My journey as a minister in the Lutheran church began with Las Posadas.
At the time, I was living in Alaska and there were not many Latinx people in my town. I wanted my children to have a community that would be able to understand their culture and traditions. I asked a local church if they would allow me to host a Las Posadas festival where the few Latinx families in the area could gather and celebrate. We journeyed from house to house in the neighborhood, looking and asking for shelter. We finally ended up at the church where we broke bread and had dinner together. We were remembering when the holy family was seeking hospitality asking to be seen and cared for.
My journey reminds me that when pastors in the ELCA take their ordination vows we are asked, if we will “pray for God’s people, nourish them with word and sacraments, and lead them by your own example in faithful service to holy living”.
We respond, “I will, and I ask God to help me.”
In the ELCA Constitution, one of the responsibilities of the Minister of Word and Sacrament is to “speak publicly to the word in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.”
In my short career with the ELCA, it has been a struggle to be seen, acknowledged for the entirety of who I am, and fully cared for. The words of my ordination vows and the words of the ELCA constitution do not align with its stated values. There have been only a few times that I have experienced true hospitality. Instead of the breaking of bread, there has been a breaking of spirit.
Within my two calls in the ELCA, the ELCA has not lived up to their constitutional commitment to speak publicly to the Word in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice. Instead of leading by holy living, the institution of the ELCA has not been a place of hospitality for its leaders of color, but instead repeatedly offers them up as an ungodly sacrifice.
My first call was in higher education. I was told that I would be a pastor for the entire university, a person who would be able to encourage and support the community and would also be able to speak into an institution that was growing and changing. This institution had been historically white, but in recent years, they had experienced a lot of growth. The BIPOC community was growing and because of this they desired to have a spiritual leader that could serve and advocate for this demographic. However, I quickly understood that my role would be a performative one where I would simply look good for the institution and not cause trouble. I was the young Latina pastor who could speak two languages and I was to be a role model for the growing Latinx student population.
I was told that the institution wanted to hear my opinions and that they valued my voice, but as soon as there were incidents of racism, I found that my voice was not listened to. Racism, in this case, was more than obvious slurs or ignorant commentaries. It was structural. It was insidious. It was embedded in the DNA of the institution. Racism is an ontological murder, and it kills souls, spirits, and bodies. When incidents directly affected my congregation, I was told to tend to the congregants but was then left out of conversations by my supervisors, the cabinet, and the president. I was told that while I needed to care for my congregants, advocating for them was not my lane. It took a while for me to understand that there was no room for me at this institution and I needed to leave. I could not continue to serve in a call that did so much damage to the people who I was serving and then left me with no meaningful way to care for them. The harm was deep, and I know that I needed to look for another way to work within the institutional church to create change. I believed I could help it in a different role, and when the opportunity was presented to work in a new role, I said yes.
I was installed as the Assistant to the Bishop for Authentic Diversity, Inclusive Community and Service to the Sierra Pacific Synod. Almost four months to the day of my installation, the synod council voted unanimously to remove a Latinx mission developer from his post. The bishop and synod council decided to follow protocol by delivering that message to the community the day after the vote, which happened to be one of the most sacred days in the Latin community: Dia de la Virgen de la Guadalupe.
The decision to fire the pastor on this day caused immense trauma on what should have been a day of celebration. In the Latinx community, the Christmas season officially begins on December 16, the day when the first Posada takes place. Prior to that, the Latinx community joins together for the festivities of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, on December 12. This day is special to many of us in the Latinx community and helps in building the excitement and expectation of Advent.
The Sierra Pacific Synod needs to apologize for the manner in which the news was brought forward. I believe that the synod did the work required to come to the decision that it did, but I also believe that the harm for how it was brought forward needs to be acknowledged and apologized for. Part of that harm is the expediency needed of white supremacy to “follow protocol.”
I raised grave concerns for enacting this decision in this way to leadership at least four times prior to the synod council vote, that the firing of the pastor and informing the congregation could not occur on the Feast Day. I was ignored and dismissed each time and later corrected by synod leadership on how I raised my concerns. As the person who is responsible for and called to the synod for the purpose of naming racism and identifying areas that are in need of cultural competency, I was repeatedly ignored by the leadership of this synod.
A myriad of policies have been changed with the change in leadership in the Sierra Pacific Synod. In the midst of policy changes that have been enacted, even more questions have to be asked:
- Why couldn’t the policy that states a disclosure must occur the day after a vote also be changed?
- Why was it not possible to change the day of informing the pastor and congregation?
