Affinities: Seminary Year 2

Artwork by Jim LePage
“I’ll cry later because right now, I have to facilitate” ~ Rev. Maureen Gerald, “We Must Rise” Study Series at the 43rd Annual Covenant Architects Network Youth Celebrations Retreat.
Systems of Oppression. Racism. Paternalism. Patriarchy. Elitism. White-Washing. Grace. A summary of my second year at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. My sass is in full swing. If you are offended, deal and know that grace abounds, and if you are lifted, deal and keep going.

Returning to CTS
I returned to Columbia Theological Seminary last fall to a letter that the church I had been visiting the year before, College Park Presbyterian Church, was closing. At 118 years old, College Park was the only (Presbyterian) congregation with a Latinx pastor I could access via public transport. Searching for a new congregation to attend, I was reminded of the lack of websites for Latinx congregations in the PC(USA). So I reached out to Rev. Rosa Blanca Miranda, of the PC(USA) Hispanic/Latino-a Intercultural Congregational Support office, and I shared with her my observations… and concerns.

It was weird to me that in the entire directory for Hispanic and Latinx congregations, perhaps twenty percent had websites, and more startling is that so few offered bilingual services. It was apparent that most Hispanic/Latinx congregations in the PC(USA) cater to immigrant communities. That’s wonderful, but what about us folk who were born and/or raised here? Life is different for us second+ generation (third culture) folk. She heard me out and then responded… “perhaps God is calling you to start such a ministry” (paraphrased). That’s not why I called Lady.

PC(USA) Seminarians of Color Conference
In October, I was invited to attend the PC(USA) Seminarians of Color Conference in Knoxville, TN. The dates conflicted with some school dates so I asked if someone else could go in my place, and I suggested a person. The Rev. responsible for selecting which POC students get to attend very kindly told me that I was chosen for my contributions to the seminary and that ultimately the choice of who gets to go is in their power not my own. I accepted the answer and the invitation.

The conference was amazing. Organized by the PC(USA) Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries office, the conference is 100% for people of color by people of color. No Euro-Americans* allowed. Being that the PC(USA) is predominately Euro-American, it was my first encounter with POC leaders across the agencies of the church. However, attendance was low, and when I questioned the conference organizer, Jewel McRae, why not all the PC(USA) seminaries were represented, she shared with me that sometimes the seminaries don’t tell their students or want to nominate students to attend.

It’s interesting to me that there are (Euro-American) folks at these seminaries, mine included, who have the power to chose which students of color are worthy enough to attend a conference that teaches them how to survive in the PC(USA). Reread that last sentence if you need to.

Academy for Racial Justice
A week later, I attended the Academy for Racial Justice, a precursor to the Reformation Project (TRP) national conference in Orlando thanks to the hookup from Myles Markham, a fellow #FaithfullyLGBT seminarian and former TRP employee. The session was facilitated by Christopher J. Cuevas, of QLatinx, and Jason Fredlund and Shae Washington, former employees of TRP. “The Reformation Project is a Bible-based, Christian grassroots organization that works to promote inclusion of LGBTQ people by reforming church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.” The Academy for Racial Justice was a one-day event that attempted to tackle the intersection of LGBTQ affirmation and inclusion with racial justice.

It was painful. The biggest hurdle was that a day dedicated to the voices of people of color was dominated by Euro-Americans talking about their hurt being folks in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Their pain is real, but when POC are marginalized within a marginalized conversation, we have a problem. There was a Euro-American gentleman who wanted to hear more about my experience and so I shared about my recent visit to the PC(USA) Seminarians of Color Conference, and how it was refreshing and truly a safe and brave space for only POC’s to be present. This well-intentioned Presbyterian Euro-American gentleman responded by stating that it was a shame he didn’t know about the conference, as he would have loved to attend…

Reformation Project National Conference
With the experience of the Academy for Racial Justice, I was worried what the subsequent days would look like. To my pleasant surprise, TRP was better prepared by providing “Affinity” suites for Disabled Persons, People of Color, and Trans and Gender Expansive People. I made good use of the POC suite and made some new friends in the mix. I was beginning to notice in myself, this need, this yearning, to have available spaces where I don’t have to explain myself or put up with well-intentioned peoples’ inexperience of diversity.

Overall the conference was great, I attended workshops on “LGBTIQ Christians in Central America” by Carla Sofía Vargas, “Chisme: Reclaiming Femme Language for Liberation” by Christopher Cuevas, “Post Pulse Shooting: A Call to Ministry for Communities of Color” by Rev. Stanley Ramos, and “Low Ego, High Impact: An Ethic for Christ Centered Organizing and Activism” by Michael Vazquez.

The workshops were excellent, these can be viewed online:


Visit to South Korea

In January a group of my classmates, along with two professors, visited South Korea for two weeks. We stayed at the Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary in the capital city of Seoul, with an excursion to the Demilitarized Zone and the harbor city Busan. It was a fantastic experience, where I was challenged deeply on my convictions against missionary movements. From my perspective, missionaries are not a good thing - a more peaceful version of imperialism. However, South Koreans hold the Christian (mostly Presbyterian) missionaries in such high esteem as the nation that had a hold over Korea at the time was Japan.

