What It’s Like Being a Boricua in Diaspora After María

I am a Puerto Rican child of the diaspora. Both sides of my family are from a town called Barranquitas in the central part of the island. It’s up in the mountains, about an hour’s journey from San Juan. Although many of my relatives have left the island to come stateside, some of my family is still there in Barranquitas, in the houses I played in as a child. I remember dreading the drive there because of the amount of curves and changes in altitude in the mountain roads (it would take some time before I discovered dramamine was a thing). But as I got older, I grew to love the drives, looking out into the valley and seeing nothing but trees, streams, and the occasional house while listening to my mother’s stories about my jibaro ancestors.

I think about my family, the friendly strangers, those houses, those mountain valleys every day since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, flooding the entire island and leaving my people without power or drinking water. I cannot even begin to imagine the hell that my fellow Boricuas are living through right now.  Every day there’s new photos and reports on the conditions of la isla. Towns have been devastated. Entire swaths of the island, including El Yunque National Rainforest, are unrecognizable. Folks are running out of food. Hospitals are in need of diesel power to run generators that will keep patients alive. Already two of them have died in a San Juan hospital, and another has died from not being able to receive dialysis. Houses have become death traps. There is no cell service, so residents cannot call for help or communicate with their loved ones outside the island. Lines for fuel and food stretch on for blocks in some cities, and the wait is several hours. In San Juan, supplies are arriving but there are no drivers to deliver supplies. It may be weeks, possibly months before any of us in the diaspora are able to hear from loved ones.

It is hard to focus on work when I’m overcome with a desire to check the news for updates, for word from family, anything. In the days immediately following I retweeted and shared practically every mention of Puerto Rico because it seemed as if no one was talking about it. Social media is a mixed blessing in this respect. It is easy to feel as if no one cares when you share article after article about a crisis and no one responds. At the same time, I’m in a few Facebook groups made of Puerto Ricans, both on the island and outside. There are thousands of posts by people looking for any information about their loved ones. Those on the island who are able to get a cell signal post to say they’re okay, or that they’ve spoken to so-and-so’s relative, and they’re okay. Every post like this warms my heart like as if these are members of my own family. But still, my mother’s calls to her uncle or to my aunt go to straight to voicemail, and we do not know when we’ll hear their voices again. The anxiety and uncertainty of not knowing if people you know and love are okay as you watch a disaster unfold is a feeling I would never wish on anyone.

I can only watch as a humanitarian crisis unfolds on my island and the United States Government takes its sweet time to respond.

I am disgusted.

I am enraged.

But I am not surprised.

The United States Government has never given a damn about the people of Puerto Rico since they invaded in 1898.

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Image from Defend Puerto Rico’s “CitiCien” artist exhibition in Philly.

Every non-Puerto Rican I have seen calling for attention and aid to Puerto Rico frames it as an appeal to help “our fellow citizens”. Every time I read I cringe. Fellow citizens. It reminds me that Americans will care only because my people are also “American”. If that were not the case, many of them would likely not bat an eyelash. Even so, my people may be “American” but we are (mostly) not white nor do we speak enough English for Americans to treat the crisis with the seriousness and swiftness it demands. When I brought up this fact recently, a white person tweeted at me to say that he was sorry “we” (read: white people) have “fucked things up so badly that we’ve forgotten about our own.”

“Our own”.

I realize he meant “our fellow American citizens” but I cannot help but read it as our possession. Our colony. I politely correct and ask him not to frame this in terms of needing to help fellow “citizens”, especially since Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States only as a consequence of colonialism, not some benevolent gift of the American government. He tells me that the “negative historical context” is irrelevant, Puerto Ricans are still citizens, as if that statement magically erases a century of American imperialism and neglect. Puerto Ricans are citizens thanks to a law passed by a government that Puerto Ricans did not elect, a government that did not speak the language of its colonial subjects nor made any effort to understand them, a law passed so that the United States could have more bodies to fight its wars. Don’t remind us of our “citizenship” when the suffering and indignity it carries with it outweighs what little benefits it yields.

I remind myself to disengage and take care of myself, but I can’t help but feel like that would be looking away and I can’t do that to my family, to mi gente. Fellow Boricuas I speak to echo this feeling. We are emotionally exhausted, frustrated, desperate. Our hearts and souls are there, en nuestra tierra.

If you’d like to donate to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts in the most vulnerable parts of the island, contribute to Defend Puerto Rico’s YouCaring campaign here.

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Mindfulness and Imposter Syndrome

Recently my mind has been bugging me endlessly with the question of, “What are you doing?”

This isn’t a theoretical/philosophical question but more so the practical question of, “How am I contributing to the world right now?” Last week I attended a really wonderful gathering of folks my age called the Millennial Leaders Project at Union Theological Seminary in NYC and although it was really healing and great to share space and hear other folks’ stories, my imposter syndrome was constantly comparing myself to my colleagues and getting in my face asking me, “Well what are you doing now? Why aren’t you doing x, y, and z? Why don’t you read enough?”

