebar: ‘A world with no borders’

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In the United States, the terminology has changed, Caleb Lázaro told Bethel College’s Social Work and Social Justice class.

In the past, the words associated with immigrants were “pioneers, pilgrims, explorers – romanticized names for people who went to a new land, looking for a better life.

“But now the terminology is oppressive: ‘illegals,’ ‘criminals’'”

Lázaro advocates for “a redefinition of citizenship.”

“All people have the right to be treated justly and fairly if they are living and acting like citizens,” he says. “‘Reform’ should mean giving undocumented families the chance to prove they have been living as citizens for a specified length of time” –through documents that include tax returns, employment records, mortgage payment records and children’s U.S. birth certificates.

“As a Christian,” Lázaro says, “I dream of a world with no borders. In my lifetime, more realistically, a tangible goal is to reform the broken systems.” Among them are the quota system, which has been virtually unchanged since 1965, he says.

“The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first U.S. government attempt to restrict immigration,” he adds. “There was a time [not so long ago] when the world felt like there were no borders – the world looked more like the kingdom of God.”

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