Since words do matter…

Since words do matter.png

I won’t but I could. I absolutely could give you their names. I could give you their names because I remember those moments clearly. Not that there aren’t other similar moments, too numerous to count, that have also come to pass. But I specifically remember those that contained that phrase: “Go back to where you came from!”

When I was in third grade my family moved from Puerto Rico to a rural part of the Sunshine State. This move was one that held a great deal of sacrifice for my parents, something I have only thought about as an adult; but a move that I know was done with the desire to offer me (an only child at the time) a better life filled with greater opportunities.  Of the few things I remember about that moving process is taking a test to be allowed into the non-ESOL class— something that my parents advocated for. I remember being really worried during the stressful examination when I couldn’t remember the word trash can as well as when I discovered that the clock that you wear on your wrist is in fact called a watch. Despite these two hiccups I passed, likely given the fact that we had temporarily lived in Florida for a year in my kindergarten year, and my English had stuck.

This town, from which my sister and I eventually graduated high school and where my parents still live, is one that has had a deep impact on my understanding of race, ethnicity, culture and identity.

There I learned about rodeos, pick-up trucks and gained an appreciation for country music.

It was in this town that I had some of the best teachers (all Anglo, with the exception of a handful) I could have hoped for – ones who saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself, and who let me be my quirky, oft shy self.

There I also came to the realization that people treated others differently because of the color of their skin and the language that they spoke – a fact which coincided with my learning of and great love for MLK and other black poets and writers.

There I learned that though specifically as Puerto Ricans we were US Citizens, this fact often didn’t mean much, if anything, to those that my parents interviewed for, especially when they couldn’t hide their ‘foreignness’ given their accents.  I saw the tremendous gifts my parents possess and their admirable work ethic.

There I learned what it was like to be considered ‘other’ – and I learned about the solidarity that comes from that title, and in my case and context it came with the African American community.

There I intimately experienced other cultures whose primary language was also Spanish. At the time of my upbringing the Latino/a population was predominantly Mexican with many families who worked in the local agriculture and construction. It was here that I garnered a deep love for my Central and South American siblings.

Yes, it was there that I was told the phrase I’ve never forgotten: “Go back to where you came from!” Along with this taunt I remember being teased about whether I had come here on a raft, and called other derogative terms used for those who cross rivers.

I have traveled years and miles from this town.  I have had the privilege of incredible opportunities in my education, learning and personal formation. I have had the fortune of visiting different countries, and within this country working with diverse groups of people – diverse in geographical background, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.  Still, I have continued to learn afresh the truths I gleaned in this secondary hometown – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As I shared at a church denominational gathering recently, it is only in the recent past that I have realized how I have come to internalize the spirit of these words on my life. Not only those in my 8thgrade Algebra class but those spoken in the halls of churches I have served. That even in my slight avoidance of publicly speaking personally on such topics there was the subconscious understanding that part of my identity as a Latina was a problem or obstacle to be overcome.

Still I’m regularly told: “Don’t speak of such things; they are divisive. The more you talk about them the more you bring up our differences.” “Don’t take it seriously, they don’t know any better; it’s just part of their upbringing.” “Don’t call yourself Latina; you’re talented and don’t have to play the race card.” “Don’t talk about being Latina or you’ll never be seen as anything but that.”

And then I hear and read this phrase reach national and international news: Go back to where you came from!

I have a love-hate relationship with writing. I haven’t written on here in years. Part of it is that in some ways these past few years I have felt as if I had come to the end of words. What could my words matter anyway? What could my grief matter? How does the impact of our national rhetoric on me make a difference? But part of what I have remembered upon hearing this childhood phrase again is that: Words do matter.

As I hope to have communicated, the racial tensions in this country have not been new to me. I say that aware of my particular privilege as a light-skinned Latina born with US citizenship, and one with a decent command of the English language. And still, the past several years have lived into what Lin-Manuel Miranda writes in his musical ‘In the Heights’: “Racism’s gone from latent to blatant!”

