For Lent I’ve put on new glasses to help me see my faith more clearly. This is my second article exploring what I’m learning from the margins.
As a young adult from south Texas, Felipe’s faith was important if not particularly relevant. Until he read James Cones’ God of the Oppressed for the first time in college. He wondered aloud, in amazement, whether he was the first Latino to read Cone, feel empowered by the religious concept of liberation, or discover how political and practical faith was meant to be. Turns out he was not the first! And neither was Cone, who himself drunk deeply from Latin American liberation theology in crafting a theological response to the black experience of oppression in America.
The unique and powerful Latino/a voice regarding Christian faith continues to energize folks in Houston like Felipe, and like myself. In his book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, Robert Brown says, “As we see how others read the Bible, we may get a new understanding of what the Biblical message says to us.” Yesterday I did just that, putting on new glasses to see better the relevance of the Christian faith. I heard familiar stories, but in unfamiliar ways: the stories of the prophets Nathan and Moses, Mary and Jesus. And I heard stories from outside my experience: Mennonites in South Texas and east Houston, victims of Juan Crow (Jim Crow laws allied to people of brown skin) and modern-day immigrant woes. In all of this I saw how unique, beautiful and essential the faith and discipleship of Latino/a Christians in Houston is.
I saw more clearly as I studied the famous passage from 2 Samuel where David forces himself on Bathsheba, kills her husband, and is confronted by the prophet Nathan. If you’d have asked me last week what this story is about, I’d have said what most US Christians would say: sex. But it turns out Christians in the third world hear this as a story empowering them to say “No!” to those in power.
Response: The Mary of the song would not be standing on the moon. She would be standing in the dirt and dust where we stand.
Response: The Mary of the song would not be wearing a crown. She would have on an old hat like the rest of us, to keep the sun from causing her to faint.
Response: The Mary of the song would not be wearing jeweled rings on her fingers. She would have rough hands like ours.
Response: The Mary of the song would not be wearing a silk robe embroidered with gold. She would be wearing old clothes like the rest of us.
Embarrassed Response: Father, it may be awful to say this, but it sounds as though Mary would look just like me! My feet are dirty, my hat is old, my hands are rough, and my clothes are torn.
Priest: No, I don’t think it is awful to say that.
I also saw clearly how the Old Testament’s most famous passage, The 10 Commandments, is a text for an immigrant people. God begins, “I the Lord have brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…” and goes on to provide the Israelite immigrants with a lifestyle code. As a Christian whose people immigrated out of the European “land of slavery” in pursuit of freedom and faith, this is wonderfully refreshing to see.
Which means my story is both connected to, and different from, the stories I heard Sunday night from Houston Latino/a’s whose families are being torn apart by issues related to immigration. I was deeply moved by stories of pain, struggle, deportation. But that is not what I remember. What stands strongly in my mind is not their pain, but their faith, creatively displayed in song, dance, drama, preaching and testimony. Which reminded me so deeply of words from the great Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez:
How are we to talk about a God who is revealed as love in a situation characterized by poverty and oppression? How are we to proclaim the God of life to men and women who die prematurely and unjustly? How are we to acknowledge that God makes us a free gift of love and justice when we have before us the suffering of the innocent? What words are we to use in telling those who are not even regarded as persons that they are the daughters and sons of God?
And that, ultimately, is what I’m learning from my Latino/a brothers and sisters. Faith, in all of these stories, is not something to agree with (beliefs, doctrine), it is trust. Trust at its most basic level; a clinging to God without which you will not be sustained. It’s deeply this-worldly, practical, political, messy, and communal. And, as Houston pastor Alberto Parchmont said in his Sunday sermon, it’s active. Never passive or neutral, faith calls us to act. “You have to work,” he says, “be diligent, constant, and patient.”
Indeed! To see better, I need different glasses. May it be so for you this Lent!