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Summer Spanish Institute changes lives year after year

May 24, 2011 : Marcelo A. Quarantotto/Liberty University News Office

Students sit outside a school in Río Hondo, Guatemala, where they performed a program and gave their testimonies.

When Dr. David Towles drove from California to Lynchburg to begin his career at Liberty University in 1976, he knew that learning languages in a classroom had certain limitations; one could learn history, grammar and culture, but much beyond that is impossible.

“To become fluent, you have to learn on the field,” said Towles. “So that’s when I first got the vision for doing an on-the-field trip.”

That vision has turned into 11 successful years of the Liberty University Spanish Institute, a two-month summer program that incorporates academics and evangelism.

Towles, director of the Spanish Institute and a Spanish professor, has partnered with Carlos Vargas, who he has called the “Dr. Falwell” of Guatemala — a man who thinks big and has seen to it that the impossible is regularly made possible.

Vargas is the founder of Hope of Life Ministries (Esperanza de Vida in Spanish) in Llano Verde, Guatemala. The organization operates an orphanage, a school with about 500 children, and a home for nearly 100 elderly people. Vargas’ ministry helps build churches and provides pastors with greenhouses so they can support their own families. The ministry has also been involved in a $5 million hospital construction project and hopes to be able to open one floor by next fall.

The trip, from May 15-July 10, has two parts: for the first month, students take classes, minister to the community and have English devotions at night; during the second month, each student lives with a local family — speaking only Spanish.

Bethany Davis, a senior Spanish major with minors in crisis communication and writing, is one of the student leaders this summer. She took her first trip to Guatemala in 2009 and said she most enjoyed living with the family for the second month (who she now considers her own family), building relationships with the other students and being able to share Christ with the people there. She speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese fluently.

Students in this summer's Spanish Institute perform a program at the Hope of Life school in Guatemala.

“I hadn’t led anyone to Christ in Spanish or in English, and to be able to do it in Spanish, on top of it, was one of the other great things about the trip,” she said.

Davis grew up in Spain and Portugal as the daughter of two missionaries, and she jumped at the chance to do mission work in a third-world country.

“I’ve always been the missionary kid, never the missionary,” she said. “So going to Guatemala was the first time where I was the one going out and not just following my parents and doing what they say.”

Kandace Beck, a senior Spanish major with a teacher licensure, went to Guatemala last year and is a student leader this year.

“I am so happy that I got involved with the Spanish institute because it really got me out of my comfort zone and was a life-changing experience,” Beck said.

Towles said the students also provide encouragement for the local Christians there.

Students spent time with children at the Hope of Life Nutrition Center in Guatemala.

“When we show up it’s likely that five or 10 more people will come to their church. And out of that five or 10, it’s likely that one or two more will come regularly or be led to Christ,” Towles said. “ … In Guatemala they preach five to seven nights a week … so these people really need us to come alongside to help them, to do visitations for them, just to love on them a little bit. It means a lot to them.”

The trip is not reserved for Spanish majors only. It is required, however, that students know how to go through the plan of salvation in Spanish, give his or her testimony in Spanish and commit to staying in Guatemala for two months. The trip has appealed to students in the nursing and education programs.

Towles said the Spanish Institute is fulfilling Liberty’s mission to train Champions for Christ.

“Jerry [Falwell] Sr. used to say this all the time: ‘What we want is action-oriented curriculum.’ What is more action oriented than going to Guatemala, taking Spanish classes and sharing Christ in Spanish?”