How Mary of Nazareth Helped Me Regain My Faith

“Caridad, Guadalupe, and novenas are not part

of my more immediate tradition.

Yet they are part of my culture.

Does that mean that,

like my native ancestors five centuries ago

when faced by the initial Catholic ‘evangelization,’

I must renounce my cultural heritage

in order to affirm my Christianity?

I do not believe so.”

Dr. Justo González, theologian

 

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Original icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ponce, Puerto Rico. This icon came from the town of Guadalupe, Spain, and has been venerated in the Island for years before the Mexican manifestation of the Virgin of Guadalupe was revealed. 

The Mother of God. The Queen of Angels. The Star of the Seas. Help of the Afflicted. Mystical Rose. Refuge of Sinners. All these and more are devotional titles for Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. She is not very prominent in the gospel stories, and is very much absent from the rest of the New Testament writings. Yet, for millions of Christians around the world, Mary of Nazareth is a central figure in their spiritual lives. Her image is present in the iconography of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Anglican, Coptic and many other Christian traditions. Her image is even utilized by syncretic traditions such as Santería, Candomblé and sometimes Folkloric Spiritism. However, for those of us who grew up mainline Protestants – especially those of us who grew up in Africa, Asia or Latin America – the mere thought of having an image of the Virgin Mother was cringe-worthy.

My religious background is a bit confusing. I often say, for simplicity’s sake, that I grew up Protestant. But, like everything in life, the reality is a bit more complicated. My father was raised in the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches, USA). My mother, on the other hand, was raised in the Kardesian Spiritist household[1]. Although, by the time that my sister and I were born neither one of our parents were practicing their respective faith traditions. By default, we were “Christians”, but no last-name was attached to it. However, there is something that has followed me since my birth.

I was born a few days after the due date. Usually this is not that big of a concern. However, in my case, when I was born I could not breath and the doctors weren’t sure if I was going to survive. As my mother tells the story, she was eagerly awaiting to welcome her firstborn, but the nurses kept mumbling and didn’t bring the kid to her. After several hours, the doctor approached my mom to let her know that I was in critical condition and they could not bring me to her side. Her first glimpse of my face was through the glass window of the maternity ward in the hospital. In addition, she became ill with a cold, and due to my delicate state, she was discharged without even being able to hold me while the doctors kept me in the hospital for almost a month. When I was discharged and due to my mom’s illness, the doctor indicated not to nurse me as I was still too frail to be exposed to any possible infection. While I was in the hospital my mom did what many parents in religious countries would do: she brought my first pair of shoes – the ones that I had never had the chance to wear – to be deposited at the feet of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This took place at the Shrine of the Virgin of the Rosary in the town of Sabana Grande in Puerto Rico. There, my mom asked the Blessed Mother to look after her firstborn and, as many mothers both from the Bible and beyond have done, she promised God and the Virgin that I would be their servant forever.

I kind of “blame” my mother’s actions for the fact that I am an ordained minister today. Without my consent, she already made the decision for me. But that’s something for another time.

Often times my parents would send me – who was always very interested in spiritual matters and in religion in general – to the Roman Catholic Church in my hometown, the parish of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Castañer, Puerto Rico. Often times, these visits to Sunday Mass were with our neighbors as my parents would not necessarily come with us. I do have some memories of these visits. I also remember visiting my maternal grandfather’s séance on Sunday afternoons and seeing my grandpa lead the community in worship as their Medium. Every now and then we would also visit a home prayer meeting at my paternal grandparents’ home with the Baptist community. And thus, my religious upbringing had a little bit of three “flavors” of experiencing Christianity: Roman Catholic, Protestant and syncretic.

Around age 10 or 11 and after having been invited to a Vacation Bible School at the Baptist congregation in my neighborhood of Yahuecas in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, I started to regularly attend Sunday services with my sister. This went on for some time until my mom started coming with us and eventually my dad joined us. Later, the whole family was involved in the life of the church and we were all baptized (or in the case of my dad, re-baptized) in that congregation.

