Smoke-Stained Sky

This article was first published in the Kerux magazine here.

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“Ethnically ambiguous.” I have adopted this short phrase to describe my appearance. Most people in West Michigan cannot identify my ethnicity without asking. Really, I am the love product of a brown Dominican daddy and a fair-skinned Puerto Rican mom. You can see that in my own caramel skin, dark eyes and wavy hair. But, I have often been mistaken for African-American, Indian, Arab and various “other” Latino ethnicities. I used to sing in a choir at an African-American church for several years. Only as recently as last year did the choir director approach me to say he didn’t know I was Hispanic. After a hilarious exchange, he concluded the conversation by saying, “Well, you’re still Black to me!”

This past January I went to Israel with a group from Calvin Seminary. Once again I had to decide if I would keep my black beard and get the not-so-random security check or shave it off and cut those chances in half. After several hours of indecision, I decided to not shave. It shouldn’t surprise you that by the end of our pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” I had been given the evil eye and questioned several times by Israeli guards and airport security. For a fragment of time, I entered the world of the Palestinians.

I became most conscious of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians when our crew visited the town of Bethlehem. Present day Bethlehem is a Palestinian community in the West Bank of Israel. To enter Bethlehem, we needed to pass through the literal dividing wall of hostility that surrounds the West Bank. Just as I made the conscious choice to keep my beard, regardless as to what would be assumed of my ethnicity, at the checkpoint I made the decision to crouch away from the tour bus window. I didn’t want to be seen by the Israeli soldiers. I had seen enough guns and soldiers and I confess that with my passport in my backpack, I was ready to exercise some American privilege. I wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being questioned by guards in front of my peers. And ironically, as I thought about that passport, I felt a sense of shame take hold of me. Is this what it feels like for the Palestinians? Is this what it feels like when the have to stand in line every day at the checkpoint just to get in and out of the city?

We chose the perfect day to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. No, not really. We learned on site that a young man was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers the night before. I saw a procession of mourning Palestinians clothed in every rich shade of black and on their way to a funeral at the same church we visited. I saw a man in that multitude who reminded me of my father before I could think twice about him. His salt and pepper hair gleamed in the morning sun while he stared at his feet and followed his shadow on the stony pavement. His eyes conveyed such a deep sense of loss. I saw young men in the streets, burning tires in protest at the injustice of the shooting of one of their brothers. I was reminded of the young people on Madison Avenue in Grand Rapids, who often hold their poster signs in silence at the Hall Street intersection, hoping for change.

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After visiting the church, we went to Bethlehem Bible College. I was amazed to learn that there was Palestinian Christian college in the West Bank.  Palestinian Christians are striving to be faithful to the Gospel hope in a context of apartheid. Inside, Dr. Munther Isaac walked us through a brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the second time we had the opportunity to learn from a professor through this walk of history. But, listening to a Palestinian Christian witness to us about how Palestinians are robbed of their property and subjected to constant inspection shook my core. Families are being divided by the contribution of American dollars. As I listened, I was again ashamed of how I felt at the checkpoint. I was ashamed for my American and Latin American brothers and sisters who rally a cry for Zionism without a moment’s thought at the cost someone has to pay in return. I became enraged when I considered how the same Bible that I use to preach shalom and reconciliation between God and men has been used to support theft and abuse of the Palestinians.

I can never unlearn what I learned that day any more than I can erase what I saw. After we left Bethlehem Bible College, the streets were burgeoning with protests. We walked several blocks to our waiting bus. Walking the streets of Bethlehem during the protest was not a fearful event for me. I perhaps never felt safer, even at the sound of tear gas shot into the air and watching the smoke in the distance. God chooses to shed the light of Christ first in Bethlehem. Angels shouted His praise in that same smoke-stained sky. Hosanna in the highest. Bethlehem changed me just as much as standing at the Jordan River and praying at the Garden of Gethsemane. God met me at the checkpoint.

