Marta Pastor de Teel: A Woman of Strength and Substance

Marta Pastor de Teel: A Woman of Strength and Substance

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March 29, 2021

Marta Teel has been described in many ways: vivacious, opinionated, gracious, intimidating, and beloved. Authentic. Serious and refined. Winsome and stylish. Generous, an avid reader and a fascinating conversation partner. A legend.

Her friends, colleagues, and former students recognize her as a force to be reckoned with — strong, intense, even scary for those unaccustomed to a woman speaking her mind and asking difficult questions.

“Marta’s views of the sacredness of all persons, the right to be, to belong, to contribute and to lead are always prominent in every conversation,” says Chris Oberg, who is Marta’s pastor at the La Sierra University Church in Riverside, California.

Marta has been a force for good her whole life, with a legacy just as wide, if perhaps less well known, as that of her late husband, Charles W. Teel, Jr. Dedicated to defending and empowering the underrepresented as well as caring for her own family, Marta has taken generations of young women under her wing during her thirty-year teaching career in the public school system and for even longer as a mentor to women going into education, law, and the ministry.

“She tolerated no nonsense,” says Lisa Padilla, a former student of Marta’s at Bloomington High School in the Colton Joint Unified School District. Padilla studied Spanish for three years under Marta. Inspired to become a teacher herself, she then worked alongside her from 1987 until Marta’s retirement in 2004. “Those who adjusted to her expectations and made it through her class usually had the utmost respect for her.”

Julie Urquizu, a video productions teacher at Bloomington, also taught with Marta for nearly twenty years. “Marta’s legacy is her students. She instilled hard work, excellence, and pride in her classes,” Urquizu says. “She knew her content and believed that her students were capable of learning, if only someone cared enough to insist that they learn. She was that person for them.”

A Bold and Radical Adventism

“I think her greatest contribution to Adventism has been as a spokesperson for the equality and empowerment of Adventist women and, more broadly, as someone committed to political conscientization,” says Gary Chartier, associate dean and distinguished professor of law and business ethics at La Sierra University, who has also known Marta since the mid-1980s.

While “conscientization” may not be a word Marta herself would use, self-actualization and a critique of power are central to her social, political, and theological views. As such, it defined her teaching philosophy and explains why mentoring young people has been vital to her experience and expression of faith.

In her work, Marta drew on the precise language of the Spanish poets; the socio-economic analysis and political vision of the exiled Basque essayist Miguel de Unamuno; the realism of novelists who paid homage to the historical events and lives of women, such as Isabel Allende; and the critical consciousness of feminist writers such as Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible, both of whom changed the way Christian theology and hermeneutics are done. (Marta is less enthusiastic about devotionals and self-help literature, even if written by or for women.)

By absorbing and sharing these literary giants’ wisdom through her teaching, friendships, and personal conversations, Marta became a change agent in her own right. Her life, and the convictions that have animated it over the past eight decades, embody the key ideas argued by her favorite writers — such as that biblical interpretation is inherently political and that religion can have a positive, life-giving impact on women’s self-understanding, if they recognize and are taught to see themselves as people — or historical subjects — with agency to make a difference in the world.

“Hers is a radical spirit,” says Verla Kwiram, former president of the Association of Adventist Women. Marta was active in AAW’s California chapter in the 1990s and was vocal in advocating that AAW move to the West Coast in the early 2000s from where it had been established in 1982. Marta attended AAW annual conferences and supported its growth, introducing Kwiram and others to the organization.

Friends for more than fifty years, Marta had worked with Kwiram and others to support the community of Seventh-day Adventist graduate students and distinguished scholars in greater Boston in the 1960s, out of which the Association of Adventist Forums was formed and from which this journal derives and still thrives today.

Kwiram describes a memorable AAF meeting at which Marta disabused young graduate students of the notion that social change had come easily. Marta rose slowly and deliberately to join a line of speakers and contradicted the students who lamented their lack of time and energy to foster activism and organization-building.

“We worked hard; we didn’t get enough sleep; and we were weary — but we had one hell of a good time,” Marta exclaimed.

Standing Up to Dictators

Family and friends say that Marta defied the norms of her generation of women, both in Spain and in the United States, with an independent streak that broke through barriers, eschewed conventional wisdom, and drew on the history and political activism of her family. She despised elitists and was always her own person. She spoke to power directly, unequivocally and fearlessly. She used a soft voice but carried a big stick — always backed by preparation, research, and a commitment to justice.

