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.

Why church?

I’ve mourned the Church for a while – for years.  I’ve literally wept over the many ways it has caused pain and has deeply hurt people.  Not too long ago I sat in my living room shedding tears over the World Vision back and forth stance regarding individuals who are homosexual.  I’ve mourned because of congregations rejecting black pastors because of their skin color; I’ve cried over discussions about the construction of unnecessary and extravagant buildings while children starve around the corner; I’ve cried over church-people demonstrating a ‘me’ mentality and comfort-driven focus when it comes to worship. I’ve mourned people hiding their diagnosis of HIV/AIDS lest they be marginalized or rejected in their faith community. Recently I’ve cried over myself and the realization that though we have come a long way in my denomination in the equality of women (in ministry and beyond), we still have a long way to go.  I weep when I contemplate that anyone would hate their own person because the Church has made them believe they’re unworthy of love.

I cry over the seminary I graduated from — due to the actions of its leaders over the past several years, and its seeming lack of allowing space for grace in its stance on different points of view and understandings of Scripture; which to me speak of a lack of love and humility.

I cry because despite all of these things, I love the Church.  I love the Church because I believe she is created and called to be more than she is, and because I believe Christ loves  her more than I can even fathom.  I cry because I believe that these words from Bill Hybels are true, that:

“There is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right! It transforms lives, heart by heart… soul by soul… life by life. That’s why the most important thing I can do is to lay down my heart for the cause of Christ.”  

I believe this because I’ve seen it – I’ve experienced it!  The power of a loving, grace-filled community — there is nothing like it.

Upon pondering these things over the years, I’ve had the thought and impression that Jesus too weeps for his Church — the whole of the Trinity weeps (as Steve Harper says).  I don’t doubt that when we hurt, Christ hurts, and when we cry, Christ cries.  I then believe that God is heartbroken over many of the actions (and inactions), words, and sentiments in God’s Church.  Over what seems to be in many groups a disposition of judgment, an inability to love in the midst of differing opinions, and a lust for power.

With so much disappointment I’ve wondered at times what then is the point of continuing with this institution.  Why church?  I’ve been asked this question by frustrated individuals in the past and very recently.

I’m a pastor who belongs to the infamous millennial generation; the generation that is said to be absent from the church.  People ask me, how can we attract your generation to the Church?

Well, I distinctly remember the night – halfway through seminary –  I was contemplating on faith as a journey, and I came to the clear conclusion that, very simply, to follow God is to LOVE God and LOVE neighbor as myself (which does require that I love myself as well).  That’s it — it’s that simple, not to say easy.  This was a big deal for me because that is not how I’d always seen things — faith, church, God.  It’s incredible how our perception and understanding of God affects how we then view ourselves and others, and our weaknesses and those of others.

Here’s another woeful realization:  I’m part of the Church, which means I’m complicit in its failings.  Unfortunately for me, I have to fess up too.

If to the right or left I stray,
That moment, Lord, reprove;
And let me weep my life away,
For having grieved thy love:
O may the least omission pain
My well-instructed soul,
And drive me to the blood again
Which makes the wounded whole!
(I Want A Principle Within — Charles Wesley)

“It’s our job to love; God’s job to judge; the Spirit’s job to convict.”

What is compelling and beautiful about the Church is not its ability to be perfect (that’s impossible when we people are involved), but its demonstration of radical love and forgiveness; its humility- it’s Christ-likeness.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been discouraged recently -for many of the reasons I mentioned above and also for the tension in our denomination.  Not that this discussion does not need to happen – but because of the rhetoric.  Again, I don’t expect perfection, after all, I call the Church (which is the group of people, not the building) a motley group of forgiven messes, because we are broken, messy individuals, hopefully growing, through God, in love and character.

Appropriately timed then is Dr. Steve Harper’s most recent book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride‘ which has continued this conversation rumbling around in my head.  In our denomination there are rumors of a split, specifically due to the issue of homosexuality.  I’m not going to lie, when I picked up the book to read it I was somewhat cynical.  I was expecting to be disappointed — it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been disappointed.   Dr. Harper is actually one of the people I most respect in ministry, but whenever this topic comes up, it’s rare that any conversation is satisfactory.  These conversations are often exhausting and discouraging.

