One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10. Here the Apostle Paul proceeds from reflecting on the fragile nature of our human bodies to proclaiming the life-giving, renewing power of God. At the time he composed these reflections, Paul was years into a complicated relationship with the church at Corinth. Indeed, Second Corinthians offers glimpses into Paul’s struggles with the Corinthians and to other setbacks Paul encountered in his ministry (e.g., 1:8-11; 1:23-2:13; 10:1-11:15). Despite these struggles, Paul’s commitment to his ministry and to his communities never wavered.
I raise the example of Paul and the Corinthians, and of 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10 specifically, because it serves well to introduce the importance that maintaining “connection” holds for Paul. And not just any connection, but those connections that sustain and empower us through life’s vicissitudes. Because of such connections, we may be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:8-9 nrsv).
For Paul, this life-sustaining connection ultimately comes from God. Even so, Paul recognizes the role his ministry plays in facilitating the Corinthians’ connection to God’s life-giving power. Everything he does is for their sake (4:15). Paul remains connected to them and his other communities through his letters, by which he continues his ministry of community formation among them even when not with them in person. And in 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10, Paul reminds the Corinthians that whatever physical decay and entropy wreaks havoc on their bodies, God’s life-giving Spirit remains connected to them, working in them to produce life (4:12) and renewing them day by day (4:16)
As Paul’s ministry was, so also may the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI) be characterized as a ministry of “connection.” Without question, the financial support that the HTI has disbursed its distinguished fellows and alumni over the years is invaluable. And yet, the HTI is much more than a source of funding: it is a community that has fostered long-term, life-giving, and life-sustaining connection with and among its graduates.
In honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary, I was invited to write this reflection precisely on “the lifelong connection between the HTI and its graduates.” I would like to thank Joanne Rodríguez, Néstor Medina, the Perspectivas editorial team, the HTI Steering Committee, and the HTI staff for this invitation. While I’m at it, I would also like to thank Joanne Rodríguez, María Kennedy, Ángela Schoepf, Suzette Aloyo, Leslie Enid Giboyeax, my HTI mentor Sharon Ringe, my HTI editor Ulrike Guthrie, and the many wonderful colleagues affiliated with the HTI with whom I have collaborated over the years for all of the life-sustaining support and solidarity that I have received since I became an HTI fellow in 2006. I am truly humbled by it.
But truth be told, I was hesitant to accept this invitation. While I had no doubt I could write many wonderful things about the HTI, the invitation intimidated me. Exactly how would I go about celebrating the HTI for the impact it has made on me and its alumni over the past twenty-five years?
I’ll begin with an anecdote from one my earliest HTI experiences. Anxiety and self-doubt have always been part of my life. Such feelings of inadequacy were strong on the day of my interview for an HTI fellowship. Truthfully, I had no idea what to expect. What questions would I be asked? Could I answer them? Would my answers reveal me to be the “imposter” I thought I was?
That I would be so nervous before that interview was not surprising. What did surprise me, however, was a conversation I had that same afternoon with another interviewee and future HTI alumnus, whom I had just met that weekend. Outside, beneath a bright sun, we shared our apprehensions over our respective interviews. While I cannot remember the details of our conversation, I still feel its impact. Though we were not yet official members of the HTI community, this conversation was among the first palpable experiences that showed me the promise of the HTI. It was an initial guarantee¾a “down payment” of sorts (cf. 2 Cor. 5:5)¾of the HTI’s identity as a community of past, present, and future scholars who support each other in many different ways at many different levels. On that day, this simple conversation was enough to get me through the fears I was experiencing then, and even if I had not been awarded an HTI fellowship, I would have left the interview weekend knowing that the HTI was a mutually-supportive community.
For me at least, the HTI has lived up to its promise as a community that empowered me through my years as a doctoral student and has sustained me since then. But I am not alone in experiencing HTI as a supportive community. Indeed, as I thought about how to go about preparing this reflection, something about doing this on my own seemed insufficient. For me to reflect on the “the lifelong connection between the HTI and its graduates” on the basis of my own individual experience, valid as it is, seemed to go against the spirit of the HTI, which fosters connections not only with its graduates but also among its graduates as well. After all, the core of the HTI’s mission is to form and sustain a community of Latinx scholars. And so¾in an effort to make this reflection a less solitary endeavor and more of a work done en conjunto¾I devised an informal survey consisting of a few basic questions intended to gather impressions from other HTI alumni. I emailed the survey to a number of my colleagues in biblical studies, admittedly a small sample size, selected from the “HTI Alumni by Field” section of the HTI’s website. I am grateful for the illuminating responses I received. I will happily decenter my own perspective by incorporating them into my reflections below, with minor edits for clarity.
