Boundaries – arguably one of the most important skills that many of my pastor-to-be-students have to learn. This week’s author – Rev. Ángel David Marrero-Ayala – shares his culturally nuanced take on the matter as our second post celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. A Latinx ordained pastor in the whitest Christian denomination in the United States – the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America – Pastor Ángel writes about how his denomination’s zeal for boundaries trainings are insufficiently nuanced to accommodate cultural and ethnic differences, and that this lack of nuance is yet another barrier for people of color within the denomination – both those who are simply members of its churches, as well as those who feel called to purse word and sacrament ministry. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone. (Colossians 4:5-6, NET)
On January 1st, 1988 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) came into existence creating the biggest, financially strongest, and most culturally diverse church within the bounds of the Lutheran tradition in North America. For many, it was a dream come true; after decades of conversation about a unified mega church body, the ELCA had become a covenantal enterprise full of promises for the future. The expectations were bold for a predominantly white middle class church: within the first 10 years, 10% of the denomination would be people of color and people with first languages other than English; the ELCA had a commitment to adopt an organizational philosophy providing for the representation of cultural diversity in every decision making body; and proactively work against racism.
Thirty years after envisioning these dreams, they lie shattered at the clay feet of a complex, bureaucratic, and largely culturally insensitive denominational behemoth.
One of the places within the ELCA in which this dynamic becomes more evident is in the practices surrounding professional ethics and boundaries workshops. After the revelations about cover-up, corruption and sexual abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, many synods decided to enforce boundary trainings for everyone, with the ultimate hope of fostering a safe church culture. Seminaries have follow suit to the point that it is impossible to graduate or be ordained without going through the required educational contact hours of training.
Underlying these public intentions is also the silent recognition that most of these initiatives come out of a place of fear: a way to protect the institution against possible legal liabilities when there is sexual misconduct and the perpetrator is a member of our community. In the context of a church predominantly lead by white people, professional boundary workshops are an incarnation of this dread of financial loss. This becomes problematic due to the centering of white culture within these trainings.
Since my entrance into the candidacy process for ordination into the Lutheran priesthood, I have participated in 4 boundary trainings: one as a seminarian and three since ordination. Throughout these conversations, many tips and tricks for a safer church were shared: background checks for church employees, orientations for the community, statements/policies against sexual violence, and the use of mental health professionals as communal resources.
Furthermore, it has become a topic of every seminar to discuss physical boundaries: when and how to hug, the no-no squares, eye contact, how to approach social media, personal space, and the ever present principles that parishioners are not friends and that if something feels “icky” it is “icky”.
If after reading the above paragraph you cannot see what is missing or what makes all of this culturally incompetent and incomplete, ¡felicidades! You are likely part of the majority white and Anglo-Saxon culture or have been deeply shaped by it.
As a Puerto Rican Lutheran priest in the ELCA, I experience these boundary trainings as a “how-to-behave-around-white- people-in-order-to-not-get-in-trouble” class, and I struggle with the absence of Latin American sources that can provide the nuance of latinx cultural experience.
The first problematic assumption of the ELCA approach to professional boundaries is the belief that there is a universal set of rules that are translatable among cultures. This is not the case: white people, black people, latinxs, Native Americans, Asians, they all have different notions of what is appropriate. Naturally, each sub-category is even less helpful, because they encompass a variety of nationalities with deeper nuances and customs. Take, for example, Latin Americans: a community in which there is no solid unified idealization of the latinx identity outside of the United States. We think of ourselves as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorians, Chileans, Uruguayans, Costa Ricans, Indigenous, etc.
I, for one, was not informed that I belonged to the latinx community until I arrived at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. Yet in spite of the variety of backgrounds, the experience of being a brown, Spanish/Portuguese speaking foreigner in the United States fosters a sense of an imposed super diaspora that shares, at times, an antagonistic view to the ethical boundaries in question.