Upon my entering in the Baptist tradition, I learned about the Protestant’s rejection of images, idols and icons for worship. I was taught to reject these as useless items that distracted us from worshiping the true God who is neither wood nor plaster but Spirit. I was taught to memorize every Bible verse that warned against the use of idols or images or anything similar in worship. Moreover, I was taught that those who used idols in worship were really worshiping the Devil, without even knowing it. What I learned was that they were kneeling before idols and not before the true God as it was instructed in Scriptures.

Fast-forward several years. I have entered seminary with the intention of pursuing ordination in a mainline Protestant tradition. Although I was not quite sure whether that tradition would be the one in which I grew up, the American Baptist denomination.

Before seminary, a friend who had served as a Presbyterian minister and was now entering the Episcopal Church, introduced me to the wonders of the liturgical world. For the first time, I had the chance to actually understand the history, the meaning, the power of images and icons and movements and sounds and smells in the life of the Church. In addition, while in seminary, I met another friend from the Roman Catholic tradition. During a conversation with him I asked why he, being so progressive in his theology, was still so tied to the Roman Catholic Church. His response moved me. He said: “One of the things that keeps me in the Church is the thought that, for generations, and even today, at every single time of the day, there is a community reciting the same prayers, making the same gestures, saying the same words that I will say when I enter Mass. We are united in prayer; not only in our daily lives and with the people from our parish, but with our sisters and brothers from around the world, and with the saints that came before us and the saints that will come after us.” That statement made me change my understanding of liturgy forever.

But, there was still the fact that I grew up believing that icons and images were contrary to God’s wish for us. All these experiences and so much contradiction made me come to what I thought would be a final conclusion: there is no god. I started thinking of myself as an atheist. Sure, one that was trained in theology and who served the Church, but an atheist nonetheless.

Some time passed. I continued to struggle with my faith and with the idea of God. I went back to wise words that had been shared with me about my faith needed to be mine and not the one I had inherited from others. I read again some of the theological classics and other contemporary writings. I continued my discernment and my journey, without knowing where it would take me, but sure that I was in this wilderness because there was something, or someone, waiting for me.

My return to the faith happened thanks to Mary. Or rather, thanks to María.

In the Latino culture, María, José, Juan, Jesús are common names. (In fact, my given name is Juan!) As I became more and more involved in activism on behalf of my Latino community and as I traveled throughout Latin America sharing time with communities in both rural and urban areas, I started to notice the faces of my people. I notices the Marías, and the Juans, and the Jesúses, and the Josés… Then, I noticed the face of God in María. Often a single mother. Often poor. Perhaps a tortilla vendor or a farmer. Sometimes a beggar on the streets. Other times she was carrying her grandkids as her own children had left for El Norte in search of a better life for those they left behind. Back home in the USA, I say her carrying signs and marching for the rights of the undocumented community. I noticed her carrying her children and cooking me a meal while I visited with them. I noticed María fighting to get access to education while holding two or three part-time jobs to support her parents who barely spoke English. I started noticing María everywhere.

I went back to some of my books. There, I read about how La Virgen Morena, Our Lady of Guadalupe, had returned their humanity to a whole indigenous community in the hills of Tepeyac. There she was, dark-skinned like the indigenous man I had fallen in love with. She was on the banners of those who fought for liberation and freedom. She had welcomed the throngs of immigrants who desperately crossed more than one border to get here. She had welcomed them with open arms in churches and shelters throughout their journey. La Virgen had walked with these people, my people, and had never left them – us – alone. In this journey of doubt and rejection of faith that I had, she was also there, just patiently waiting for me.

Two experiences had transformed my faith thanks to an encounter with La Virgen. The first one was when I stood in front of the altar to Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity) in El Cobre, Cuba. There she was, carrying the baby Jesus on her arms, assuring him that all will be well. Her yellow dress reminding the many pilgrims that approach her altar that she was also the embodiment of Ochún, the Yoruba Orisha that traveled with the African slaves to the Américas. I was there, standing in awe before that powerful woman who never left her children alone as they were made to cross the ocean to be enslaved and stripped of their humanity. She journeyed with them and there she was, still standing proud and valiant.

