Radical Welcome in the Heartland

Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz is currently serving two congregations: Trinity Las Americas UMC and Wesley UMC. Both are inner city parishes in Des Moines, IA.
I served as the pastor of Las Americas Faith Community, a Latino congregation, for three years, until last December when Trinity UMC and Las Americas decided to officially merge into one congregation, becoming the first multicultural congregation of the Iowa Annual Conference of the UMC.  There’s only one worship service and it is completely bilingual (English and Spanish), we pray and sing in different languages (in addition to Spanish and English).
The people of TLA
Alfaro-Santiz describes Trinity Las Americas UMC (TLA) as a social justice-oriented congregation. It was the first Reconciling Congregation in Iowa, during the 1980s. It was also a sanctuary for people fleeing war from Central America.  Many people in the congregation support interfaith relations, the fight for $15 per hour campaign, and efforts to stop homeless camp evictions in Des Moines. He also says that many in the congregation support immigrant and refugee rights, environmental justice, prison reform, asset based community development, [and] faith based community organizing. He gives a lot of credit for the strength of the merger of the congregations to  Rev. Barb Dinnen. She was the pastor at Trinity and now serves full-time at Trinity Las Americas. Alfaro-Santiz is grateful for her leadership and mentorship.
Fight for $15
There is a lot of activism at TLA! After the election in November 2016, we held an event called “Chicken Soup for the Soul and the Body.” We invited the community to lament and express their concerns.  Forty-five people, from four different continents, Muslims, Christians, immigrants, refugees, Latinxs, Asians, African Americans, white people, school teachers, and neighbors all came together.  It was amazing to see a Salvadoran Christian man start to develop a relationship with an Egyptian Muslim man and think about how to organize for the benefit of the community. We are a very diverse congregation, we are black, brown, white, different sexual orientations, have different levels of formal education, different citizenship/immigration statuses, different physical and mental abilities, different socioeconomic classes, and people identify as Catholic, Methodist, Buddhists, Unitarians, agnostics and spiritual seekers. We have babies, children, teenagers, adults, and seniors.
Message on church door after Nov 7 2016
 Alfaro-Santiz sent the following picture, created by Alyza, one of his young parishioners.
Alejandro's Little Parishioner
About her and the picture, he said:
She is a 12-year-old, African American,  very sharp young girl. What she wrote captures the radical hospitality of TLA.
Gay Pride Parade2
There’s always something happening at the church building, which is known by its big, red doors, from Sunday to Sunday.  An estimated 300 people go through the doors of the church on any given day.  Besides worship on Sunday, there are ELL classes, citizenship classes, we give away produce twice a week, and there’s donated bread everyday that people can come get whenever they need it.  There’s also a prison van ministry that drives people every two weeks to different prisons in Iowa because there is no public transportation for people to visit their loved ones who are incarcerated.  Children and Families Urban Movement, CFUM, is a non profit that operates in the church building. CFUM started in the 70’s as a ministry of the church offering breakfasts, after school programs, and a community dinner meal that is open to anyone from Monday to Saturday.
 Alfaro-Santiz provided this 3 minute YouTube video to help describe TLA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzLNfgzwEwc
Alfaro-Santiz also has great hopes for his other appointment.
Wesley UMC has a lot of potential to replicate the work being done by TLA. Right now we are on the early stages of working with the congregation to be in relationship with the neighborhood.  The church hosts the neighborhood monthly meetings and have started to host a weekly meeting of Latino students from East High School called “Al Exito.” Friends of Iowa Women Prisoners meets monthly at Wesley and every year in February the UMC Advocacy Day starts at Wesley UMC before heading across the street to the Iowa Capitol building.
In solidarity with muslims brothers and sisters
I’m incredibly blessed to be serving in such a progressive and social justice minded congregation that focuses on doing ministry with people instead of for people. When I preach on Sunday I can share my understanding of who God is and what it means to follow Jesus, without having to hold anything back.
Alfaro-Santiz views ministry as both within the congregation where he is appointed and throughout the state of Iowa.
In the UMC I serve as the Iowa Annual Conference Peace with Justice Coordinator, I’m part of the Conference Operative Team for Spiritual Leadership Inc., as well as part of the Central District Operative Team.  I am the Dean of the Spanish School of Lay Ministry for the IAUMC. I’m part of the Do No Harm group in Iowa (Reconciling Ministries in IAUMC).  I’m also part of the design team for Route 122 in 2017.
Immigration Forum
Outside the church I’m the vice chair of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund, I’m a member of the Iowa Clergy Allies of Immigrants, I’m involved in the Des Moines Workers Alliance, and I’m a member of Concerned Citizens of Iowa. I believe that as a follower of Christ (not just as clergy) I need to be on the ground working with people for justice and helping everyone realize that we are all interconnected. Iowa has been a great place to be a follower of Christ.
Des Moines Rally
My time at Iliff helped me to understand issues from an intersectional perspective and to do ministry “outside the box” or to do it with the people instead of for the people.
Advertisements

