by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Caleb Lázaro came to Bethel College in March for a six-month study leave, and found a new family.
Lázaro, a pastor from Colorado Springs, will become resident director of Bethel’s Warkentin Court residence hall and multicultural student advisor, beginning June 1. In addition, he will take advantage of being on campus to pursue relevant coursework in religious and peace studies, starting next fall.
In between, plans are for Lázaro and his girlfriend, Mai, who recently became engaged, to get married in Los Angeles, where they met as high school students and where Mai’s parents live.
Lázaro first came to Bethel College last fall to speak in convocation, after President Perry White had heard him at a Mennonite conference gathering in Colorado and thought he would resonate well with a Bethel audience.
Bethel invited Lázaro to return this past January as keynote speaker for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
Lázaro, who has experience with Zen Buddhism and contemplative and monastic Christianity, had for some time been considering taking time off to write. He is the co-pastor, with his father, Jaime, and Wilmer Villacorta, of El Centro, a small congregation made up mostly of Hispanics, a number of them undocumented.
Lázaro wanted to chronicle, and to think more intentionally about, his faith experience. When he was at Bethel in January, he finalized plans to be an unofficial scholar/pastor-in-residence for six months, during which time he would work on a book manuscript.
Dale Schrag, Bethel campus pastor, arranged for Lázaro to live with Deb and Wes Bergen of North Newton, whose house is less than a block from the Bethel campus.
“I first began to think about staying [at Bethel] longer,” Lázaro says, “when I started to realize that my hosts were becoming my family. I began to feel like this might be a place I could learn a lot from.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with them, sharing meals and being involved in family life.” When Mai came to visit earlier this spring (at which time Lázaro proposed), the Bergens embraced her into their family as well.
“It’s important to both Mai and me,” Lázaro says, “to have people who make us feel like we belong and to know there is wisdom we can learn from.”
And then President White invited Lázaro for coffee at Mojo’s one day to ask about his potential interest in the recently re-crafted multicultural student advisor/resident director position opening on campus next year.
“I was honored,” Lázaro says. “I was excited about the possibility of being able to continue my ministry and pursue further studies.”
Lázaro has an associate of arts degree in graphic design from Platte College in Alhambra, Calif. He has done freelance graphic design over the past several years for the ACLU of Colorado and other clients.
After the conversation with White, Lázaro took “three to four weeks to listen to the voices of my community – every family member in Colorado, pastor friends, the Mountain States Mennonite Conference minister, Herm Weaver. It was important for Mai and me to listen to the spirit moving through our community, not just us.”
That spirit has moved them to make Bethel permanent, at least for the next while. Lázaro continues to work on the book but is also beginning to prepare for his new role. He has gathered groups of minority students together to talk about their issues and dreams, and looks forward to learning from the current multicultural director, Grettel Vargas Kuhns.
“There has been good work done already,” Lázaro says. “I’ll be meeting with her and hearing about what she’s done so far. I’m excited about moving some of the creative projects forward.”
His time and contacts on campus have already shown him possible “creative ways to foster dialogue by empowering people to share their culture and values” – for example, through slam poetry, musical jams that led to freestyling (on-the-spot improvised rap) and pick-up percussion.
Lázaro sees his work as “giving a voice to cultures [on campus] that have been overwhelmed by the dominant culture. These are voices that haven’t [historically] been heard and I want to find new ways for them to be heard.”
However, he adds, “it’s important to meet halfway – for all groups to be willing to step forward” to listen to and learn from each other.
Though still in his 20s, Lázaro has had a diverse religious and social experience. He came as a boy with his parents and two younger sisters to Los Angeles from Trujillo, Peru, and became a U.S. citizen a little less than two years ago.
Before they moved to Colorado Springs, Lázaro’s parents ran a Spanish-language newspaper for the evangelical Christian community in Los Angeles. He was a paid bass player for an African-American congregation in Pasadena for three years during high school. In Colorado Springs, he served as youth pastor at a Korean Baptist church and was part of a Catholic Benedictine spiritual formation program.
“These were some of the things that led Dale [Schrag] and President White to think I would have some [gifts] to bring,” Lázaro says.
“We are thrilled to have Caleb join the Bethel community,” White says. “He brings such a wealth of varied experience to this position and we welcome his ministry. With an increased commitment to support our growing multicultural programming, we are so very excited to have his constant leadership and presence available to our students on campus.”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com 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 www.bethelks.edu.