I think I also haven’t written for a while because I have been in some ways afraid. What I have known to be true for so many of my black siblings and other siblings of color is now public, and we haven’t handled it well. Speaking vulnerably on such things rarely goes well. In the past few years I have had some of the most painful conversations around the topic of race. The ones that have hurt the most have been with those I thought knew better and whose ignorance and unwillingness to dialogue have surprised me in the most painful of ways. I have also grown weary of those with the greatest of privileges who happily benefit from their public ‘wokeness.’

Yet I’m not a politician, I’m a pastor – and right or wrong, I’ve never felt compelled to even address a politician by name in a sermon, though I have certainly addressed the words and actions of such. I personally hope to have no political agenda other than the agenda of a transforming love that comes with my understanding of following Jesus.

Since words do matter…. here are mine.

I’m worried.

I’m worried for the little girls and boys who continue to hear those phrases said to them and of them. I worry about how they might internalize them. I worry about the boys and girls who hear those phrases shouted at others. I worry that their parents won’t help them understand how wrong and bad those words are. I worry that they will later say those things. I worry about those who have already internalized these – giving or receiving them – and how their souls are hindered from the freedom that is found in the understanding of God’s deep love for all people or all genders, ages, nations, races, cultures, orientations, abilities and beyond. I worry about a lot of things.

I worry because I am beginning to see that we have forgotten that words matter and that they in fact shape the reality that surrounds us. Words like the ones we regularly hear spoken from those in the highest office of power in our country give us permission to objectify other humans. Words like this allow us to leave children uncared for at our borders and in homes next to our own. Words like this allow us to treat women as objects. As the Rev. Dr. William Barber II has said, “We Are In a Crisis — a Moral Crisis,” and I believe a spiritual crisis. That politicians would sell their souls for personal gain does not likely surprise many, but part of our crisis is that the Church, which is supposed to be a counter-cultural hope of the world, has been so complicit in word and deed as well as in lack of words and deeds.

As a part of the Church I ask for forgiveness for the ways that I have been complicit in silence, inaction and even in speaking words of harm.  Under the conviction that words do matter — even my words — I commit to not taking words for granted.

Church-people especially, would you join me? I would love your company.

May we speak up when we hear those around us speak words that contribute to harm. May we speak truth to lies: that all are persons of dignity, that all are worthy of love, safety and care.  That we can disagree, and often should, but that we can do so from a foundation of the sacredness of all persons.

Derogatory language is wrong. Words matter.  Racism, prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior is sinful and evil.  Christian allegiance is first and foremost to the work of Jesus in the world: the work of proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind — a work that sets the oppressed free and proclaims that God calls us to be at work with God in all of these ways (C.f. Luke 4:17-21).

May our words reflect these truths. May they be typed, written, spoken, shared, lived.  May it be so.

Change the World

I was 24 years old, and I’d spent the past 7 years of my life studying religion, the Bible, and spirituality, and I graduated for the third time in my life and I had no idea what was going to become of me. I had recently, finally begun the process of becoming a pastor but later than usual, so now I had to wait. I started looking for a job and could not find one.  I mean, I contacted Starbucks and they didn’t call me back — (thanks, guys, like I don’t give you business).

Through a professor I ended up hearing about a position in a church that seemed to match some of my passions.  I applied for it, and by the grace of God and some folks who saw potential in me, I got the job.  My first ‘professional’ job.  It was a director/missions position and I moved in to a place that I quickly realized resembled a book I was reading at the time —  ‘The Help.’  I seem to have traveled back in time into pre-Civil Rights.  This community is the only predominantly African-American county in Florida and at the same time segregated (by schools and funeral homes, etc), either really rich or underresourced and poverty stricken… A less than 50% graduation rate, poor literacy, and so on…

So, I moved by myself to the ‘ghtetto’, got a big dog like they told me, an alarm system, etc.  My Mom’s prayer life increased exponentially, and I was genuinely excited to work on these ministries that had begun there — A neat after school program, English classes for non-English speakers, and the opportunity to get to know some beautiful people.

