To Suffer and…to Love: the Spiritual Pilgrimage of a Missionary

To Suffer and…to Love: the Spiritual Pilgrimage of a Missionary

I would like to invite you to my journey in faith. It is a journey in faith nurtured and inspired by prayers, songs, reflections, confessions, doubts and assurances. My spirituality has been shaped by a prayerful life that includes the church, a Christian home, and an ecumenical pilgrimage that expand more than three decades.

I would like to invite you to my journey in faith. It is a journey in faith nurtured and inspired by prayers, songs, reflections, confessions, doubts and assurances. My spirituality has been shaped by a prayerful life that includes the church, a Christian home, and an ecumenical pilgrimage that expand more than three decades. I have lived in different countries, as a missionary, working with different denominations and experiencing the ecumenical life with all its joys and frustrations.  By prayerful life I mean the experiences and reflections that inform and transform my existence in the world as a child of God. It is a spirituality of pilgrimage, always searching, often doubting, most of the time struggling and definitely been blessed by others.

This journey in faith starts at the personal level and moves into different stages and moments, through multiple conversions, aiming at maturity and completion.

At the personal level I have to mention the early discipline received from my mother, Elizabeth. She was a person of solid and deep Christian convictions, who believed in the power of prayer as a basic component in Christian life. She understood that talking to God and been in God’s presence was a fundamental element for a solid life in faith. This spiritual discipline has been very important in my ministry. When I have been confronted with crucial decisions and challenged by serious temptations and doubts, a prayerful moment provides the necessary stability and wisdom.

Prayer moments for me are often accompanied with bible reading and meditation. I see in the Bible enough elements to focus and concentrate in an adventure in faith. I can start with a question, some deep doubt, but also just trying to be in God’s presence, and in silence. I find silence to be refreshing in a prayerful life. It provides for some sense of peace and tranquility. Silence gives me an opportunity to wait for God’s presence and response, knowing that many times in life there are no easy and quick answers. The important thing is to be in God’s presence, though I cannot discern quite clearly that presence.

My experience at home and in church, provided the first exposure to ecumenical life. My father was very active in the ecumenical movement in Puerto Rico. I learned early in my life how to relate my own Disciples tradition with a larger ecumenical world expressed in different Protestant denominations. A comprehension of a larger ecumenism which included the Catholic tradition and other non-Christian religions came later in my missionary life. But the seeds of ecumenism were planted during that early period. I developed a theological sensibility to diversity, pluralism and tolerance during those years. A dimension of hospitality and compassion was added as I became committed to the struggles, aspirations, dreams and frustrations of the persecuted, tortured, displaced and marginalized people of the world. This ecumenical experience was enriched by the liturgical diversity shared through the World Council of Churches, the Latin American Council of Churches and other ecumenical organizations in which I actively participated over the years. As I was exposed to cultural diversity, my own vision of the human race, the human condition and human potential was expanded.

I have discovered that these early influences were very relevant in my theological pilgrimage until today. They shaped my theological understanding and helped in my development as a preacher. My own journey as a missionary in Latin America and the Caribbean was nurtured and matured, as I reflected on these ideas through so much suffering and struggle in the 1970s and 1980s. I developed what one may call a theologia viatorum, a theology on the way, enriching, expanding my commitment as a missionary, pastor and theologian.

I was visiting professor at the Union Seminary and at the Theological Community of Mexico, a cluster of Protestant seminaries, the academic year of 1974-1975. Mexico was an eye-opener to Latin America and the Caribbean. The opportunity and privilege of sharing with students and professors from so many countries, including Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United States was an experience that paved the way for our incorporation in Costa Rica.

 In 1974 my wife Raquel and I received a letter from the Latin American Biblical Seminary in San José, Costa Rica, a prestigious ecumenical institution in Latin America, inviting me to be professor of Church History. My wife Raquel was assigned to work with the Counselling Department of the Seminary. Her Master in Education, with a major in counseling, was good news to an institution dealing with so many cultural traditions. We were embraced by colleagues and friends, and had the opportunity of seen a different expression of the Church.

The rich diversity manifested at the Latin American Biblical Seminary was a blessing and a challenge. It was a blessing because the Seminary was at the crossroads of a dynamic and creative situation. We had students from more than thirty countries and more than forty denominations. The Seminary was a real laboratory of theological initiatives, reflections and liturgical innovations. It was a challenge because everything was moving so fast, with so many changes. An intense exposure to cultural diversity, and the crude reality of poverty and oppression shared by students coming from concrete struggles for justice and peace, usually survival, demanded lots of spiritual and emotional energy. Latin America and the Caribbean were passing through economic crisis, political instability, social unrest, civil wars, extreme poverty and cultural oppression. Raquel and I were touched and changed forever. For the first time we identified clearly our Latin American-Caribbean identity, which enriched our Puerto Rican roots and heritage. Our pilgrimage was taking us to a spiritual and theological experience never experienced before.

