Jeanette Windle

A placid mountain town high in a valley of the Andes, presently green with the onset of rainy season. A collection of unadorned brick buildings behind a wire-mesh fence. A student body, never large, now hardly more than 50. What is there in this place to draw some 250 people from allover the Western hemisphere and as far abroad as Australia to watch a school close its doors for the last time? ‘Yesterday Once More’ the week-long alumni homecoming celebration and final high school graduation of Christiansen Academy, TEAM’s boarding school for missionary children in Venezuela, South America.


Located in the small Andes town of Rubio, less than an hour’s drive from the Colombian border, Christiansen Academy was founded in 1952 by TEAM missionaries Norm and Jeanette Chugg. For almost half a century, CA offered an outstanding Christian education and ‘home away from home’, not only to the children of TEAM missionaries serving in Venezuela, Colombia, and the Caribbean islands, but of other missions and the international community as well. Over the last 49 years, more than 1000 students have passed through its halls.


But in recent years, changing missions demographics, increasing political unrest, and concerns over guerrilla activity in the zone have led to an ever-dwindling student body. In February 2000 TEAM leadership and CA staff regretfully made the decision that 2000-2001 would be Christiansen Academy’s final school year.


With that decision, plans began for ’Yesterday Once More’. Christiansen Academy would not close its doors with mourning, but a celebration of homecoming and farewell for all who had been part of the 49 years of CA history. The response was overwhelming as more than 250 alumni, former staff, spouses, and children gave up vacation time and arranged absences from work to make their own goodbyes to a very special place and time in their lives.


What does CA mean to those who attended there? “Put it this way,” responded one alumnus, “After 20 years, I am here attending the graduation of kids I’ve never even met. Does that answer the question?”


Held from June 1-6, 2001, homecoming week kicked off Friday evening, June 1, with a rally for alumni and final parties for the outgoing student body. A large yellow tent erected on the front lawn housed the graduation ceremonies, the school auditorium hopelessly small for the crowd that arrived to watch the 13 members of CA’s final graduation class walk across the podium to receive their diplomas. The alumni choir’s rendition of an old favorite, ‘Because the Lord is My Shepherd’, showed that time has only improved their talent. This time it was not just graduates who were moving on, and commencement speeches brought tears to both the CA family and townspeople to whom ‘la Academia Christiansen’ has been a part of life.


With graduation over, the alumni celebration moved into full swing. Favorite childhood sites were revisited. A hike up Mount Baldy, somehow much steeper than 20 years previous. A cookout and campfire sing at the Lava Flats—those caves were as dark, dank, and deep as ever. Twisting over winding mountain curves at suicidal speeds amid black clouds of noxious emissions brought gasps from spouses who had never quite believed those boarding-school tales. But the pool in San Cristobal was just as blue—and chilly—as ever.


Picking through dusty, worn volumes in the library for old favorites to haul home. Rifling through old yearbook photos and English files for a childhood snapshot or lost literary masterpiece. And always the buzz of talking as old friends caught up on long years of separation. And memories.


Nighttime swims in the water tank atop the boy’s dorm (hey, that was our drinking water!). Jumping off the cliff Tarzan-style into Pozo Azul (the Blue Pool). Shooting the rapids on overblown inner tubes. The 1978 trashing of the boys dorm by the high school’s feminine contingent (with the collaboration of the boy’s dorm mother) in well-justified revenge for being told a certain inner-tubing trip was ‘too dangerous for girls’. The covert insertion of Miss Wickline’s famous Volkswagen bug into the dining hall. At last, the confession of who set fire to Mount Baldy, necessitating a turnout of the National Guard.


And more serious memories. Almost 30 years later, the life and death of Uncle Malcolm McNaughton has never been forgotten by the students and staff whose lives he touched.


But sharing time was not just of the past, but the present. ‘What has God done in your life through CA?’ was the theme of group sessions, and laughter was chased by tears and then by laughter again as alumni one after another gave witness to the impact that the spiritual discipline of CA and the godly lives of staff and other students had made in their lives over the years.


“I am here today because of former classmates,” shared one alumnus. “After 20 years, they would not let me go, and their love pulled me back to God.”


Over and over, former students thanked teachers and dorm parents for lessons of discipline not always appreciated at the time and for love shown—again not always appreciated or recognized until much later.


“I hated the rules and discipline while I was here,” another alumna expressed. “But I found that it became the foundation of my life in the years after I left, and I am now thankful to God and the staff at CA for that discipline.”

‘That In All Things Christ Might Have The Preeminence’ was the motto of CA, blazoned across the front of the school auditorium and into the mind of every student. That this motto has become a foundation of life for alumni now serving God as missionaries, pastors, godly career men and women, or mothers at home was a thread that wound through every sharing session.


The closing assembly Wednesday night culminated with a fireworks display lively enough to dismay visitors unaccustomed to Venezuela’s lack of U& L regulations, bidding a colorful farewell tribute not only to Christiansen Academy but to the town of Rubio itself. By the following morning, the task of emptying out the buildings had begun, furnishings and old books loaded into trucks and hauled away.


Today the buildings sit empty. The last of CA’s caretakers are packing up their own belongings to take up the new ministries to which God has called them. But if the place we called Christiansen Academy no longer exists except in our memories, CA is not gone. Principal Dave Schlonecker said it best: “Christiansen Academy is not about a place. It is about people. And though the physical buildings are gone, CA will always remain in the hearts of those touched by its ministry.”