Negro Spiritual Invokes Spiritual Practice in White Social Activist

Anne Dunlap, nick-named Fierce Good Reverend to the Revolution, is an activist, writer, herbalist, occasional farmhand and ordained United Church of Christ pastor. She is often found protesting for the rights of people marginalized by society.

Inspired by the 1980’s Sanctuary Movement, Dunlap’s call to activism began at the early age of sixteen. While still a graduate student at the Iliff School of Theology, on May 27, 2008, she stood trial as one of  83 Transform Columbus Day (TCD) nonviolent protesters. She has been a constant presence and advocate for immigrants facing deportation hearings and for the rights of day laborers. Most recently, she is one of the leaders in the local Denver chapter of the national social activist group, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).

She continues to use the transformative power of nonviolence to engage issues of social justice. But on the day we met, we sat at her kitchen table over a thermos of one of her specially-prepared herbal teas. As an herbalist trained in the Wise Woman Tradition, she now incorporates herbal support while counseling people.

Anne Dunlap at Kitchen Table

Raised in Monticello, Arkansas for part of her childhood, she remains connected to her roots in a way that inspires her current ministry.

On my daddy’s side of my family they were slaveholders. I always want to qualify it by saying that there’s only a few but it doesn’t really matter. They fought for the Confederacy. On my mom’s side they fought for the Union. All of that kind of lives in me.

There’s a tendency for white folk to not want to claim what’s happened in history like – “I wasn’t responsible for that, I wasn’t responsible for slavery, I wasn’t here for that” or whatever.

Dunlap acknowledges that she would not be here or be the person she is today were it not for the privileges and protections that were given to her because of slavery and racism.

The past is not past. It’s still alive and we’re still participating in it. And I wrestle with it because I don’t think guilt or shame about it is particularly helpful. Although sometimes I think you can’t help feel that as an initial response.

In the first conversation I ever had with Dr. [Vincent] Harding, I told him about these things and I told him that I didn’t know what to do about this history. All he said was “wrestle ‘til you get a blessing from it.” So that’s what I try to do and I think the blessing from it is trying to live into a different history and trying to tell stories of resistance in my family and lifting those up.

One of those stories of resistance involves Dunlap’s paternal grandfather, a Methodist minister during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. At one point, he was the pastor of Winfield United Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. He voiced his opposition to segregation. It may have cost him the office of bishop.

As a boy my dad remembers hearing his dad arguing with other Methodist ministers about segregation in Little Rock and Central High School and he was public about those things. He ran for Bishop. I think in the 60’s. And [he] was public about the need to end segregation in the church and to fully honor, in the Arkansas context, the presence and lives of Black people in the church. He didn’t win but he spoke.

When I visited with my parents, they uncovered some sermons of his. There’s one of them from around 1968 when he was pastor at Winfield. At that time they were seeing other white churches flee to the suburbs, as the neighborhood around them changed, and people were telling him, “we need to move. Why aren’t we moving?” And he preached a sermon about the importance of staying and being in relationship with people around them.

It’s not everything I would say but for his context and his time, it’s pretty clear where he stands. It was a beautiful thing to uncover and to read and to have that courage from the pulpit in those times.

