Feb. 5, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 9

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    From Cuba to Divinity School: a spiritual journey

    By Jennifer Vanasco
    News Office

    A lot of students make sacrifices to attend college. To attend the University of Chicago, Ivan Perez left a whole life behind.

    After a tremendous effort on his behalf by the Rev. Alison Boden, the Divinity School and friends around the country, Perez was able to leave his home country of Cuba and arrive in Chicago on Jan. 1 to become a Master of Arts student in the Divinity School.

    "I have a deep sense of gratitude for so many people," said Perez, 30, who speaks his second language, English, with native fluency. "People in Cuba, around the United States and in Chicago have all been very helpful. I feel indebted to them."

    Perez received the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in theology from Seminario Evangelico de Teologia in Matanzas, Cuba, and he spent one year as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba.

    But in 1995, he resigned from the ministry because he is gay. "I did want to give my life to the church, but being in the closet meant a painful double life through which I couldn't contribute coherently to the fulfillment of the flock. Also, the whole situation was unjust so, in prayer, I did what I felt I had to do."

    Perez started making his living as a freelance translator, but he kept thinking about how to get back into religious studies. He was considering applying to graduate schools in South Africa, France and Switzerland when, through his work as a translator, he met Boden, Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, in April 1996.

    Boden, who was leading a group of Divinity School students on a tour of Cuban religious sites, was immediately impressed by him. "We all really liked Ivan. He is intelligent, articulate and thoughtful. I thought the Divinity School seemed like the right place for him," Boden said.

    Perez was skeptical at first. "I had heard about the University of Chicago. I knew it wasn't easy to be admitted, and I knew that it was expensive. Coming here seemed like some utopian dream."

    But when a package with admissions materials arrived from the Divinity School, Perez knew Boden was serious. He kept in contact with her and Richard Rosengarten, Dean of Students at the Divinity School, by phone and by mail.

    Perez began dealing with the enormous amount of paperwork involved, including applying for a Cuban exit visa as well as a U.S. student visa, in addition to applying for admission to the University. The Divinity School admitted him, granting him a full scholarship and a stipend.

    There was just one snag. According to INS regulations, Perez needed $10,000 in a U.S. bank account. He had $1,200 that he had saved while working as a translator, plus the $3,000 stipend from the Divinity School.

    But Perez had been to the United States twice before, invited by the Presbyterian Church (USA), and he contacted the friends he had made there and in Cuba, informing them of his situation. What ensued was "a whole miracle" said Perez. Friends in New York, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio and Chicago, and in the Netherlands and Switzerland raised over $6,000 and forwarded it to an account that Divinity School student Steven Laymon had opened for Perez in Chicago. Perez was on his way.

    Now a student, Perez is still almost giddy with happiness. "I pinch myself every day to see if I'm really here. This is the perfect place for a lover of studies and knowledge," he said.

    He has experienced some culture shock, especially being immersed in English 24 hours a day and having arrived here in the middle of winter. And it is difficult for him to fully realize that going back to Cuba while he is studying here will mean again requesting a U.S. student visa, although that is not his main concern, he said. "I hope to get my Ph.D. here," Perez said, "and then, given my personal circumstances, find out about my actual possibilities to work with academic theological places in Cuba."

    Chicago weather may be cold -- especially compared with tropical Cuba -- and he misses his family, but Perez said he has been received very warmly and is already making many new friends. He is also enjoying the new experiences Chicago has to offer.

    "There are an astonishing amount of resources here, from the number of books in the library to the computing facilities to the professional music series," he said. "And then there is the whole city. I must be in heaven."