By Sara Crocker
An informal discussion at the bi-annual meeting of the Association for Hispanic Theological Education (AETH) in Washington D.C. has transformed in a sacred blend of mission and community for Grace Martino and a few of her closest colleagues and friends.
The group began sharing their common desire to find a space for Latina/os of color to discuss not only theology, but also their vocational pursuits, specifically what it means to serve in ministry outside of the traditional role of pastor. The members also wanted a way to unite young Latina/os around the shared pursuit of social justice initiatives. As a result of these common goals, Young Lideres, “a Spanglish term,” according to Martino, was born.
Young Lideres is an initiative under the umbrella of AETH created for Latino/a leaders between the ages of 18-40 who are pursuing theology and/or ministry.
The group is a joint effort between Martino, Daniel Montañez, David Jaimes, and Sarah Gautier. The members have embraced a co-creator leadership model in which cooperation is prioritized. No one person claims Young Lideres as his or her own organization. This decision was made because it reflects the communal and collective characteristic of Latin communities. The group began by securing a mentor and beginning a weekly podcast discussion. After participating in a program called Semester of Justice, Martino applied for a grant from the Open Society Foundation.
Notably, the Open Society Foundation does not typically partner with faith organizations, but found the mission of Young Lideres inspiring and in line with its own goals and values. Martino and her co-leaders decided to use the funds to create a book club to help facilitate dialogue around the group’s issues of interest.
The group recently read Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity by Robert Chao Romero. The book club averages around 20 participants and has created more than intellectual and theological dialogue; It has created a community. The participants have supported each other virtually through the COVID-19 lockdown through a Zoom Friendsgiving and an Election Day/Night phone call. A “spin-off” of the book club discussions called the “After Party” has developed. This is where participants hang out virtually after the formal book club to discuss all manner of topics. One recurring topic they discuss is what is means and feels like to be immersed in a higher education and church context, yet never be at the center of them, rather always on the margins.
The history of colonization and the white washing of Latina/o faith hangs heavy on the hearts and minds of those in Young Lideres. Martino described some challenges that the Lantina/o community of faith grapples with, including what she calls “drinking the Kool-aid of passivity” around issues of racial injustice. This passivity, resulting in tepid responses to injustice rather than direct action and resistance, are results of centuries of white evangelical colonization that prefers “unity” to justice.
“There are histories of resistance and fighting back, but they have been erased. They are lost,” laments Martino. “This history has resulted in the Church ignoring issues of race and native extermination, and creating for us a dominant narrative of the Christian story that doesn’t match our experiences.”
Another issue the members of Young Lideres work through together is the common misconception that all Latina/os are a monolith. The Latina/o community is incredibly diverse and by extension, so is Young Lideres. The group includes representation from Mexico, Peru, Honduras, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico. Many of the group’s members are what Martino calls “hyphenated people,” for example, “Peruvian-Mexican or majority American with Mexican roots.” The group is also denominationally diverse as well, comprised of United Methodists, Cooperative Baptists, American Baptists, Pentecostals, and members of the United Church of Christ.
“This group has become a theological home for me,” says Martino. “I have found a group of people who understand the deep complexities and histories of the Latina/o faith community.” “It’s difficult being in the liminal space of loved, but not loved. This is a place I can finally breathe and call home. Together we are fostering our call to ministry, whatever it looks like, and we know the future of the Church is not just preaching the Gospel, but doing the Gospel.”