“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
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. 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.