On our journies, we met with many different agencies of the Presbyterian Church in Korea (PCK), and the PC(USA) Mission Agency. We had some good talks on how the PCK decided to remain partnered with the PC(USA) after our denomination affirmed LGBT marriage and ordination, because of the esteem they hold in our shared history - though they do not affirm same-sex marriage or ordination. We also got to hear from first-hand experiences from individuals who were from/traveled to North Korea and how everything is not always as it is portrayed. The South Koreans welcomed us with open arms, showed us bountiful hospitality, and showered us with delicious food and intentional gifts.

CTS' Korea Exploration Team at Gwanghwamun in Seoul
Migration and Border Crossings Conference
Returning for the Spring semester, I attended the Migrations and Border Crossings Conference hosted at Columbia Theological Seminary. It was a three-day event with worship services, plenaries, workshops, and artistic expressions that covered the gamut of migration and border crossings from a global perspective. I was grateful that the conference covered the U.S. border but was not limited to it. In the opening worship service, Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes preached from within a cage while those of us who participated in the service migrated through the sanctuary. It was the first worship service I was part of that was a 360-degree experience. Dr. Carvalhaes scared me a little, asking me to put myself out there much more than I normally would during a service. Later in the summer, he would be my professor as I partook in the 30th Annual Hispanic Summer Program, more info on that below.

One thing that really struck me about the conference, was that many of the speakers were international folk who were speaking from first-hand experiences. I appreciated the intentionality of the conference organizers (Dr. Raj Nadella, Columbia Theological Seminary, Dr. Silas Allard, Emory University). However, I was reminded throughout the conference which voices are the ones that matter. For example, during the third plenary session on “Consequences of Migration,” we heard from Dr. Khaled Beydoun on a Middle-Eastern Muslim perspective. His talk was followed by applause. Dr. Jehu Hanciles responded to him from an African Muslim perspective. His talk was followed by applause. Then, Dr. Todd Green offered his Euro-American perspective. His talk was followed by a standing ovation.

PC(USA) 1001 New Worshiping Communities: Discerning Missional Leadership
A few weeks later, I was sponsored by Rev. Rosa Blanca Miranda, of the PC(USA) Hispanic/Latino-a Intercultural Congregational Support office, to attend an assessment in Los Angeles, to help determine if church planting was in my leadership skill set. She was the one who stated that perhaps God was calling me to organize a third-culture Latinx congregation. The assessment was facilitated by Rev. Michael Gehrling and took place in Los Angeles.

Being in the Echo-Park (predominately Latinx) neighborhood of Los Angeles, and with other Latinx individuals also being assessed, I felt really empowered by the experience. At the end of the assessment were our one-on-one interviews. My interviewer, Rev. Jaime Lazaro, preferred to conduct the interview in Spanish. I am so used to speaking theologically, academically, and business in English that I had to really think on my feet, and throw out all the lofty language I would have used to answer the questions. In the end, I received a recommendation from the council to pursue church planting, and also a note that they could see me as a teacher as well...

The International Student Situation at Columbia Theological Seminary
After arriving from Korea, and just before the Migration and Border Crossings Conference, there was an event that took place that changed Columbia Theological Seminary. On January 31st, 2019 the entire community received an email from President Dr. Leanne Van Dyk which outlined “strategic realignments” or changes that would be taking place. The bulk of the email was about changes that affected international students, including announcing the departure (read: firing) of a Korean-American professor, Dr. Kevin Park. International students saw these changes as negatively affecting them, and inconsistent with the teachings of the seminary. Students rallied together and responded to the administration to reverse these changes.

It got ugly, and it got ugly fast. A timeline of events can be viewed here:

https://www.ctscisa.com/timeline

Do I believe that the administration purposely tried to hurt international students at the start? No. Do I believe that the administration made decisions that affected international students at no cost to Euro-American/Domestic students? Yes.

Do I believe that the administration accepted that they made a mistake and needed to rectify it? No. Their response was to double down on their decisions, irrespective that international students were publically saying that these decisions hurt them. FYI, if a group of people tells you they are being oppressed, you should believe them.

Were faculty and staff reprimanded for assisting students in this cause? Yes. Did the administration get legal council and did they hire a PR firm to deal with this “problem?” Yes. Did the administration villainize international students, who spoke out, in emails to faculty? Yes.

Was the seminary responding to the students in a way that aligns with the teachings of Jesus Christ or more from a colonizer/capitalist perspective? … Jesus help us. The way the seminary dealt with this situation was unprofessional, uncharacteristic of the very things we learn here, and downright scary if these actions reflect the way things are run in the Church.

As I walk with international students and have found my home at this seminary at the table they inhabit and have invited me to, I stood with them in the midst of these struggles. I saw the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion council, which I sat on, as a joke and a puppet player and so I resigned. I watched as one of my favorite professors, Dr. John Azumah, a Ghanian professor of World Christianity, get pushed out. I watched my friends suffering. The endless nights of tears, of fear, and of devout prayer and persistent ethic to build a better space for those who come after us. I watched the administrators that I once turned to, causing this suffering.