R. R. Tavárez

Called to Rejection

They called me “100% gringo.”  If I had been white enough to blush, my anger and frustration would have instantly been revealed.  However, my skin wasn’t white.  They didn’t see my anger, frustration and shame.  Back in the United States, calling a Latino a gringo was either a bad joke or an insult good enough to start a fist fight.  But, I wasn’t in the States; I was in Nicaragua.  I swallowed my pride to try and understand why they thought it was okay to refer to me as a gringo.  I was born in Brooklyn, New York to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother.  I was raised within a tight community of Latinos in West Michigan.  My cultural heritage is Latino.  My culture in practice is Latino, specifically that of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.  More often than not, I’d rather converse in Spanish or Spanglish, and eat Caribbean foods.  I relate to others through a Latino lens.  I am Latino.   However, during my time in Central America I was treated as an outsider to the Latino culture.

When Christ entered the world, He was rejected by His own people.  John 1:10-11 says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”  “His own did not receive Him…”  Those words have never rung so true to me as they did after my experience in Central America.  In general, natives of Latino countries misunderstand the dynamics of the life of Latinos in the States and therefore often treat them as cultural outsiders.  A generation of Latinos raised in the States is going/coming home to their people, only to find themselves unwelcomed and misunderstood.  These Stateside raised Latinos also experience a similar rejection right where they live in the U.S.  We’re always under suspect.  Do you have a green card?  Where are you really from?  What’s with the accent?  Why do dress like that?  We’re American, but we are treated as something “other” because we don’t measure up to the cultural standards of the White American, forcing us to conform to a process of acculturation to which we will never be, “good enough.”  Perhaps even more hurtful is to be treated as “other” by foreign born Latinos who live right alongside U.S. raised Latinos, shopping at the same grocery stores and going to the same churches.  If you’re really Latino, why do listen to that White music?  Why is your Spanish so terrible?  We live in a hyphen, between two worlds, without a real place to call home.  Rejection has become the sanctuary where we gather together.  In my experience as a Latino American, I have come to identify in part with the experience of Christ’s rejection by his own people and with the Christ who had nowhere to rest his head.

When I was young, I spent a significant amount of time in the Dominican Republic in the barrio of my grandmother.  She lived in the southern end of Villa Mella where the world of el campesino (country person)meets urban Santo Domingo.  In other words, it’s a very poor area where rural culture clashes with urban development.  It’s not too bad if you know how to get around.  You don’t have to search hard to find some of the best chicharones (pork rinds) in the world there.  And you don’t have to search too far to find some definite misperceptions of what life was like for me and my family back in the states.  If ever there existed a money tree, the people in the barrio of Villa Mella thought for sure I had one in my backyard in Grand Rapids. My reality, however, was the opposite of their perception.  Often, my family survived on the mercy of others.  We barely had enough money for my siblings and me to get on the plane to go to Santo Domingo.  Our suitcases were packed with someone else’s hand-me-downs that we received from a local church, the one where we had to stand in line outside with all the other poor families while the gringos drove by on their way to work.  I arrived in Nicaragua ready to deal with the misperceptions of my bank account.  However, I was unprepared for people attempting to strip me of my cultural heritage.

Part of my experience growing up in West Michigan was being a part of a Spanish-speaking church plant on the south end of Grand Rapids. There I witnessed several failures in ministry.  There was a lack of cross-cultural capacity within my church to minister within different Latino subgroups in the church and to share the gospel to the surrounding outside community.  Other issues included breakdowns in the church’s organizational structure, leadership development and outreach to youth.  Growing up in this culture and environment, I purposed in my heart to acquire the resources and skills needed in my urban community and to learn to exercise them well, in order to share them with those living and serving in the urban environment.

Growing up I felt the major gap between the Immigrant Latino Adult ministry and the ministry to the Latino youth raised in the U.S.  There was not a youth ministry available to me that ministered to my needs as a Latino-American. I jumped back and forth between the extremes of youth ministry at conservative White churches to a piece-meal Latino youth ministry in a church all-together unaware of how to serve adolescents.  In many respects, I was treated as a stranger in both places. No one seemed to understand where I was coming from.  Not by choice, I learned to navigate both of these worlds, but always with the desire for a form of ministry that would quench my desire to be reached in the hyphen in which I was forced to live.  I decided this too would be my quest, to grow in a way that I could reach back to the young Christian leaders living in that same space.