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You Are Welcome Here! (Restrictions May Apply)

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” [Matthew 10:40]

Jesus speaks these words at the end of a long sermon commissioning the twelve apostles to go out and proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Jesus tells them all this and then tells them don’t worry about bringing a bag, or a tunic, or money, or whatever. These apostles would have to depend on the hospitality of strangers in the places they visited. The church from its inception has relied on the kindness of strangers, for those who welcomed the apostles welcomed Jesus. The early church depended on hospitality and it was charged with extending that same hospitality to others, and so today we Christians strive to be a people of welcome and hospitality.

“Welcome” is a hard word for me – because I really want to believe people when they tell me I’m welcome in a space but it’s hard to accept that welcome at face value when their actions tell me differently. Like many of my fellow Millennials, I have been burned by community, hurt by churches and groups and fellowships that said they welcomed me and all that I am, only to be disappointed when that welcome proved to be conditional. I am often welcomed into progressive, liberal spaces because I am a queer brown person with a “prophetic” voice but I am quickly seen as a troublemaker when I ask hard questions and refuse to settle for scraps at the table. Or other times, my friends and I are welcomed and invited to the table if we all dress to the nines and serve you Sunday best church lady realness but not when any of us walk into your church with dyed hair, tattoos, or, Heaven forbid, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Many places are eager to lay out a welcome mat for people like me, but are not sure what to do with us once we walk through the door.

But, perhaps foolishly, I continue to show up to church, I continue to read and study my Bible with others, I hatch plans to start theology study groups, I continue to do my best to love and welcome the stranger in my midst. I’ve been asked more than once, why I would dare return to Christianity after having experienced so much abuse, so much pain, so much nonsense? I can tell them quite simply that the answer is… Jesus. Shocking, I know. The church’s welcome may sometimes ring hollow, but the love of Jesus, with his arms stretched out on the cross can welcome and envelop all parts of me. Jesus welcomes me in when I’m happy and pleasant, and Jesus welcomes me when I am messy. Jesus invites me in after calling people out on social media, when I’m pissed off, when I burn bridges, when I refuse to be polite. Jesus sets a place for me at the table at all times of the day and Jesus feeds me the bread of heaven even when I want no part of it.

This is the welcome we are called to embody.

Some churches will loudly proclaim that “It doesn’t matter to us who you are – you are welcome here!” But actually, it does matter, because Jesus loves each of us as we are, in the fullness of our identities – and when we say it “doesn’t matter” we’re essentially saying that you’re just another body in the pew, we don’t need to know your life story, just show up! Nobody wants that. In order to truly practice the radical welcome of Jesus Christ we must build relationships. We must foster and nurture connection. We must see people for all of who they are.

One of my good friends once said something that will always stay with me – she said that people have different “textures” – someone you know could be the happiest person in the world one day and then the next be sad, distraught, or pissed the hell off. And so often the temptation is to only see a person in one of those textures, and not the wholeness of who they are. So we must accept people and all of their textures!

If the church has any desire to stay true to what Jesus has commanded us, we must be truly welcoming. We must listen to people’s stories, and build relationships with them. We must welcome people even when we are challenged by them. We must continue extending hospitality to the strangers in our midst, especially in this country, where the government continues to criminalize Black bodies, threatens to kick off millions of people from their healthcare coverage, shut out Muslims from entering this country, and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

We once depended on other’s kindness hospitality – and now we are called to extend it to others.

Cutting Loose

I recently took up embroidery as a hobby. I learned a little bit from watching my roommates Alice and Lily as they both began embroidery in their free time this past year. Embroidery is incredibly soothing, although meticulous. You have to thread a needle every time you want to switch colors, which is agonizing (for me, anyway), and you then have to engage in stitch after stitch after stitch until your design finally comes to life.

Something I learned quickly is that if I’m not careful and mindful of my stitching, my thread will inevitably get knotted really quickly. Sometimes the knot is easy to pull loose; other times a tiny knot can grow into a huge, unmanageable one that could take several minutes to undo. I’ve learned sometimes it’s a lot easier to cut the knot and salvage the usable thread rather than trying to spend all my time undoing one big knot. Some might say it’s wasteful, I see it as prioritizing my time and energy.

I just ended my year of service with Life Together. I had originally signed up to do a second year with this program, but after repeated experiences with institutionalized racism and intense soul searching, I rescinded my contract and decided to move back home to Philadelphia. Looking back, I had some great experiences at the church I was serving and I made some beautiful friendships – but I also spent a good portion of this year doing a considerable amount of intellectual and emotional labor for white folks trying to “understand” racism in my service year program. I witnessed cultural appropriation happen in worship spaces and then have white folks get defensive and emotional when called out on it. I heard the pain of other people of color who got passed over for leadership positions. I had to listen to white people time and time again apologize for racist actions and watch as they continued with racist behavior even after I and many other POC called them out.