The most disappointing of all though were my fellow seminarians. Many Euro-American students did join our cause but there were just as many, if not more, who did not understand what was happening and required a lot of educating. It was exhausting. The same folks who would expect everyone to jump on board of situations concerning women’s rights and LGBT rights were silent on this matter. Many sided with the administration, and kept saying things like “do international students not understand how this is better for them?” (collectively paraphrased). Folks, that is paternalism, people are able to decide for themselves what is best for them, and the decisions that are made about them without them isn’t it.

The Presbyterian News Service covered the situation on April 3rd, you can read it here. Of note in this article about international students is that it contains no quotes from international students, though many were provided (I can attest to this personally). However, President Van Dyk is quoted throughout - who gets the tell the story here?

At the end of the semester I could say with certainty “I hate Columbia Theological Seminary,” and I was furious with God for sending me here. The thought of returning in the Fall pained me, and more so as I was accepted to extend my time here as a dual degree student in the MA Practical Theology program which adds a year to my studies.

I take solace in knowing that God was with us in this ever-existing phase of our seminary life. Even though so many I walk with were hurting, through the grace of God we accomplished so much and exceeded any expectations. We did well in our courses, and we did it on very little sleep. Our bonds were strengthened, and though our friends come from vastly different countries and cultures, we were and are together. Praise be to God. And the story will continue because we are not quitters.

A final note before moving on, I was in a lot of pain last semester because I was in mourning. I had to mourn the seminary I thought I belonged to, I had to mourn the colleagues I thought I had, I had to mourn any thoughts that the people of the church would do things differently when dealing with money and with other people. I had to mourn because I loved this place with my whole heart. As a friend once told me, I hurt deeply because I love deeply.

Candidacy
At the end of the academic year, I made my way to San Francisco to go before the Presbytery and be questioned on my call to serve the Church. The Presbytery voted to accept me as a Candidate in the ordination process (step two of three). This phase is an affirmation of my call and will conclude with a final examination in a year (or two).

Westminster Presbyterian Church
This summer I interned at Westminster Presbyterian Church, in Trenton, NJ. I was under the supervision of Rev. Karen Hernández-Granzen, who I found in the PC(USA) directory of Latinx congregations and leaders a year prior. As I mentioned at the start of this post, few Latinx congregations in the directory have websites, and Westminster was the only one which stated it was LGBTQIA affirming on its website. It should also be noted that Westminster is not actually a Latinx congregation but in fact an intercultural one. It has a Puerto-Rican pastor, with a predominately African-American congregation with many Euro-Americans, Latinx, and Asian-American folk present as well. It was a whirlwind experience and I am not sure that I have recovered yet, but I will say that I learned so much about intercultural ministry and that it is possible in the PC(USA). I am called to write a follow-up post on this experience (someone hold me to it).
With Rev. Karen on my first Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church
Hispanic Summer Program
The most profound two-weeks of my seminary education was at the Hispanic Summer Program, this year held at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. I took a class with Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes called “Extractivism – The Political, Emotional, Economic, and Religious Model of Our Times, A Liturgical Response.” The aim of the course was to teach us how to learn about these massive subjects and translate them into worship services.

In the first few days of class, I approached Dr. Carlvahaes, who I met at Columbia during the migration conference, and I shared with him that I was having a hard time in seminary. He responded with a simple “I know.” That’s all he said, and that’s all I needed, to hear from someone who actually understands without me having to explain anything. It took me two years to get there, juggling Presbytery educational requirements and CTS credit allocations. It was worth the wait, and all the steps. That course was instrumental for my return to seminary this year. I never worked so hard for a class in my life, and I loved every minute of it.

This year was also the 30th anniversary of the program. Dr. Justo González, who started the program was our closing night speaker. He ended his magnificent speech with:

“Welcome to La Lucha**”
Dr. González, do you mean to tell me this is only the beginning?

I was asked to co-write an article about my experience of HSP to appear in Columbia’s Vantage magazine so I won’t share more than this for now. I will post when that article is released.
Classmates from Dr. Carlvahaes' class, including visiting professor from CTS Dr. McGarrah Sharp.
Year 3
Returning to CTS is awkward. I have made peace with individuals I was in opposition with last year, but I am not satisfied with how things are here. Only the future will tell what happens, though I anticipate that great things will happen this year because a fire has been unleased and voices long since silenced are speaking in the tongues of the world.

“Be careful of the unwritten curriculums, the ones that dictate how decisions are made, what people are affected, and how spaces are shared" ~ (paraphrased) Edler Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly of the PC(USA) and preacher for the 2019 Opening Convocation of Columbia Theological Seminary.
That’s the recap on Seminary Year 2, on this, the first day of Year 3.

*The phrase “Euro-American” is in favor of the more common “whites” or “American.” Both of these latter terms imply what is normal or base-line while relegating all other American identities to the hyphened margins. If Native-Americans are hyphenated, then Euro-American is a more appropriate and inclusive term to specify a group of people that once immigrated to this land. I adopted this term from Rev. Karen Hernández-Granzen of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, NJ.

**“La Lucha” = “the Struggle,” in Latinx Mujerista liberation theology.


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