- Why couldn’t the bishop call an emergency meeting of the synod council to vote after the Feast Day if it was so urgent?
- Whose voices were not heard in this situation?
- Why would their voices be silenced?
- What is it that we as a community need to do in order to make sure that our leaders of color are heard and listened to?
- How do you get in a high position without conforming to a racist system, especially the ones that you benefit from?
The synod has stated that it values the voices of the Latin community and are desired to be changed and transformed by them. The institution states that it is committed to learning about and seeking new ways to cultivate a church that is transformative and healing for all. The synod needs to acknowledge and confess when it has not abided by that commitment and has also blatantly disregarded those commitments.
I was informed that there were two other leaders who were slotted in to help with the service on the Feast Day: a priest and a deacon. They were told about the circumstances and released of their responsibilities. These men of color were protected and relieved of their responsibilities in the worship service that day by the bishop, yet the women of color on synod staff were expected to be physically present at this same service. The only thing I could think about and focus on was the congregation. I was thinking about the importance of the day–not only to them, but also to me. I was asked to come and be present during the service and to lead the liturgy and at this point, I would be the only person on staff that would be able to speak Spanish fluently.
I had taken the time to meet with the older women of that congregation prior to the service. They expressed that they would be disappointed if the service were simply canceled and they asked if I could help them. Because they are my elders, I agreed. I asked them how they wanted the service to go, what their plans were, and honored their wishes for what they needed for worship to happen. We were terrified together because we didn’t know what was going to happen.
After the service, time was supposed to be given to the community to discuss the disclosure in accordance with the Synod’s constitution. I knew that the time of disclosure would not happen following worship and I knew well that the emotions would be too hard to navigate through to even begin to have a conversation – especially on such a special and sacred day.
It is because of this experience that this day, which I personally hold as holy and sacred, has been forever marred for my community, for my family, and for me.
We need to acknowledge that the institutional church and the overwhelming whiteness and culture of whiteness/white supremacy of the ELCA has been a place of hurt. People from multiple communities have had their voices ignored or disregarded. If the synod claims a commitment to listening and learning from communities from marginalized and underserved populations, the institution must name when that has been left undone. We need to acknowledge that the institutional church that we exist in today was created by and for those who hold the most privilege. If a synod states that it is committed to reformation and anti-racism, then it needs to practice that by holding space to lament, grieve, and to offer constructive criticism for the work of this synod and the denomination.
I was led to believe my voice mattered and was needed when it came to these topics. In the week following the incident, I sat in the room, on the other end of phone calls and Zoom meetings and was asked where the synod’s cultural competency was. I have been told that there are Authentic Diversity leaders in this denomination and that I should go to them when it comes to these matters, because in their mind, I clearly do not know what “authentic diversity” is.
“Why didn’t anyone bring up the importance of this day?”
Someone did bring up the importance of this day prior to what happened on that Sunday. I brought up the importance of this day several times prior to the synod council vote, during a meeting where staff were informed that this was going to occur on this Feast Day. I voiced my disapproval and asked that the decision would be changed. Other people of color agreed with me. I brought it up so often that it was uncomfortable and I wondered if I would be fired for my words. I persisted, but found that the decision had already been made and that my voice was not going to change anything. I was unheard. Again.
While I am grateful for the few who have reached out to me directly to try to better understand the situation, I have been cancelled by colleagues who I have considered mentors and friends. The trust that I was working on building with the Latinx and BIPOC communities has been shattered. My title as “Assistant to the Bishop for Authentic Diversity, Inclusive Community and Service” is meaningless in the eyes of those that the synod has harmed.
White supremacy does this: it finds a person to attach itself to and lay the blame on. It seeks to find a place to lay the fault so that we do not focus on the system that needs to be changed.
I know that some of you are thinking, “Of course you had a choice!”
I am a daughter of immigrants. I was raised solely by my mother from the age of seven. I watched as my mother was talked down to and humbled in her workplace and took it in order to provide for her children. I have known hunger and been unable to maintain myself or my family for many years. I am a widow and the sole provider for my three children. My job is directly tied to security. Mine and theirs. This job is only the second one I have ever had where I did not also have to file for food stamps to make things work financially. I have been conditioned by white supremacy to believe that I have to stay in a job even if it harms me, my culture, or my family.
I did not feel like I was at liberty to say no to leading worship that day. Messages in my mind were saying, “This is the job you were called to do. They hired you for this work. This is your job.” I was bound by the title and the position, so I followed through. My mind told me one thing while my heart was being shattered.
