Lydia came to me in tears. She was a Latina doctoral student in the social sciences and I was serving at the welcome table of our church. After learning that I was a Christian professor at UCLA, she shared with me about the hostile religious climate she had experienced in one of her classes. Her professor had a habit of making off-hand comments about how Christianity was only the religion of white male colonizers and opposed to racial justice. As someone whose calling to research issues of urban educational inequality was shaped primarily by her faith in Jesus, Lydia found herself in a personal and professional quandary. Should she leave graduate school? If she stayed, how would she deal with future religious hostility in the classroom and unequal power relations with her professors? Would it be possible for her to craft a dissertation research topic that incorporated her faith background and the role of religion in the lives of urban Latina/o students? I’ve met many “Lydias” over the years as a professor of Chicana/o and Asian American Studies, and it has become my life calling to produce scholarship which helps bridge the gap between Christianity and racial justice in the social sciences. This concern for my students led me inexorably to HTI and its important legacy of scholarship for answers.
By and large, my home disciplines of Chicana/o Studies and Latina/o Studies cling to the same binary experienced by Lydia, with many unhealthy results. Although we claim that our academic job description is to study and understand the diverse Latina/o community, research on the role of Christianity in Chicano/Latino Studies is virtually non-existent. In the words of pioneering Chicano historian Mario García: “Despite the fact that the vast majority of U.S. Latinos claim to be religious or spiritual, little has been written on Mexican American/Chicano religions from a multidisciplinary perspective.” With notable exceptions, including García, Jacqueline Hidalgo, Gastón Espinoza, David Carrasco, and Elisa Facio, few academic studies examine the Latina/o religious experience from the standpoint of Chicano/Latino Studies. As far as I am aware, less than a handful of religion scholars have been hired as tenured track faculty in Chicano/Latino Studies departments over the past fifty years. In addition, Chicana/o Studies, Latina/o Studies, religious studies, Latina/o theology, and Latin American liberation theology have had very little interaction. HTI scholar Jacqueline Hidalgo stands out as one of the few Latina/o scholars to explicitly bridge the fields of Ethnic Studies and Biblical Studies.
As a result of the neglect, and sometimes outright hostility towards the study of Christianity within Ethnic Studies, I have observed the following harmful consequences:
- Psychological damage: as evidenced by the example of Lydia, the quandary of feeling trapped between personal faith and the pursuit of racial justice can take a heavy emotional toll. I sadly recall meeting one undergraduate student who plunged into clinical depression as a result.
- Hostile campus climate: as evidenced by Lydia’s example, many Latina/o students experience hostility in the classroom towards their faith and the faith of their families. I have similarly been on the receiving end of religious bias on the part of students and colleagues within my discipline. At a certain point, such discrimination crosses the line into legal territory and triggers the legislative protections of Title VII.
- Many potential students get turned away: if forced to choose between their professors’ anti-religious bias and the faith of their mothers, fathers, and abuelas, many opt out of classes in Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies. At a campus like UCLA with thousands of Latina/o students, this can translate practically into the missed opportunity for us to enroll much larger numbers of students in our classes and majors.
- Research Gap: as previously discussed, a paucity of literature on Christianity and the Latina/o community exists within Ethnic Studies.
- Curricular Gap: courses on religion and Christianity are hard to come by in most Chicano/Latino Studies departments throughout the country.
- Epistemicide: this is one of the gravest concerns for me. As a logical consequence of the disparagement of Christianity in Ethnic Studies, Latina/o theologies and many communal spiritualities have been implicitly, and explicitly, portrayed as invalid sources of knowledge. As an example, grassroots Pentecostal and Roman Catholic faith traditions are often ignored despite the fact that they represent central components of the community cultural wealth of tens of millions of Latinas/os in the United States. The result is “Abuelita epistemicide.”
After getting tenure at UCLA nine years ago, I remember listening to an old Lauryn Hill album while remodeling our kitchen. I was covered in dry wall, exhausted by the precise and intense physical labor for which I was unqualified, and the following words from Hill stopped me dead in my tracks:
“and I say, what, you want two-thirds of me to stay outside? I’m a whole person. You can’t say, you know, two-thirds of Lauryn, come in here, only two-thirds is acceptable. I’m a whole person.”
In that moment, I said to myself: “I’m tired of leaving 2/3 of myself outside the academic door of UCLA.” I had gotten tenure based upon my scholarship on the Chinese of Mexico and by building a reputation as the “Asian-Latino” guy. Don’t get me wrong, I loved, and still love, that line of research. With a father from Chihuahua, Mexico and a mother from Hubei in central China, I felt so blessed to study myself for a living. And yet, my academic and ministry worlds had been separate and disparate for many years. On the road to tenure, I got ordained in the Black/Latino Pentecostal world of South Los Angeles and, outside of the classroom, engaged in intensive ministry with my wife Erica among activist students who wrestled with reconciling their faith in Jesus with their passion for social justice. It was a glorious time. We marched with students, married students, baptized students, mentored them, conducted week-long urban ministry plunges, etc. But my ministry world and academic worlds remained distinct. Lauryn Hill’s words inspired me to try something crazy and bold—what if I formed a new academic project that would bring together my worlds of Chicano/Latino Studies, racial justice, and Christianity? As I was pondering this potentially life-changing decision, I received strong encouragement from my chair and another colleague, to go for it. This journey led me to HTI and its 25-year legacy of scholarship and intellectual resources for answers.