“She inherited that spirit from her grandparents who fought [General Francisco] Franco during the Spanish Civil War,” says Larry Geraty, another longtime colleague and friend who met both Marta and Charles when he and his future wife Gillian Keough were students at Newbold in 1958. Geraty would go on to serve as president of La Sierra University in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Charles taught in the School of Religion.

Born in Madrid on February 5, 1939, Marta Pastor arrived literally at the epicenter of the Spanish Civil War and grew up in Spain during World War II. Her maternal grandfather, an educator, was influential in Castilian society and a leader in the education and labor movements of his day. He organized the miners in northern Spain, founded the national teacher’s union and spearheaded a program to teach miners how to read.

The men in her family were politically active in supporting the democratically elected Second Spanish Republic and opposing both the Spanish monarchy and the military leaders’ attempts to seize the government. They were Republican and socialist in a European sense, fighting for democracy and freedom against Franco’s Nationalists and the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe.

Marta’s family went into hiding after Nationalist forces broke through and occupied Madrid, declared victory over the country, and initiated political reprisals to punish and silence their perceived enemies. Marta’s grandfather paid the ultimate price for his views: he was shot by a firing squad when Franco’s men brutally killed tens of thousands of their compatriots. Her father and other male relatives were also held as political prisoners, some for several years.

Marta remembers huddling on a porch as a child, unable to leave her parents’ apartment in Madrid, feeling afraid and cut off from everything and everyone she knew. This complex and painful period in Spanish history led to nearly four decades of military dictatorship, aided both by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini in Fascist Italy.

Amid the chaos of war, Marta said, “there was an Adventist pastor in Madrid who crossed enemy lines and brought food and basic provisions to my mother.” A missionary from the United States, he helped the women in her family survive after her father, grandfather, and others were imprisoned by Franco’s men on false charges after the war.

“When he brought food to our family,” Marta said, “he also brought some of Ellen White’s publications that had been translated by an Adventist press in Madrid.” Looking back, Marta described his actions with awe and expressed gratitude for the message of hope that saved and sustained her family in their darkest hour.

Thanks to this pastor, Marta’s parents converted to Adventism. They encouraged her sisters to be educated and to pursue careers that would not have been possible during Franco’s rule, under which few women could attend university or hold public office.

A Life of Ideas and Service

This background fostered Marta’s ideas about inequity, feminism, totalitarianism, and Catholicism. Her worldview, unfamiliar to most Adventists in America, taught her the necessity of speaking out, agitating for change, and preserving one’s integrity in the face of social conformity, fanaticism, and hypocrisy — whether inside a faith community or in broader society.

As a voracious reader since childhood, Marta prized her books. Just as they had deepened and inspired her parents’ spiritual and political lives, books allowed Marta to escape the restrictive and repressive situations she faced as a young woman, says her younger sister Silvia Pastor Finkelstein, now an Assistant District Attorney in Nassau County, New York.

When Niels-Erik Andreasen, former dean of the School of Religion at La Sierra University and later president of Andrews University, spoke at the celebration of Marta’s husband’s life at the La Sierra University Church on October 28, 2017, he attributed a key aspect of Charles’ career to Marta — the idea that sociology matters to church, including the Adventist life and faith.

“I remember the excitement he felt and shared with his friends,” said Andreasen, “when he realized that his interest in the sociology of religion had a clear application to responsible Christian mission. It transformed him and opened the eyes of his friends to a whole new world of Christian service.”

“How did he come to that lifelong interest and commitment? I knew he grew up in a very traditional Adventist family. But, of course, he married Marta — and embraced her lively intellectual life formed during a difficult period in Spain.”

Andreasen described many Sabbath and Sunday afternoons that he and his wife Demetra spent with Marta and Charles on the Californian coast. “We talked about life, but always with religion and social justice in the background. And about the recent books we had read — or rather, that Marta had read. She was the most eager reader among the four of us.”

A Career and Life of Her Own

“Marta didn’t want to just be somebody’s wife,” says Finkelstein. “She wanted to have a career and to be somebody on her own terms. She was very smart and believed that women could be more — they could have a career and life of their own.”

Their parents, José Pastor Cádenas of Madrid and Aurora Hernandez Perez of Santander, the capital of Cantabria on the northern coast of Spain, also felt that Marta would have more opportunity to be who she was meant to be if she left Spain. So, in 1957, at her parents’ urging, she moved to England and enrolled at Newbold. She was not yet eighteen.

Newbold was chosen because it was Seventh-day Adventist and more progressive than Spain, allowing women to study and pursue professional and intellectual pursuits of their own. In 1959, Marta completed a two-year Bible Studies certificate degree conferred by Andrews University at Newbold.

