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The Ear: Marlene Ferreras on Theology Where the People Are


Marlene Mayra Ferreras may be a “nerd who has done lots of school,” but stuck with 60 kids in a freeway traffic jam so bad the news helicopters are buzzing overhead, she can get Dominos to deliver!

The school bus for a summer excursion to the San Diego Zoo had broken down during rush hour.  When the Dominos guy asked for her address, she told him to switch on the evening news.  He found the bus and the kids were soon feasting on 15 extra-large pizzas.  “I’m only telling you this to avoid sound like a boring academic,” she said.

Nor is she boring with a Bible in her hand, as when she spoke at the Adventist Forum Conference that took place in early October.  In a sermon on the midwives who defied Pharoah’s order to kill the male babies of Hebrew women, she noted wryly: “Pharoah thought men were the danger, but it was the midwives.” Then she drew lessons from Hebrew midwifery (!) to shed light on the work of the — pastor.

Ferreras’s mother was a Cuban refugee and single parent.  She sent her daughter to Adventist schools near La Sierra University from the second grade until her graduation from the university itself.  Marlene then became a youth pastor at the Loma Linda Campus Hill Church and was later pastor for children and family ministries at the Azure Hills Church in Grand Terrace, California.  While thus engaged, she was also completing two master’s degrees, one from Fuller Theological Seminary and one in marriage and family therapy from Loma Linda University.  Currently, while working at a homeless shelter with mothers and their young children and doing contract teaching for both Loma Linda and La Sierra Universities, she is studying toward a doctorate at the Claremont School of Theology.  La Sierra has given her a deferred appointment to its Divinity School faculty, where, in a couple of years, she will be teaching full-time.

Although Ferreras spends much of her time reading and writing, and loves to study “the function of religion and theology in societal systems,” her “most thrilling work,” she insists, “is being in relationships with people.”

Here are her thoughts on her ministry and her church:

Question: By both gender and ethnic and cultural background, you challenge conventional Adventist thinking.  What in your life story led you to become a pastor-theologian, and so to take on such a difficult role? 

Answer: I can answer this in one word: GOD.  I will refrain from explaining this because I assume on some level those who know God are aware that God leads and God’s leading is not always predictable. Yes, God’s leading challenges me too and in that regard I am sympathetic with “conventional Adventist thinking.” 

Question: When people with technical expertise speak or write about the Bible and theology, they may come across as abstract and theoretical.  What specific efforts to you make to connect your work with the actual battle front of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering?

Answer: My work begins with human experience and the concrete situations of everyday life that challenge our desire to live faithfully. One way I do that, for example, is when I analyze the situation of violence against women, and the theological questions that arise from it, for the purpose of examining biblical theology and ethical responses. Here I find both hope and an opportunity to participate with God in repairing the world.

Question: You are an Adventist Christian, so people expect you to take Scripture as the highest written authority for your convictions.    How do you respond when the Bible seems to have various perspectives on a topic —on, say, marriage, the disciplining of wrongdoers, the use of violence or some other matter?  What principle of biblical interpretation helps you make sense of all this, and come up with insight applicable to Christian life today? 

Answer: Scripture is the highest authority and as a person who studies the text, I am humble about the hermeneutical interpretations I make. Careful exegetical work that takes into account the world of the text, the writer and the reader is an essential principal I use to make sense of Scripture. In addition, there is “knowledge” of God from my life experience that accompanies me as I study Scripture. 

Question: Many church members believe Adventism is dealing with an identity crisis, driven, perhaps, by anxieties concerning our eschatology or our relationship to scientific knowledge or our escalating diversity.  Those who read widely and otherwise interact with the wider intellectual culture see our church going through intense self-analysis about who we are and what our role is.  Where do you think this discussion ought to take us?

Answer: Several colleagues and I are discussing this very question. In one conversation, someone said that our church has not fully settled the 1888 church debate on “righteousness by faith.” 

I think our discussion of identity, eschatology, diversity and scientific knowledge ought to lead us to the freedom there is in Christ.  I hope to hear us preach more about Jesus and to see our leadership take up the counsel of Ellen White when she wrote, “A legal religion has been thought quite the correct religion for this time. But it is a mistake. The rebuke of Christ to the Pharisees is applicable to those who have lost from the heart their first love. A cold, legal religion can never lead souls to Christ; for it is a loveless, Christless religion” (Selected Messages, vol. 1, 388).

Question: You belong to the Adventist Church.  What, besides inertia, keeps you Adventist?  In a conversation with, say, a child or close friend or someone who is suffering from injustice, what would you offer as the most important reason? 

Answer: As I child I heard the story of Jesus in the Adventist Church. I also heard the call of God saying, “Come, follow me.” I joined Jesus’ community of disciples and studied God’s Word. My church affirmed God’s call in my life to ministry and allowed me to serve others as I serve God.  

I remain Adventist because I see the ethics of the “kingdom of God” being lived out in my church community. Inevitably, we disappoint each other at times but I am keenly aware that we are all committed to living this life one faithful step at a time. So I stay because this is my church, my family, and my life. I love this church and I believe we need each other. 

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