Another story shaping Dunlap’s current ministry describes one of the most difficult moments in her life: She and her family moved from her beloved Monticello when she was nine.

My dad went to seminary in Austin, Texas. That was fine. We were away from a place that we knew. I was immersed in the geography of place in Monticello and in Arkansas. We were with my daddy’s family all the time. I spent summers with my grandmothers. My grandparents would come and pick me up. I spent time with my daddy’s family all the time. We moved away from that but we knew we weren’t staying in Austin for that long.

But when we moved to Kansas, it was a perfect storm of things. I was just turning 12. I was finishing 6th grade and started 7th grade. This was the time when elementary was K through 6th and Junior High was 7th through 9th. So I had not one but two school changes that year. Even though Arkansas and Kansas share a corner, they are completely different culturally. And our whole family felt that.

The Dunlap family experienced dissonance with respect to hospitality. Unlike Arkansas, the new Kansas community did not offer a beverage or food when they invited people into their homes.

Dunlap’s mother also felt uncomfortable with the expectations that she fit into the stereotypical role of the preacher’s wife.

My mom was not welcome to show up fully as she is. My mom’s a smart person. They wanted her to host tea parties and that’s not what she did.

During this time period, Dunlap personally faced some of the challenges that adolescence brings. She struggled with coming out about her sexual orientation and the often dangerous reactions that revelation can bring.

I discovered and properly squashed “I don’t think I like boys” kind of realizations. I had internal turmoil about that. I experienced a little bit of bullying at school. And I think it became clear very quickly that my dad’s church was not a safe place for any of us.

These experiences gave her empathy for alienation, vulnerability and a sense of “outsiderness”.

There was a lack of hospitality. I felt like an outsider. I felt like an outsider everywhere. I felt like an outsider in just about every aspect. So those five years that we lived there were really hard.

They got harder as we lived there. Churches are really shitty to pastors. This really sucks. It was a really horrible and complicated time. I felt really alone and unsafe. There wasn’t anybody that I could talk to about what I was feeling or experiencing.

But I share that because those experiences of feeling alone and like there was no safe place for me to be and that people who had the power to help me didn’t always do that, it turns out deeply informs the work that I now do.

As a teenager, Dunlap felt called to the Sanctuary Movement.

The late 70’s, 80’s [and] the early 90’s Sanctuary Movement was centered around congregations, Christian and Jewish both, that offered refuge and safe harbor to people fleeing the civil wars in South America, especially El Salvador and Guatemala. It was a network around the country and into Canada to help people get across the border. [Congregations in the Sanctuary Movement were] harboring them in their sanctuaries and sometimes in people’s homes.

I learned about that in 1986 at a Presbyterian Youth Event. A young woman who was a Sanctuary worker in Tuscon spoke and a Salvadoran refugee spoke. It was just one of those moments in your life. My heart was pounding when I thought, “How is this happening and how can I help it?” Because of U.S. weapons and U.S. policy.

I went home and I asked my dad, “Can we be a Sanctuary church?” My dad said, “No, not here. I’m glad you’re thinking about this but not here.”

Eventually, Dunlap was able to advocate within the Sanctuary Movement and in other communities needing advocacy around social justice. Recently, her efforts have focused around her leadership in the local chapter of the national social action group  Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).

The work can look a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s organizing people. Sometimes it’s co-leading direct actions. Sometimes it’s marshaling for actions led by people of color so they can have the space they need to [function] and not have to interact with unhelpful white people, of which we are many. We are legion.

It involves a lot of writing [and] trying to use the public platform that I have as an ordained person to speak, particularly right now, to speak to white people about how we do this in ways that are unhelpful to people of color. I’m trying to figure our how to do this from a place of love which can be a real challenge.

Dunlap attributes her desire to work with white people from a place of love to Dr. Vincent Harding’s example in the Iliff classroom.

[He had this] capacity to be grounded and loving in spaces – in classroom spaces with white people. I ask him all the time still, “How did you do that? How did you do that?” I’m still listening.

Part of it is I think his tactic of speaking very slowly and pausing. There is something about the slowing down.

You’d ask him a question and he would nod and take a minute, instead of just popping off with whatever. I think it was like a spiritual practice to stay grounded for him. That’s my guess.