There she also met and began dating a dashing blond theology major from California who brought levity into her life and “made her laugh.” Rather than return to Spain, she chose to move to the United States and joined Charles at Pacific Union College, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history in the spring of 1962.

Larry Geraty, who also went to PUC after their time at Newbold, roomed with Charles and takes credit for their marriage. One night during their senior year, Charles told Geraty he was trying to decide if he should propose and was going to ask for a “Gideon’s sign,” referring to the biblical story told in Judges 6.

“He was going to put his dry wash cloth out on the ledge of our dorm room window and if it was wet in the morning, that would be the sign he should marry her.” Geraty admits he made sure to soak Teel’s washcloth thoroughly before dawn!

“When he awoke, he started to shave and then remembered his sign! He opened the window, reached for his washcloth, and found it sopping wet! He held it momentarily, then said, ‘Geraty, did you have something to do with this?!’” Geraty’s response: “Oh ye of little faith!”

In September 1962, Marta — resplendent in a black mantilla veil — married Charles in the Loma Linda University Church sanctuary where his father pastored. She then taught for a year at the Newbury Park Academy in Thousand Oaks before moving to Michigan where in 1965 she completed a master’s degree in Spanish Literature from the University of Notre Dame while Charles studied at the SDA Theological Seminary.

Geraty, who was also at the Seminary, recalls many fond memories from those years, such as how Marta and Gillian would have their hair in curlers while he and Charles drove in wintry weather to the country church where they served together as externs on Sabbaths.

He concurs that Marta’s greatest contribution to the Adventist Church has been her vocal commitment to gender equity, recalling that she wore a huge button on her blouse at her husband’s ordination service in the late 1970s that said, in big letters, “ORDAIN WOMEN NOW!” This, of course, was long before the practice became mainstream in progressive Adventist churches.

Marta’s marriage to Charles lasted fifty-five years. It was a union between two trailblazers and visionaries who were unabashed in their commitment to excellence in higher education and to improving the lives of the marginalized. Although they fought, Geraty says, it was always in love.

Marta often welcomed her and Charles’ colleagues and students to join Friday evening or Shabbat meals at their home on a hill overlooking Riverside and the Inland Empire. Just as she did during her travels with students, she brought people together for memorable communal experiences at her home, showcasing her remarkable hospitality and cooking.

Her former student and colleague Padilla remembers once filling endives for a dinner with friends at Marta’s home. “Clearly Marta had done the work ahead of time and was prepared for our meal, but it struck me as a wonderful thing the way that she included us in the process rather than simply serving the food to us.”

Chartier describes the dynamic between Marta and her husband as one on which they both thrived. Even if Charles’ students did not meet Marta in person, Chartier says that their lives “were different, richer, and open to a wider world because of who she was, and because of the ways in which she challenged Charles to see more, experience more, understand more, resist more.”

In 1967, they moved to Massachusetts where Marta took a second master’s degree, this one in Linguistics from Harvard University, while Charles studied the sociology of religion at Boston University. She taught Spanish for the prestigious Newton Public School District and solidified her career path in education.

Marta says the recognition she is most proud of occurred in 1969 when the “head honchos” at the New York Department of Education sent educational experts to observe her teaching methodology and learn why her students performed higher on statewide exams than those in other state- and federally-funded Spanish language programs.

She and Charles were eager to start a family, and welcomed daughter Alma while living in Boston. Marta had been accepted into a doctoral program at Harvard, but decided to concentrate on raising her girls, including younger daughter Melanie who joined the family after they returned to California in 1974.

Inspiring a New Generation of Leaders

Marta began teaching Spanish I, II, and III at Bloomington High School (BHS), a Title I-funded public school in the Colton Joint Unified School District, when Charles’ faculty appointment at La Sierra University took effect that fall. During the next three decades, she added two advanced placement classes, one in literature and the other in linguistics, to the curriculum. She won numerous awards for the way she inspired and supported her students, many of whom came from low-income backgrounds.

Finkelstein notes that Marta “could have taught anywhere with her credentials, but she felt that the disadvantaged students, the immigrant students, those with the least opportunities and access to quality education, most deserved the education, leadership, and skills that she could bring them. She was an immigrant, and she often told her students that if she could do it, so could they.”

Every bit as demanding and direct as Charles was, Marta introduced her students to a world of critical thinking, scholarship, and social activism. They achieved stellar outcomes as a result of her high standards and clamored to have her sponsor their student clubs and extracurricular activities.

If Charles was known for his international study tours to Mexico, Peru, and South Africa, Marta is equally known and beloved for taking her high school students on annual spring break trips to Spain, Italy, France, England, and Scotland. For her birthday one year, her students gave her a cake with the inscription, “Lady of Spain, We Adore You!”