The second experience was when I stood in front of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in her shrine in México. I stood in awe, as I saw the dark-skinned, pregnant, indigenous Virgen welcoming us. She looked at us. She saw us. She knew us. There she was, blessing our relationship and our bond of love. I, the descendant of oppressors who massacred the children of the Morenita, standing next to one of her children, dark-skinned and indigenous, like her. She smiled at us. She forgave me. She welcomed me. La Morenita let me know that I, too, was one of her children.

I continue having doubts, of course. I also continue searching for answers that may never come. But at the end, I know that in my wilderness, Our Mother was waiting for me to come home. As I look at the Mother of God, I want to believe that, if such a loving, powerful, inspiring, courageous woman is the route to know Christ and God, I am more than happy to follow her.

—-

[1] For more information about Kardecian Spiritism, you can visit the following site: http://www.spiritist.com/archives/1862

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Bring the Sermon Back and See the Church Grow!

It is hard to pinpoint the one reason why mainline churches are in decline. Some people – like me – prefer to say that mainline churches are in the midst of a transformation. There is no resurrection without death. There is no morning without night. There is no possibility of renewal without some heavy shaking up of established paradigms. At the same time, I believe that we must honor our history as faith communities, firmly established in traditions that have formed and informed us. It is a delicate balance to maintain and one that few local communities – and perhaps larger denominations – have achieved.

Following this thinking, I have been reflecting on the role of the sermon within the worship life of the community. Often when you ask people about worship, the first thing that comes to mind is music, hymns, “coritos” (if you are in a Latinx church), prayer, silence, Communion, etc. Music, without a doubt, takes the center stage when it comes to worship life. Seldom, if ever, the sermon, reading of Scripture, study of the sacred texts and education come up in conversation about worship.

It is known that music has had a long history in the worship life of the faith communities. In the Christian church we hear about the use of Psalms and other musical elements throughout the letters of Paul to the churches and the Acts of the Apostles. Indubitable music is an integral part of communal worship. Music can help people to connect in a way that other parts of the service do not. Music helps – or should help – to pass on the teachings of the Church, to teach the growing generations of Christians about the history, beliefs and traditions of their community. Music helps people to connect with the Divinity in an emotional way (and yes, if used properly it can also help in connecting intellectually.) But what about the sermon?pulpit

Ask a 10 people about what they enjoy the most about worship and perhaps 8 will tell you that it is the music. Perhaps the other two might enjoy prayers or some other parts – offertory, anyone? – but I am almost certain that perhaps only one will mention, by passing, the sermon.

Note, however, that I am focusing on the mainline or historical Protestant traditions of the Church.

Recently I preached at a mainline church as a guest preacher. I tried my best to keep the sermon shorter than I am used to for two reasons: I knew the church didn’t enjoy long sermons – more than 12 minutes – and because we were already running late. After the service was over I stayed to greet people as they exited the sanctuary. A person approached me and said something like: “A friend who is a preacher said to me that a good sermon should not be more than 7 minutes. That if you can’t say it in that time, there’s nothing good to say.” No greetings. No “thank yous”. No questions or comments about an idea from the sermon or how it helped – or not – in his spiritual life. Nothing. I was taken aback and didn’t get to respond. But a second person approached with a similar comment about the length of sermons. To this person I replied: “Some traditions enjoy longer sermons. I myself grew up in a church that honored the sermon as an important part of the worship experience, with longer sermons being featured in church. Personally, I can go to worship and have no music whatsoever, but if I don’t have a sermon or the proclamation of Scripture, I have not had worship.” Now it was the person’s time to be taken aback! They looked at me stunned, as if I had said some kind of heresy or something! But what I said was true. I can attend a beautifully planned service with only chants, songs and music, but if there is no Bible reading and an explanation of it, I have not had a worship experience. (This is the reason, by the way, why I don’t quite like Taizé services.)

Interestingly, the largest and more attended churches in the USA are Evangelical congregations. These congregations generally feature long sermons that resemble more college lectures than anything else. The pastor’s words and how they expound on the Bible verses read are integral to the spiritual life of the congregation. Sure, they also feature long musical pieces, but nothing replaces the sermon in the spiritual life of the church.

Why, then, are these churches growing while ours are declining? Does the fact that we have relegated the sermon to a second and perhaps even third place in the worshipping life of the Church has something to do with it? I think it does.