Well, I can say that what Dr. Harper has written is beautiful.  I teared up during the introduction (I guess we’ve established that I’m sensitive — something I have to say I’ve observed Dr. Harper being as well!).  It’s not because any of the material is particularly scandalous to me but it’s honest, vulnerable, and from the heart.  It brings us back to what it’s all about — love God, love others — and for someone who’s been feeling discouraged and restless, I’m thankful.  I’m thankful for Dr. Harper putting words to feelings I’ve had for a long time, knowing he’ll receive flak from certain circles.  I’m thankful because in the midst of our errors and prejudices, God works, redeems and pours out grace.

And thus, I’m hopeful — I will embrace my stubborn streak in this instance and employ stubborn hope — because God’s love and grace is overwhelming and overcomes all.  I’m hopeful because of people like Dr. Harper, and other followers of Jesus who I come across on a daily basis who long to serve God and to love others.  People who are not afraid to be uncomfortable.  People willing to sit at the table and dialogue.  People who recognize the sacrifices that come with following Jesus.

I say all of these things not because they haven’t been said before, and haven’t been said more eloquently, but because I realize that I’m not alone.  I’m not alone, and neither are you.  (That’s another beautiful aspect of the Church.)  And in the midst of my frustration, I am hopeful — I’m hopeful more than anything because of God; because of how God works in us, when we allow God to work in us, and how God works even despite us (despite me, for sure!).

Also, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, but it seems there are times when the Spirit blows like a small gust that lifts up a couple of leaves, and  other times in history when the Spirit blows like a category 5 hurricane.  I don’t know to what mileage the Spirit is blowing currently (forgive the analogy) but I do sense an increase.  I encourage you to read books like Dr. Harper’s and Adam Hamilton’s ‘Making Sense of the Bible,’ and see if you don’t feel it too.


…But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.  – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation



Why church

I ‘Noah’ movie that will make you uncomfortable.

I finally saw Noah today. What follows is not an interesting review (there are plenty of those out there), but the reasons I personally liked this movie. There will be no spoilers – simply a personal reflection.

It was not what I expected, and I don’ t like it in the way that I expected. The movie made me quite uncomfortable at times.  That’s a good thing as I do think people should feel uncomfortable every now and then – when you’re uncomfortable it often means you’re being stretched, which will possibly allow for growth and deeper understanding.

The movie is not an American, Evangelical Christian movie, it’s a heavily Jewish-inspired movie – this is reason number 1 I like it. It has the feel of Ancient lit, with influence from the Midrash and Jewish mysticism. It also is a Hollywood movie, so there definitely are some liberties that were taken – Aronofsky’s vision is very interesting.

I also liked it because I enjoy fiction, action, adventure, fantasy, and drama in movies. There’s also violence in this movie. If you don’t like these types of movies, you may not like this movie. ‘Noah’ made me think of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and similar movies. The story also brought to mind Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘Many Waters.’

‘Noah’ is not a straightforward account of the Old Testament version(s) of the great flood. I’m not sure how one could make a good movie with simply the information provided in Genesis. But remember, all movies that are literature turned into film must be adapted for the screen.

None of the above reasons are what made me uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable because it’s a tense movie which makes you think about the human condition, ethics and religion. Who ever said the story of Noah isn’t uncomfortable, anyway? I happen to think it’s quite controversial, and often think it’s ironic how we think about it as a children’s story. The story of Noah is intense.

Personally I found the movie fascinating and a source for healthy discussion – conversations about ‘good and evil’, religion, and Scripture sound like an exciting outcome of this artistic interpretation.

Now, when I say it made me uncomfortable, I’m not kidding. At one point in the movie I actually said out loud: “Oh, my God, no”. (I won’t tell you why!)

For everyone who is freaking out about it and walking out of theaters, please calm down. This is a movie – it’s art. God is not hurt by this movie. Christianity is not affected by this movie. Rather, this is a good, entertaining opportunity for meaningful (and respectful) conversations about faith and morality, or simply a nice day-off activity.  Like any movie, this movie is not for everyone.