From 1997-2001, the HTI supported 48 master’s students from 26 seminaries and divinity schools. Also, many of the first doctoral students who were HTI fellows came from the pastorate. It is not until 2017 that the records begin to show the numbers of doctoral graduates who are ordained. These records show that from 2017 to 2020, approximately 34% of the graduates of HTI fellows are ordained. This includes between 116-136 doctoral graduates. While some remain in parish ministry, those that choose other pathways continue to write for and about the church or for and about la pastoral in the Latinx community. This is an important part of the vision of the HTI: to have persons who have a sense of vocation with a clear commitment to the church and community, whose writing and example become resources for the work of pastors and community workers.
The first candidates for the fellows program were interviewed by a committee of Latinx scholars. One of the important parts of the interview had to do with one’s commitment to the church and the community—how would one’s work involve and honor the community and the church? The answer would need to show evidence of one’s commitment not only at the inception of one’s doctoral work but at the dissertation stage as well.
Why would a pastor pursue a PhD? This article will look at this question by investigating the benefits that pastoral leaders, who are fellows of the HTI, find as they pursue a doctoral degree and continue their commitments to the church and the community. I will begin by discussing the movement that takes place in the seventies and eighties among church leaders for social justice within the church hierarchies and structures. I will also mention the different new spaces that the leaders begin to create for their theological reflections and praxis and the journeys of some of the HTI fellows in the intersection between doctoral studies and la pastoral.
Awareness in the church
Awareness of the presence of Latinx people in the church takes place at a heightened level in the 1980s, although the ferment had already begun in the previous decade. A new consciousness that began thereby, Latinx leaders began to question the denominational and other church hierarchies and structures requesting justice when it came to the provisions of the church for the work of the Latinx congregations. This consciousness took place widely across the Protestant and Catholic church structures alike. It brought about a movement among the priests/pastors/sisters and other ministers whereby a fervor of theological making took place as a way of addressing the very injustices within the church and society. This was theology as praxis. New theological themes were developing as well as conversations between Latin American theologians and those on U.S. soil. The voices of women were also included.
Theology included concerns for the poor and marginalized at the center whether it was liberation theology, misión integral, or teología en conjunto. It was also an ecumenical dialogue. Latinx/Hispanic theology breaks ground from the praxis of la pastoral. It, therefore, makes sense that many of the first doctoral students who were HTI fellows came from la pastoral.
This reality influenced theology, its themes, methodologies, and situatedness. Latinx theology was an emerging local theology. A theology that engages the social sciences. Much attention was given to the cultural and economic factors of the journey of the people from whom Hispanic/Latinx theology would emerge. This theology reflects the resilience of the spirituality and religious practices of the people which play a central role in the meaning-making of their lives. Rosa María Icaza describes this spirituality among Catholics in the following manner: For Hispanics “spirituality is translated into the love of God which moves, strengthens and is manifested in love of neighbor and self.”
The larger part of persons writing were priests, sisters, and pastors who were doing theological studies at the doctoral levels. Among the Catholics, Virgilio Elizondo was one of the first and among the Protestants, Orlando E. Costas. They understood the church and its structures, the people—their contexts, journeys, luchas, and religious expressions. They wrote from and for this context with larger audiences listening—the church and soon the academy. These leaders formed into groups such as The Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians (ACHTUS) for providing a theological voice for the lived faith of U.S. Hispanics of the United States. ACHTUS is a professional network to develop a U.S. Hispanic teología de conjunto. It was formed when “Allan Figueroa Deck and Arturo Bañuelas serendipitously met in Rome in 1985 and conceived the notion of a professional academy capable of addressing the pastoral and ecclesial needs of Catholic Hispanics/Latin@s in the U.S.” A few years later in January of 1988, the two scholars gathered other theologians to share their vision. “Maria Pilar Aquino, Roger Luna, Roberto Goizueta, C. Gilbert Romero, Virgilio Elizondo, and Orlando Espín. This founding group began to draw up by-laws and statutes for the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States. By November of 1988, the first board of directors had been elected, the first annual meeting had been planned and The First ACHTUS Colloquium in June of 1989, at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. At that meeting, they committed to be inclusive of women and to recruit U.S. Hispanics/Latin@s of all national origins completing doctoral degrees.”
In a similar fashion, La Comunidad of Hispanic Scholars of Religion was founded in 1989 at the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature to advance the interests and scholarship of Latinas and Latinos in biblical, theological, and religious studies. This gave visibility to the group at the level of the academy. A few years later, in 1992, The Association for Hispanic Theological Education (AETH) was formed, and it too had ecumenical membership and projects. AETH “is a network of people and institutions that works in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and more recently in Latin America and the Caribbean.” AETH works towards the advancement of the different forms of theological education in the Latinx community since these educational forms impact the formation of ecclesial and lay leaders which then determines how their organizations can improve the quality of life of their members and the larger communities in which they serve. Along with these organizations, the Hispanic Summer Program (1989) and the Hispanic Theological Initiative (1995) also came into being. The intersection between these organizations and the ways they complement each other’s missions made it possible to address the particulars of each ecclesial community. It also helped advance an agenda that would address the needs of the church and Latinx communities for leaders that can be theological thinkers, social scientists, and activists in the arenas of the church and the community with a strong, grassroots pastoral as an ecumenical people. The people of la teologia en conjunto became a grand pastoral writ large. It was a movement taking place in various places in close proximity in time and reverberated similar values and interlocking goals.