The couple years I was there God taught me many things.  I learned things about how the world works, about suffering, isolation, community, and justice.  I learned things about myself, but more than anything, I think God was showing me things about God-self.  God is in the places where people avoid.  God is to be found where there is seemingly little light.

In the cycles of poverty and violence and oppression that I witnessed I began to ask where hope was?  Where justice was?  Where the kingdom that we Christians hear about was?  And as a minister, what I possibly could say that really meant something — not just nice words or just talk about heaven — but that actually changed someone’s life.

That brought me to the Gospel of Luke.  All the gospels have their own ‘flavor’ so to speak — they are written for certain audiences for certain purposes and thus sometimes address different things.  I resonate with Luke as a champion for the outsider.  One of my favorite scripture passages is Luke 4:16-21:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Prior to the part to this passage, Jesus is born in a meager situation – one that allowed for shepherds to visit.  He begins to grow and finds himself studying in the temple.  He is baptized and then spends some time of preparation in the wilderness.

Jesus then went home to Nazareth.  As his family’s habit he went to the synagogue to worship.  There they repeated the Shema (found in Deut and Numbers), the central verse of Judaism, pledging allegiance to one God.  Then they prayed, heard a passage read from the Torah, then a passage from the prophets, a sermon, and a final priestly blessing.  Jesus was given the honor of rearing the scroll and then preaching.  He read two verses from Isaiah 61.

The words Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth when he announced the beginning of his ministry are incredibly meaningful and reflective of his mission. He identified himself as the “Servant of the Lord,” prophesied by Isaiah, who would “bring justice” to the world (Isaiah 42:1-7). “Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace [and he did!]. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world” (Tim Keller, ‘Generous Justice’).  How much more radical can you get than mentioning the year of the Lord, jubilee, in your opening statements!

Now, I will confess that I still have moments where I feel hopeless.  Where I indulge in pity parties.  Where I wonder what this ‘fulfilled in your hearing’ business means.  I still see injustice, suffering, and oppression — I can think that the powers have won, and feel despair.  But I find that this is why we are a people of hope… and a people of action.

The ‘fulfilled’ tense is one that is currently happening and continues to happen.  I worked on my Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork while living in this community, and one of the questions was related to the kingdom of God.  While reflecting on where the kingdom of God is breaking through I discovered it was often in the little things.  In the midst of what seemed like a hopeless environment in seeing the big smiles of children.  In telling kids who rarely if ever hear words of love in their homes, “I love you, no matter what.” In making chili; in giving out candy; in living in the midst of it all.

I read the Bible and I’m overwhelmed with the amount of Biblical material that expresses concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.  Jesus didn’t come in power and using all the glory and authority of God,  he came lowly and without a place to rest his head.  He didn’t show off his knowledge and stick to the synagogue alone, and built up his spiritual life for himself.  He was continuously with people.  He healed the sick.  He liberated those who were oppressed by spirits.  He was criticized for hanging out with the wrong crowds.  In the same way we who go to church, and have Bibles (and maybe even read them), who know about a life of prayer and can talk about spirituality and grow in that way — but unless we use all of those things that build us up as individuals to build up the church and to love the unlovable, to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to change our lives, we are not really following Jesus and walking where he is… we are posing.

“We must move beyond an anemic view of our faith as something only personal and private, with no public dimension, and instead see it as the source of power that can change the world. ”
-Richard Stearns, ‘the Hole in Our Gospel’

How do we as the church follow Jesus this way?  How do we as individuals do this?  God does not ask us to give things we do not have or cannot give, but God can’t use what we don’t offer to be used.

Prayer:  God, thank you for the incarnation – for being a God who comes down and lives with us and doesn’t simply ask of us things from on high.  Thank you for being with us still, through your Spirit — you never leave us alone.  Thank you for continuing to call us deeper — beyond ourselves.  Fill us with your love.  Fill us with your compassion and with passion.  Change our worlds again, and help us be agents of change, for the growing of your kingdom.  Amen.

a going away gift from the after school program

a going away gift from the after school program that hangs on my wall