We Journey Together: Pete Pero from the Classroom Seat – Abel Arroyo Traverso

Picture 002The next installment in our hommage to Dr. Pero is the following piece by Abel Arroyo Traverso, a student at the seminary where I teach – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. A Candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Abel’s piece is both a moving tribute of one of Dr. Pero’s former students, as well as a potent addendum to the ELCA’s current conversations on race. Read, enjoy, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


 

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Here’s that smile I remember so well.

As I walked into the classroom two things were clear to me – I had a marginal idea of what this class was about, and I wasn’t doing it out of some kind of theological curiosity. I signed up for a class on “The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.” mainly because someone I liked was in that class.

As you can see, I would never claim to be a paragon of virtue.

As I waited for class to start and texted the person I had literally signed up this class for, in came Doctor Pero. I immediately dropped the conversation, primarily out of respect for this man I was seeing for the first time. But by virtue of his presence in the room I had an immediate realization. I had no idea there were scholars of color in the ELCA.

 

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Me getting ready to preach.

Being a first generation immigrant in the ELCA for me means that you are kind of stuck in – sorry, intrinsically belong – in certain circles and read certain books and hear about certain authors and last names. One KNOWS there’s people of color in the ELCA because, well, I’m here, and I’m not the first nor the only one. But thus far my experience with people of color in church was that we’re great for mission development and task forces. You know, we’re “voices” and “perspectives” – great to enrich the discourse of the larger church.

The man in front of me was loud and outspoken, loving and relatable, cheeky and truthful. With his laughter and constant challenge to not think about how we can love but to love, was probably the most revolutionary concept I have heard so far in my seminary career. It was hope for me.

Now please don’t get me wrong, we were not close. We never shared martinis and talked about his journey (Doctor Pero was fond of martinis). We never talked about his experience as a scholar of color. We never talked about any of that. Do I regret it? Yeah, but as I look forward in my own career, call, and ministry, as I look back and recognize the shoulders on which I stand, I feel honored to have meet him.

As the semester unfolded this man not once lectured. Rather, he shared his journey with the students, as if sharing the most precious thing he could offer, and I actually started paying attention. I poured through the Revered Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr’s sermons – and as I started to grasp his idea of the “Beloved Community” I found similarities to my understanding of comunidad.

When I speak of comunidad  (Spanish for “community”), I speak of a space where the common experience is one of liminality, not of ends. A space where people can embrace in the fluidity of their journey, and know that even if we distance one another – be it through moral or ethical stands, socio-economic realities or ideological discourse – one can still acknowledge that growth is possible and belonging is unquestioned.

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I believe this understanding of comunidad as a communal journey rather than an established end echoes the concept of “the Beloved Community” where transformation is key, and establishing new bonds between the ones who once only related as oppressed and oppressor is possible.

Through Doctor Pero’s stories in that classroom not only did I learn about African American theology, but also was inspired to articulate my own theological voice, not as an ELCA Lutheran, but as a Latino, an immigrant, and a Lutheran who is part of the ELCA. Doctor Pero’s example, examine one’s life as a completely valid resource of theological reflection, was a breath of fresh air for me – to look deep into one’s own story to recognize the Holy Spirit being active throughout the whole thing.

As a Latino, one of the stereotypes we are faced with is that we feel our feelings, and we feel them unabashedly. So I started to deal with my own story and my own feelings as resources for theological reflection.

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Mama, me, and papa.

I learned from Doctor Pero to recognize plurality within myself, and learned how every label I carried, self-imposed or otherwise, could not and should not exist in a vacuum. That one can’t separate feelings and thoughts, which closely shape one another, so that every experience we have has the potential to shape our understanding of the world and the divine.

Thanks to Doctor Pero now I know that I am not an asset to the church, I am the church.

That my story is not tangential to the church, but integral to it. That I hold within my journey both privilege and oppression. That my voice and the voice of every person of color in the church is necessary to grow, to upset the status quo, to reclaim and to lift what the dominant culture is not willing to engage or is blind to. 