When the Church was in its first stages of development, the Apostles took time to expand on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In Acts 20.7-12 we even read of how the Apostle Paul preached for so long that a young man who was listening, fell asleep and falling of the window where he was sitting! Of course I do not advocate for sermons so long that people start falling asleep and falling of windows… I just think that we must give the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel the place that it deserves in Church.

Perhaps it is our hubris that makes us reject sermons in worship. With music, we can show off our talents and gifts; we can sing loud and clear, creating beautiful melodies that show others that we can overcome the ugly parts of life and create beauty. However, with a sermon we just sit there, allowing someone other than us tell us what the words mean, how they can be interpreted, what the history of the text is and how we can make use of these teachings in our daily lives. To listen to a sermon requires a humility that few of us in the mainline Church – the Church made up of mostly highly educated people – are willing to show. Listening to a sermon means that we are passive receptors of the wisdom of others, when our own society tells us that we are the center of the Universe and therefore the ones with all the answers.

A few years ago when I was being interviewed for my first church, I asked the president of the search committee how long they would like for me to preach at my candidating sermon. I had spent about three years in mostly Anglo-American, English speaking congregations, but having grown up in a rural, Puerto Rican mainline church, I already knew that there are always differences in worship styles. The person from the church was clear about what they were looking for: “Nothing too long. Between 40 to 45 minutes.” Yup. The Latino church was expecting their future pastor to preach for what others might consider a long time, but for them it was not too long. In fact, in my childhood church the pastor would preach for over 45 minutes, sometimes going over the hour. This was normal! Nobody complained or was concerned about lunch or after-church plans, because Sunday was for God and to worship in community. Church consumed pretty much all morning and even part of the early afternoon. And the sermon was at the center of the worship experience.

If you read the history of the Protestant church you will notice the importance of the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel in the life of our faith. Pick up a book with the sermons from Luther, Calvin, Knox, Simmons, Zwingly or even later reformers such as Wesley or Campbell and you will notice that they gave Paul a run for his money! Their sermons are masterful theological essays that go on for pages and pages, expanding of the understanding of the faith we share.

As I said before, Evangelicals understand the importance of the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, the people who flock to their congregations are eager to receive the teachings and the wisdom that is shared during a sermon. They are in fact thirsty for it! What would happen if mainline churches reclaim the centrality of the sermon? What would happen if we honor our tradition of being the people of the Book and the people of the Word? In my ordination certificate it states that I was ordained to “the ministry of the Gospel”, not to the ministry of music or prayer or sacred dance… In some denominations the ordination is to “Word and Sacrament”, in others it is to “Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.” No matter what, the Word is the central piece of ordination. Sure, pastors are chaplains and we tend to the spiritual needs of our congregants; but our main call is to open up the Gospel, to proclaim the good news, to preach and teach and educate.

I clearly remember the centrality of the sermon in my childhood church. The pulpit was at the center of the altar. Below it, at the level of the people, was the Communion Table. This symbolism showed us what was important when you entered this sacred space: the proclamation of the Gospel above all and the sharing of the Table with each other.

My invitation to our mainline congregations is to reclaim the centrality of the sermon in the spiritual and worship life of the Church. It is important to recognize the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel as integral components of a worship experience. Seven minutes is not enough. Twelve minutes is not enough. I believe we must use as much or as little time as is needed to fulfill our task of proclaiming the good news. Whatever rules or understandings about the effective use of time in oratory should not be taken into consideration when considering a sermon. Would you be concerned about the length of a prayer? How about the length of meditation? I believe that the Church loses much when we want to impose the rules of the outside world to our spiritual life. Besides, how could it be that we are able to sit through an hour long speech by a politician but grumble when our pastors go over the magic 12 minute mark on their sermons?

I enjoy sermons. Whether they are long or short, if a sermon speaks to me, it speaks to me. A well-constructed sermon that opens up the Gospel is a beautiful aspect of worship and I will humbly sit down for as long as it takes to listen to it. Perhaps if we reclaim the centrality of the sermon in the life of the Church more people will be eager to join us and learn with us…

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Vigil For LGBTQ Orlando Victims — Vigilia por las víctimas LGBTQ de Orlando

I shared these words with the Madison community during a vigil in honor of the victims of the recent massacre in Orlando. | Compartí estas palabras con la comunidad de Madison durante una vigilia en honor a las víctimas de la reciente masacre en Orlando.