Let me get specific. My experience as a mission developer working with latinx people has given me some experience that I find valuable to share with you. Here are the problems I find every year in attempting to reconcile mandatory church boundary policies and the realities of the mission field:
1. Background checks are often a source of fear, because many undocumented latinxs see it as a way of giving personal information to law enforcement agencies that might one day come to deport them. Why should they so willingly give information to agencies of the state that generally wish them harm? Many are also afraid because, as victims of racial profiling, their pasts can be peppered with arrests and minor criminal records (i.e. pot possession, an arrest after a speed ticket, shoplifting) which they have intentionally tried to leave behind and feel ashamed to share.
2. Orientations about safe-church that are not conducted in Spanish, or with English only resources, are unhelpful, because some latinx individuals cannot speak/read the language. When working among marginalized immigrant communities, one has to always consider that, as a result of economic inequalities, they might not be proficient in the mechanics of reading. Presenters who are unfamiliar with latinx ways of learning (specifically regarding the juxtaposition between paying attention and eye contact, time management, the use of pedagogical storytelling, etc.) are also not helpful.
3. Public statements about sexual violence are usually unavailable in Spanish, nor are they explained in simple terms. Also, its important to know that latinx culture is unapologetically patriarchal, and customs that might seem like harassment for white spectators are not necessarily interpreted the same way in a first-generation, immigrant, Spanish-speaking context. Although this paradigm is changing among second- and third-generation latinxs, it is still quite common for us to speak, even to strangers, using words that might seem to outsiders as inappropriately affectionate or sexually charged.
4. Many latinxs are uninsured, and it is still a taboo in many of our countries to seek out mental health professionals. It is also hard for us to trust strangers solely based on their expertise; relationships are key. Latinxs tend to prefer polite and friendly conversations before sharing a problem.
5. While informality is often a sign of trustworthiness in an Anglo context (i.e. “No need to call me pastor, I am Mike”), deference for older generations, manifested in the use of titles like Señor (Sir) and Señora (Ma’am), is a cherished value within the latinx community.
6. Boundaries around the comfort level of body contact are also different. It is not uncommon for latinxs to hug, kiss, touch and be in close personal proximity, including strangers. Even as a priest, people of all genders and ages come and touch me, hug me, kiss me, or physically pull me aside. When a white person is on the receiving end of these customs, it might seem like a boundary violation for them.
The ELCA cannot become competent in fostering and welcoming latinxs until it becomes aware of cultural differences and how they play out in local churches. Bishops and the churchwide organization should avoid the sin of laziness; they must learn to approach education outside the bounds of white American perspectives. The percentage of people of color within us is small, but we are here and willing to help. We can do so not as a prop but as integral partners in the conversation.
Everyone deserves respect for their cultural norms. Doing ministry in the ever-growing, multicultural communities of the United States requires that everyone learn about their neighbors’ cultures in order to better assess safe-church needs. Change cannot happen until people of a variety of cultures are present and substantially represented (that is to say with power to caucus and veto) in every decision making body of the ELCA.
When considering boundary trainings, it would do us good to consider the ways in which boundaries differ amongst the various cultural groups located in our communities. Approaching boundaries, and having experts from those communities as partners in these conversations, is vital. Perhaps it is time for all of us to dig deeply into cultural competency educational programs as conversation starters towards a more egalitarian beloved community.
Then we can truly begin to speak about a church that one day might be safe for all.
The Rev. Ángel David Marrero-Ayala (Padre Ángel) is a young adult, first generation Puerto Rican immigrant and a priest in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Padre Ángel is the mission developer for Santuario Luterano, the progressive latinx church of Waltham, Massachusetts. He also works as coordinator for latinx ministries in the New England Synod. Padre Ángel is the first openly gay latinx ordained after 2009. He has worked as secretary to the ELCA Latino Association and board member of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. Padre Ángel lives with his husband Zachary and their spoiled dog-son Pepe Thor.