GILBERTSVILLE, Ky. (Mennonite Mission Network) José Bonilla says he learned everything he really needed to succeed in life at Colegio Americano Menno (American Mennonite School) in La Mesa, Colombia.
“I consider my Mennonite teachers as role models,” Bonilla said. “They pushed me to be persistent, to excel and to have faith in what is not palpable. I am deeply grateful to those who gave their lives to the church and the school in La Mesa. In many ways, my life is the fruit of their vision, faith and hard labor.”
Bonilla burns with a passion to pass on the gift of learning he received. Motivated by this goal, he established the Purpose Driven Kids Foundation to offer children of low-income families the opportunity to pursue their dreams through good education. The foundation helped 25 students to attend La Mesa’s Mennonite school this year.
“Focusing on education is the best way to give young people the opportunity to better themselves,” Bonilla said. “The foundation is a tax-deductible tool for people who care about kids and want to make a positive impact on their lives.”
Mennonite Mission Network continues to support Colegio Americano Menno, now a ministry of Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (Colombian Mennonite Church), through the presence of Aaron and Laura Kauffman. Aaron teaches English language at the school and Laura, a registered nurse, promotes health education and works with the parents' association at the school.
Bonilla was born on a coffee plantation to parents who read haltingly – his father had two years of schooling and his mother taught herself to read. However, Bonilla excelled when he got a chance to begin studies at the school begun by Mennonite mission workers.
After high school, Bonilla studied for a year and a half at the National University of Colombia before his quest for knowledge took him to Bethel College in Newton, Kan. and, then, on to the University of Oklahoma where he continued academic pursuits until completing a doctoral degree in chemistry.
His career has included working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the space shuttle program through the Argonne National Laboratory, a U. S. Department of Energy research institute managed by the University of Chicago.
He also developed engineering thermoplastics for General Electric. He is currently engaged in the manufacture of specialty polymers for the pharmaceutical industry and personal care products.
Though Bonilla has co-authored technological books and articles, his first novel in English, The Power of the Relic, was translated from Spanish and published last year. In this story, Bonilla teaches Christian values, geography and history through the adventures of two high school students from La Mesa as they travel across their continent through time and terrain.
Bonilla is working on a sequel, The Shadow of the Christ, that will take readers on a similar journey through the United States, Europe and the Holy Land. This book, written first in English, will be translated into Spanish
Bonilla’s sons, Daniel (15) and David (14), share their father’s passion for using fiction to educate. The teenagers have co-authored two books.
Their fairy tale, My Magnificent Horse, cleverly illustrates the harmful effects of Americans’ love affair with junk food, arm-chair entertainment, quick fixes and a propensity for suing.
The Making of a Champion grew out of the Bonilla boys’ experiences as soccer referees. The story explains soccer rules while following a boy who leads his team to a championship.
“Sometimes parents don’t understand the concept of the game,” David Bonilla said. “[This book] illustrates in story fashion how the game is played and what the rules are.”
Proceeds from the sale of the books support the Purpose Driven Kids Foundation.
Bonilla is working with the Colombian Mennonite church and its school to restructure the foundation so it becomes an outreach ministry of the national church. He hopes this model for scholarships can be replicated throughout Latin America.
José Bonilla's enthusiam for education grows, in part, from the dedication of the mission workers at Colegio Americano Menno. One of them, Vernelle Yoder, made a lasting impact on his life.
Yoder, now residing in Berne, Ind., served in Colombia from 1953-93 with Commission on Overseas Mission – a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network – in a variety of educational capacities, from school administration to religious education in churches.
As she tried to describe the highlights of her ministry, tears softened Yoder’s voice, “It was a joy to serve there. The Colombians became my family. My life was greatly blessed and enriched.”
But, it was a joy in the midst of significant controversy. In the beginning, Mennonites faced persecution from the Catholic Church who controlled many aspects of life in Colombia in the 1950s, including education.
“Non-Catholics could not get certificates of birth or marriage,” Bonilla said. “Because my family was not Catholic, we couldn’t go to school.”
When Colegio Americano Menno opened its doors in 1955 to provide education for families like Bonilla’s, it was a victory of faith and perseverance for the Colombian Mennonite Church. Authorities forced the school to close several times before Yoder was able to gain its legal status in 1969.
“The Catholic priests incited the people against us, but the Lord worked in the hearts of persons eager to receive the gospel message,” Yoder said.
Eventually, influenced by the changes brought about by Vatican II and the charismatic movement, the Catholic Church changed their position toward churches of other denominations. Today, Mennonites and Catholics live peaceably together in La Mesa.
In fact, Colegio Americano Menno, which celebrated it 50th anniversary last October, now attracts a majority of Catholic students who value the Anabaptist principles of pacifism and discipleship taught in the school that provides an education from kindergarten through high-school.