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Rainbow flag with the names of the victims of the Orlando massacre. | Arcoiris de banderas con los nombres de las víctimas de la masacre de Orlando.

Buenas tardes, y gracias por decir “presente” en esta vigilia de recordación de nuestros hermanos y hermanas en Orlando. Soy el Rvdo. J. Manny Santiago, director ejecutivo de “The Crossing” un ministerio ecuménico para estudiantes en la Universidad de Wisconsin – Madison. Estaré compartiendo con ustedes unas palabras en español y luego en inglés. | Good afternoon and thank you for being here at this vigil honoring the siblings we lost in Orlando. I am the Rev. J. Manny Santiago, Executive Director of The Crossing campus ministry at the UW-Madison. I will share some words in Spanish first and then in English.

Español

No es fácil para mí el encontrar las palabras para compartir con nuestra comunidad. Hay ocasiones en el ministerio cuando tragedias como la que hemos sufrido nos dejan así: sin palabras, con dolor, con furia y confusión. Al mismo tiempo, sabemos que necesitamos levantar nuestras voces, ya sea para animarnos los unos a los otros, para denunciar injusticias o, en ocasiones, hasta para cuestionar la bondad de Dios cuando solo que podemos ver es violencia y muerte. Todo eso es parte del proceso de duelo y nadie nos debe decir que no sintamos estas cosas. Para mí, he pasado por todas esas etapas en menos de una semana: he sentido dolor, rabia, miedo, confusión y hasta he cuestionado la bondad de Dios que sirvo.

¿Por qué? Pues porque la tragedia de Orlando me ha tocado muy de cerca. No solamente tengo familia en Orlando – algunos de los cuales asisten al Club Pulse de vez en cuando – sino que, igual que la mayoría de las víctimas, soy Latino, puertorriqueño y abiertamente gay. Sí, soy un hombre Latino, pastor y gay. Desde pequeño escuché que esas cosas no podrían vivir juntas en una sola persona. Ese discurso de odio y rechazo que escuché de pequeño en la Iglesia me llevó a cuestionar, no solo mi identidad, sino el mismo amor de Dios y mi familia. Hoy muchas personas – políticos, líderes religiosos, etc. – están tratando de borrar las identidades de las víctimas de la masacre de Orlando. No queremos reconocer que son personas LGBTQ, no queremos reconocer que en su mayoría eran Latinos, no queremos reconocer que había entre ellos personas sin documentos… Algunas personas incluso han intentado poner a nuestras comunidades Latinas o LGBTQ en contra de la comunidad Musulmana.

Para mí, como persona de fe, Latino, puertorriqueño, gay, quiero dejarle saber a todas las personas que estamos tratando de hacer sentido de la tragedia: no va a ser un proceso fácil. Necesitamos crear espacios para procesar el dolor, el miedo, e inclusive para cuestionar la bondad de Dios. Pero en ningún momento podemos dejar de luchar por la justicia, por la paz, por reformas legislativas que ayuden a las comunidades de minoría. Reconozcamos que, en especial en nuestras comunidades Latinas, es tiempo de rechazar el machismo, la homofobia, la violencia, el racismo, la islamofobia y el heterosexismo que tanto permea entre nosotros. Es tiempo de levantarnos en unidad, en honor a todas las victimas de tragedias como esta y decir: ¡BASTA!

Que el Dios que se revela de muchas formas y de muchos nombres nos llene de valor, de amor, de sabiduría y de paz para hacer el trabajo…

___

English

It is not easy for me to find the words to share with you today. There are moments in ministry when tragedies like the one we have just witnessed leave us like this: without words, in pain, furious, and confused. At the same time, we know that we must lift up our voices, whether to support each other, to denounce injustices and even, in occasion, to question God’s goodness when the only thing we can see is violence and death. All this is part of the mourning process and nobody should tell us that we must not feel it. As for me, I have gone through all of these stages in the past week: I have been in pain, furious, scared, confused, and yes, I have questioned God’s goodness.