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A baptism at one of the sites of my internship. Baptism was crucial to Doctor Pero.

My stepping into that classroom may have started as anecdotal, almost an afterthought, but as I keep going through my journey as a seminarian – and as a person of color called to the ministry of word and sacrament in the United States – Doctor Pero was the one who challenged me to look at my journey not only as my own, but as part of the journey of the communities of color and our faith journey in the United States.

I hope that as the years go by I don’t forget that my journey, as well as everyone else’s, is a God given gift that makes up the complex and multi-layered tapestry that is the church.

And if all else fails, I will at least know that a martini will not solve anything, but it will give you space to think.


 

Abel Arroyo is a student at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Originally from Perú, his journey has taken him to explore almost all of Central and North America (No love for Canada yet). He has spent parts of his journey in Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico as well as living in Washington state and California. A bona fide wanderer who struggles with linear time as an absolute, he is currently doing a pastoral internship in Phoenix, Arizona where he journeys with the Queer, Latino and Homeless communities of Central Phoenix – as well as the occasional suburbanite. All are welcome.

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2 thoughts on “We Journey Together: Pete Pero from the Classroom Seat – Abel Arroyo Traverso

  1. Marnie Rourke

    I am very grateful to you for taking the time and using your love to write this wonderful story about your relationship with Dr. Pero. I started seminary in 1976 and chose Pete to be my advisor. I have to admit that if he had been on the faculty at the time, Dr. Joseph Sittler probably would have been my advisor; but not because he was THE REV. DR. Joseph Sittler, but because Joe was the pastor who confirmed me, and we had become good friends before I even thought about going to seminary.

    I chose Dr.Pero because I had always been interested in anti-racism, and he was the only man of color on the faculty at that time. I’m not sure other people noticed this at the time, but when I started at LSTC, Dr. Pero was always Pete, and never addressed any other way by anyone unless he was being formally introduced at some public gathering. I called him Dr. Pero.

    I never have done things the same way other people do. So the gentleman no one ever referred to in any other way than Dr. Sittler, or Rev. Dr. Sittler, well I always called him Joe — and I would frequently read the expressions on the faces of other members of the faculty as they were trying to keep their mouths closed but wanted me to know I was being disrespectful by referring to him that way. I imagine some of that happened because no one ever seemed to notice that Joe always called me “girl.” I needed a friend like Joe to teach me how to look at theology — to realize that if you really took the time to look at anything — a poem, a painting, the pie or the soup I had just brought him, or the bug I stepped on, or even the fire engine that had just raced by — Joe taught me that there was something profoundly theological in all of them, and in everything else as well.

    Dr. Pero made me laugh — because if he hadn’t I wouldn’t have been able to handle it when I didn’t just look outside at racism, but started looking inside and realized for the first time, that yes, that yes even me . . . it has always been very white of me to think I’m not a racist. And Pete helped me figure that out. And Dr. Pero wasn’t just my advisor or my professor, just like Joe, he was my friend. I could go to him in tears, and it would be OK, and that wasn’t a safe thing to do when it came to any other member of the faculty. He also told me not to be passing so many judgements on some of the other professors, but especially not on my classmates. I’m still working on it, but Dr. Pero was the first person to teach me that saying so-and-so, and so-and-son, and so . . . were all racists, didn’t mean I wasn’t a racist. It meant that I was more like them than I wanted to be or I never would want to say I was not like them. If I wasn’t a racist — these days I like to say a racist in recovery — if I wasn’t a racist it wouldn’t matter if anyone ever compared me to my white classmates. Nor would it matter if anyone ever compared me to a person of color. Dr. Pero, thank you for all you did to teach me that if I am who I am, and can just be myself, it doesn’t matter what other people say I am not. I’m still working on it, and you were right — you always were, weren’t you? — you were right until I get to that place, I will be a racist — a racist in recovery, but still a racist.

    Like

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