Deeper Still

I confess that I was somewhat of an oddity as a child. There are some who might argue that I’ve retained this quality into my adulthood. When I was about eight years old, my family was part of Brethren church plant in Grand Rapids. Actually, my father is the one who initiated the plant and functioned as a sort of “lead elder” for this church during that time. There was not an abundance of Spanish- language ministries in Grand Rapids when my family moved to the city in the early 90’s. And so, an inner-city, Spanish-language dominant, Brethren church was conceived and brought forth in the southwest side of the city, where a growing population of Latino immigrants had begun to take hold.

When this novel church received its first convert, he was promptly properly seasoned and made ready for baptism by immersion. We were still doing home meetings for worship at the time. Having no baptismal in the living room an announcement was made. This Sunday we’re having a special evening service across the street around the neighbor’s pool. I realized then that I had never been baptized. After the folding chairs were put away, I went up to speak to the elders, including my father, who were in a sort of huddle. I asked them, “What prevents me from being baptized?” They chuckled and someone asked me if I even knew what baptism meant. They instantly became solemn when I replied by with a paraphrase quote of Romans 6:3-5.

“…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

For the life of me, I can’t ever remember memorizing that passage of Scripture and the look on my Father’s face suggested that he didn’t remember me doing so either. There were no further questions.

I was baptized in the neighbor’s in-ground swimming pool along with the other candidate. That anyone in that neighborhood had a real swimming pool was just as much an anomaly as the sight of church folks in their dress clothes gathered around the pool while singing hymns in Spanish. The sun set the sky on fire in its twilight. I don’t know if God troubled the waters as it says in the old-time Spiritual. But, I do remember that the water was cold. Ironically, I also recall being asked to share a testimony while standing there in that freezing water. I didn’t have anything to say. After a few moments of silence, they dunked me anyway.

The scene must have set some sort of precedence. Every other baptism in the church had its unusual elements. A narrow horse trough was used for several other baptisms. There were rivers chosen in nearby public parks, and I vaguely remember someone getting tossed into lake Michigan. I’m sure that if it ever came to it, the church might have been willing to take someone into the backyard and hose them down in the name of the Trinity, but thankfully the elders were fairly resourceful and found other means to perform the sacrament. One thing for sure is, the new church plant was determined to make disciples of every Latino-immigrant nation represented in the ‘hood. It was determined to let everyone in its vicinity know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. I was more than glad to participate. This was only my introduction to God’s mission to the world. The Holy Spirit would stir a passion for God’s Word and missional engagement in me that was deeper still.

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Sometime later, my family moved across Division Avenue to the southeast side of Grand Rapids. We then lived in the proximity of Garfield Park. I loved playing basketball and I was allowed to go the park on my own to shoot hoops in the afternoons. I began sneaking to the park with my Bible smashed into my pocket or hidden beneath my shirt. I’m not sure if my mother ever noticed, and now that I look back I’ve never asked her if she did or didn’t know what the square looking thing was under my shirt. I would walk past the basketball court to the west end of the park where there were several tall trees. Then, I pulled out my Bible and instructed the trees to, “Hear now, the Word of the Lord.” I took it upon myself to exhort those trees boldly with the words of Psalm 96: “Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth…” I found several other Scriptures related to their context and situation to use as sermon material. I conducted whole worship services in that park and did all, but collect an offering. This was more than just modeling what I saw on Sunday mornings. I didn’t fully comprehend it at that time, but God was forming my heart for the preaching of the Word.

Short of reaching 20 years old, I met Dr. Duke. The church of my upbringing was going through significant turmoil with its leadership, organizational structure, and multi-ethnic tension. Feeling that I needed a change in order to continue growing as a Christian, I labored in prayer, asking God to lead me in the way which I should go. In what may seem like a major pendulum swing (and it certainly felt that way), I began attending an African-American Pentecostal church. I’m not sure when it began, but I began to notice a senior gentleman who tended to sit in the mid-section of the pews on the right side of the sanctuary. I don’t know what about him called my attention, except perhaps that he always seemed to carry an impressive sort of presence, as if he carried a sort of power in his demeanor. Whatever it was, I made a mental note to try and find a way to meet this man and find out who he was. When a class on ministerial training was offered at the church, I signed right up. As it turned out, this man, Dr. Duke, was the teacher. After several weeks, the class dissolved for unknown reasons, but I was very impressed with Dr. Duke’s knowledge of the Bible. Maybe he noticed that I was very serious about the class and wanting to grow as a disciple of Christ because he took me under his wing and we began to meet outside of class. I learned that he had once been a church planter and had a degree in social work and counseling. I began asking Dr. Duke all sorts of questions. I wanted to learn more about the Bible and interpreting Scripture. I wanted to know why different denominations have different traditions. When I wanted to learn about preaching, he invited me to join him on his regular visits to Mission in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Mission was a men’s rehab center which doubled as a homeless shelter. Dr. Duke and a friend of his, Pastor Waver, would visit the mission on Tuesdays at noon and take turns preaching for its chapel services. The first week I visited with Dr. Duke, he asked me on the spot to lead the attending group in a couple of songs before the preaching of the Word. Well, I was scared out of my wits. I was in a completely new environment and had no idea what I was doing. But, I came to learn. I walked up to the microphone and sang some worship songs that I learned at church. Several of those gathered there joined in the singing. The next week was Dr. Duke’s turn to preach. Again, on the spot he instructed me to preach in his stead. Well, if I was scared the previous week, at this I nearly peed my pants. I had no idea how to preach, let alone how to bring the Word to a congregation of folks who were at their wits end with life’s troubles and fighting various addictions. Perhaps that was the point… Dr. Duke looked at me sternly. He told me that this week it was fine to say no, but next week I would be preaching and that was that. Needless to say, I watched him intently as he preached. I took note of demeanor, his tone, and his style of teaching. And the next week when he tossed me the microphone, I went up to the podium with my rookie preaching notes and gave it all I had. It was in this way that Dr. Duke apprenticed me for missional ministry. I would preach, then we’d go over my sermon, noting improvements and needed changes.

Together with Pastor Waver, we sat at the lunch table with people who lost their homes or were estranged from their families. Many of the visitors also dealt with mental illnesses. After a few months, Dr. Duke was unable to continue visiting the mission. Pastor Waver, who was a bi-vocational church planter, also had to make some schedule changes. Because of this, he too was unable to continue volunteering at the mission. Our team of three became one. I continued volunteering at the mission for as long as I was able and increased my once a week commitment to several times a week as needed. Over a three-year period, I learned to eat whatever those gathered at the mission were eating. I learned to silence myself and listen to their stories. I learned to pray with them and to let them pray for me. I had never preached at a church before or pastored a congregation. But, something about serving at this Mission felt absolutely right.

Dr. Duke had a small office in his home. Once when I visited with him, he invited me to his office to talk about some of the books he had there. When I walked in, I immediately noticed the number of degrees that he had framed on his wall. To this day, I don’t think I’ve met anyone with such a strong educational background, yet he never flashed his degrees or talked about them much. I was so curious that I asked him about each of the framed degrees on his wall. I can’t remember them all. However, there was one that seriously caught my attention. It was a seminary degree. As he began to tell me about his experience going to seminary, I began to feel the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart.

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