White supremacy tells me not to share this with you. For fear of making my colleagues uncomfortable. For fear of losing my job. For fear of losing my credibility. White supremacy will wait. It will take its time so that it can repeat this murderous and unjust history again and again. It claims that the hurt will eventually go away. People are angry now, but they will get over it and they will move on. They will forget and we can continue as we were. We will bounce back because we are told we have to be “resilient.”
White supremacy whispers in our ears and encourages us to make comments online without thinking of the other, without knowing and only assuming. One of the things that grieves me the most about this whole experience is that my children are older. They know how to sleuth things on the internet, especially after watching their mother sob and not eat for days. It was not difficult to find. They are aware of threats made by folks who they do not know. They have witnessed the inconsiderate comments by those they do know. They ask if they are safe and they want to know which clergy they can trust because they have grown up with leaders who are now being cruel and saying terrible things about me. People who have assumed the worst in me. People who have decided to talk about white supremacy, but are not capable of asking the true questions. It’s disheartening.
Beloveds, that is not the voice of the Spirit. That is not what Jesus taught us. He said if there is something between you and your sibling go to them directly and remedy it. Acknowledge what you have done and repent.
This white supremacist system won’t do it. The system will take its time. It will wait until we forget. It will wait until we leave. And then it still may never do it.
I will not wait.
I have hurt the community. I have hurt my people because I was unable to think. I was, and still am so steeped in white supremacy and the rhetoric that I couldn’t do anything but what I was told. I believed I would suffer and my family would suffer, not fully understanding the extent of it. I asked God to help me and yet, on the other side of that, my presence in that room was representative of the generational harm caused to the Latinx community by the church.
That morning when La Virgen was taken and marched out of the sanctuary I felt as though God left with her. Part of my soul died and I believed that I was not going to be able to speak again. White supremacy silenced me.
I know that is not what God wants for me. God doesn’t want that for anyone. The work of authentic diversity in this church is just that. It is to uncover the truth so we can be our whole selves with our community. If my role has been for just this moment, then I say, “Here I am Lord.”
You may not hear an apology from the institutional church, or this synod, soon or ever. That is not in my control. Many things are not in my control. Apologies and confession do not come easily for an institution that is held to protocols and procedures that make them double check the wording before extending repentance. I am not the institution, and yet, there are things I can control. I can use my voice. I can confess.
I confess that I have sinned against you through my actions. I confess that my presence in that assembly hurt you. I left things undone.
I recognize my seat at the table is different now, my voice is different now, but I will continue to use it when I can. I ask that you continue to correct me so I can be better.
When La Virgen left the sanctuary I thought my whole being was left there abandoned and without Posada. Today I recognize that she held me there to remind me that I can still use my voice…and maybe this time I will be heard. I believe this experience has been detrimental to the well-being of all those affected that day. It has also been detrimental to my mental and spiritual well-being.
I want to leave the ELCA altogether. These experiences make me want to go silent and not continue with the work. But when my oldest daughter looks at me and tells me, “I am in this church, I will continue and I am doing the work,” I realize that I was called to serve as the Authentic Diversity person in the Sierra Pacific Synod. It is my job, my calling to point out places where this is not happening and to enact change so it does.
This does not come easy to me. I have written about these kinds of experiences before and I believe they were not completely heard and understood. I fear that I will be out of a job tomorrow because I speak the truth and reveal ways in which we have all fallen short. Yet, I also believe the Spirit is leading me and that it is necessary to speak as a pastor and a Latina, leaving behind a fancy job title. The Spirit is guiding me to reveal my words, my truth, my experiences to you, to reveal that the institution falls short of their stated professions, and that even within perceived positions of power, siblings of color in such “leadership” positions are offered up as a sacrifice to the idol of white supremacy.
What will you do to continue the work of dismantling a system that is so good at silencing and ignoring us that even those of us in positions of power are unable to enact change when it is most needed?
The example of “faithful service to holy living” that I set is that I will not leave a community while they are actively being traumatized. I have been called by God to journey with communities who are in search of hospitality. These communities have been called to be a place of hospitality, of a place to rest. I have been called to walk Las Posadas. Unless the church repents, apologizes, and takes serious inventory of its institutional racism, I fear there is no future for the church that is truly inclusive, or hospitable.
I will ask that you begin to ask further questions about me and the situation. Ones that will lead us to change. Let’s use this moment to enact the kind of work that will actually make this institution a place of hospitality and welcome for all people.