Why? Because the tragedy in Orlando is too close to me. I have family in Orlando – some of whom frequent Pulse Club – but also because, like the majority of the victims, I am Latino, Puerto Rican and openly queer. Yes, I am a gay, Latino pastor. Since childhood I’ve heard that these things cannot coexist. This discourse of hatred and rejection that I heard in Church brought me to question, not only my identity as a human being, but also God’s and my family’s love towards me. Today, many people – politicians and religious leaders in particular – are trying to erase the many identities that the victims embodied. Many do not want to recognize that the victims where LGBTQ, they do not want to recognize that the victims were Latino, they don’t want to recognize that among them there were people without proper documentation to work in the USA… Some have even tried to put our LGBTQ and Latino communities against the Muslim community.

As for me, as a person of faith, as a Latino, a Puerto Rican, and gay, I want to make it clear to all: trying to make sense of tragedy will not be easy. We must build spaces to process the pain, the fear, and even to question God’s goodness. But under any circumstances must we stop working for justice, for peace, and for legislative reforms that would support minority communities. We, Latinos, must recognize that it is time to reject our machismo, our homophobia, our worshiping of death and violence, our Islamophobia, our racism, and our heterosexism. It is time to rise up, together, in honor of these victims and all the other victims of past violence, and say: ENOUGH!

May the God who is revealed in many forms grant us courage, and love, and wisdom, and peace for the work ahead of us…

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What Will Come…

rainbow-flag

(I wrote this poem as a reaction to the recent events of terror and homophobia that have taken from us 49 of our siblings in the city of Orlando, FL.)

What will come
When the lights of the candles are extinguished
When the rage of the moment has passed
When the strength we have found
In community tonight
Has faded into the memory land

What will come
When the queers are once more
Pushed into hiding
When our voices are
Once more overwhelmed
By the money and power
Of the radical hate

What will come
When our tears are silenced
And when our pain is ignored
And when our strength faints
And our wounds are too deep but forgotten

What will happen
When the deafening silence
Of our so-called allies
Becomes once again
The norm

What will happen
When the prayers are fading
When the hugs are no more
When the lights are shut down
And the cold of the night
Overcomes our fickle souls
When the next attention-grabbing
Political squabble
Erases forever
The names and the faces
Of the saints that lay down
In a desecrated sanctuary
That our kisses once housed

What will happen
Once that all is forgotten
Once that their names are not mentioned
For ever no more

What will happen
When I will look at the mirror
And realized once again
That this is not the largest
Nor the last of them
Violence
Against people like me

What will happen
Tomorrow
I wonder
What will happen
I dream.

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“What Are You?” – The Reality of Intersectional Identities

“What are you?” If you are a person of color, a person of non-white ethnic background, a practitioner of a non-Christian faith, or someone who does not follow conventional gender roles or expression, it is very likely that you have heard this question multiple times throughout your life. Heck! You might have heard this question multiple times just today! For some reason or another we all want to know where others “belong” – what tribe each person is a part of. Although I do not have scientific evidence to say this – it is a blog page after all, not my dissertation page – I believe we do this as a survival strategy; finding groups of people who will support each other in order to thrive, survive and protect each other based on the commonalities we share. However, we are humans. With being human comes the complexities of relationships and what it means to be in relation with each other, even those with whom we disagree.

intersectionality“What are you?” is, then, the amalgam of the identities we espouse and embody. These are identities that we have chosen and identities that are inherent to our being. The problem comes with the way in which the question is posed. Humans are not things. We are a very complex animal with both physiological and psychological characteristics. The integration of these characteristics is what makes us unique in the animal realm. Humans can overcome our desire to associate by tribe – or herd, or school, or pack, or whatever we call the different groups of animals that exist – precisely because we can answer the question “what are you?” Yet, the answer to this question is not an “it is” but an “I am”. In using this form of recognition of the self – something that other animals lack – we acknowledge that we are more than just our instincts.

