One of the most beautiful concepts within Latina/o theology is abuelita theology. It refers to the active transmission of religious beliefs and spiritual practices within the Hispanic home, primarily through women. As a child, I gazed in awe as I saw my mother step up to the pulpit on Sunday mornings, and then administer the Lord’s Supper regularly alongside my father. On Sunday mornings, my mother was Pastora Lidia. One of the other reasons I loved Saturday mornings as a kid was that in those moments my mother was simply Mamá Lidia. I learned so much about God whenever my mother stepped into that clear glass pulpit on Sunday mornings. However, some of the greatest lessons for ministry that I carry with me today were transmitted on Saturday mornings over rice and beans with tortillas, plantains and freshly roasted coffee salvadoreño.
Among all the lessons learned around the table, three remain with me today:
Never forget your roots
Before becoming a pastor, my mother grew up in a small town named Jujutla in El Salvador. Even though she is now a naturalized US citizen, she always reminded us that we must never forget our roots. In Exodus 12, God tells Moses that the people of Israel are to commemorate the Feast of Passover and teach it to their descendants. The people of Israel were to tell their children that they were at one time slaves in Egypt. (Ex. 12:24-27). In a similar way, my mother always told us about her humble beginnings of growing up in a poor family in the countryside. She grew up in the context of a military dictatorship in El Salvador where there were not many opportunities for economic advancement of the poor. She did so in order to remind us that her story was our story. The redemptive story of how God protected her in the midst of political repression so that she might know the beauty of the gospel was part of our spiritual heritage.
It was not until my last year of college that God helped me to embrace my Hispanic identity and to see it as a beautiful part of who I am. I recognized that my identity as a follower of Christ does not nullify the importance of my ethnic background. In fact, the gospel enriches and brings out the best of my mestizo heritage. Seeing my mother incorporate her ethnic background as she ministers to immigrants has inspired me to pursue ministry among the Hispanic community and to speak up for those who are most vulnerable. My mother always shared with me this Salvadoran proverb: “Mi hijo, wherever God takes you, never forget our people. If you become ashamed of where you come from, you will never have any idea of where you are going.”
Never neglect your spiritual life.
As a child, I grew up in a traditional Hispanic Pentecostal church where I was taught the importance of spiritual disciplines. I saw these disciplines most vividly modeled in the spiritual life of my mother. Sometimes I would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and hear my mother weeping in the next room, crying out to God for the salvation of the lost and the protection of those entrusted to her pastoral care. She would regularly fast and spend hours reading Scripture on a daily basis. She not only told me to pray but modeled for me what it means to practice the presence of God. Although my mother did not downplay the importance of education, she always told me that ministers should never think that their theological education is an excuse for neglecting the practice of spiritual disciplines. My mother showed me to live with the awareness that we as Christians are engaged in a spiritual battle. She constantly brought me back to Ephesians 6:10-17, emphasizing that the work of the gospel is a serious matter. She warned me that if we as ministers neglect our spiritual lives, we will be held accountable for our hypocrisy (James 3:1). In short, her spiritual life taught me that it is not enough to stimulate the mind: in order to engage the hearts of those entrusted to your care, you first have to delight being in the presence of God.
Never lose hope
Due to systemic poverty in El Salvador, my mother was forced to drop out of school in order to take care of her younger siblings. At age 19, she lost her father due to a heart attack, and was forced to come to the United States by herself in order to escape the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War. Thinking that the worst had passed, she was immediately confronted by the hostility of xenophobics in California who said that she did not belong in this country because of the color of her skin. And yet, my mother never lost hope. It was in that brokenness of rejection from the majority culture in the US that God adopted my mother into the divine multicultural family. It was the God of the disinherited, who loves the sojourner (Deut. 10:18-19), that met my mother in her pain and took her side. Her despair was met by the hope of the resurrected Christ, who has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the humble (Luke 1:52). This hope is what continually keeps her going as she is met with hostility along the way in her ministry. Whatever the sexism or degradation she encounters because of her womanhood or her ethnicity, my mother has taught me that we serve a mighty God who wants us to exercise hope. Quoting Corrie Ten Boom, my mother told me each night before going to bed: “mi hijo, there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”
Isaiah Cruz is an M.Div. student at Beeson Divinity School.