Tag Archives: Church

Trying to Argue With Circular Logic

When I was in college I was introduced to the concept of circular logic or circular reasoning. This is a form of logical fallacy in which the reasoner starts with the argument they want to use as their conclusion. To some extent, the argument can be made that this type of logic is the bedrock of religious reasoning. In fact, it was through religion that I was introduced to use circular logic as my modus operandi for reasoning: the Bible is the Word of God because the Bible says it is the Word of God, therefore, it must be true that the Bible is the Word of God. There is no way of going away from this reasoning… you just have to either accept it altogether or reject it altogether. But if you are a religious person who has never been exposed to any other way of reasoning, leaving this type of logic is not an option.400px-bible_cycle

It has been a while since the last time I had a conversation with anyone who used circular logic. For the most part, I try to stay away from trying to engage in philosophical conversations with people who use this type of reasoning. Sure, I could have wonderful conversations about the weather, aspects of life, work, ourselves, etc., but it is impossible to have real conversations regarding faith with people who only use circular logic for their religious arguments. There are some people who might realize that they use this type of reasoning and, not wanting to step away from it, just accept that other people have other ways of looking at things and move on. But there are others for whom circular logic is so ingrained in their lives and way of thinking that they cannot comprehend why someone would step away from this way of thinking in order to find answers somewhere else. For some of them, trying to convince you to go back to using circular logic is not only their mission: it is their duty in life as the lives of those around them depend on it!

Unfortunately, I fell for this not long ago. When I noticed that I was engaging in a one-way conversation with someone who could only use circular logic, it was too late for me to step away. I tried, but failed miserably, to point out the invalidity of the arguments. Of course, this was to be expected! How can an argument be invalid if the only way to validate it is by going back to the premise that made the argument valid in the first place! Ha!

Although I grew up using circular logic for my religious arguments, I have come to grow in my understanding of religion and faith. I now use all the tools available to me in order to understand the religious premises that I live by. I have also come to understand that other people will have different ways of approaching the same questions I have, and that many times, depending on the approach, the answers will be different. The fact that the answer is different doesn’t make it invalid; it just makes it… well… different! I accept that. Thanks to the wonderful mentoring of Angela Figueroa, who was the sociology of religion professor who introduced me to the world of deductive and inductive logic and how to step away from circular logic, I have come to grow in my understanding of religious arguments and how to use them. I have also come to understand that “feelings”, “hunches”, and “inklings”, are not valid reasons to start arguments and to come to conclusions. That doesn’t mean they do not have a valid place in the human experience of the immaterial (or God, or the Divine), it only means that they cannot and should not be used as the bedrock of argumentation.

When I stepped out of using circular logic to “prove” my religious believes, it was a painful process. For a very long time I felt lost, confused, and completely out of control. There was a time when I even came to accept as my reality that there was no evidence of a Divine being, and therefore, there was no such thing. It took me a long time to understand that I could still be faithful, religious, and connected to a Divine being without the need to base my beliefs in circular logic. But again, this is a long and painful process. In my recent conversation, I failed to understand and accept that the person using this type of logical fallacy could have been deeply hurt by stepping out of their way of thinking. I only hope that our conversation was a small seed planted in them to be able to see the wonderful, fulfilling, and satisfying opportunity to have a faith that continues to grow and not one that is stuck in an empty sphere that takes you nowhere in your relationship with God. I also hope that I do not have to engage in another argument like this, as it was extremely painful to see how little progress you can make in trying to have an actual conversation when the other participant has already decided what the conclusion must be.

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Church: Do Not Be Afraid of Change

I am often asked if the transformation that the mainline church is going through (with the fast and marked decline) scares me as a minister. My answer is a bit complicated, but I will try to summarize it here. The very short answer is: yes and no.

Let me explain…

As a minister, the decline of the mainline denominations makes me scared. First, because I grew up in the mainline church. It pains me to see an institution that had such a huge impact in my life declining. The mainline church – in my case, the American Baptist Churches, but also the two other denominations that have welcomed me, the

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The ruins of a church altar in Antigua, Guatemala. (Picture credits: J. Manny Santiago (c) )

United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church – has been my spiritual home for all of my life. It was in the mainline church that I learned the stories of the Bible, the teaching of the “Golden Rule”, the hope for a coming kingdom and the eternal reign of peace that God will bring. It was the mainline church one of the institutions, along with school, that fostered my leadership skills and gave me a chance to begin learning how to be a leader. Sure, experiencing its decline is both scary and sad.