Humans are the intersectionalities of our identities. These identities converge in order to create complex realities that define WHO – not “WHAT” – we are. I am… Puerto Rican, male, queer, cleric, cisgender, Latino, middleclass, a professional, Protestant, writer, advocate, light-skinned, etc. Each one of these identities reflects a part of who I am. Each one of these identities as well as when I choose to use them also reflect my values and what I treasure the most. Note, for instance, that I often identify as Puerto Rican first and foremost. This part of my identity is so crucial to my being that I cannot just ignore it or place it at the end of the list. With it come a whole lot of other realities that define what it means to be “Puerto Rican”. The context in which I experienced my Puerto Ricanness – growing up in the mountains, with a stable household, eldest son of a married couple, living in a coffee farm, Spanish speaker, exposed to the USA’s cultural realities while also keeping the history of a former Spaniard island possession, etc. – informs this part of my identity. Yet, my “self” is not complete without the interaction of the myriad other identities I embody or have chosen for myself.

Our realities are always intersections of the many identities we carry within ourselves. There are times when those identities are messy and even in contradiction with each other. Yet, this is part of the human experience. What makes us human is the capacity to navigate these apparent contradictions in a way that makes sense to US individually. What do I care about what others say about me? They cannot experience my identity the way I do, nor can I experience their identity the way each one of them does. My only responsibility is to try to acknowledge these differences and honor them by recognizing that each person’s multiple identities and how they converge are none of my business.

There is one aspect of the intersectionality of identities that is crucial, especially when it comes to living in a multi-everything society. Solidarity.

Solidarity is the ability to stand by the side of those who suffer because one or more aspects of their identities. Solidarity is recognizing that one or more parts of our identities might be attacked by others who do not understand the beauty of diversity. Solidarity is being wise enough to recognize that our lives are always being intertwined in such a way that the fight for justice is never to be done in isolation. As Blessed Martin Luther King taught us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we do not see how the many identities we carry are intrinsically connected with the multiple identities of others, we will lose sight of the fight for justice and liberation.

There is no doubt that the question “what are you?” will continue to be a part of the daily experience of many of us. As a theologian, I like to reflect on the way in which the God of the Bible addressed this question when it was posed to God. According to the story found in Exodus, when Moses met God for the first time, he asked God whom should he say that send him to liberate God’s people. God’s answer was straightforward: I AM. That’s it! I am… You are, and others are too. It is in this present “being” that we can find commonalities in the midst of so many intersectional realities that make us who we are. Thus, the next time someone asks you “what are you?”, just answer: I AM.

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La comunidad comes together in Wisconsin

In the past few months, the GOP delegation in the Wisconsin state Assembly, in the hopes to support Governor Walker’s agenda of destroying the state, have been trying to pass anti-family and immoral legislation. They have already succeeded in making easier for big developers to contaminate our waters. We all know that they were pretty successful in stripping workers from their rights, preventing heads of households from securing a future for their children and other IMG_4862dependents. More recently, they have been trying to put students’ lives in danger by proposing to allow criminals to openly carry handguns and other firearms around university campuses and even into classrooms. Now, they are also coming after whole families: immigrants, people of color, and other groups that do not conform to the wealthy, white, WASP majority. Two proposed bills are now before the Assembly, to criminalize brown people just for being brown. The legislators swear is to “protect” the communities, but this is just code talking to say that brown peoples are not to be trusted and we must be controlled just as the police has been encouraged to control black people by threatening their lives.

Yesterday, February 18th, the Latinx comunidad from around the state came together in an unprecedented way to say ¡BASTA! People from all over the state came to Madison as the Assembly debated two pieces of anti-family legislation, to let the government and the larger Wisconsin community that our lives matter, that we will not stand idle as they try to destroy our families, and that we not a comunidad and a voz to be dismissed.

Politicians, especially Republican politicians, think that they can play with our lives as they wish. They have stood up against every single moral issue that prevents our lives from being taken from us. In fact, it has been their lack of moral character what has killed so many of us – on the fields, at the hands of police, on the farms and factories, in jail and in immigration detention centers… Their hands are tainted with the blood of thousand Latinxs, yet they keep thirsting for more. It is not enough for them to see our children suffer, our parents mourn, our youth are anxious… They are not satisfied with seeing our IMG_4859suffering, they also want us to completely disappear, just as we bring them water, and tea, and their meals; just as we clean their homes and cultivate their fields or milk their cows; just as we tend to their wounds, and teach their children, and run their businesses… It is not enough. Never enough! Brown bodies are to be disposed of as if we are trash. To this, our comunidad says ¡BASTA!