This summer I spent time doing mission work in Central America (mainly in Nicaragua and a short time in Costa Rica), with the goal of further equipping myself for ministry in the urban U.S. Latino context.  There, in Central America, I heard some things that broke my heart.  I heard Latinos in the States referred to as everything from gringos to political traitors.  How does a father or mother risking their life and freedom to cross into the States become a political traitor to their country, just for wanting to feed their children?  When did the desire for abundant life become political treachery?

I was the first Latino from the U.S. that several people in Nicaragua had ever met.  The fact that they didn’t know how to receive me, as in whether to give me plantains or cheeseburgers for lunch, broadened my perspective to the needs in the Latino community.  There is not just a gap between immigrant and American-raised/born Latinos in the states.  There is, in many respects, a far larger gap between Latinos in the U.S. and those in living in Latino Countries.

I blame the Disney Channel.  I blame movies and the stereotypes that are translated through them.  During one of the few time periods where I had down time, I was watching a movie with one of my host families.  In this movie, a character played by an African-American woman was yelling at another character in the movie (who happened to be a Latina that could easily pass for White). Then they asked me, “Are Blacks always angry like that?”  In a time where Latinos are generally disempowered in the ability to create intentional international interaction to and from the U.S., the media and ignorance on both sides have fostered this gap for too long.

I don’t entirely blame the media.  Sin is also a factor in the conversation.  When we take our lives and our culture as the standard by which everyone else should live, we set ourselves up as idols to be worshipped.  We make our culture the god to which all others must bow.  What I experienced in Nicaragua was an augmented form of something I experienced as a child growing up in West Michigan, where the few Latinos that could be gathered to worship together were never really together, as they were always comparing cultural notes as to which people group had the right idea; the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Dominicans, etc.

White missionaries permeate the country of Nicaragua.  At times the indigenous leaders expressed to me their frustration about not being fully able to be on the same economic, social, and educational level with their American co-laborers.  When my host father expressed that he felt inadequate as a pastor because he never learned English, it broke my heart.  I heard the voice of my own father trying to navigate the tumultuous tides of being a Latino church leader in America.  I heard in my host father’s words the voice of my high school friends who felt ostracized by their own immigrant relatives because they never learned to speak and read Spanish up to their relative standards.  I wonder how we can learn from one another?  Can there be a bridge built between these two groups of people?  Why are Latinos from the States not being empowered to go serve as missionaries in Latino countries?  Well versed in the pains of cross-cultural living, they are natural leaders in this area of ministry; yet, they are in need of validation to go and serve the Lord on a global scale.

There is a need for the generation living in the hyphen, in the place between American acculturation and Latino culture, to rise and become the much needed bi-cultural bridge and minister to both worlds. Despite some of these cultural issues I experienced in Nicaragua, I was not dissuaded from God’s calling on my life to serve among Latinos.  If anything, I feel God affirmed me that calling, to the local and global Latino community.  And in order to be an effective minister to this community, I have to learn to be comfortable living in the hyph

My best friend, who is of Dominican descent, was born in Brooklyn, NY.  Actually, we were born in the same neighborhood, just a couple of years apart.  However, his family moved back to the Dominican Republic and a large part of his life was lived in the D.R.  Now, living in Grand Rapids, when people ask him where he is from, he usually starts by saying, “Well, I’m a very confused individual.  I’m American, but…”  I hear him say this and I don’t think my friend is confused at all.  He says this to make others feel comfortable with his person, with his cultural identity and with his ministry.  He reminds me of Paul, who says in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” This is not just the space where we find ourselves, but the space to which God has called us. We are called to rejection. We are called to be the bridge that gets walked on, rolled over and seen as another means to get by.  We are called to lay down our lives for the gospel in a way that most people will never comprehend, except for those who most need a place to step forward in a way that we are uniquely able to provide.

