As the hurricane approached, we stayed in communication through text. Then I called a few days before to check up on them. My mom was calmed and not too worried. Cellphone signal had came back just the day before I called. They still had no power in the neighborhood, but the water was back. They were prepared; they had water, food, fuel, and an electric plant. My sister – who works for the Department of the Family of the Commonwealth – had visited a shelter and checked up on her clients. They were ready to face the hurricane. The last I heard from my mom was a reply to my text saying: “yes, I am calmed.”
Those are the last few words I have from my family. I have not heard from them yet.
I have read news reports that tell me my neighborhood is fine and that there are no registered deaths in my hometown as of today. I read about the efforts to clear the roads and make sure that people have access to larger towns to get supplies. But there are no ways to get in touch with the outside world. How does the word go out about what’s happening? People from the metro area in San Juan who have family in Adjuntas go down to check up on them and then share what they had seen and heard on social media as the limited access to cellphone coverage allows them to.
But now going back to the question: How have I been able to function?
I have compartmentalized my self. Having to communicate in English helps. It is not my language. It is not my soul. It is not what connects me emotionally to the world. I focused on the tasks. I focused on the routine (of not having a routine), and pay attention only to the work in front of me. I have the news in the background and read the texts and news that I get constantly. But those are in español, those do not belong to the workplace. Those belong to mí.
I have compartmentalized my life in the past few days. Sure, I have shared news with coworkers and friends who ask. I have even shed a tear or two while doing so. I have tried to perform what is asked of me by the US society: calmness, be collected, show little emotion when talking about such things, etc. Like always, I have learned how to perform according to the social rules of the social mores of the society I live in. I have completely disconnected myself from all, creating walls that separate the mí from the me.
When I am home, or when I am speaking with a close friend, or when I am alone in my office and listening to the news, I cry. I let it all go and finally feel mí.
I know that my family is fine. Something within me tells me so. I also know that it will be probably weeks before I hear from them. I, too, am from those areas in the world where nobody cares about you; where the government has nothing to gain but votes every so often, where “charities” have no good faces or locations for photo-ops. I am from the place where the only thing that helps us is ourselves: the community who stands up, puts on their boots, picks up their machetes, brave the remainder rain and winds, and goes out to join one by one as they clear paths and help restore their comunidad. That resiliency is what helps me function. I am a jíbaro, and jíbaros don’t give up.
Es indiscutible que la iglesia perfecta no existe. De hecho, creo que es indiscutible que nunca podremos encontrar una iglesia que llene todas nuestras expectativas. Habiendo sido pastor de varias congregaciones – hispanas, anglo-americanas y étnicamente diversas – puedo dar fe de que es imposible el crear congregaciones que logren complacer a toda persona al mismo tiempo. Siempre es posible encontrar congregaciones que llenen las expectativas sobre uno o varios aspectos de lo que consideramos una iglesia perfecta. Pero en definitiva, no podremos crear una congregación que llene todas las expectativas, todo el tiempo y de toda la gente.
Ahora, habiendo dicho esto, también es importante escuchar cuales son las características que las personas creen importantes para una congregación que sea la más apropiada para ellas. Esto no quiere decir que lograremos crear tal congregación. Es solo un ejercicio de soñar con nuestra congregación ideal.
Cuando me mudé a la ciudad donde vivo actualmente y ya que tenía la oportunidad de pasar del púlpito a los bancos, era el momento ideal para buscar una congregación hispana, que llenara mi necesidad de adoración en español, con una comunidad de gente con la que me pudiera identificar mejor. Visité varias comunidades y elegí una. Como he dicho, ninguna es perfecta, pero encontré una comunidad que me aceptó, que me gustó y en la que me he sentido cómodo. De todos modos, sueño con una comunidad de fe que sea más progresista, que realmente refleje mis valores y teología. No sé si sea posible encontrarla, en especial sabiendo la cantidad limitada de congregaciones hispanas en donde vivo, pero sigo soñando con una iglesia que sea más adecuada para mis necesidades.
¿Cuál es la iglesia que sueño? Pues una iglesia que sea así…
- Una iglesia que no tengo miedo en tomar posiciones teológicas progresistas; que no se amilane de decir las cosas como son y de condenar el pecado de la soberbia, de la corrupción, de la intolerancia, del racismo, de la xenofobia, de la homofobia, de la violencia, de la transfobia, de la misoginia, del sexismo, de la opresión. En fin, una iglesia que tenga una voz profética.
- Una iglesia que no le tema a la innovación litúrgica; donde se pueda ser flexible y expansivo con la liturgia. Una iglesia donde la rigidez se deje atrás y se de paso a la innovación, a una liturgia dinámica, a una liturgia apasionada, a una liturgia contagiosa y atractiva.
- Una iglesia que haga uso del lenguaje inclusivo, donde “Dios” no sea solo presentado en forma masculina, sino que se utilicen todas las imágenes bíblicas para la Divinidad; una iglesia donde se hable del Dios que es como una Madre, como una Doncella, como una Mujer Parturienta, como una Viuda que busca una moneda… En fin, una iglesia que reconozca la naturaleza expansiva de Dios.
- Una iglesia que no tenga miedo de confrontar la injusticia donde la vea; que se muestre solidaria con las personas marginadas, que se muestre solidaria con quienes sufren, con las personas en necesidad, con la niñez, con los inmigrantes, con las minorías étnicas, etc. Una iglesia que se enfrente a la supremacía blanca con valentía y que la denuncia como lo que es: pecado.
