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.

All the World’s A Stage and Reverend Selena Plays Many Parts

Raised in Lombard, Illinois and then Phoenix, Arizona, Master of Divinity student Selena Naumoff and her twin sister are both accomplished actors. These twins have theatrical parents; their dad was an actor and their mom is a director. Although Naumoff graciously describes her sister as the better performer, sharing this passion has included some disappointments:

In middle school, my sister and I often competed for the same roles. For Into the Woods we auditioned for distinct roles. My sister wanted to be Cinderella. I wanted to be the witch. In the end, we understood that [the Directors] couldn’t pass up the idea of casting twins as the step-sisters.

With a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatrical Performance, Naumoff continues to act, direct and produce not only the Vagina Monologues at Iliff, but a variety of productions with other theater groups around the Denver metro area. She has maintained her theatrical gigs and her skills as an accountant as full-time employment as a means of paying for her theological education.

Selena Naumoff_Vagina Monologues Director Producer

Naumoff began Iliff as an ordained deacon in the Presbyterian church but now finds herself serving in Lutheran churches. Internships with the Abrahamic Initiative and classes while a student at Iliff have helped her to discover that she now seeks to use her Master of Divinity as an interfaith minister. Although she has only recently become comfortable with describing her calling in this way, she remembers herself as having an interfaith understanding at a very early age.

My father was Greek Orthodox and my mom was Lutheran. The only church around us was Episcopalian. Growing up, I’d say a good half of my friends were Jewish.  And a couple of us dabbled in Wicca. We would read the books and see what it was like to spend more time in nature and see what magic was about. When I was little, my friend and I looked at spell books under a tree and my parents didn’t have any problem with that.

During class discussions at Iliff, she discovered that she was informing other classmates about misconceptions they had about other religions. She began to understand this as her role. A class on Pastoral Care in Interfaith Situations gave her language to articulate and feel comfortable in this role.

I watched my classmates struggle with the notion of “Well, I’m Baptist and now I have to give pastoral care to a Buddhist.” And for me that part was very natural. For me it was like — this is it! This is what I do.

At first, her understanding of interfaith was simply that she respected everyone’s faith and wanted to learn about everyone’s faith. When people would ask her what she believed, she would say that it didn’t matter.

But what I realized is that doesn’t count. I have to know what I believe.

What I have come to realize is that when I say I identify as interfaith, [what I am really saying is that] I am taking lessons from all of the faith traditions or as Dr. Carrie Doehring calls them, the “spiritual orienting systems.” I am influenced wherever the teachings have come that resonate with my soul.

Perhaps this is why she expresses an appreciation for and sacredness of teachings from a variety of sources, including but not limited to Harry Potter, Jesus, the Buddha, C.S. Lewis and the Book of Mormon. This also might be how she has extended her creativity to develop Interfaith Connections with Reverend Selena, a series of podcasts that she hopes encourage understanding of different faith traditions. In addition to stories about the Dalai Lama, interviews with a magician, and the cast of The Oldest Boy (a play about an American woman who married a Tibetan Buddhist man), this series includes an interview of Yasser Kassir, a Muslim American, who owns two Denver area restaurants.

Selena Naumoff with Yasser Kasir

I want to introduce people to religions they are afraid of. As we’ve seen, fear creates horrible things. I am trying to put faces with the religion.

I hope this podcast brings life to everyone. I want to interview people from all groups. My intention is to make it clear that all voices are welcome.

IMG_1866

After graduation, she hopes to pursue a doctorate in conflict resolution or international relations, or obtain certification as a diplomat.

There is a lot in theology that gets ignored [in resolving conflicts]. People will say, “We’re just having a land dispute.” No. You’re not just having a land dispute. You’re having a faith tradition dispute. That’s much more powerful than just about land.

I think the theological aspect gets ignored so much that a combination of this [Iliff] Masters with a degree in conflict resolution is just what [the world] needs. I’m looking forward to making a difference.

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.