One question I posed to my colleagues asked about their connection to the HTI¾what it means to them professionally or personally, or both. Some common themes emerged in their responses. Quite powerfully, the language of “home,” “family,” and “community” appeared multiple times. One scholar wrote, “HTI gave me a theological ‘home’ when I didn’t have one. I mean this in the most existential way: it connected me with many colleagues who have come to be my family here in the USA and it gave me the motivation and the means to see myself as a scholar. I sincerely believe I would not have finished my PhD without HTI.” Yet another described their inability to “imagine going through such a rigorous and potentially isolating process [of obtaining a doctorate] without the support of the HTI and the community.” The connections this scholar made through the HTI made it possible “for me not only to succeed in the completion of my training, but also to foster meaningful professional and personal relationships. Also, my insertion in the HTI community took place early on in my immigrant journey and it allowed me to learn more about the Hispanic academic community and how to navigate my new life in the US and in systems where I was a minority.”
Perhaps it is not so surprising that HTI scholars would use the language of home, family, and community to describe what the HTI means to them. But considering the isolating nature of academia¾another common theme that appeared in the responses¾it is hard to underestimate the value of the HTI in its roles of “home,” “family,” and “community” to us scholars in theology, religion, and biblical studies. Indeed, as one respondent wrote, the HTI “works against the isolation of Hispanic scholars in the academic world.” And as another put it, “So often, we are one of the only or one of the few, and HTI offers the sense that there is a network beyond the place that is training me or the place where I am involved. Even if we feel isolated in a discipline that has taken so long to diversify, it has been helpful to know that there is this community of scholars out there.” In response to the isolating nature of academia, the HTI provides “the gift of a network and a community, especially among folks who are my peers…before we even knew what kind of network we needed.”
This last comment resonates strongly with my own experience. During my first weekend at the HTI’s Princeton Theological Seminary headquarters, the weekend of my interview and before I formally matriculated into a doctoral program, I was blissfully ignorant about the nature of the guild I was entering. I was pursuing a doctorate in New Testament mainly because of my interest in it as a subject of study. At the time, I did not quite realize how isolating this particular discipline could be for Latinxs and other minoritized persons. The connections formed that weekend and at subsequent Summer Workshops and other HTI events certainly took place “before we even knew what kind of network we needed.”
The comments above point to the isolating nature of academia in the US for scholars of color, who must negotiate all sorts of prejudices and microaggressions in addition to mustering the tenacity to do all that it takes to earn a doctorate and then find¾and keep¾a professional “home.” At the risk of oversimplifying, in biblical studies, Latinx scholars face struggles in finding their place in academia, first, because we are so few in number and, second, because of the guild’s bias against the modes of analysis and interpretation practiced by many minoritized scholars. The methodological paradigms of historical criticism, literary criticism, and even social-scientific analysis are considered the bedrock upon which interpretative approaches that foreground the identities and epistemologies of contemporary readers may be built. But in and of themselves, these latter approaches are suspect.
To cite a personal experience, I recall once striking up a conversation with a scholar seated next to me at a conference event. Upon hearing that I completed my doctorate at Emory University, this person responded with something along the lines of, “Good! That’s one of the places still doing ‘real’ biblical scholarship,” by which he meant exegesis informed by historical criticism, and perhaps also literary and theological criticism. To be sure, his characterization of Emory’s doctoral program, though accurate in some ways, failed to account for some of the innovative dissertations produced at Emory in recent years, including by HTI alumni. Nevertheless, his point was clear. For this particular scholar (and many others), the modes of biblical criticism practiced by the dominant majority of scholars are considered “real” biblical scholarship, while publications that emphasize the contextualization of contemporary readers’ social locations are viewed as ancillary. The situation in the fields of theology and religious studies is only marginally better.
