Belonging As a Latinx Seminarian 

 

Seminary was an unexpected “next-step” for my life. My recent Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) experience has pulled me towards exploring the world of theology at Union (UTS) as a first-year Divinity student. As I was reading through the UTS Student Digest newsletter, I saw a job that contained the words “Justo Gonzalez” and “Hispanic Summer Program.” Immediately, I applied to become a research assistant for this project. A researcher from Florida was seeking to hire a UTS student that could take and send pictures of the archival materials from the Special Collections section at the Burke Library. Even though COVID-19 restricted their physical access, this special opportunity creatively bridged a solution that would connect the researcher to continue their study while introducing me to Hispanic and Latinx leaders and theologians who look and sound like me.

This research project focused on Justo Gonzalez’s work at the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) from 1988 to 1994. As a Cuban-American, Methodist, and historical theologian, he provided valuable contributions towards the sustainability of the Hispanic Summer Program (HSP). Justo Gonzalez believed that the HSP provided important opportunities for Hispanic seminarians to learn about theology, spiritual practices, and pastoral care through a Hispanic lens. This two-week summer program would give students a unique ecumenical theological education as they learned alongside other Hispanics who looked like them, shared similar experiences, and struggled with similar theological issues specific to their own communities.

 

Photo of the author at the Burke Library
Photo of the author at the Burke Library (Fall 2021)

 

It is hard for me to point out my favorite document because every letter, grant proposal and drafted syllabus was vital towards keeping the expectations and dreams of the HSP high and alive. Reading the handwritten testimonials of the students touched me in a special way, as it spoke to my story as a Latinx woman who is still trying to find out how to do theology through a Hispanic lens. Attendee of the HSP Luis G. Pedraja writes, “I have discovered that in my quest for an identity I do not stand alone and that my theological methodology is already rooted in my hispanic identity… I have found that my doctoral work… has been formed by my hispanic roots and identity all along” (Box 13, Folder 27). Several other students wrote that this was their first time learning theology in an environment where they were not the lone Hispanic in the classroom. Many were grateful for the chance to learn theological topics in the Spanish language as it would prepare them to connect with the communities that they would soon be serving.

 

Handwritten testimonials from Luis G. Pedraja, an attendee of the Hispanic Summer Institute. (Fund for Theological Education, Box 13, Folder 27)
Handwritten testimonials from Luis G. Pedraja, an attendee of the Hispanic Summer Institute. (Fund for Theological Education, Box 13, Folder 27)

 

Oscar McCloud, the Executive Director for the FTE, wrote to the Glenmede Trust company on September 30, 1986 concerning the future of the HSP, detailing the funding and planning necessary to sustain this program. He mentions that even though Hispanics will be the largest minority by the end of the 1980s, only 2.3% of all Christians seminarians are from the Hispanic community (Box 13, Folder 4). Justo Gonzalez also writes extensively about this unique Hispanic challenge of “numbers” in his study for the Trinity Grants Board titled “The Hispanic Ministry of the Episcopal Church in The Metropolitan Area of New York and Environs.” He notes that the census data of the 1980s does not take into account of the undocumented Hispanics, signifying that the actual growth of Hispanics in the United States may be significantly higher (Box 5, Folder 38). As the Hispanic and Latinx population continues to increase, the number of Hispanic and Latinx seminarians and spiritual care providers remain limited and scarce.

While I am unsure of what the statistics look like now, I experienced this urgent need first-hand during my hospital chaplaincy internship in Boston, Massachusetts. From October 2020 to March 2021, I saw how COVID-19 brutally devastated the Hispanic community, as they faced high rates of hospitalization and death. As a Latinx chaplain and the only fluent Spanish speaker, I witnessed many heart-breaking cases. Another document that I found also affirmed my experiences; Dr. Augustin Sicard’s proposed publication draft titled “In Hospital Chaplaincy,” advocates to “challenge the medical world…which divests the Hispanic of [their] dignity, and the need to influence patient care in a holistic fashion with special thrust on Hispanic concepts of healing (faith-healing, curanderos, etc.;” Box 9, Folder 30). Chaplaincy is a work of remembering; Hispanic and Latinx spiritual care providers can speak truth towards this process of healing as they serve their respective communities.

 

Draft of a publication by Dr. Augustin Sicard, titled "In Hospital Chaplaincy"
Draft of a publication by Dr. Augustin Sicard, titled “In Hospital Chaplaincy” (Fund for Theological Education, Box 9, Folder 30)

 

Because God has allowed me to taste and see both the goodness of my Abuelita’s cold Morir Soñando on a hot Dominican day and the resiliency of my Boricua aunts and uncles rebuilding their communities after hurricanes and terremotos, I too have tasted and seen the saccharine stories that fill a patient’s tongue with pride when they talk about their love for their home country. I have witnessed their deep, parental guilt about all the things they wished they could have done better for their children. I can hold the embarrassment that they face when admitting how hard it has been to talk to their nurse or doctor that does not speak Spanish. I can attest to the Hispanic teenager who has had to grow up too quickly as they take on the weight of translating the devastating news for their family overseas. I can sit in the space of the Latinx immigrant as they weep in fear, struggling between the medical battle for their body in the hospital and the physical battle back home with ICE. My experiences as a Latinx woman allow me to witness and advocate on behalf of my Hispanic and Latinx patients.

I am a daughter of immigrants, fully Dominican, fully Puerto Rican, and now, a theology student. I embody both colonized and colonizer from my Taíno, African, and Spanish ancestors. The Hispanic Summer Program shows us what it looks like when students of color are given the space to learn about how their cultural and ethnic identities impact their ministry and work. Remembering these roots allows them to serve their Hispanic communities out of their truest self. Working on this project has reminded me that healing, action, and advocacy follows the intentional work of remembering, both for myself and for the people that I will continue to serve in the future. -YER

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally ask students working in Special Collections to write a piece for the Burke Blog, such as this beautiful essay. It’s wonderful to read about Yari’s experience as an assistant to an out-of-state researcher who is currently unable to visit in-person due to COVID-19 restrictions; we aim to help researchers connect with students, to make Burke collections accessible in the future. This type of collaboration can clearly benefit both the researcher and the student. Researchers can email burkespecial@library.columbia.edu for guidance on how to connect with a student research assistant any time. -Caro Bratnober

 

One thought on “Belonging As a Latinx Seminarian 

  1. Yari, thank you for this beautiful, moving reflection on your work at Union and your vocation. Grateful for your words and witness.

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