Despite her success, Marta is extremely private and rarely speaks of her own accomplishments, even to family members and close friends. Her longtime colleagues Padilla and Urquizu were surprised to learn, for example, that one of her teaching degrees came from Harvard, despite knowing and working with her for years — a sentiment others also expressed to me.

While chatting with Marta over lunch one day, Urquizu asked Marta why she was teaching at Bloomington High School, “when she could be at Redlands or Poly or some other high stakes school like that. Boy did she give me an earful.” Marta pushed her plate aside and told Urquizu that Bloomington students are just as entitled to excellent teachers as students in other districts. Although teaching in higher-resource environments might have been easier, the difficulty was not of any consequence to her.

“She was there to serve a community where good teaching and opportunities were sadly lacking,” Urquizu says. “I polished off my plate of spaghetti, digesting what she had said. It struck me harder than anything in my teaching career had.… I determined that if that philosophy was good enough for a Harvard graduate, then it was good enough for me, so here I am, still trying to make a difference for those who have less opportunity than others.”

Affirming and Empowering Other Women

Marta’s work in the public school system and as a founding member of several independent, progressive organizations within the Adventist community has had an indisputable effect on those institutions to which she dedicated her time, financial resources, and effort.

Her words carried weight and gave meaning to the causes she advocated, from giving young people access to the enriching and liberating canons of European and Latin American writers, to more procedural issues of justice, such as the importance of using gender-inclusive language about God and ensuring women-affirming policies and practices in denominational structures.

Her most meaningful impact, however, has been in the lives of the people she has known and loved and in whom she has invested herself. That deep affection and sense of camaraderie is mutual — from her daughters, sisters, and extended family to her many Bloomington students, her esteemed friends and colleagues, and the women clergy and administrators she has encouraged and supported over the years.

“I was her first mentee, her first project,” Finkelstein says. “She was 16 when I was born. She encouraged me to come to study in the United States and made me look beyond my perceived limitations in Spain. I am who I am because of her.”

I too can attest to the transformational influence Marta brought to those she befriended and mentored. Friends with my parents for decades before I was born, she fiercely defended and spoke well of my mother during a series of crises in my family during the 1990s and 2000s, sharing with me many of my own mother’s accomplishments and talents that I had not known.

Marta’s sage advice, spoken in her distinctive and deliberate voice, anchored me at another time of transition in my life when I returned from a year as a student missionary in northern India. Upset about the church politics, materialism, and socio-economic inequalities I had witnessed, I poured out my heart at her kitchen table and described how students with financial and political connections were treated better and promoted despite, at times, their extremely poor academic performance.

Kwiram would tell me years later about overhearing a phone call in which the parents of a student called to demand that Marta change a grade. “She said she would not lower her standards for any student by giving a grade that was not earned.”

That was her rule, and yet rather than affirm my doubts or frustration, Marta’s response to me that day in her kitchen shifted the paradigm and refocused my attention on the Christian message of hope, a core tenant of the Gospel and the Three Angels’ messages.

It was Marta who gently reminded me that Adventism, like Christianity writ large, is greater than the sum of its parts. That conversation, in which she first shared with me the story of how Adventist institutions and leaders had allowed her family to survive and flourish during Franco’s long regime, tethered me to a tradition in which I had nearly lost faith.

Always attuned to the inner lives of women, Marta sought to understand the nuanced meanings behind behavior, feelings, and events. She is a convener of ideas as much as an encourager of persons, affirming the work of courageous leaders and working tirelessly to effect change.

Her championing of strong, successful women who have found their passion and are using their voices on behalf of justice and equality is noteworthy. Many would be intimidated or threatened by others’ success, particularly the higher up the ladder. But not Marta. She has always taken pleasure in naming and affirming other women’s leadership and voice.

Oberg, who made history in her own right when she became the first woman to lead a university-affiliated SDA congregation as senior pastor in 2010, tells the story of arriving at La Sierra University Church as a newly ordained pastor, and finding a greeting card and flowers from Marta on the morning of the first baptismal ceremony she had ever conducted. It wished her warm congratulations and gave thanks for her presence. “I had only heard of the force who is Marta Teel, and now I had a private message signed by the woman!”

As Marta was leaving the sanctuary after the divine service on another occasion, she complimented Oberg on her outfit — and her sermon. “You look incredible today. But the words coming out of your mouth are even more stunning. Keep it up,” she told Oberg.