Because academia is so marginalizing towards scholars of color, we can add a layer to the HTI’s impact on its alumni: the HTI provides a space for Latinx scholars to tune into their own identities as Latinx scholars and see it as a value¾not a detriment¾to our academic disciplines. Commenting on the HTI in relation to the field of biblical studies, one survey respondent stated, “The pathbreaking work of Fernando Segovia notwithstanding, I think left to the discipline’s own devices, the particularity of Latinx experience would not be in the foreground of many Latinx biblical scholars in particular. The dominant model would have taken root. HTI gave us an alternative context of scholarly formation to show that we and our stories are not disposable.” For me, this comment struck a chord. Were it not for my involvement with the HTI and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS), I truly wonder whether I would have drunk my discipline’s Kool-Aid wholesale and operated exclusively in its dominant paradigms. Thankfully, the HTI provided me and others an “alternative context of scholarly formation” that counters the formation we may have received without it.
The HTI fashions this “alternative context of scholarly formation” by establishing a network of scholars who are connected to the HTI in one way or another. As one respondent wrote, the HTI’s “biggest impact is networking.” Further elaborating on this point, according to this scholar, the “HTI has provided a space for biblical scholars to know of one another and their work and even mentor them as they develop as scholars and teachers.”
For this reason, the lifelong connection between the HTI and its graduates is hardly unilateral. In other words, the connection is not merely between the HTI and its graduates but among its graduates as well. We remain connected to the HTI not just because the HTI is so intentional about keeping open the lines of communication between it and its graduates, but also because its graduates see each other as connected. As one response I received so beautifully puts it, “[I]n the US, my Latinx colleagues are the equivalent to my extended family. You might not know the names of every one of your distant relatives, but you know you are family; that’s how I feel about all my Latinx colleagues who are HTI scholars. Because of this connection, I know that when I am presenting a paper, or giving a lecture, or teaching a class, I have a cloud of witnesses behind me, that I am not alone as a Latina biblical scholar.”
As did other respondents, this scholar speaks of the HTI in terms of having “given me a sense of family and community in this country and within academia” that counters the loneliness and isolation that can come with being a Latinx biblical scholar, theologian, or religious studies scholar. But as this response indicates, in addition to all the things the HTI does to keep connected to its graduates¾such as sending the Journeys newsletters, establishing the En Conjunto Association, and soliciting our involvement in any number of HTI ventures¾the HTI’s genius lies in the way that its programs foster connections between its alumni. The connective, en conjunto modus operandi of the HTI takes root among its graduates.
In addition to the sense of solidarity and accompaniment that the HTI fosters among its graduates, the networking facilitated by the HTI has another tangible benefit for its alumni, namely it allows “for a recognition of their work and inside knowledge on how to navigate the Academy and respective academic institutions.” This point about the role the HTI plays in advocating for the recognition of its graduates’ scholarly work was echoed in another response: “I believe HTI has opened the doors for scholarship as a whole to appreciate the contribution Latino/a scholars have made to academia. Without the support and weight of the HTI, we would most likely not be taken very seriously, even to the point of not even looking at our scholarship.”
Finally, a word must be said about the HTI staff, who have shepherded the HTI and its work over the past twenty-five years. With reference to the staff, one respondent mentioned that their connection to the HTI “has been more at a personal level, perhaps more specifically, a relational level.” If we think back to Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, it’s clear that long-term relationships are not always easy. Our own deepest and longest relationships are marked by highs and lows, good times and bad times. The HTI has certainly experienced its own ebbs and flows, and has supported its fellows and graduates during the difficult times of their own lives and careers. The commitment of its staff to the HTI’s mission, and to its fellows and graduates, remains constant through it all and is a true hallmark reason of the HTI’s impact and success for twenty-five years and counting. This same scholar wrote about a point when they were “feeling so lost, with little sense of direction.” But actions Joanne Rodríguez took changed things, encouraging this scholar “in a real way…she gave me the space to dream while being realistic.” This is just one example of what are certainly many. There is no limit to the gratitude, admiration, and even praise that could be offered to the staff of the HTI, for all that they do to give its fellows and graduates “the space to dream” and help make these dreams a reality.