As I stood at the Capitol square with thousands and thousands of my hermanas y hermanos Latinxs and allies, I could not do anything else but be hopeful. I know that the fight is going to be long and arduous, but we are not going to keep silent. La raza es fuerte. Moreover, we are not as divided as they want others to believe. Yesterday, there were flags from all over Latin America because we know that this “divide and conquer” strategy is not going to work. We are ONE, and as such we will fight. As Calle 13 sings: “cuando más te confías las hormigas / te engañan atacan en equipo como las pirañas / aunque sean pequeñas gracias a la unión / todas juntas se convierten en camión.” We will rise and call out our ancestors, our guiding spirits and the power of the women and men who taught us how to fight and win.

To be there, in the presence of such a beautiful cloud of witnesses was a real blessing for me. It filled me with hope, knowing that I am not just one Puerto Rican fighting alone; I am a part of the great América, and we will stand together to reclaim what is rightly ours. La comunidad came together yesterday in Wisconsin, and we will stand and fight because it is the right thing to do.

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Filed under Culture, ethnicity, familia, Heritage, Hispanics, Hispanos, immigration, justice, Latino, race, racism, United States, USA, Wisconsin

Rising From the Ashes

In Greek mythology there was a bird, the Phoenix, which was always reborn out of its own ashes. This image of rebirth, especially out of difficult circumstances, is not new in religion. Almost every major faith tradition shares this imagery of death and rebirth. However, the story of the Phoenix is particularly appropriate for the story of Ash Wednesday that I would ash-wednesday-usalike to share with you today.

Like the Phoenix, there are times when we need to be reborn out of our own ashes. There are situations and events in our lives that could feel like fire burning, destroying, razing with every part of who we are. Nothing can be done… unless you have the drive to be reborn.

The young man entered the sanctuary a few minutes before our Ash Wednesday service began. He came by himself. I was certain I had seen him before. As he found his way into the circle, something told me that this was a special visit for us.

I love planning the Ash Wednesday service, for it gives me the chance to use liturgies that I enjoy and share that with those who come to visit with us. It is also the one worship experience when we get the most visitors. This is always a challenge, as you want to let people know what the ministry is all about but also be true to my liturgical preferences. It is also an important time to acknowledge the truth that both light AND darkness are holy and good.

The young man’s reaction to my mentioning the goodness of darkness was my first clue. He nodded, smiled, and his whole self said that he was feeling comfortable in this space. As the service ended, many of us moved to the foyer to chat, drink some hot beverages, and share stories.

I noticed that the young man stayed looking at our ministry display intently. So I approached him to introduce myself. He immediately opened up. I mentioned that I recognized him, perhaps from last year. He said he had not been here last year, but had been to “other random event here.” Perhaps that’s where I had seen him before.

As he continued to talk, he mentioned that he knew some of the students featured in our display. We chatted about this and how all these other young people of color were involved in one way or another with our ministry. He smiled. He was feeling more and more at home. Then, we talked about the ministry and our lives. He had grown up in church, he said, but things turned bad. He had served in young people’s ministries, had served on the Board of Deacons, had taught Sunday school to children, and had been preaching since he was fifteen. But his was a conservative Baptist church. It is also an African American church, and there were cultural aspects of his culture that were more conservative than what he would like. At some point, he decided to be himself, not to hide anymore. This did not sit well with his congregation. Now, he was church-less. But he had heard about this place, this ministry and safe space for LGBT students. He gave us a chance.

It felt like a rebirth; to find a faith community that is rooted in his faith tradition, one that welcomes him, that offers others like him opportunities for growth and leadership. Like the Phoenix, the ashes brought him back to life.

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Filed under Black, Black History Month, Church, Culture, ethnicity, Gay, Heritage, justice, Lesbian, LGBTQ, Queer, race, racism, Theology, worship