Dunlap is also influenced by words Dr. Harding said to her and her partner in 2012 when they were discussing movement work.

We had him here in our home – right at this table. He said, “the wisdom of the spirituals – the wisdom of slaves who developed the spirituals and the wisdom in the particular spiritual, I’m Going to Lay Down My Sword and Shield.

He really emphasized the ‘and shield’ bit. “I’m going to lay down my sword and shield,” he said.

I looked at him and I said, “But Dr. Harding, if you lay down your shield, then you don’t have any protection.”

He said, “That’s exactly right. You lay them both down because your protection comes from somewhere else.”

I have been sitting with that ever since. So it’s not enough to lay down the weapon. You have to lay down the shield, too, that protects you from other people’s weapons, which is an immense amount of vulnerability.

I find that is what is required at least of me in the work that I do. And trust that I am ultimately safe and held, not because I carry a shield but because the ancestors and the Divine are surrounding me and loving on me and holding me through the work.

Finally, Dunlap credits Dr. Harding for her participation in SURJ.

This trajectory that my life has now taken to being focused on white people work is his fault because when he died I started asking him, “What am I going to do now, Dr. Harding? How am I going to work in a way that honors your life?”

Then, Michael Brown was killed – murdered, just a few months later.

Then, I asked him again, “What do I do now?” Then, I started receiving all of these calls from people of color saying, “White people, you need to show up. You need to speak up. We need you.” Then, I realized that was the place where my work needed to be.

It wasn’t like it took a whole different tact, like I’m changing my vocation. But this is where we are going to deepen your vocation now. Because most of my work has been bridging or walking in solidarity with people of color.

But, specifically, working with white people? It may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Pastor Inspired to New Heights by Gandhi and MLK Quote Buttons

I met with Beth Chronister last July to ask about her journey to and experience in ministry. I invited her to choose the spot for our interview. As she is an accomplished rock climber, I feared that she would ask me to put on a harness and meet her at Boulder Canyon! But God is good and Chronister is wise. She must have known I was in no shape to climb. Also, she just loves being outside. We met amidst the sounds of children playing, and the sight of lush climbing green vines under a gazebo at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Beth_Chronister_Smiling_Under_Gazebo

At the time, Chronister was starting in her role as an Assistant Minister at First Unitarian Society of Denver. Currently, she is also the Co-Chair of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. In the Fall, she will be moving to Seattle, Washington to serve as the Assistant Minister at University Unitarian Church.

When you see Chronister, her presence is strong and tall like an oak tree but she stands only about 5’3″ in height.  Her gentle voice moves seemingly insurmountable mountains. She has marched in countless protests for people pushed to the margins of society. She has organized meetings and vigils with and for people from (but not limited to) the Sik, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Transgender, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Native American, Latino, Hispanic, and African-American communities. She also resourced education for her UU (‘Unitarian Universalist’) congregation to learn about immigration and discern whether they would participate in the New Sanctuary Movement. When the church voted to become a New Sanctuary congregation, they sheltered Arturo Hernandez Garcia, an undocumented immigrant. Hernandez Garcia found sanctuary in and community with this church for 10 months while his deportation case was being considered. It was clear to me that Chronister is constantly seeking justice and loving kindness. This made me curious to know more about her.

Initial Community

I  asked Chronister how she was initially drawn to ministry.

I grew up UU in Topeka, Kansas and I had this fervor for social justice. I grew up very involved in my home congregation. My congregation was passionate about social justice. I remember, starting around middle school, all of the Baby Boomer activists who raised me would hand me buttons with Gandhi and quotes from MLK on them and say, “you are the future Elizabeth. We believe in you and expect you to do these things.”

She received their words as both encouraging and as a call to action.

This resulted in Chronister being involved in ministry from her youth. In church, she led youth worship. She started  the first Gay-Straight Alliance in her high school, while she was still a high school student. After undergrad, she went on to earn an MSW in order to be involved in lobbying and advocacy.

The idea of being a social worker at 22 was rightfully terrifying. So I did Peace Corps.