These changes created a momentum whereby persons were exposed to Hispanic/Latino/a theology (as named at the time) and its authors for the first time. HTI fellows found a calling to study with the purpose of contributing to a teologia en conjunto, and where they encountered a pastoral praxis informed by the realities, cultural assets, and agency of the spirituality of the people at the levels of the church, the community, and the academy. This set of circumstances created a Hispanic/Latino/a theological ecology which has continued until today. An important part of this ecology has been the relationships that have formed over the years among scholars/pastors/activists over several generations. Relationships are part of the spiritual and cultural expression of Latinas/Latinos. They form a strong thread of the pattern of resilience as scholars and pastors alike have sought to do the work of justice in the different structures in which they labor.
HTI’s Influence on the Making of Hybrid Scholars
How have scholars who have remained in the church, or who have tied their work to the church more directly, been influenced by the HTI? Among many examples, Néstor Medina was a youth pastor in Toronto, Canada at the Iglesia Evangélica Hispana when he first attended a theology course at a biennial meeting of AETH. His appetite for such thinking was immediately tapped and he wished to pursue theological studies. Not too long after, AETH carried out Tertulias Pastorales or theological conversations for pastors in his area. These systematic conversations helped him to see the need of the community and the different approaches for addressing them. He did not have the resources to pursue that desire. However, when Justo González, as the first director of the HTI, came to his church and spoke about the HTI, he realized that an HTI scholarship would provide the resources, and this thus created a way for him to pursue such studies. Néstor, however, was grandfathered into the program as grants were no longer offered to Canadians by the year 2000.
Nevertheless, once he began his academic journey, he longed to find a theological way to relate theology to the practical realities of the community. The scholars who mentored the fellows of the HTI exemplified and articulated such a theology. There was also a layer of commitment to their scholarly work, and these were the values that Néstor picked up and made his own. Today, as professor and pastor, he engages the field of ethics from contextual, liberationist, intercultural, and Post and Decolonial perspectives. He studies the intersections between people’s cultures, histories, ethnoracial relations, and forms of knowledge in religious and theoethical traditions. And he also studies Pentecostalism in the Americas. Néstor has participated with the United Church as a part of the People in Partnership program by going to Cuba and teaching at the Seminario Evangélico de Teología (SET), and he is an ordained minister of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.
What is really needed in pastoral work so that it becomes effective, long-lasting, and sustainable? In his reflections to the AETH membership Daniel Aleshire posits: “Doing ministry well requires knowing the text and traditions of our faith and skilled capacity in the arts of ministry—from preaching to organizing, from teaching to working with volunteers, from addressing individual needs to attending to the conditions in communities that give rise to some of their needs.” These aspects of ministry encompass both the theological and historical disciplines as well as the practical areas of ministry. However, there are other areas of the life of the people who are served by a parish that also improve when we have a highly educated minister.
In a study done by the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at Notre Dame, David Sikkink and David Hernández note that school success among Latino youth improves through the preaching, teaching, and attention to areas of life that a priest/pastor gives in the course of her/his ministry. For example, congregations are excellent providers of extra-curricular education to the community. Religious practices include Bible reading and discussion which is extra school learning for both parents and children. “Parents who participate in church regularly may draw on church-based social capital to find out information about quality schools and teachers, or to learn about good job opportunities and the importance of higher education to secure these jobs.” In each of these, the level of education of the pastoral leader matters. The more experience at the different levels of education a person has, the more information they can share about the educational system and about how to navigate it. The partnerships or networking that a pastor has with the community educational entities bring educational capital to the congregation. Pastoral leaders with greater understanding and interaction with more areas of educational resources can participate more readily in civic activities, thus increasing the congregation’s access to educational resources in the community. The higher the level of involvement of the pastoral leader, the higher that of the congregation. Such involvement “strengthens organizational skills, sociability, speaking and writing skills…this increases political participation.” The more the pastoral leader is involved in civic organizations, the greater the opportunities for families to connect with educational services such as libraries, museums, cultural events in the community, etc. The implication here is that doctoral studies increase these opportunities for all. Even the patterns used by a preacher to create an argument, influences how her/his hearers learn to do the same.
This speaks to the influence that a pastor/scholar may have in the church and in the community it serves. Beyond the local congregation, HTI pastor/scholar or activists have made their contributions by challenging the structures of the church around issues of race, inclusion, and social justice. They have served on denominational committees and boards.
