The Cross at El Rio Grande: A Reflection on shame and grace – Vicar Sergio Edison Rodriguez

Rivers are gates, crossings, borders. In this next reflection for Latinx History Month, vicar and Latinx theologian, Sergio Edison Rodriguez, shares how his faith, sexuality, and vocation came to light along the banks of two rivers in Texas. Please read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera – PhD student, Interim Blog Editor

El Rio Bravo – the Rio Grande

El Rio Grande

El Rio Bravo

Un Rio en mi mente, espantosa, poderosa °

The Rio Grande, the murky, treacherous bridge between two countries, haunts me nightly with its ageless specter; ageless as the flow of life that is God. This specter carries a force that continues to shape me and ensnare my imagination even as I now serve a congregation as a pastoral intern in Houston, TX. I grew up near this river but if you were to ask me where I am from, I hardly know what to say. Born in Hidalgo, TX, I consider my identity to be formed by this river as a bridge between this land I know and a land that my heart aches over. This river captures my sense of belonging and my way of seeing this world in what folks have called a thin-places where heaven and the world meet. Then the world smells and feels a bit like heaven. I would rather think that the specter of this river follows me in a different fashion. We call it Nepantla[1] where the otherworldly and this-worldly places meet but resolve differently (rather do not resolve). They stand in-tension that leads to confusion, disorientation, loss of direction, familia and self. Simul Justus et peccator[2] but keep the peccator at full force.

the Brazos River

I fled to Waco to start my undergrad degree with the hopes that I would flee the grasp of this river upon my imagination. The Brazos river would be for me the waters of salvation, a new birth into a new world of boundless possibilities; I am my own person with my own thin-places. So, I sought to conform to my fellows, adopt a nickname that English speakers could easily pronounce, join a fraternity, recover a form of Roman Catholicism unlike what I had grow up with. I fled this river traga-familias[3] because I desperately yearned to swim upon my own waters of sexual freedom. As a gay Latino, I craved this gift of new life where I could authentically live into my identity as a believer without the stigma and homophobic aspects of my faith-culture. Yes, I fled El Rio, my familia and form of iglesia because I had the privilege of being able to cast aside this tension and plunge head-first into the aguas of the Brazos River. Of course, El Rio Grande does not easily let one escape its totalizing grasp. But I grew painfully aware that no matter how far I could swim away from el Rio, other folks clearly saw me for who I am; a Mexican-American. I became Brown by the banks of the Brazos River. I became aware of the drops of water that slowly trickled down my back, whose flow goes on like endless song.

So, I felt compelled to find some solace outside of the Brazos (with all its cultural trappings and shouts of “Sic’ Em Bears!”) and el Rio Grande. I became a religion major, being drawn to the breath and depth of images from the entirety of Western Christendom. I discovered Bartolomé de las Casas and his work as the Bishop of Chiapas. I read Silence and wrestled with mystery of Christ’s presence. I uncovered Gutierrez and saw the pages of my life near El Rio Grande come alive with God’s life and grace. I faced the specter of the river, its wounds upon my memory, as I read page after page of The Death of Josseline. The injustice, the anguish, the thirst and the horror of the Sonoran Desert signaled for me the quality of the thin-place along El Rio Grande. Instead of nails, there are craigs. Nopales[4] for thorns. The endless sands, the old, rugged wood of the cross.

I wanted to escape the shame of this cross I carried upon my back. I wanted to toss off the mortal coil that drug me unto the death-dealing embankment of El Rio Grande. I wanted not to be associated with the painful memories of poverty and privilege, of living on both sides of la Frontera[5] but seen as coming from neither, of the violence of the Cartels, of being seen as a maricon[6] but never gay. For me, the shame became to much to bear and the overwhelming waters of this river too strong to carry on forward with life. And so, I planned to put an end to my life and to reach some resolution to this shame I felt, the specter would again claim another to its depths of misery. Of course as you read this, it is abundantly apparent that something within me resolved this tension. I am alive and in a much better place. For that, I thank another fellow friend who accompanied me through this challenging time of my life and who likewise walked within this challenging Nepantla.

By the time I voluntarily entered the hospital, I already identified as a Lutheran and read extensively Luther’s Theology of the Cross by Von Loewenich, C.F. W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, the Apologia and Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Disputation. But as much as these theological tomes provided for me a framework that spoke to my understanding of the Christian faith, they failed to speak to this specter of El Rio Grande and its accompanying shame until this moment in my life. As I laid in my hospital bed during the first night of my stay, after countless sleepless nights battling intrusive thoughts of shame and death, I finally closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep. But as I approached the mid-way point between alertness and rest, a finally entered into a nepantla that swept me into a different experience all together.

On my hospital bed, the words of the Psalmist entered into my mind; “for you are with me…my cup overflows (Ps 22).” Each of the words uncovered for me, as if in a sudden flash of insight, what this specter of the Rio Grande actually meant for me. I saw the cruciform shape of that Rio; bending, twisting, murky and filled with the wounds of a people. At that moment, I felt the weight of the craigs, the nopales, the sands and the currents of the Rio as death and life to me. I didn’t just know the theology of the cross, but my very body carried this truth beyond all systemic certitude. This specter of the Rio Grande became to as a baptism of my own Christian baptism in Reynosa, MX. What had been pursuing me all those years now finally had its way. I was drowned in the cross of mi gente with all its messiness on my hospital bed. Yet the Spirit of God raised me to life with Jesucristo. I began to understand my woundedness and trauma as parts of a larger story of people groups held down by the weight of a colonizing, slave-holding form of Christianity. I was raised so that I may no longer run away from el Rio but embrace it, swim around in it and call it my spiritual home. This river became for me a point of life and solidarity with others whose lives have been baptized by this river. The goodness and mercy that pursues me trickles down my back whenever I seem to want to lean deeply into my peccator, into my desire to flee this river of life and death. 

El Rio Grande

El Rio Bravo

Un Rio en mi mente, espantosa, poderosa en forma de cruz.°°


Sergio Edson Rodriguez is the Pastoral Intern at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, TX and the Campus Minister for Rice Lutherans, a Lutheran Campus Ministry at Rice University. He is currently finishing his final semester at Wartburg Theological Seminary. He’s the proud dad of two cats and several plants.

° The Rio Grande River / The Bravo River / A river in my mind, hideous, powerful

°° The Rio Grande River / The Bravo River / A river in my mind, hideous, powerful in the form of a cross

[1] Nepantla – comes from the nahuatl word (the language of the Aztec/Mexica people) for “in the middle,” but Latinx/Chicano writers relate this to the idea of “being in between” – neither being from Anglo-American culture, nor from Mexican/Indigenous culture.

[2] “Both saint and sinner” – an important concept for Luther and Lutherans.

[3] Traga-familias is a Spanish term – literally “carrying/packed-up families” – to describe the way that individuals and families pack up whatever they can carry and make the long trek, over land and through water, to from one country to another.

[4] The Spanish word for “cactus paddles,” or the tear-dropped shaped, flat out-growths from certain cacti.

[5] Spanish for “The Borderlands” – the in-between place along the border between the United States and Mexico.

[6] Pejorative Spanish-Mexican slang for “fag,” “sissy,” or “coward.”

2 thoughts on “The Cross at El Rio Grande: A Reflection on shame and grace – Vicar Sergio Edison Rodriguez

  1. Edwina Baethge

    Sergio–I am deepy grateful to God for this reflection on Two Rivers/Two Identites/Law /Gospel! You have a gift of grave beauty! Thank you, hermano.


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