I am glad to be with all of you on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Hispanic Theological Initiative. When I first received the 130-plus page grant proposal for the HTI that was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts for over $3 million dollars, the date was August 1996 and I was standing in an empty office in what was then Turner Village on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta. I was told to read the grant and to have the first group of doctoral applicants processed and ready to be interviewed by the Selection Committee in April of 1997. The HTI staff that would be responsible for making all this happen in the first nine months of the program consisted of myself and Lizzie Oquendo who was the administrator of the program. And so, between August of 1996 and April of 1997, I set up the Selection Committee, created the application process, and advertised the scholarships. Once we began receiving applications, I then prepared those to go to the Selection Committee for their review so that they were ready to begin the interviews for the first scholarship awards of the HTI. And the rest, as they say, is history and here we are twenty-five years later.
Many things happened after those first scholarships were awarded, which at that time also included master’s level students. Those first years were busy ones with the establishment of the mentoring component, setting up the annual HTI retreat for awardees and mentors, as well as my visits to ATS deans all around the US advocating for the hiring of the soon to be graduated first crop of HTI awardees.
The end of the 1990s when the HTI came into being also marked the end of a very particular century. According to Samuel Kobia who was director of the World Council of Churches in 2006, the 20th century has been described as “the ‘age of extremes’ or the ‘most violent century in history.” It was also the ‘ecumenical century’, “since it was then that churches began to discover each other and committed themselves to work together in response to challenges they were confronted with.” Not that Christian Churches had never attempted to work together before, in fact, efforts across denominations can be found as early as the 1800s. However, with the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 global Christian networks were set up to unify and coordinate the responses of the churches aimed at the varying needs of their communities. The word ecumenical comes from the Greek “oikos” which means “house” so that “oikoumeniko” means inhabiting “from the whole world”—a house inhabited by everyone; the house being the world or the church. It is a term of inclusivity and meant to denote welcome—no matter what Christian denomination or house you come from, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic—we all share the same house. So, to be ecumenical meant to be inclusive of those outside your denominational tradition, to welcome them, to work with them.
Now, to be clear I am not saying that all Christians believed in or wanted ecumenism or to be ecumenical, and the reasons for that are too long and complicated for the purpose of this presentation. But at its most basic level, we can say that the HTI had an ecumenical vision at its founding. The HTI was not a Protestant-only program. It was intended to include Roman Catholics as well. And the HTI was not about mainline or historical Protestants only; it also included those further from what has been considered the Christian core of the US This ecumenism was clearly manifested in the fact that the sociologist charged with writing the grant for the HTI to Pew was an Adventist pastor and scholar, Dr. Edwin Hernández. Justo González was and is UMC, I was and am an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Lizzie was also a member of the Disciples Church from PR—indeed we were an ecumenical group.
But 1996 is a quarter of a century away from where the HTI is today and it is very clear that society, the world, and we ourselves, have all changed. So what does this “ecumenical” beginning mean for the 21st -century reality that the HTI, its leadership, its alums, mentors, and the institutions affiliated with it all now face? Well, let’s begin by looking at where we are. The over 600,000 who died in this country due to COVID-19 remind us constantly of the fragility of human life and how quickly societies around the world could be turned topsy turvy in a matter of weeks.
To further compound the situation this past year, 2020, was also one of great racial strife a reaction to pain and suffering caused by police brutality that made itself felt throughout the nation. Joblessness became a common reality for millions of folks in the US which led to levels of hunger and food insecurity not really seen before in our lifetime. And as if this was not enough, bringing further chaos and fear, the Trump regime continued, unabated, its war against immigrants coming to the US’ southern border, particularly targeting children and women, as well as immigrants already living here as the fate of DACA remained unresolved. And in all this time, given all these challenges, the US continued on its merry way holding up its banner as a “Christian nation”. However, the reality is that we are living in a world of what some scholars are calling “contested Christianities,” where the Christian mission has been hijacked to such an extent that the term “religious” and “Christian” for many have only become empty signifiers.
And what these changes point to should greatly concern all of us who teach in seminaries and schools of religion, as well as those of us who mentor students who want to teach in seminaries and departments of religion. Right before our eyes, Christianity has become a divisive force creating deep rifts between communities. The divisiveness has risen to such levels that for many, both outside and inside the Christian community, Christian values, practices, and beliefs have become insincere, unreliable, and even treacherous. I am not saying that Christianity is going away or disappearing any time soon, and the statistics bear this out. What I am saying is that Christianity is in turmoil and that the world that Christianity encounters today is so different that these challenges impact the work of organizations like the HTI. So, my question to all of you is: how does the HTI respond to the reality that I have just shared?
I also want to lift up that the world we inhabit today is one where conflict on the basis of religious identities and between religions is commonplace. Does this mean that the HTI needs to become much more engaged in inter-religious dialogue and co-operation among its students and alums? Are these interreligious competencies that HTI awardees need to acquire? I am not just talking about changes in the ecclesial and ecumenical landscape that has and continues to occur with the growing number of Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians. I am talking about non-Christian religions, about the plurality of religions and faiths in today’s society, and how a new generation of Latinx scholars are being prepared to engage them in their classrooms, in their scholarship, and in the work related to multi-religious approaches to justice issues. The need exists for Latinx scholars who are trained to engage policy makers, the media, and also social media to tell a story that will help to expand and decenter the conversations about religion and theology that continue to have a dominant white agenda and perspective. The HTI may already be doing all of this and if this is the case then I celebrate with you all tonight. But we all know there is always the need to do more.
I end my brief notes with this observation and comment. When I was director of the HTI there we very, very, few Latinas in any kind of positions of leadership within the ATS academy—if the Latinos were scarce the women were almost non-existent. This has changed somewhat and there are currently HTI women who are moving into administrative positions where decisions about hiring and curriculum are made, but these are still too few, even in 2021. While no Latinx organization working in the area of theological education can change this reality overnight, what we still need is greater and more visible support of our women leaders by Latinos themselves. One thing I would always talk about at every meeting of HTI awardees was the need for community and solidarity with one another. The academy is not created to function that way and I challenged those first HTI students who were finishing, and those just beginning to write, their dissertations to always look around the room and notice who was missing and then to ask why—why we had so few women, why the Latinas who did enter doctoral programs often did not graduate, and to question what was really going on. So I will remind all of you present in the HTI today: No matter where you are in your career—tenured or full professor, if you hold a chair in your institution, if you are an administrator, even those just beginning doctoral coursework—you can offer support and help to a Latinx colleague and you can make a difference. I would tell those HTI folks all those years ago what I will repeat to each of you: Remember, this is not about you, this is about us. We are here and we have gotten to where we are in our careers because someone gave us a hand—offered advice, listened to our complaints, offered to advocate for us, showed up when we needed them—somos producto de nuestras comunidades. What has been done for us must be done for another. For me, that was the essence of the kind of HTI community I wanted to help create. I believed that back in 1996, and I believe that even more today. If we all indeed inhabit one oikos, if we are indeed all members of one household, then we are called to support and help one another, to celebrate one another, and to help one another thrive. Let me say it again: this is not about you, this is about us! That is an ecumenical vision and one that I will never give up. ¡Adelante HTI! ¡Muchas felicidades hoy y siempre!