R. R. Tavárez

Rising

Usually, for me, one of the most nerve wrecking things about air travel is air travel…  That’s not a typo.  If you get in a car accident, you get out of the car and put your feet on the ground.  If a ship starts to sink, you put on a life jacket and swim to shore.  When it comes to planes, the flight attendant is kind enough to make sure you know where the exits are.  If something goes wrong, she wants you know where you can escape.  Thanks, but escape to where exactly?  Excuse me stewardess, where’s my parachute?  Wait, we don’t get a parachute?  We get life jackets?  I’m pretty sure there’s a failure there somewhere…

Anyway, for the first time, I didn’t need a paper baggie when the plane began to rise off the ground.  And flying ten thousand feet above the earth didn’t faze me.  As I took off through the skyways headed to my mission trip to Nicaragua, all I could think about were the people still on the ground.  I thought about my sister and her hilarious kids having VBS in the backyard with their neighbors.  I thought about my friend Alex at work with folks in substance abuse recovery.  I thought about my spiritual father and mentor, who was probably praying and looking for church planting sites in the Latino community.  For the first time ever, I would be beyond the usual phone, text and face to face contact that I shared regularly with them and others.  It would be 7 weeks before they could hold hands with me when I needed prayer.  56 days without their jokes and encouragement. I didn’t know if I was ready to leave my network of support behind.

On my final plane connection to Nicaragua, the plane began to rise, and I thought to myself, this is it.  I was leaving Atlanta and the flight attendant had already told us to turn off our phones.  Right after she made sure we knew where the exits where…  Again, thanks.  The plane was filled with a variety of tan colored shades of Latino natives.  There were a few Americans, clearly marked by their matching mission trip shirts.  Up until this point, I hadn’t talked with anyone on the planes or airports.  That’s unusual for me.  Now, I was in my seat stuck between two people.  A guy going in and out of consciousness was on my right, and a young lady to my left, reading what looked like medical research articles in the light of the window.  I pulled out my own book and read for a while, but I felt like God was telling me to speak with her.  Eventually, I gave in.

“So… are you a doctor?”  I asked.  Immediately the young woman engaged me in friendly conversation.  Her name was Carolina and it turned out she was going to do a medical residency in Nicaragua.  She wanted to be a surgeon and she was a Christian.

After we discussed a bit about her studies and work she turned the mirror on me.  She pointed to the book I was reading about the rising Latino American church.  “What about you, what are doing in Nicaragua?”

Good question.  And just like that, God lifted me.  I shared with her, what I share with you now.  While churches in the northern part of the globe are slowly dwindling, the church of the global south in Africa and Latin America are rising.  The Latino American population in the states is ever increasing.  The Latino community and church is need of radical leadership, leadership like that of the phenomenal staff at the Nehemiah Center in Nicaragua, to which I was headed.  Latinos, specifically in my experience with immigrants and their American born children, need to know that there is a place at God’s table for them.  Too long have they sat in the ashes of broken systems left behind by colonialism.  Too long have they sat in the shadows as people left in the margins hoping for scraps from missionary tables.  It is time for them… for us… to rise.

Our Latino brothers and sisters in the U.S. leave their support networks in their home countries and come to the states desperate for a chance to have a sustainable living.  And their sacrifice for their families is so much more than the one I am taking by sitting in a plane.  And so, this is my turn.  It is my turn to take one for the team, just as people like my parents, have done so for me.  It’s my turn to serve hard and learn from my brothers and sisters who are working to bring God’s peace and justice in their own context, so I can come back home better equipped to serve in my own multicultural and Latino context.  God saw fit for me to make this my turn.  Not because I’m awesome.  If anything, my stress level and emotional weakness up until that point in my travel proved otherwise.  No.  God saw fit for this to be my turn and He would be my support and strong arm.  And when I return, it will be my turn to share what God has shown me with my family and friends, in the fight for those on living life on the fringes.  And God will empower us to continue together, building God’s kingdom, so that every knee will bow and every tongue proclaim, including our own, that He alone is Lord.

R. R. Tavárez