In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, I have been reading Abuelita Faith by Kat Armas. She has done a masterful job reflecting on the integration of Latinx identity and faith. As someone from a mixed Afro-Latina and white heritage, this book has been essential in voicing the complexities of integrating marginalized identities and the personal journey of faith.
Armas begins by discussing her own experience of marginalization as a Latinx theologian in a white Protestant context:
I was sitting in my hermeneutics class at the first seminary I attended when I realized I needed to leave—it was a difficult day. As the professor taught us how to engage interpretation week after week, it became clear that he wasn’t speaking to me. The lens from which he taught and from which he encouraged us to engage was his own, of course. He was born and raised on a small farm in the rural South, so the context from which he understood the world was such, and the way he taught us to engage Scripture reflected this reality too. I remember constantly feeling like nothing he taught about the world, life, or the Bible related to me. (17)
Her feeling of otherness, of being taught through the lens of an unrelatable worldview, is an experience that is prevalent for students who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC). According to the Pew Research Center, “About eight-in-ten U.S. public school teachers (79%) identified as non-Hispanic White during the 2017-18 school year . . . Fewer than one-in-ten teachers were either Black (7%), Hispanic (9%), or Asian American (2%). And fewer than 2% of teachers were either American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, or of two or more races.”
The lack of diversity within the educational system has made learning difficult for BIPOC students. It requires us to ignore the key formations that our homes, communities, and experiences have shaped within us and forces us to adopt the lens of someone else; it is what I have done to survive my own scholastic career. Armas’s book has allowed me to reflect on the ways non-native worldviews have contributed to my sense of otherness in the world of learning.
When many of us with varying levels of privilege interact with the Bible’s stories, particularly those of Jesus engaging with marginalized women, we often have to force ourselves into the narrative. I wonder if much of our abuelitas’ theological insight comes from the fact that they can see themselves clearly in the story. They don’t need to stretch to imagine what it would be like to be the Samaritan woman or the persistent widow. Many of our abuelas know those stories intimately not only because they’ve committed to studying them and their lessons but because oftentimes those stories are about them . . . Our abuelitas may be “uneducated” by the dominant culture’s standards, but they possess PhDs in prayer and Bible interpretation.” (60)
Armas provides a necessary validation to native theology, native exposition, and the ability for personal experience to create a lens that is equally as valid as one received through institutional education.
While pursuing my graduate degree at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University, I was exposed to a myriad of thoughts and ideas that expanded my way of understanding God and the world, for which I am grateful. However, I also brought with me a personal tool that gave me a unique advantage in how I approached theology. Being a “convert” also means that those people “out in the world” who are “lost” and in need of “salvation” weren’t people with whom I had no association. They were my family members. Thus, “those people” are not theoretical off-shoots that I could easily classify as lost. They were my whole world.
The manner in which the newly initiated do theology and the way intergenerational Adventists do theology is fascinating to me. In many respects, I am a success story. I represent the target population that the church is trying to reach when they discuss mission, evangelism, and community engagement. Yet as a convert, I was sensitive to the ways in which we vilify a convert’s closest relationships.
The belief that I must turn the minds of those I love to be baptized into the 28 Fundamental Beliefs felt like an insurmountable task. The fear that nearly everyone I knew would be damned to rise in the second resurrection, which in Adventist theology sounds like a type of zombie apocalypse, absolutely terrified me. This belief that “few will be saved” placed an enormous amount of pressure upon me as a child, as a sibling, and as a graduate student to “save” my family and my beloved friends. Most Adventists don’t have nightmares of the people they love burning in the lake of fire. These images are powerful motivators and made me a zealous evangelist for a time.
However, it is precisely because the people who hold some of my deepest affections are not Adventist that my theology was forced to stretch. My faith held an elasticity and a hope that I did not often encounter through an intergenerational Adventist lens. The doors to salvation weren’t so iron-clad in my own mind. My relationships with the broader community and my love allowed me to see a God whose arms could stretch wider than the length of our imaginations. Like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I saw God’s hand stretched out as far as divinely possible, while the church’s love sometimes felt like the listless arm that feigned to stretch back.
The experience of being a new convert in a world of “old money” does not encompass all the ways my worldview as a woman and an Afro-Latina often clashed with Eurocentric classical ideas. When I was baptized at the age of 12, I worshipped at a historically African-American church. My way of relating to God was uniquely from the marginalized point of view. Our church was rooted in Black theology, though we may not have called it as such. We related to God in our suffering. Gathering weekly together was a way of lifting our grievances to God. Out of our deep emotion bubbling from collective trauma, we prayed for justice, healing, and a God who could deliver us like Moses. Young unwed mothers, fathers with addictions, and young gay men all sat in our pews. We came together, united against a bigger enemy, the trauma of life that affected us daily. There were, of course, the older women, the deaconesses, who encouraged us all to be better versions of ourselves. But even this was done in love, ending with potlucks, hugs, and sometimes tears. We were warm to one another and close to God.
Then one day, I kid you not, a white American preacher came to town and changed everything.
He insinuated that we were poor in our theological understanding, that we needed to study the Bible more astutely. Soon the familial connections between us were not enough. The love we shared in common prayer for ourselves and for one another was not enough to save us. We needed to have the right beliefs. And if we were not wise enough to discern the devil, our love would be the death of us all. This began a 10-year journey for me of painfully trying to adopt a lens and theological framework that was not my own.
In his book After Whiteness, Black scholar Willie Jennings explains that the image of the educated person in Western culture is that of a white self-sufficient man. His self-sufficiency, Jennings argues, is defined by possession, control, and mastery. Western culture has long made the rules about what is “knowledge” and what is not, positioning themselves as controllers, possessors, masters, and thus as teachers of knowledge. This has resulted not only in homogeneity—"a control that aims for sameness and a sameness that imagines control”—but in the marginalizing or silencing of anyone from outside the white elite academy. (47)
In Abuelita Faith, Kat Armas speaks to a reality that I have long felt but had never had the language, except in recent years, to articulate. And often, in my articulation of these beliefs to myself, I have felt alone. Armas does an immaculate job at speaking unashamedly from her own voice and sharing the wisdom that has been native to her family and to her culture from ancient times. She opens up the door to validate a faith that is grounded in personal experience and personal communion with the Divine. She validates the wisdom of women whose voices have long been silenced because they were not classically trained. She challenges us to see the prophet in the person who will not sacrifice their unique perspective to the altar of homogeneity. And she provides hope:
Zaida Maldonado Pérez calls the Holy Spirit the Wild Child of the Trinity—untamable, full of possibilities and creative potential, wonderfully elusive yet always fully present. She is the ruakh, the breath, of God who is always “going native.” When the day of Pentecost arrived and all who were present encountered the Holy Spirit, they each spoke and heard the gospel in their “native language” (Acts 2:8). Who can say this “native” wisdom born from the beginning of time and introduced in Genesis 1 as hovering over the earth, isn’t the same wisdom that guided our ancestors in their knowledge, their ways of being and knowing—from astronomical cycles that directed their crop production to the herbal potions that engaged their healing. (65)
Armas’s validation that the Holy Spirit is working in ways that are native to the person gives me hope that God’s love extends even to those the church would call “unsaved.” The knowledge that the Holy Spirit is speaking to my family in a language they understand, in their native tongue, gives me hope that God’s arms are much bigger than I had once believed and that they are fully able to embrace the ones I love.