I recount the above experiences to remind myself that they happened, because society has taught me to always second-guess and discount my experiences and those of other people of color. Society says we are not to be believed when we share our experiences of discrimination. Mainstream Christian society in particular discounts our experiences, or when we are believed, many white Christians look down upon the ways we speak the truth, or shame us for not desiring “reconciliation” with oppressors. I’ve internalized this narrative and I hear it in the back of my mind every time I remember my experiences with racism.

“You could have handled that better. You burned that bridge. That isn’t very Christ-like of you. You need to reconcile with them.”

In the minds of many white Christians, reconciliation and forgiveness on the part of people of color seem to be taken as a given. POC are so often pressured implicitly and explicitly to forgive and reconcile, without taking stock of what forgiveness and reconciliation would actually take. We are called to have limitless reserves of grace for white oppression, for white guilt, for white nonsense, and yet white society offers us none in return, or when grace it is offered, it is on the condition that we behave “respectably” and communicate ‘nonviolently’, i.e., censor ourselves.

When I think about my experiences with this community and how I handled it, I know that when I called people out and left without saying goodbye, I acted from a place of great anger and pain. And I’m fine with that. I don’t regret what I did. To have censored my language, my story, my pain, would have been doing an immense disservice to myself and other people of color who experienced the same things. In this case I chose to cut loose a knot in my spirit rather than painstakingly pulling it apart, because I knew that would have necessitated an immense investment of my own emotional resources that I did not have. It pains me more to twist and contort myself to be acceptable in the eyes of progressive white society than knowing my words and actions may ruffle feathers.

This experience also taught me a lot about what church is supposed to be and what it currently is. My internship program boasted that it aims to produce new ways of doing and being church, but it is also a microcosm of what the church is. And so the liberal white racism I encountered in my program is just a sample of what is going on in the church across denominational lines.

What I’ve learned more and more is that the church these days is not interested, despite what you may hear, in yielding its proximity to power. The church is interested in comforting the already comfortable. The church is interested in racial justice work because it is the Right Thing to Do, but not if it gets too uncomfortable. The church does not want to question the systems of economic and racial violence that keep people lining up at its doors for services – it just wants to continue providing the services. Mind you it isn’t wrong to continue feeding the hungry, but if we don’t question why people are hungry and if we don’t work with them to end ongoing cycles of economic violence, then the hungry will never truly be free.

I truly believe in my spirit that, in this day and age, if you are a person of privilege and you can walk out of your congregation on a Sunday not feeling shaken, not questioning the systems of power you benefit from, not ready to yield your resources to the most marginalized in your midst – then the church is failing. If all you take away from church on Sunday is a beautiful liturgical experience with the very best hymns and choral pieces and not an understanding of what the Gospel is calling you to do in the face of police brutality, violence against Black and Brown bodies, environmental degradation, and rampant xenophobia, then perhaps you need to revisit what it means to be a Christian.

I know that the church is dying. At first when I read the statistics and the think pieces, I confess that my initial thought was about job security – What does that mean given that I feel God is calling me to be a priest? Will I have a job? But now truly I think it is better to let the church that doesn’t use its prophetic voice to question and rebuke the powerful, out of fear of being “too political”, die. The Spirit will ensure that something new, something different, something bold will emerge out of the ashes. The Spirit will show me where my place will be in that new growth.

For right now, in this moment, my spirit is tired. I’m exhausted. I remind myself every day that it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to not know what is up next. I experienced a lot of messed up shit in the past couple of months, and I deserve to restore and heal myself. So for now I will keep stitching, undoing knots sometimes, other times cutting them out. And with patience, a new picture will emerge out of all those tiny stitches.

 

 

 

 

On the Road

We can often feel like God is beyond our comprehension and reach – but each and every time we gather together for this meal of bread and wine, God is revealed to us. This meal of body and blood, broken open and poured out for us, restores us all to wholeness by connecting us with That which is forever whole and complete.

Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter. Edited.

Before I begin my sermon today I want to say some words in solidarity with my LGBTQ family in the United Methodist Church. This past week, the Judicial Council of that church ruled that the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, who was the first openly lesbian bishop in that denomination, violated church law. Even though she was elected and called faithfully by the people she served, her sexual orientation and marriage to a woman deemed her “unfit” to be a bishop – because the UMC declares that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. That same council also affirmed in separate rulings that two different conferences of the UMC must abide by church law and inquire about the sexuality of candidates for ministry.

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The Dry, Dead Places

The other day during Morning Prayer I found myself reading a passage from Ezekiel, the famous “Valley of Dry Bones” vision:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LordThus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. (Ezekiel 37:1-5)

This is probably one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.

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Where the Heart Lies

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday (3/1/17).

If you were to ask what Lent means to me, like a good recovering Catholic I would tell you that Lent first and foremost is about eating fish on Fridays. As a child, I never looked forward to giving up meat during Lent because I was a picky eater and didn’t care for fish; now that I am older and slightly less picky, when I browse food blogs and see a good recipe for shrimp or tilapia I think, “This would be really good for Lent”.

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