Reflections on the National Presbyterian Hispanic/Latino-a Gathering in San Antonio, Texas:
An Historic Seed for an Unknown Future
by The Rev. Jose Luis Casal
The Presbytery of Tres Rios
There are two ways to share an experience, either as a reporter who looks for news that may generate an audience’s interest, or as a participant who – in the privacy of the heart – has discerned the most important experience of his or her life. In reflecting on what I consider to be the most important event of the decade for the Presbyterian Hispanic/Latino-a constituency in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I have chosen to share my experience in the role of engaged participant.
From July 23-25, 2010, some 360 Hispanic/Latino men, women, youth, pastors and lay pastors gathered at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., to celebrate a historic event called “A Family with a Purposeful Call.” If you think this was like a happy family reunion, you would be completely wrong. The idea of the organizers and the design of the event were far from the model of happy campers. Yes, we are a family – we belong to one family – but what keeps us together is not the sense of belonging but the sense of call. This family has a call that comes directly from God. Behind the call of God is always a hidden purpose that sometimes is not visible at a particular time but is like a seed planted “by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season…” (Psalm 1:3 - NRSV). The gathering of the Hispanic/Latino family in San Antonio, Tex., was a historic seed planted for an unknown future.
Although the planning of the event took around three years, the idea had been meditated on, discussed, and analyzed since 1999, when a group of Hispanic/Latino-a leaders first gathered in Cleveland, Oh., with the dream of celebrating an event that might gather all the members of the Hispanic/Latino-a family of the PC(USA). Several years of conversations and coordination preceded the formation of the planning committee that had their first meeting on July 2007. The Hispanic/Latino-a organizations of women, men, and youth as well as the National Hispanic Latino Caucus and the offices of the General Assembly connected with Hispanic/Latino ministries were part of this effort. For the first time in the history of the PC(USA), the Hispanic/Latino-a constituency planned an event that not only included all the Hispanic/Latino-a organizations, but also gathered leaders and speakers from different theological, social, and political backgrounds to share their ideas about the text from 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
A wonderful, diverse team of 23 leaders, liturgists, and preachers who conducted Bible studies, three worship services, two forums, two main presentations and twelve workshops in Spanish and English were the instruments used by God to make clear his call to each of us. God accommodated all the presentations in such a way that we perceived just one message but with different tones, like a symphony where you hear different instruments united by the same melody.
Rev. Magdalena García, one of the keynote speakers, opened the event, describing the foundation of our common call saying, “Our theme, taken from 1 Peter 2:9 reminds us that as Christians we are a family, priesthood, a nation, and a people. This has tremendous implications. It means that our calling has a collective nature and, therefore, is to be lived out in the midst of diversity. Sounds beautiful, right? But it’s not easy for at least two reasons. First, we live and minister in an increasingly individualistic society and church, where prosperity theology is favored over liberation theology. Even Reformed Christians succumb to this mentality, which personalizes faith at the expense of God’s people by justifying and multiplying socioeconomic disparities. And secondly, we find it difficult to embrace God’s given diversity because we all have our list of undesirable and suspicious people with whom we would rather not associate, be it on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, migratory status, or other characteristics.”
Dr. Joel Gajardo, the other keynote speaker, completed the idea, challenging the group “to be a prophetic voice inside our own Presbyterian Church.” “I wonder,” he said, “if we have, as a Hispanic/Latino family, the courage and vision to unmask, in strong terms, but also with great humility and love, the cultural captivity of the Christian faith in our society. The Western culture that is so predominant in our Anglo congregations cannot be confused with the authentic expression of the Gospel.”
He also alerted us “to have in mind our own limitations and our common need of God's grace in our lives to avoid any type of self-indulgence or cultural narcissism.” These words, pronounced in a colorful worship service opened by a procession of national flags of the countries of Latin America, reminded us that in the eyes of God there is not such a thing as a dominant, superior, or more developed culture; but every man, woman, nation, region, and continent are part of the beautiful rainbow created by God with equal conditions and similar values.
The same challenge was repeated in different ways through different workshops. Rev. Tony Aja and Ruben Armendariz led the workshop, “What Will the Church Be Like When Whites Are No Longer the Majority?” The title itself was a challenge, but Rev. Aja was more specific when he affirmed, “God wants a truly inclusive and diverse church and Jesus broke all cultural and racial taboos during his earthly ministry. At Pentecost the gospel was heard in many languages and people from many ethnicities joined the church; and the Council of Jerusalem, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, realized that people did not have to change culturally to join the church of Jesus Christ.”
