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

Set This World on Fire

A week ago Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was acknowledged along with his life’s work and mission. We acknowledge his work as a civil rights activist and his dedication to change through non-violence. We remember the racial injustice of the past and the progress we’ve made into the present.  Now, do we take a break until Black History Month or until next January?  Despite the prevailing myth of a present “post-racial” society, the winds of change and activism have sprung up once again. We see it through the protests in the news reports and social critiques in blogs and articles posted all over social media outlets.  America is begrudgingly becoming conscious again of our communal sin, or collective apathy and blindness to injustice and prejudice.

And the church? Secular society wants us to disconnect our faith with the rest of the world, to compartmentalize our religiosity. This phenomenon – secularism – has also entered the sphere of activism. It’s not to say that one cannot be a secular humanist and work towards ending oppression and dedicating one’s life to the betterment of man. Far from it, many of my atheist and agnostic friends are caring and compassionate people –passionate even on social justice issues. I applaud and welcome them as companions in the struggle for peace and freedom in the face of oppression and prejudice.

Regardless of this reality, we as Christians of all stripes cannot forget our role and responsibility to labor for justice, peace, and civil rights. We must remember the word of Christ  – “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40, NIV).  As Christians, who hopefully take on the title in recognition of our Savior and role model for a holy life in this world and the next, we must toil in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to be a people of the beatitudes. We are meant to remember them and live them.

Christianity is and always has been a radical and revolutionary faith that puts us at odds with society and with ourselves. Our faith is meant to eliminate our comfort zones and recognize our failings, so that Christ lives through us to the world. St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic, nun and theologian said:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…

We are the “Christ” in the world tasked with building the kingdom of God. For what is faith if it doesn’t transform your very being into a servant of God for the people of God. And if we look at our collective history as Christians, despite all the negative propaganda and agenda about our failings as a church, true or untrue, we have also served as role models of change. There are countless priests and pastors who spent their lives ministering to the untouchables of India and the lepers of the pacific islands. And even to the poor and marginalized on the south side and the diseased and hungry of the developing world. Just to name a few: there is Bartolomé de Las Casas, who stood up for the rights of the Indigenous in the Americas; John Woolman, Quaker and abolitionist; Harriet Tubman, the “Moses” of southern slaves; William Booth, the first general of the Salvation Army, and Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker Movement and social activist. And of course there is Martin Luther King Jr., activist and preacher.

There are droves of Christians from antiquity to contemporary times that dedicate their lives to the service of others and wish to see God’s Kingdom on earth. See, faith is not about restrictions. It’s about knowing that there is a love so encompassing and powerful that your failings are irrelevant to the divine mercy of God’s love. And because God is compassion, we also have compassion and become impassioned to do the work of the Lord.  Therefore, let us remember that we have a calling to be activists and fighters for a better world. We have our own special calling from on high. Let us live it fully. Because when we are with the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed we are also in communion with the suffering Christ.

We must remember the words of Rev. Dr.  King,

“…[the masses] have taken the Old Testament call righteousness and justice …  with the New Testament call to love one’s enemies and to bless one’s persecutors has formed one of the most creative and constructive revolutionary forces that our world has known in many a decade.”   (Sermon, Rev. Dr. King, Christian Movement in a Revolutionary Age).

King gave the world a true legacy, an example in which faith and passion can be used peacefully with love to create change; this concept so benign-sounding and simplistic is also so counter-cultural that it is revolutionary. King demonstrated a method and lived the example of what a Christian activist is and can be. Activism and social justice cannot just be the sole province of the secular humanist; it is a task onto which we must all travail. We are called to be the revolution – faith for the service of others and loving your neighbor, especially the oppressor and persecutor.

Thus, I ask you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to remember the Lord’s call to service and justice.  St. Catherine of Sienna, a French mystic and theologian said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” My God, how true are those words!  When we enter more fully in the Lord, Christ takes on us, we take on Christ and we discover and become a truer self. We are reconstructed to become recon-structors.  We are revolutionized into the person God has called us to be to be. Some are called to lead, others to preach, some to sing, and all to serve.

 Gerald Polanco

Ed. 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