Second, as a minister, I rely on the church for my income. Contrary to what the media may portray and to what popular culture tells you about ministers, the truth is that this is like any other profession. I went to graduate school. I took psychological tests to examine my readiness for serving people under stressful circumstances. I did an intensive internship unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) to help me understand myself and gain knowledge on how to serve others who are undergoing major challenges in their lives. I also learned about history, economy, sociology, religious pluralism, political systems, non-profit administration, rhetoric and debate strategies, philosophy, literary criticism, multiculturalism and a bunch of other areas that are transferable to non-religious positions but that very few places would recognized as such because of preconceived ideas about religious leaders. Moreover, I took student loans because it was the only way to pay for graduate school and because the opportunities for scholarship when studying theology are minimal (although, I did receive some scholarships from religious organizations and the school itself.) Thus, if I lose my source of income, my family would be in a really difficult position. Of course that scares anyone!

With all that said, the transformation of the Church – in this case, the Church with capital “C” – is not what makes me feel the most scared. Why? Well, because the Church, and its expression in the mainline denominations, is not of my own making. The Church is, as the New Testament attest and we proclaim every day, the body of Christ. The Church has been around for a long time, and it will continue to be around even after all the institutions we have built around it have faded into history. Sure, there will be – as there have always been – enormous transformations of the institutions. Some of them will not survive. Others will merge and create new things. And still others will grow and expand steadily.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12.27: “You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.” Paul’s words are an expansion of what Jesus himself said earlier in his life. The gospel of John 14.19a-20 tells us that Jesus said: “Because I live, you will live too. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you.” If the people of the Church is the body of Christ, then we must not be afraid of the transformations through which the Church goes. Sure, the institution will look very different than the one we were raised in or are currently a part of; but the main truth remains: the Church will continue to live.

I believe that our fear to lose the institution that we so much love has stood in the way of letting the Church grow and transform. Many of my colleagues who, like me, depend on the church’s salary to feed our families, are too afraid of losing this source of income. As I stated before, this also scares me. But I am also confident that the tools and the experience I have gained while serving the mainline church will serve me well in finding a suitable position should the time come when the institutionalized church cannot offer a position for me any longer. I believe that we must let go of the fear of losing what we know in order to let the Church and its mainline expression to go through whatever transformation it has to go through.

This also means that we should find ways to give each support. All transformations are both traumatic and difficult. We will go through painful moments. During this time, it will be important to have the support of those who are close to us and who can extend us a hand in making whatever transition may come less painful. However, fear is not, in my opinion, the answer. And thus, my invitation is to let go of the fear of change and accept the transformation that is already present within the mainline church as the manifestation of an ever present Spirit of newness and renewal. Remember that we confess an ever creating God. Let God do a new thing and show us what wonders and awe-inspiring new things God is bringing to us!

 

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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, on 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 should not have these feelings. 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 this tragedy will not be easy. We must build spaces to process the pain, the fear, and even to question God’s goodness. But under no 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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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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A Pastor’s Reflection After-Mother’s Day

Every second Sunday in May in the United States there is the celebration of Mother’s Day. Like every other celebration in the country, this too has been over-commercialized. Stores try to take advantage of the day and sell everything they can; from postcards to clothes to fancy dinners and even cars! “Your mom is so special”, they seem to say, “that you ought to spend all your money on her.”images

Of course, the problem with the previous statement is that not all mothers are “special” and not everyone has or had a mother. In fact, Mother’s Day can be a very painful day for many of us. Single mothers have to find ways to provide for their children, seldom with any outside help. Single fathers are not recognized for their maternal instincts. Women who have no kids feel excluded. For other people, their mother was – or is – absent or an abuser. And still others have a difficult relationship with their mothers, like in my case. For these and many other reasons, Mother’s Day can be a painful day.

As Mother’s Day approached this year, I read, once again, the many reasons why some of my colleagues in ministry were not going to observe the day in church. Others expressed their discomfort with the day and how churches should not recognize mothers in any form on this day, and rather call for some other way of recognizing womanhood. Yet others expressed their pain and their dissatisfaction at their own experiences and how much hurt the day brings.

