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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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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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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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Why I Vote

i-votedThere are people in the United States, especially those – usually young, and white, and from middle and upper middle classes – that espouse “anarchist” and “leftist” views, who say that voting is a waste of time. Why should we vote if the candidates all have the same platforms? Candidates all work for the same corporate interests and look only after their own kind. Why bother with voting?

I do not disagree that many, if not most, candidates are just clones one of the other. However, for me it is still important to cast my vote. Why? Because of whom I am.
It is easy to dismiss your right to vote when you are white, or young, or male, or rich, or educated, or healthy… or any combination thereof. It is easy to dismiss the electoral process and complain about politicians and their work while not wanting to be part of the process. I understand the frustration, because I have felt it myself at times. But when you are not part of the majority, your vote is extremely important.

This is why I vote: because I am not white, because I am not straight, because I am not rich, because I am an immigrant, because my first language is not English, because my spouse can’t vote, because I am a feminist, because I am a progressive, because I am a person of faith, because I am not willing to let others dictate what I think is best for me… Voting allows me to reclaim my space in the public square. Voting allows me to stand up and say that I am part of the process even when the majority of those in power do not want to recognize my mere existence. Voting allows me to stand up for what I believe, even when the politicians making the decisions are those I voted for!

No candidate and elected official are going to share all of my values. However, I feel empowered to raise my voice when I vote. I can tell those politicians and elected officials that I have the power that the US Constitution grants me and I will make use of that power. Voting is not the “fix-all” solution. It is not perfect and it is not going to make the government work exactly as it should. But, when you are not part of the majority it is extremely important to show up at the voting booth (or to mail in your ballot!)

I vote because I am not white, because I am not straight, because I am not rich, because I am an immigrant, because my first language is not English, because my spouse can’t vote, because I am a feminist, because I am a progressive, because I am a person of faith, because I am not willing to let others dictate what I think is best for me…

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