A Journey in Faith: An Ecumenical Discipleship

A Journey in Faith: An Ecumenical Discipleship

My experience and relationship to the Church

I was born and raised in a Disciples of Christ congregation in Puerto Rico. My whole life has been nurtured, shaped and formed in a close relationship to the Disciples of Christ ethos and church life. My parents were leaders in the denomination and early on I learned to appreciate and love serving the Church in all its manifestations.

It was through two specific ministries that my vocation and commitment as a Christian was made evident to me: youth and music ministries. I was playing piano in church at eleven and leading youth meetings at fourteen. From there on I continued a process of growth and maturity which led to a candidacy for pastoral ministry: That was in 1964. I decided that pastoral ministry was my life. The mentoring and spiritual guidance of my father, a well-known Disciples leader in Puerto Rico, was a determining factor. My mother’s caring and dedication to what she believed was one of her calls, preparing me for pastoral ministry, confirmed God’s call, and my conviction that this was the right thing to do.

When I started as a student pastor in a small congregation in the mountains of Puerto Rico, Anones, my dreams and aspirations were simply to complete my basic theological education to become a local pastor. But soon I discover new dimensions of ministry which included the ecumenical dimension in the socio-political and religious context of Puerto Rico. My own theological, ethical and missiological concepts started to expand my vision and understanding of the Church and its ministries.

Then, I decided that a more solid and deeper knowledge was needed in discerning that beyond a local congregation there was another exciting and challenging ministry: theological education. This decision, along with a sense of frustration with my church in Puerto Rico and what I understood was a lack of commitment and identification with our struggles and aspirations as Puerto Rican people, led to a conflict and misunderstanding.

I was not the only one in this situation. A whole generation of Disciples pastors experienced this tension and confrontation. It is well-known among Disciples and other denominations in Puerto Rico the famous expulsion of the “catorce negritos” (fourteen blackies), a pejorative and racist phrase, used against pastors that demonstrated or expressed a more progressive and contextual theology, shaped by the Vietnam era, the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico and the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America.

We learned a lot out of these experiences. I am convinced that amid this conflict God was making a way and providing some responses to our uncertainties and anxieties. In my case, it was the strength and wisdom of my wife, Raquel and the friendship of colleagues like the late Moisés Rosa, Lucas Torres and David Vargas, among others, that helped in avoiding bitterness and cynicism. We started to see glimpses of hope from unexpected places and persons.

I met Raquel Rodríguez for the first time at Disciples of Christ Academy in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. When I move to the Campus of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico as a seminarian in 1965 Raquel and her family lived in that Campus, and we renew our conversations, started dating and finally got engaged and married in December 27, 1969. We became a very visible ecumenical couple. Her dad, Dr. José David Rodríguez, was a Lutheran pastor and professor of systematic theology at the Evangelical Seminary. My dad, Dr. Carmelo Álvarez, Sr., was a Disciples of Christ pastor and professor of Church History.

William J. Nottingham, the then Executive Secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Division of Overseas Ministries (DOM) of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada and the late Robert A. Thomas, President of the DOM, were instruments of God in discerning which direction to take in our ministry. A one-year position (1974-1975) as Visiting professor of Church History at the Union Evangelical Seminary in Mexico, opened a new world of possibilities and relationships in Latin America. It was a turning point and soon my wife and I became part of the Latin American Biblical Seminary in San José, Costa Rica, the most creative and challenging theological institution at that time in the region. I was elected to the Chair of Church History and Raquel appointed to be part of the Counselling Department. Here we were able to put together four dimensions, already known to us, but now enriched by the Central American reality: the theological, the missiological, the ecumenical and the pastoral.

The theological dimension was shaken and reshaped by the students, faculty and the context of war and repression. All that theoretical knowledge so well designed (and valuable to this day!) was confronted by the daily reality of the cross and the hope of resurrection lived by the people. We were re-evangelized in Central America. Our own theological convictions and doubts about the church and its ministry were transformed dramatically for ever. The Church is a much more complex, ambiguous, institution, struggling between sinfulness and holiness; faithfulness and unfaithfulness. We reclaimed a deeper sense of our love and loyalty to the Church, despite its shortcomings.

The missiological dimension came through the discovery that the Church is relative to God’s reign. That statement could sound judgmental, but what it means to me is that God continues to work in the world a new reality that is not so evident and visible to us. The Church continues to be an important instrument to manifest the Good News of the Gospel, but by the power of the Spirit, God insists on a new creation, a new humanity, new structures for justice and peace that many times the institutional church cannot see or do not want to see.

The ecumenical dimension was rediscovered in what Jurgen Moltmann calls “ecumenism at the foot of the cross.” In the reality of pain and suffering of refugees, displaced persons, the relatives of the disappeared, we learned a new way to be ecumenical. In my book People of Hope: The Protestant Movement in Central America (New York: Friendship Press, 1990) I try to express this conviction. I am convinced that the cross of life is the best metaphor to talk about ecumenism in Central America. It combines the reality of suffering with the promise of God’s solidarity through the resurrection.