One fellow, Javier Goitia, commented on his impact in the following way: “I have had profoundly existential and theological conversations about death and life, meaning and purpose, ethics and creation, and the like, in everyday conversations and pastoral visits. I believe I have impacted my denomination and the congregations I have served by being the theologian in residence with an eye towards what is taking place in the larger context.” Goitia sees himself sharing his access to text and faith as a scholar by way of his teaching and preaching. Goitia has been pastor and administrator of theological education. He is Director of Formation for Leadership at the ELCA Seminaries and Lay Schools.
In light of the traumas that the triple pandemic has brought about, we need healers in our midst. Such a person is Cristina Garcia Alfonso whose doctoral work is in Hebrew Bible but who, in her search for a more integrated teaching space, retrained and became a Supervisor and Certified Educator at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Rex in Raleigh, NC. Before taking on this role, she served as Chaplain Education Coordinator, Staff Chaplain, and Hospice Chaplain at various hospitals in Georgia. Cristina is an ordained minister in the Fraternity of Baptists of Cuba. The theories of Paulo Freire and her dissertation inform her work as educator for resilience and experiential learning.
Another fellow, Carla Roland Guzman, describes herself as a queer, gender-non-conforming Priest at the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew & St. Timothy since 2004. This is an outreach—and community-focused congregation, in New York City, composed of committed persons that are monolingual and bilingual, multi-racial and multi-cultural, aging, diverse in terms of sexuality and gender identity, and many of limited financial means. In addition to working as Senior Pastor, since 2019, she has taught introductory courses as an Affiliate Faculty in Church History at The General Theological Seminary (GTS.edu), including a course entitled Undoing Coloniality. In February 2020, her book Unmasking Latinx Ministry for Episcopalians: An Anglican Approach was published by CPI. She also coordinates the national/international Faith, Family, Equality: The Latinx Roundtable which “strives to promote understanding, acceptance, and affirmation of Latinx LGBTQAI+ persons and their families by producing materials that transform Latinx families and communities, Latinx faith communities, and the wider church, and help LGBTQ+.” As a scholar, Carla understands that she has insight into a text as a person versed in faith and church. Her perspective is one that gives access to something to which others may not have access.
Additionally, as an activist/pastor, Gabriel Salguero has worked on issues of leadership development, evangelicals, and public policy, as well as racial reconciliation. He has also written extensively on ethics and race, multicultural ministry, immigration, and spirituality, and public work. He is the founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) which offers voice to the Latino evangelical in our country. He is a featured writer for “On Faith,” and the Huffington Post’s religion page.
And Sammy Alfaro is associate professor of theology at the Grand Canyon University, pastor of Iglesia Nuevo Día, and was most recently voted to be the second vice president for the Pentecostal Society for the year 2023. This means that he will move up to vice president and program chair and then in 2024 he will be president. He is the author of Divino Compañero: Toward a Hispanic Pentecostal Christology of the Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 147.
Other HTI fellows who have written for both the academy and the church have become involved in non-profit work, in higher education administration as a way of bringing justice to education, and have created ecologies of education established upon the values of the basileia as expressions of public theology that goes beyond the academic page. They have done the work of generations—the work of changing the structures within which they work whether academic or ecclesial.
One such person is Luis G. Pedraja who is president of Quinsigamond Community College(QCC), where he “provides leadership to the College community while working to enhance the College’s mission to address the higher education needs and economic development of its community”. He is described as “a passionate advocate for increased access to higher education for all people, especially those who have been underserved historically by the American higher education system”. He has launched programs to ensure student success as well as a series of professional development seminars. Prior to this position, Luis was president of La Comunidad of Hispanic Scholars and served as Vice President for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education where he developed higher education policy. He has also served as Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Antioch University in Los Angeles and Interim Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs for Peralta Community College District in California. He is also an author of several books and articles on Latinx theology.
We can see the unique expression of the scholarship that these fellows have crafted. This testimony is contrary to what the academy has traditionally purported about hybrid scholars: that they cannot be serious scholars or that they must sacrifice their writing for the other activities in which they are involved. Instead, they exemplify a commitment of love and excellence to the people by way of their writings as well as the teaching of an incarnate gospel that is enfleshed and not trapped in theoretical understandings. They give shape to a decolonial epistemology by living into it, discovering its sources within their lived realities by thinking, feeling, and interacting with the world as scholars of the church. This is defined by South African scholar and educator Savo Heleta as “theorizing based on one’s own past and present experiences and interpretation of the world.”
The Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI) has opened up many pathways for Latinx scholars to give shape to their commitments, passions, and a deep sense of vocation, even when it has meant taking a leap of faith to live into a form of scholarly life and vocation that integrates many different dimensions. HTI Mentors have taken that leap of faith alongside the fellows allowing themselves to learn and to discover at the same time as the fellows. This type of becoming means learning well the many different dimensions of the academy and the expressions of the church and learning to find locations that will hold and sustain such hybridity. It is a costly venture as it does not guarantee certainty. It requires a continuous discernment and mobility and the making and remaking of one’s identity at each step. The spiritual sources of comunidad at the HTI have nourished a community of scholars for such a journey.