The participants also had the opportunity to see the practical side of the multicultural church. The workshops, “Beyond the Multicultural Church,” led by the Reverends Jose Luis Casal and Mauricio Chacón, and “The Gift of Being Hispanic,” by Rev. Karen Hernandez, provided that approach. Rev. Hernandez described “the good, the bad, and the ugly part of the process of transformation when a mono-cultural church initiates the transition to a multicultural church”; and Rev. Chacón shared his experiences in the process of connecting the church with the community where the congregation is located. Definitively the multicultural and inclusive nature of the church was a strong part of God’s call to our Hispanic family gathered in San Antonio.
Great interest was generated by the workshop, “Men and Women Serving in a Holistic Church.” led by Rev. Pablo Caraballo and Eileen Mendez. They described the characteristics of a holistic church where “men and women develop their ministry serving the community where they live, using their gifts to transform the church and the community.” Similar ideas were developed by Rev. Reina Mairena in her workshop “Using your Gifts to Announce the Wonders of God,” and Elder Leticia Morales in her workshop, “The Ministry of the Members of the Church.” The word service was mentioned several times as another characteristic of God’s call to our Hispanic/Latino family.
One more component of God’s call is the permanent transformation of the church we call “change.” Rev. Dr. José Irizarry, Dean of the Evangelical Seminary in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, speaking for pastors and CLPs affirmed: “to be Christian is to accept the challenge to change the way we do, see, and interpret things.” Rev. Carmen Rosario addressed the concept of change in her workshop, “We Never Did It in that Way.” She explained the different models and processes that are necessary to produce the changes to transform the ministry and structure of the church. A concrete and practical experience of change and innovation were the liturgies and devotions prepared by Rev. Marissa Galván-Valle, Associate for Resources and Relation with the Hispanic Constituency of General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC). She described the liturgies as “an experiment of participation using a variety of worship styles with the intentional use of three different languages.” Yes, God was calling the Hispanic/Latino-a Presbyterians to change, to promote change, and to model a changing attitude for the wider church.
The gathering was a combination of business, worship, and training. The Hispanic/ Latinas Presbyterian Women and the National Hispanic Latino Presbyterian Caucus celebrated their assemblies by electing new officers for the triennium 2010-1013. After two successful terms, Cecilia Casal was recognized with the gold pin of Honorary Life Member of the Presbyterian Women of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and passed the leadership of the women’s organization to the newly elected Moderator, Florence Vargas from Puerto Rico. The National Hispanic Latino Presbyterian Caucus also elected its new Moderator, Rev. Mauricio Chacón, after two terms of service in the hands of Rev. Alfredo Miranda. A combined celebration of farewell and welcome set the tone for Saturday night where the new slates of officers of both organizations were installed followed by a cultural night with Mariachis and a folkloric group of dances. Rev. Hector Rodriguez, Associate for Hispanic Congregational Enhancement, said during the service of installation, “The future of these two organizations is connected with the future of our church; they are changing leadership but the Head of the church remains the same.”
Immigration was another important word we mentioned many times during the gathering. Julia Thorne, from the Immigration Office of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) challenged the group with the following words: “As we wait for the U.S. government to create justice for so many of our immigrant communities, Presbyterian churches must learn new ways to Be Church Together. We must educate our churches about a theology of immigration, immigration law, and how Presbyterians have responded to former times of increased immigration. We must share our stories with one another in the hopes that as we become a church family we will create a church where all members are heard and cared for.”
The ecumenical organization Church World Service was present at the gathering thanks to the generous donation of 100 T-shirts imprinted with the question, “Do I look like an undocumented immigrant?” Julia’s presentation – together with the T-shirts – was a perfect combination to express our Christian solidarity with those who live in despair for the lack of legal documents to live in the U.S. The closing service of our gathering was an example of this solidarity when one of the preachers, the seminarian Lis Valle, holding her U.S. passport affirmed, “This document doesn’t make me different or superior from other people; what makes me different is my citizenship in heaven that challenges me to love, defend, support, and embrace others who have not this document.”
At the same closing worship service, the other preacher, Rev. Jose Luis Casal, challenged the audience “to hear the call of God and move the fences we have created in the church and society that divide people by their race, gender, political positions, migratory status, social level, and theological approaches.” Another silent extemporaneous demonstration of solidarity took place in the worship service. Sitting in the congregation were many women who had decided to wear white clothes to express their solidarity with the Cuban group, Ladies in White, who had received world attention four months before our Gathering for their protest in the streets of Havana demanding liberty for their husbands, sons, and relatives, all of them political prisoners in Cuban jails. “We dream of the day when it will not be necessary to wear white clothes here, in Cuba, or in any part of the world because every human being will be respected and protected,” declared Rev. Casal in his closing remarks.
Although the event of San Antonio, Tex., did not approve any statement, did not take any concrete action, did not proclaim a declaration, there is no doubt that we heard the voice of God and discovered the purpose of that call. Unequivocally God called us in San Antonio, Tex., to plant an historic seed that will bear fruit in an unknown future.