As my initial orientation to Latina/o theology, I found the classic text, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, by HTI alumni Miguel de la Torre and Edwin Aponte. This book introduced me to Father Antonio Martínez of Taos and his controversy with Bishop Lamy; Mama Leo and Santos Elizondo; PADRES; Las Hermanas; Virgilio Elizondo; Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck; Orlando Costas; Ada Maria Isasi-Díaz, HTI, ACHTUS, and AETH, and the key bibliography that would serve as the foundation for my Brown Church book project. Together with my pastor Marcos Canales, De la Torre and Aponte were my guides into the universe of Latina/o theology, Latin American liberation theology, and Misión Integral.
The next books which profoundly shaped my intellectual journey were written by scholars connected to the founding and inspiration of HTI: Galilean Journey: The Mexican American Journey by Virgilio Elizondo and Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective by Justo González. My mind was blown by Galilean Journey because it was the first book I had ever encountered which fused Chicana/o Studies with theology. Here was an author who was also Mexican American, and also from the Texas-Chihuahua borderlands where the Romeros have lived for hundreds of years. The book interacted with key authors of my Chicana/o Studies field like Juan Gómez-Quiñones, as well as well trodden themes of my discipline such as mestizaje—but in new ways that incorporated Jesus and the Bible. Jesus was a mestizo? What! Galilee was the barrio of its day? Those that human beings reject, God calls his very own? Jesus is the author of liberation? Galilean Journey gave me my specific inspiration for writing Brown Church because it showed me that it was possible to integrate Chicana/o Studies, theology, and Christianity for the purposes of both the academy and the loving purposes of the Kingdom of God.
As much as I was stirred by Elizondo, at the end of the day, I was still Protestant and evangélico. I grew up in Hispanic Baptist churches and presently lived out my faith in a local Latina Nazarene church. I loved talking about Scripture and nothing makes my soul come more alive than seeing someone’s life transformed by Jesus like mine was as a first year law student at Berkeley. Where would I find the academic inspiration for these parts of who I am? Like many others before me, God led me to Justo González and his classic texts, Mañana and Santa Biblia. I could identify with González’s personal and intellectual journey. He was a Methodist theologian and historian, the youngest person to graduate from Yale with a Ph.D. in historical theology, and the Protestant founder of Latina/o theology. Reading about the themes of marginality, poverty, mestizaje, mulatéz, and exile in the form of Bible study—that reflected an important part of who I am. Hearing someone say so clearly, that both the U.S. and Latin America have “noninnocent histories”—that resonated with the Chicano historian in me. Learning that it was possible to read the Bible “in Spanish” and “with Hispanic eyes” as a methodological approach was straight out of the methodological playbook of critical race theory. I was all in.
With the broad overview from De La Torre and Aponte, and the frameworks and inspiration of Elizondo and González in hand, I remember spending days walking up and down the streets of my city, trying to think of how I could put it all together in such a way that made sense to my discipline of Chicana/o Studies and to the activist students we so dearly loved. How could I take the best of Chicana/o Studies—its racial theory, poignant reflection on gender and patriarchy, historical literature, and ethos of bridging scholarship, social justice, and the community—and fuse it with what I had come to know was this treasure of Latina/o theology? I’ll never forget when it came together for me for the first time. I was sitting in my living room with my family and it struck me like a bolt of lightning: “Brown Theology!” First, “Brown” was a central metaphor of the Chicana/o civil rights movement. Rather than hiding from our indigenous roots and calling ourselves “Spanish” as a path towards middle class assimilation, the Chicano movement of the 1960’s took a path breaking step: it said that Mexican Americans should be proud of being all of who we are—both Spanish and indigenous. Flowing from this cultural pride in being mestizo and metaphorically “’brown,” the new Chicano social identity also involved a commitment to social justice and the political uplift of the Mexican American community. This was noble and a huge step forward, but, as already discussed, the Chicano movement has largely ignored the role of faith and theology as crucial components of Latino community cultural wealth from Latin American colonial times to the present. From Juan Diego, to Guáman Poma de Ayala, Garcilaso de la Vega el Inca, and Las Casas, to the iconic civil rights movement of Dolores Huerta and César Chávez, to the sanctuary movement of the 1980’s, and the contemporary immigration reform movement, spiritual capital has been a central component of Latino community cultural wealth.
In that moment, I understood that my calling was to bridge Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies with Latina/o theology and remind those of my field of the history of the “Brown Church”—that prophetic ecclesial community of Latinas/os that has contested racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States for the past 500 years. In short, my task was to bring in “theology,” broadly speaking, to my discipline. That epiphany filled me with excitement and the joy of the Holy Spirit. I began running throughout our little house and shouting, “Brown Theology! Brown Theology!” My kids thought I was crazy. I began pillow fighting with them and play wrestling, WWE style, and shouting “Brown Theology”! And then they started getting into it and shouting back “Brown Theology!” Somewhere there is a video of it. To this day in our family, “Brown Theology” is synonymous with pillow fights and exuberant joy.
