Learning with la Familia

How one professor taking roll altered my educational career
Learning with la Familia
Photography by Jesse Schroeder | Courtesy of Hispanic Summer Program

On my first day of seminary, I sat in a lecture hall waiting for Introduction to Modern US Church History to begin. Though the subject sounded interesting, I was especially eager to learn from the professor. She had a reputation as an incredible lecturer, caring individual, and one of the most rigorous professors at the institution. I also knew she was Latina, the significance of which didn’t hit me until she began taking attendance.

The Rev. Daisy L. Machado, PhD, began reading students’ names, one by one. A few minutes in, she said, “Jorge Rodríguez.”

Dr. Machado calling my name was one of the most profound moments of my educational career. She pronounced the name my parents gave me, Jorge Rodríguez, with all the appropriate Spanish accents and inflections. I had to pause before saying “here”—my name had never before been correctly pronounced during my university class attendance.

As a person of color, my worldview constantly bumps into the dominant curricula, policies, and beliefs that tend to be shaped by the white majority culture. How my name has been mispronounced is simply one example. When attendance is taken and a name is said incorrectly, or when the professor makes a scene to ask how to pronounce this name he’s never seen before, a student is immediately marked as “other,” intentionally or not. When a name is signified as foreign before it is signified as a name, the student’s primary identity is as a foreigner.

But when Dr. Machado pronounced my name correctly, she signified me as familia.

This naming as familia continued in how Dr. Machado conducted that course. Her curriculum on US church history did not begin with the Mayflower and the Pilgrims. Her first lecture was on the empires of the Olmecs, the political strategies of the Maya, and the medicines of the Arawaks. In that lecture, she intentionally described the beauty, strength, complexity, challenges, joys, and sadness of the indigenous peoples—some of the ancestors of Latino communities.

Dr. Machado taught about the transatlantic slave trade from the suffering and militant resistance of the Igbo, Yoruba, and indigenous African peoples; about the United States’ westward expansion from the perspective of the Comanche and Mexicanos who fought for their land; about women who became healers and national personalities as they led revivals in a burgeoning nation. By choosing to tell the stories of my people and people like me, Dr. Machado honored me. The ways Dr. Machado organized the educational space empowered me as a Latino to think of myself and my people as active subjects in history.

A Program That Connects

As I’ve worked with Latino graduate students since that class, it has become clear that my experience with Dr. Machado was unique. Many of these students in seminaries and universities feel that schools are not structured for them. They rarely see content and people that reflect them and their communities. It’s not until they come to an organization like the one I work for—the Hispanic Summer Program (HSP)—that they begin seeing themselves in their own education.

The Hispanic Summer Program trains Latino leaders, academics, and pastors through summer intensive graduate courses. Founded by Justo González, this organization has provided two-week accredited classes in theology, ethics, history, sociology, biblical studies, pastoral care, and liturgy for nearly 30 years. Our program is designed for Hispanic students, some of whom are the only Latinos in their respective institutions, but it welcomes non-Latino participants to learn with us.

Our students take classes, worship, and eat, play, and study together. Aside from engaging in rigorous scholarship with top scholars and receiving three graduate credits, students leave empowered and proud of who they are and the people they come from. Throughout their time together, students aren’t merely learning theories and theologies, they are treated as familia by their new colleagues.

In praising the program, students appreciate having professors who look and sound like them, and with that likeness, they can envision themselves teaching someday. They also mention how engaging histories, theologies, and perspectives that stem from their community empowered them as Latinos. Students find it empowering to participate in ecumenical worship where they can engage God in ways that connect them to their ancestors and the prayers of their abuelas.

In addition, as an ecumenical organization serving seminaries and graduate schools across the country, the Hispanic Summer Program attracts students from across the theological spectrum. Students who read the Bible through a historical-critical lens must learn with students who read the Scriptures literally or allegorically. Students who wrestle with issues of gender and sexuality must learn with students comfortable in their sexual identity. And students who grew up rich must learn with students who grew up poor. Truly listening to someone different from yourself is difficult, but students ultimately learn what it’s like to be named familia within a diverse academic setting. For some, this is the first time that has ever happened.

Signs of Hope, Room for Growth

The Hispanic Summer Program is just one of the many theological education programs run by and for Latinos—among them are the Hispanic Theological Initiative, the Asociación para La Educación Teológica Hispana, and facets of the Forum for Theological Exploration. These programs allow black and brown students to access invaluable resources and educational experiences. Such potential stems from Latino leadership as well as curricular and policy decisions. These programs are effective not merely because brown and black people run them but also because brown and black leaders make systemic decisions that foster religious education and a sense of community.

Many white-majority institutions are still learning how to encourage and support Latino students, faculty, administrators, and board members. In classrooms, work still needs to be done to show that history is more than the traditional Western canon. Institutional leaders are just beginning to implement new hiring policies and equitable employment practices and to have expectations and standards that take into account the unique situation of Hispanic faculty, staff, and students. As they themselves admit, they are on a steep learning curve that will require critical self-reflection and courageous institutional change.

But institutions are already making such changes. Fuller Theological Seminary is putting funds and institutional support behind their programs in Hispanic studies. Vanderbilt University Divinity School invited Dr. Machado to deliver their prestigious Cole Lectures on the topic of borderlands saints. Oblate School of Theology, Boston University, the Graduate Theological Union, and others place financial and institutional support behind programs like the Hispanic Summer Program and Hispanic Theological Initiative.

Latino families, pastors, and community leaders know what our communities need in order to be educated. We know how to name one another as familia and wrestle with our differences while seeking mutual support. We know how to run organizations that promote life, not just for our people but for all those who choose to accompany us. I am confident that our communities will continue to thrive because we’ve always been en la lucha—on the frontlines—of the struggle for life. Now more than ever, this lucha calls for institutions of theological education to bravely walk with us, learning our names and making systemic changes that support us in leading our communities and communities like ours. This is my charge.

Jorge Juan Rodríguez V is the son of two Puerto Rican migrants who came to the United States a year before he was born. He holds degrees from Gordon College and Union Theological Seminary, and he is pursuing a PhD in modern religious history at Union, focusing on the 19th- and 20th-century Americas. You can follow Jorge’s work at JJRodriguezV.com and on Twitter @JJRodV.

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Learning with la Familia