Four years ago, my own mother cut all communications with me, and even before that, after my coming out as queer, my relationship with my mother was difficult. As my sister became more and more conservative in her religious beliefs and as she started to influence my parents’ opinions more and more, our relationship as a family has deteriorated to a point that we are now estranged. I do not know if things will mend in the future; I only know the present. This is why Mother’s Day is also a very painful day for me. It reminds me that there is a void in my life; a void that was previously filled by the nurturing love of the woman who gave birth to me. Yet, as a pastor and now as a minister with no parish but still active in the life of the church, observing Mother’s Day is important to me.

Certainly, going to church on the second Sunday of May is difficult. But there is something more important than the pain I have for having lost my mother to Christian fundamentalism: the importance of celebrating motherhood in all of its fierceness, in all of its variations, in all of its strength, and doing it in a community of faith. Being part of a church means that there will be times when we do not fit in. There are also times when we can’t connect with what is being said from the pulpit or with the theme for the day. There are times when we attend church and come out without having felt any transformation whatsoever – which is supposed to be the point of having gone to worship, after all. Yet, we continue attending (or we complain, whine and find another church of our liking or, as it is more common nowadays, start our own.) If we do continue going to church, is not because every single Sunday there will be something for “me”, but because we are committed to life in community.

Life in community means that at times I have to sacrifice my own personal comfort in order to uplift those who are around me. It means that I am committed to live as part of something that is bigger than I am. It means that I trust that the Spirit works in mysterious ways and that I have no control over what the person next to me needs to hear that day.

This is the main reason I gladly attend worship on Mother’s Day. I especially enjoy the fact that I have, for some time now, belonged to congregations that understand the many facets of motherhood: single mothers, single fathers, people who have been like mothers to others, mothers who have lost children, single people who have given of themselves to others as any mother would have done, first-time mothers who anxiously awaited the arrival of their children – whether by birth or by adoption – and whose first celebration of the day reminds them of their struggle, gay men who have given up on the idea of being parents, gay men who are parents, transgender mothers whose children still address them as “dad” because their love for their children is so big that they are willing to sacrifice their own identity in order to make them feel comfortable… All these are examples of motherhood that I have had the blessing of experiencing in my own ministry.

As pastors, it is a challenge to find a “middle-ground” in which all the people in worship can feel included. The truth is that, at some point or another, someone is going to be left out. What is important to remember is that these celebrations are not about “me”, but about “us.” I believe that the best way to address our own pain of not having a mother with us on Mother’s Day is to firmly and honestly share with our spiritual leader our pain. She or he will hopefully understand (if they don’t, perhaps they are not the most qualified person to shepherd us). Perhaps it is best for us to stay away from worship that day, and honor our own pain by some other means (remember, there is no sin in skipping worship!) Perhaps it is best for us to find a mother figure in our midst and share with them the joy of motherhood in whichever way she or he celebrates it.

This past Sunday when my church celebrated Mother’s Day, I rejoiced in celebrating the many people who have been like mothers to me. I also celebrated the priest’s courage to say that he, too, feels like he has been called to be a mother hen to his parishioners; he too feels the power of motherhood as a parent and as a priest. These words were powerful for me, for it was the first time I had ever heard a heterosexual man acknowledging his motherly instincts. This past Sunday, I also celebrated the other mothers who were present worshiping in the same sacred space I was: the mother whose children run around and smile at us and hug us during the passing of the peace and who make a joyful noise every time we sing; I celebrated the mother whose face and hands are filled with wrinkles after so many years of motherhood, who has stood by the side of her gay son and her divorced daughter; I celebrated the mother whose 268913_10150368732015620_6162879_ndaughter is the music she creates for us and with us and who has given her life to fight for equality and justice for all of her children… I celebrated with all the mothers, some women, some men, who brought all of whom they are to church that day and who held me in prayer as I shared with them my hurt.

Finally, I also celebrated the fact that I can count on Mother Mary of Nazareth, who has loved me even when I ignored her for so many years. Singing that final hymn to Mary made me realized how important her figure is in the history of my faith tradition. It also made me realized how much we depend on her; she is our Mother and our Guardian, she is our Companion and our Protector, she is the Guide and the Advocate, she is Madre María, who has never left us… who has suffered the pain of motherhood in all of its manifestation, and yet, continues granting us the strength to go on. Perhaps I Christian fundamentalism took my mother away, but the ancient Christian community to which I now belong, has given me another reason to celebrate Mother’s Day.

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