With the basic framework of “Brown Theology” in tow, I had much work ahead of me to fill in the details. HTI legacy to the rescue. The critical support of Edwin Aponte and a Louisville Institute Sabbatical Grant for researchers afforded me the time to conduct a deep dive into the literature of Latina/o theology, become formally introduced to the world of religious studies, and write Brown Church. My only regret is that one year and one book wasn’t long enough to drink in and include all of the important books and thinkers who have shaped the field. As I look back on the bibliography and larger inspiration for Brown Church, I see that it is shaped—from cover to cover—by HTI colleagues. In addition to those previously highlighted, I am grateful for the scholarship and inspiration of Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Fr. Allan Figueroa-Deck, David Maldonado, Olga Villaparra, Ana María Pineda, Sarita Brown, Joanne Rodríguez, Daniel Ramírez, Ada Maria Isasi-Díaz, Orlando Costas, Néstor Medina, Loida Martell-Otero, Gastón Espinoza, Sammy Alfaro, Jacqueline Hidalgo, Lauren Frances Guerra, Michael Mata, Lara Medina, Zaida Maldonado-Pérez, Óscar García-Johnson, Juan Martínez, Alexia Salvatierra, Theresa Yugar, Felipe Hinojosa, Leopoldo Sanchez, Roberto Sirvent, and many others. To be honest, at the time, I did not even realize that all of these influential researchers and thought leaders were connected to HTI. It’s only after preparing for this article by reviewing the history of HTI and the list of past awardees that I have come to understand how indebted I am to HTI. Without HTI’s legacy of scholarship and professional support, I literally would not have been able to write Brown Church.
From Ada Maria Isasi-Díaz, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Zaida Maldonado-Pérez, and Loida Martell-Otero, I learned about God’s preferential option for women, “lo cotidiano,” and the “wild child of the Trinity.” Through them, my theological categories for knowing and understanding Jesus both exploded and expanded. In the scholarship of Lara Medina and Theresa Yugar, I found historical and theological complements to the important scholarship of Chicana feminism in my own discipline. Contrary to popular perception, Jesus does care about patriarchy and machismo, and takes the side of my sisters in their struggle. Sor Juana, Las Hermanas, and Latina Evangélicas taught me that Latinas have been engaged in the spiritual liberation of women for the past four hundred years. If only the worlds of Chicana Studies and Latina Theology could meet more often. On a personal level, Latina theology gave me tools to understand my own wounds from machismo and patriarchal Mexican culture which has devastated the Romero family unit for decades, perhaps even centuries. How I wish Latina theology was a part of my own childhood spiritual formation at Iglesia Bautista El Salvador.
Elizabeth Conde-Frazier became a trusted mentor after I had the privilege of first meeting her at a Latina/o consultation organized by InterVarsity Press. She supplied important feedback for Brown Church in its early draft form, and although she might not even have realized it, she helped shape my Pentecostal identity which I had lived out privately for many years, but never through formal public identification. My sacred encounters with Jesus have always been the center of my faith, but I had not been introduced to “El Espiritu Liberador.” I did not understand the theological connection between hearing the voice of God in sacred personal space and social redemption. In addition to Conde-Frazier, the writings of Eldin Villafañe, Raymond Rivera, Óscar García-Johnson, and Sammy Alfaro introduced me to “liberating Pentecostal theologies” and the efforts of Latin American and U.S. Latina/o Pentecostal pastors and theologians over the past fifty years to find their distinctive theological voice within the broader context of the Latin American and Latina/o experience. As I learned from Alfaro, Spirit baptism is intrinsically connected to the holistic liberation of oppressed communities. In the words of Jesus himself:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk 4:18-19)
As part of my journey of processing the universe of Latina/o theological reflection for the first time, I had a divine appointment with another HTI scholar, Roberto Sirvent. On a rainy day in Orange County, just days after the foreboding election of Donald Trump in 2016, we met over crepes and coffee to discuss our common intellectual pursuits in law, theology, and the social sciences. He graciously listened as I shared with him about my spiritual journey and new pursuits in religious studies, and I received from him many new insights about multi-disciplinary theological research and the larger world of Latina/o theology. It was a life-giving time, and afterwards I thought to myself, “If this is what Latino theology is all about, then I feel like a fish in water.” A few days later, I received an email from Roberto asking me if I might happen to have an article suitable for publication in Perspectivas. As God would have it, I did have an article in my back pocket about the spiritual praxis of César Chávez which I had originally written for another project which had since fallen through. That article with HTI became my first academic publication in the interdisciplinary arena of Latina/o theology! In the midst of a tumultuous year in which race relations in the United States seem to have reached a modern nadir, writing this brief piece has afforded me the space to pause and reflect upon my spiritual and academic journey over the past decade. This essay has been an exercise in reflection and gratitude. It is my testimonio—my testimony of God’s faithfulness over this “Brown Church” season of my life, and God’s abundant provision for me through the history, legacy, and ongoing ministry of the Hispanic Theological Initiative.