Beth_Chronister_Profile

Silence

It was during Peace Corps in Paraguay, South America that Chronister received her call to ministry. Even though she was working with a community of 500 people in Peace Corps, she found herself having huge moments of silence.

I had silence for the first time in my life.

Did she like the silence?

That silence was at times so generous and gave me this little, safe space to grow and to question and to reflect and be with myself. Sometimes the silence was so loud and hard and lonely and confusing but I had it.

Silence prompted significant questions for Chronister.

[W]ho do I want to be in the world? What do I bring to the world? What do I want to grow in the world?

Rain

I asked Chronister if she found any answers to those big questions.

I remember I was writing in my journal and it was raining outside. It was pouring buckets and buckets. I was feeling transformed by the community I was within because they were interdependent. They worked together for the betterment of future generations. This was a passion that tied them together even through conflict. I felt so transformed by this. I am writing about who I am and this experience in community. It just kind of flowed out on to the page as ministry.

This was a pivotal moment for Chronister.

I remember putting down my pen and pushing back my chair and then pushing my journal to the farthest corner of my house. I didn’t live in a big house. I went out to my porch. I remember watching the rain, coming down on me and breathing really deeply. It was this sense of coming into true with myself like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

Chronister then contacted the ministers from her youth to inquire further about this calling to ministry. She was disappointed to find out that it would be another four years of schooling before she would be eligible to begin ordination. Undaunted, she began to look for theological schools.

Iliff

How did Chronister end up at Iliff?

I didn’t anticipate Iliff which is one of the things I loved about it. I remember coming and visiting and thinking to myself, I don’t really get this whole seminary thing and I don’t really know about this whole Methodist school thing. But it seems like it’s a nice place that is going to ask me to grow and support me in that growth and I really want to be near those mountains that I see outside the library window.

I had this similar energy in my life when I am about to take a big leap into an unknown, I generally have an idea of where I’m going to go and it is big enough leaps that I would do anything I could to talk myself out of it but there is something about certain huge changes in my life. I had this about Peace Corps. I had this about Iliff. I had this about ministry. There were all of these unfolding consequences to all of these choices but I just knew.

I asked Chronister whether Iliff was worth the leap.

BethChronister_Climbing

What I found at Iliff surprised me. I didn’t anticipate how deep my relationships were going to be with fellow seminarians who were also experiencing lots of change. I didn’t understand the passion of the professors in supporting students and being there to accompany so many people through their process and their understanding of the nuances pastorally, intellectually and emotionally of those changes. I didn’t anticipate how big the questions were going to be and that I was going to share so many questions in this interfaith context.

How did Chronister feel being a UU at Iliff?

I came in and I had a lot of boundaries and a lot of barriers about I’m a Unitarian U going through a Christian seminary so my experience is going to be different.

She discovered that it was different in certain ways.

There were definitely certain things in our theology classes where I would say, ‘this isn’t our crux. We have other cruxes. [But] this isn’t the [issue] that changes everything. It’s not our fulcrum point but we have others that are ours.

Overall, Chronister describes feeling supported as a UU at Iliff.

I felt like a lot of people tried to go out of their way to ask questions and understand. I appreciate the effort that I feel Iliff as an institution and Iliff as a community puts forth to understand difference, and the recognizing that we’re going to get it wrong sometimes but that we can always come back, if we trust each other. I felt like I trusted Iliff.

Chronister has a unique perspective on the significance of difference. At one point in the interview she showed me a ring she was wearing, made by Navajo artist, Bet Lee.

Beth_Chronister_Turquoise_Ring2

It is my theological statement that I wear with me. The two turquoises next to each other say that when I meet you and you meet me and we are able to witness and honor the ways that we are different, while also witnessing and celebrating the way that we are connected in the same, there is God or there is Spirit. I think my wish for the world would be something like that on a much larger scale because we are at the risk of losing our differences in the flattening of our world and that is such a loss in our language and in our texture as human beings. But I also believe that if we don’t start finding and relating to the commonalities that is within pain and suffering and living and dying and being a part of a family to be able to relate with people who are different from ourselves through empathy and boundaries as well, then I fear what would come next.