Interview with Juan Carlos Tellez, PhD (Intercultural Studies) Student

newsroomadminJune 27, 2013

Juan Carlos Tellez (MDiv, Grace Theological Seminary) is originally from Colombia, South America. He and his wife were at one time missionaries in Honduras; after relocating to enroll at Grace College in Winona Lake, IN, he began working there, and currently serves as Dean of the Chapel and Global Initiatives. We caught up with him while he was in Deerfield for a two-week modular course.

How did you hear about TEDS’ PhD program?

I have an MA in Intercultural Studies and MDiv, both from Grace. And you know—you read the books, you hear of people like Dr. Priest [Professor of Mission and Anthropology], Dr. Hesselgrave [Professor Emeritus of Mission], Dr. Hiebert [formerly Distinguished Professor of Mission and Anthropology]. I always read the back and I see, oh, they’re teaching at TEDS. So TEDS was a place I’d always been familiar with because of the books that had been written by the people who teach here.

I got to the end of my seminary time and my wife and I were thinking, what’s next? We thought we were going to go into missions, but the door didn’t open for that. God didn’t seem to lead in any other direction and when I started pursuing TEDS things just really lined up.

You’re in Deerfield for a two-week modular on ethnicity, taught by Dr. Tiénou [who is also Dean of TEDS]. I bet that’s awesome.

It’s changed my life.

What is it about that class that’s changed you?

Well, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of culture in the past, but I think this class has really opened my eyes to more profound, more foundational pieces of where culture originates. It has taken something that I’ve loved, which is culture and investigating it, and taken it to a deeper level.

What I love about Dr. Tienou—I’m realizing that there are no easy answers to things. That sounds weird, but I think I was hoping that the more I studied the more I would realize that things are not easy, because I think in my life I’ve come to easy answers and they’ve frustrated me. They may be satisfying, but after a while you start realizing that you kind of come to the edges of those answers, and you start realizing, there’s got to be more, because this does not fit reality. Dr. Tienou’s just expanding the question so that you search, maybe not for answers, but for better explanations that guide people in a more concrete direction even if you don’t have a destination.

What is it about the program, beyond this particular class, that’s made you feel like it’s been worth it?

I think of another class I took, Christian Encounter with World Religions with Dr. Netland. He’s written books on this topic; he’s talking from experience as a missionary in Japan; he’s quoting author after author left and right, this model and that model, so you’re just trying to soak it all in. That combination of experience and theoretical grounding is unbelievable, and that’s been the case in all of my classes.

The first class I took was with Dr. Priest, and that was, you know, baptism by fire. I love reading, but I went to a Barnes & Noble after the last day and I just sat there thinking, I can’t even pick up a book. I’m done.

You’re about halfway through your coursework. Think about the intersection between the courses you’ve taken and your responsibilities as Dean of the Chapel. How have these classes influenced what you’ve done at Grace?

I have double responsibilities – I’m Dean of the Chapel and I also oversee all our study abroad, short term trips, all of those things fall under the auspices [of my position]. We have a Director of Global Initiatives but that person reports to me. So obviously, as we’re dealing with issues of short term trips, of study abroad—anything that has to do with the intersection of culture, I mean, this is directly related.

One thing that it has done also is, I think it has opened my eyes a lot more to issues of diversity here in the States. Being from Colombia, I would not have classified myself as a Latino, because Latino I think of more in terms of people who have grown up here in the States. But I think understanding the plight of minority students here in the United States and being at Grace, that has a small population of minority students, I think this has made me a lot more knowledgeable and compassionate about the realities of being African-American at a predominantly white campus, or the reality of being Latino at a predominantly Anglo campus.

But on the chapel side, I think I’ve also become more–being around people like Dr. Priest, Dr. Plueddemann, Dr. Tienou, you start to see things not for the quick answers anymore. As I think of the chapel program and all of those things, I think it has expanded my horizon so as not to look for easy answers and people who are going to bring [easy] answers but people who are going to challenge predetermined notions of things, people who are going to say, we need to do our homework and move beyond this.

What has the demographic makeup of the courses in your program been like?

I don’t think there has been a single course that I’ve taken where there have been more than three or four people from the same location. It’s a total plurality of backgrounds. The course I’m in right now, we have two people from Nigeria, one person of Hmong descent, we have Korean-Americans, we have people who have been missionaries in Africa, we have Native Americans – it’s such a variety.

What are some of your long-term vocational goals?

Here’s something interesting that I’ve found about how God has been leading. I know that it has been traditionally said, in [some] circles, that you need to start with the end in mind. I’m not sure that God works that way all of the time. I am positive, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that He has brought me to this point; I’m not really sure why, but I trust that His hand is upon what He’s leading me to do, and going forward—I mean, I see all kinds of possibilities. I could see myself being the Dean of the Chapel for a long time with these skills, I could see myself teaching intercultural studies. There are a number of possibilities. I think I see more possibilities than actual trajectories.

You have a bit of an outside perspective on North American evangelicalism because of your background. From your perspective, what are things happening now that you think North American evangelicalism, especially the majority white parts, ought to be aware of?

Well, demographic shifts. I was just reading that “Latinos” are going to make up 25% of this country’s population by 2050. The shift in demographics alone in this country is massive. I think, for a long time, evangelical institutions have been able to preserve pretty homogenous groups; I don’t know how long that’s really going to be possible anymore. And I think everyone has been saying this: demographics are going to shift in this country, Soong-Chan Rah talks about how the church is becoming different in this country. So evangelicals are going to change and shift in colors too—more Latino evangelicals, more African-American evangelicals. And what is that going to do to the institutions that have been held up by evangelicals? They’re going to shift. So I think something that I would say would need to be paid attention to is: How do we, as institutions, make sure that we, first, make sense of these changes and [second] make way for these changes?

Finally, if you could concisely sum up why you’d recommend TEDS, what would you say?

Definitely the experience and scholarship of the professors; definitely the breadth and width of experience of my classmates. I’ve probably learned equally in conversations with my classmates outside of the actual classes. They’re people who are coming with issues to look at and when you talk about these issues it’s like, I have never, ever thought of this before in my life, you know?

I would say the way in which the administration of the PhD, and Dr. Netland—how accommodating they are, within reason, to try and make it happen for you to take courses.

I would say: scholarship, community, experience—it’s a phenomenal program.

TEDS offers several programs ideal for engaging some form of intercultural ministry at both master’s and doctoral level, including our Master of Arts / Intercultural Studies, our Master of Divinity (with various foci available), our Master of Arts in Urban Ministry, and our PhD (Intercultural Studies).

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