The first shock we experienced in Central America was the crude reality of oppression and suffering. The years 1975-1978 were crucial in this learning process. Central America was experiencing a deep political and military process. The war was escalating in Nicaragua and El Salvador, with another civil war in the making in Guatemala. Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama were involved in the conflict. Nobody was neutral in Central America during these years.  The immersion process was painful and joyful simultaneously. How people that suffer so much can have lots of hope and joy, in the midst of war, poverty, racism, marginalization, torture, displacement, exile?, is a question that haunted me always.  In suffering and hope I rediscover the deepest meaning of the Cross and Resurrection. I came to Central America with deep frustration and pain, almost bitterness, with the Church. And a profound transformation occurred. I call it my second conversion. Some of my colleagues at the Seminary and friends from Puerto Rico noticed that my preaching was more contextual, more pastoral and concrete. I regained a sense of confidence and trust in God and the Gospel. I used to work many hours in solidarity with refugees and human rights commissions in Central America, and often did not feel the heavy load of work. It was a time of blessing and rejoices! I realize today that a “faith seeking understanding” process was coming to a mature stage.

Our original plan, when we accepted the invitation from the Latin American Biblical Seminary (SEBILA at that time, Biblical Latin American University, UBL, at this present time) in Costa Rica, was to return to Puerto Rico in less than three years. I was waiting for an opening at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. By late June 1978 it was clear that we were going to stay in Costa Rica for a longer period. In July 1978 the Presidential Search Committee at the Biblical Seminary asked me to be interviewed for the position of Rector (President) of the Latin American Biblical Seminary. After my first interview with the search committee the chairperson called me saying that they wanted to recommend my candidacy to the Board of Trustees and to the Civil Association of the Latin American Biblical Seminary (the legal entity in Costa Rica). I was both surprised and in shock. That was not my plan. God had some other plans for me. On November 1978 I was installed as SEBILA’s Rector.

During my tenure as Rector of the Latin America Biblical Seminary in San José, Costa Rica, I experienced some painful situations in my life. Surrounded by a daily reality of war and instability, with so many people been affected, my ministry in Seminary became a real burden. The students and the churches that sent them to our Seminary were confronting too many dilemmas and conflicts. They suffered human rights violations, persecution, torture, the disappearances of pastors and lay leaders and the martyrdom of many people.

Central America was a turning point in my pilgrimage as missionary and theologian, one in which I learned to resist and be creative in the midst of crisis and challenge. The year 1983 was crucial in Central America. The escalation of the war in El Salvador, the Contras in Nicaragua, the Honduran involvement in the conflict and Costa Rica involved in a regional conflict. We took a sabbatical year after completing my tenure as Rector of the Biblical Seminary and spent six months in Chile. The Chilean experience provided the necessary transition and in 1984 I accepted to be Secretary for the Pastoral Ministry of Consolation and Solidarity and Regional Secretary for the Caribbean of the Latin American Council of Churches. The next three years I traveled constantly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, from one country to the other. It was the continuation of my pilgrimage that now included the whole Latin American region.

During these three years the Latin American Council of Churches provided the necessary accompaniment to the churches and helped in promoting a peace movement in Latin America and the denunciation of human rights violations in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. I participated actively with the churches in these movements. The signing of the Central America Peace Accord in 1987 was the climax to the whole process.

The year 1987 was the next crucial moment in my ministry. I wanted to take some time to teach and write and accepted an invitation from the Ecumenical Research Department of San José, Costa Rica to be the Executive Director. I could do some teaching and writing, but the administration of the institution and the political situation in Central America caught me in the middle of the conflict again. This time I was involved as a consultant on human rights issues with the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, the Central American Association of the Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained (ACAFADE), the Central American Commission of Human Rights and the Costa Rican Ecumenical Commission of Human Rights.

The Central American experience took me to yet another fascinating and demanding project. This time I accepted to be General Secretary and Treasurer of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). EATWOT gave me a new dimension in this ecumenical pilgrimage: a global dimension. The next four years (1992-1996) I had the immense privilege of sharing in the struggles of men and women theologians in six continents. My vision of the world was expanded. My theology was challenged by new issues and new struggles. I was aware of a world in crisis claiming for justice, but also living in the rich experiences of a spirituality of life. It was a new conversion. I realized that been global and ecumenical was more than a slogan or theological fad.

My teaching experience at Christian Theological Seminary (1993-2002) gave me the opportunity to reflect on all those years spent in Latin America and the Caribbean. I was challenged by the Hispanic/Latino Diaspora in the US. As part of that process I was asked to design a program of Cross-Cultural Studies, which included global study trips for our students and teaching courses on liberation theologies. Once more my ecumenical and global experiences provided both the pastoral and the academic dimensions needed for that task.

In 2002 I decided, once more, the call to go back and work as a missionary/consultant in Latin America and the Caribbean, this time specifically with Pentecostal church in theological education. It has been a real blessing. I hope to retire officially as a missionary in 2015, but I will continue to be active in mission the rest of my life. My call to mission is for life and is a living experience.

To be in solidarity with women in their struggles, the indigenous people in their cry for justice and with children in their daily struggle for survival change my perception of the world, the human condition, the potential for human depravation and corruption, but also the potential for love, peace and justice.  I will summarize all these experiences as a process of conversion toward a new just world order based on friendship, solidarity and peace: A globalization of hope toward a new humanity.