- Una iglesia que esté bien fundamentada en sus principios cristianos pero que también participe y se nutra de las muchas tradiciones religiosas que existen. Al mismo tiempo, que sea una iglesia de vanguardia con respecto a la ciencia y la educación, que estas sean utilizadas para enseñar la grandeza de la Divinidad y no que se deje llevar por la falsa dicotomía de “ciencia contra religión”.
- Una iglesia que se atreva a ser política – en el sentido de denunciar políticas públicas que afecten a los grupos más oprimidos mientras también deje bien clara su posición con respecto a políticas públicas de beneficio para toda la sociedad.
- Una iglesia que atesore la tradición musical de los himnos antiguos mientras también incluya, celebre y cree nuevas formas musicales.
- Una iglesia que atesore la tradición teológica mientras a la vez acepte la naturaleza siempre expansiva del conocimiento que ofrece el Espíritu de Dios.
- Una iglesia que utilice más de una versión de la Biblia en español; que entienda que cada traducción es una interpretación y que no todas las interpretaciones son iguales ni apropiadas para todas las veces.
- Una iglesia donde se proclame la Palabra de Dios en los sermones y no que se ofrezca un mensaje para sentirse bien; una iglesia que confronte, que enseñe, que rete, que desafíe a la feligresía a vivir su fe y no solamente a creer.
- Una iglesia que celebre; que celebre la diversidad, que celebre la vida, que celebre a Dios, que celebre las culturas, que celebre la música, que celebre la Creación, ¡que celebre todo el tiempo!
- Una iglesia que sea también bálsamo y refugio para quien busca dirección en su vida.
- Una iglesia donde la niñez que llegue sea tratada como parte integrante de la misma; que se escuchen niñas y niños jugar y llorar en el santuario, que las madres y los padres se sienten en la libertad de correr tras sus hijas e hijos, donde la voz de la niñez es celebrada, escuchada y empoderada.
- Una iglesia donde la mesa esté abierta; donde el pan y el vino nunca se acaben ni estén restringidos solo para un grupo; donde regularmente se invite a la gente a participar de la mesa de gratitud – eucharistía – y donde el llamado a compartir esta mesa sea contextualizado para el momento en que se vive; donde los elementos reflejen las comunidades donde se celebra, o sea, que no sea solo pan y vino, pero tortillas y tostones y pan dulce y casabe y jugo de naranja y de jamaica y de coco y café y mate y…
- Una iglesia donde se sienta el Espíritu vivo de Jesús.
En fin, no sé si esta iglesia llegue a existir, pero espero que alguien por ahí escuche y, si es posible, que acepte el llamado de comenzar a hacer realidad la iglesia que sueño.
“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.
(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
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
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
Against people like me
What will happen
What will happen
“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.
“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.
Hace ya varios meses estoy yendo al gimnasio. Por razones de salud no puedo hacer ejercicios cardiovasculares (cardio) que requieran que mi corazón se acelere mucho. Así que mi entrenador sugirió que hiciera levantamiento de pesas en su lugar. Ya van varios meses levantando pesas. Siendo que no utilizo guantes, he notado cómo mis manos se comienzan a llenar de callos.
De pequeño, mi papá me llevaba a la finca para ayudarle. Tenía mis herramientas propias para trabajar: mi canastita de mimbre para el café y mi pequeño machete para enfrentarme a las yerbas que crecían impávidas por todos lados. Para quien no ha crecido en la finca, en el campo, esta vida es romantizada.
Todo escrito que he leído donde el ambiente es el campo, nos hacen pensar que esto es el idilio. Levantarse temprano, trabajar la tierra, producir nuestro propio alimento con el sudor de nuestra propia frente. Todo muy bonito y romantizado, como he escrito, pero nada de verdad.
La verdad es que esto es trabajo duro. Es fuerte. Es trabajo que, para el niño que era, no se sentía ni romántico ni satisfactorio. Aunque no creo que mi papá nunca se haya arrepentido de haber trabajado la tierra, la verdad es que él mismo nos repetía una y otra vez, la necesidad de estudiar para poder salir del campo. Tener una carrera y un trabajo estable. La vida en el campo y el trabajo de la finca son duros.
El tomar el pequeño machete me creaba callos en mis manos. Recuerdo que detestaba verme las manos al final del día y sentir la protuberancia que se convertiría en una ampolla de agua y que luego dejaría a su vez una marca callosa. Recuerdo el no querer ni siquiera mirar mis manos para no darme cuenta de esta horrorosa realidad que me marcaba como niño pobre, como niño del campo, como niño jíbaro…
Me ha parecido interesante que ahora, cuando ya estoy adulto y tengo más o menos la misma edad que tenía mi papá cuando me llevaba con él a la finca, mi comprensión de los callos en mis manos es diferente. Ahora, aunque no tengo callos por las mismas razones, veo mis manos y recuerdo a mi papá. Recuerdo el machetito que yo usaba para cortar las yerbas del patio y de la finca. Recuerdo los granos del café, color del rubí, cuando recolectábamos los granos en las cestas de mimbre. Recuerdo el levantarme temprano – quejándome, no queriendo ir – para llenarnos del sereno de la madrugada mientras subíamos y bajábamos cerros para encontrar los arbustos más llenos de los granos de café. Recuerdo las manos de mi papá, acariciándonos con cariño por el trabajo completado, por haberle acompañado, por hacerle sentir orgulloso. Recuerdo sus manos callosas sobre las mías, recordándome la importancia de los estudios para que no tuviese que vivir toda la vida en la finca.
Ahora, los callos de mis manos, aunque no vienen de las mismas tareas, me recuerdan a mi procedencia campesina. Soy parte de esa jaibería boricua que salió de las montañas, también llenas de callos y de cicatrices en sus tierras…