Marta later explained that it can be awkward for congregants to know how to talk to a female pastor about the way she presents herself; yet female pastors need to be affirmed that they are doing well. She therefore took it upon herself to compliment the various female clergy that she encountered over the years, and to urge progressive leaders not to give up on the goal of gender equity and women’s full participation and acceptance at the highest levels of church leadership.

Like that of many others, her activism and outspokenness on behalf of women in the church grew after the 1995 decision by the General Conference Session in Utrecht to preclude the North American Division from ordaining its women pastors to gospel ministry.

A number of high-profile local church ordinations took place that fall in defiance of the vote, and a group of prominent “movers and shakers” in Adventist churches around Southern California who had long supported gender equity and women’s ordination began meeting to discuss what other concrete actions could be taken from the bottom up. The Gender Inclusiveness Commission (GIC) or “task force” grew out of those meetings and was formally recognized by the Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (SECC) Executive Committee in 1996.

James Walters, professor of ethics at Loma Linda University, led the group informally and explains that they were “working on the conviction that ordination is a local conference matter, with conference officers signing the ordination credentials — and hence indicating the moral responsibility of the local conferences for their own ordinations.”

As a founding member of the task force, he says, Marta “was one of the most encouraging and supportive members — in her faithful attendance, her contribution to discussions, and her constant words of support and praise for those of us who were leading the initiative.” Walters describes her as “a thinking, independent woman who knew her own mind and didn’t hesitate to speak out strongly on justice issues — especially regarding women’s ordination.”

In 1996, Marta worked closely with La Sierra University religion professors Ginger Hanks-Harwood and the late Madelynn Jones-Haldeman as well as others from the campus and local community to determine what else could be done to foster change and support Adventist women, pastors, and leaders. Together, they obtained approval from the University’s Board of Trustees to establish a resource center dedicated to the advancement of women in church and society.

Marta served as a “founding mother” and enthusiastic supporter of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC), just as she had for AAF, AAW, and the GIC. She participated in the WRC’s inaugural committee to hire its first director in 1997 and supported the Center financially and as a member of its advisory board for more than twenty years.

“One might not quickly realize that this was a bright, strong person with creative ideas and forceful convictions,” say Penny Shell and Kit Watts, who had served previously as associate editor of the Adventist Review. They worked with Marta on behalf of the newly minted WRC throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Those who underestimated her did so at their own peril. It was good to have Marta on our side!”

Leaving a Legacy of Love and Hope

Marta’s strong advocacy of women facilitated greater inclusion of women in ministry and administrative leadership at the local church and conference levels in Southern California, years before the Pacific Union or North American Division considered similar actions.

She is impatient with progressive leaders who do not use their position or voice to lift up women and the marginalized while they have the power and opportunity to do so. As such, she has the same exacting standard for church administrators as she did for her teenage students at Bloomington.

“Year after year she buttonholed pastors and conference officials, friends and foes alike, to plead her cause of greater inclusiveness and equity,” says Kwiram, describing how Marta’s persistence was at least partially responsible for the election of Sandy Roberts as SECC Executive Secretary and, later, as Conference President — the first woman in the denomination to hold a position at that level.

Shell and Watts add that “Besides her official connection with us at the Center, there were times when she invited us to climb the hill to sip chai tea and discuss future possibilities in the comfort of her living room. The commanding view of the scenery was no less inspiring than her own vision for how women should and could change the world.”

Marta’s life is not without contradictions or imperfections. However, she faithfully marshalled her will-to-power and intellectual rigor on behalf of her students and her church community, and was always gospel-led and compassionate toward those who suffer.

This empathy, which several of her friends say was epitomized in the life of a stray street dog that Marta took in and named “Lucky,” is central to who Marta is. For more than twenty years, until its death from old age, she lavished the dog with love, good food, a warm shelter, and toys — to soothe and heal its soul, as much as its body. “It was a joy to see them together,” say Shell and Watts. Like her dog, everyone who has known Marta feels lucky.

Kwiram concludes, “She should be remembered for her tenderness, for her unselfishness, for the art of friendship which she practiced, for her expansive intellectual interests, for her keen mind, and her passion for women’s leadership in the SDA Church. She encouraged younger women and got them to think more deeply.” In doing so, Marta sustained hope for each person she befriended and for the future of the Adventist Church itself.

“I hope our community can remember her as a prophetic matriarch,” says Oberg. “It’s a vocation Marta has embodied to the end.”

 

Sasha Ross served as director of the La Sierra University Women’s Resource Center from 2013–2016. She lives in Riverside, CA, with her husband Harold Thomas and their daughter Madeleine.

Photo courtesy of the author.

 

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