The pastoral dimension is connected to the renewal of biblical studies and the transformation of preaching. When I was able to put together the context and the text, illumined by the Spirit, the Bible conveyed new meanings and messages. My preaching became more relevant and convincing and it was affected by the living experiences of the people. I have been told by friends and colleagues of this transformation in my preaching. I thank God for this because we need to humble ourselves to be instruments of God.

I have tried here to speak my heart and mind and reaffirm my deepest conviction that the Church continues to be an effective agent in mission and for God’s mission. We need to continue exercising a prophetic vocation by calling the institutional Church to be accountable to the values and principles of God’s reign. My favorite text as a preacher says it all for me: “We are not preaching about ourselves. Our message is that Jesus Christ is Lord. He also sent us to be your servants.” (2 Cor. 4:5).

 My commitment to God’s mission

My first reaction follows from the previous section. I just want to be a servant! After forty-four years of missionary work–mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean–I’m convinced that I belong in ministry as a missionary.

These are the perspectives I have tried to share in my ministry:

  1. An accumulated experience of fifty-two years in ministry, forty-four of them mostly as a missionary in Latin America and the Caribbean. This experience includes a spirituality shaped and formed among the churches and ecumenical organizations in the region. I have a sense of gratitude which I owe to these churches and organizations and want to respond by serving them in any way possible.
  2. My ecumenical experiences and commitments, as I have been an active participant in the ecumenical movement and through ecumenical organizations at all levels, from the local and national to the regional and international, continue to be a priority in working with the churches and ecumenical organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in the US.
  3. My first-hand knowledge and experience of the realities in the North and the South, as I have lived in both realities and interpret continually what happens in these contexts, have provided for an enriching dialog. I think that my direct relationship with Africa and Asia as General Secretary of EATWOT for five years is another dimension that reinforces this first-hand experience and knowledge.
  4. I have known for years the structures of my own denomination here in the United States and have had the unique experience of serving as member of the General Board, representing our denomination in the Faith and Order Commission of the NCC-USA, serving in liturgy and theology committees, participating in discernment processes, writing for our two magazines. As a theological educator I have been teaching in three of our seminaries, directing a program of cross-cultural studies which organized nine study trips to Latin America and the Caribbean, directing a deanship of students at Christian Theological Seminary Indianapolis, Indiana. My ecumenical commitment gives me the opportunity of lecturing in other institutions and associations of high learning in the USA, Canada, Europe. Africa, and Asia. For more than four decades I have been writing for theological journals in the USA and in Latin America (in English and Spanish) on many issues including ecumenism and mission, Pentecostalism and ecumenism, globalization and marginality and others.
  5. My experience as president of a seminary and director of an ecumenical center has provided not only the administrative experience, but some skills to deal with conflicts and tensions.
  6. There is another dimension that continues to be a blessing in my journey as missionary and ecumenist: I have visited (many times!) all Latin American countries and all major Caribbean countries. I have preached extensively, not only in the capitals, but in the countryside. From Baja California, Mexico to Puntarenas, Chile; from Havana, Cuba to Mar del Plata, Argentina; from Aruba to Bluefields, Nicaragua. I take this as a blessing in my ministry!
  7. I embrace wholeheartedly a passion for justice and peace through reconciliation. My constant visits to Venezuela and Cuba give me the feeling of a much-needed process of reconciliation between these countries and the US. The churches are making the difference in this effort and we need to continue building the bridge of communication and understanding in the hemisphere. When I have taken groups to Cuba we always try to have an act of reconciliation between the US students and the Cuban sisters and brothers. It’s always a blessing to see how effective that personal contact among Christians is.
  8. I hope to envision new ways in which the churches can better fulfill their mission. In Cuba they sing a hymn that says it all: “Que la Iglesia, sea la Iglesia” (Let the Church be the Church!).

My understanding of ecumenical partnership in Latin America, the Caribbean and the USA

My understanding of ecumenical partnership in mission includes the following aspects:

  1. A key concept is sharing in a partnership that includes spiritual, material and human resources, inviting partner churches in different parts of the world to a truly global mission.
  2. There are two fundamental theological dimensions in any partnership: solidarity and reconciliation. Our solidarity as churches in the North needs to be always in koinonia, with the churches in the South. We are in a covenantal relationship that takes seriously the need to struggle for more equality and respect among the churches. The reconciling perspective is related to the fact that the churches in the North and South are confronting the cruel reality of living in divided, violent societies. We all experience this situation although we live in different contexts.
  3. We emphasize that in mission giving and receiving is crucial. We need to continue working toward a real balance between the two in a shared responsibility to address the root causes of economic injustice.
  4. There is a trend today in relating more closely globalization and mission. I think that any model of mission needs to take this relationship seriously, but an important distinction is needed. There is a “globalism” that wants to impose an international economic system with all these neoliberal policies. The churches need to be reminded that we affirm the global and the local on what some scholars have called “glocalism”, a need to balance and recognize both in our practice of faith and mission.

As we confront the challenges of the 21st. century, let us be reminded of our commitment to justice with peace, love with compassion and inclusiveness, dialogue with respect and tolerance. Any ecumenical partnership will require these and more.

Carmelo Alvarez serves with UEPV (Venezuela) and CEPLA. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.