Home, My Stories

Coming Out: My Journey With Mental Illness

Mental illness.

I never thought that I would be affected by this, nor that I would be writing about it. After all, I’m somewhat of an educated and successful man … a seemingly stable person. But as it goes, here I am, sharing vulnerably while still picking up pieces of myself I never thought I would have to pick up. I have remained relatively silent about this struggle, but it’s been over a year now. I am now willing to share more publically and, to some extent, help destigmatize mental illness. So let me start by saying, “Hi. My name is Ivan and I am Bipolar.”

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What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder is a mental health condition that affects almost 1 percent of the population. It is a genetic condition that usually remains dormant for a portion of a person’s life until it “wakes up”. This waking up usually happens in one’s late teens, their 20s, or sometimes their 30s, as was the case with me. When this condition wakes up, the person affected will experience an accelerated mood swing that can last up to an extended period of time. This elevated mood is characterized by excitement and productivity, a state known as “hypomania”. Beyond the threshold of hypomania is found a much more extreme acceleration that can be toxic and dangerous. This extreme acceleration is known as “mania”. This state, for me, feels like being on meth or some type of energy drug. When the acceleration is over, the person’s mood will drop into depression at extremely low levels.

Depression. Not sadness … crippling depression! There’s a difference.

To be clear, being bipolar doesn’t mean that a person will oscillate between two opposing moods all the time, though this could happen. And it doesn’t mean that the person loses consciousness, starts hallucinating, and gets violent. Being bipolar is more complex than that. It’s important for the affected person to become conscious of his/her condition so that he/she could learn how to navigate through an intense oscillation of extreme moods on a regular basis.

These moods are relatively uncontrollable; you can’t just stop them. There is no gentle word nor mind trick that can remove the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. Its not necessarily a game of the mind. In fact, it’s history of research is characterized by controversy over whether the condition is a psychological disorder or a biological one. For many, it is both, which is why it is often regarded as a neurobiological brain disorder. It is neurological because the biological chemicals this condition releases affects the brain; it is biological because the root of the problem is not found in the brain but in the way the body releases these chemicals that find their way to the brain. These chemicals are mainly (1) adrenaline (the hormone which increases heart rate, breathing, metabolism, and muscle agility for fight or flight response); (2) noradrenaline (the substance released to increase skeletal, muscle, and heart contraction); (3) seratonine (a neurotransmitter that determines feelings of happyness and wellness); and (4) dopamine (a chemical that creates positive feelings). In sum, Bipolar Disorder starts in the body and ends in the brain, manipulating energy and mood patterns.

So what happened with me?

After my Mission Tattoo project in the summer of 2018, I returned home from Belize and El Salvador with strange sensations in my stomach. I grew convinced that I had caught some type of tapeworm in Central America, since tapeworm is very common, especially in rural areas like the ones I had traversed. I spent thousands of dollars on tests for my stomach and blood.

Everyday my stomach turned and when it did, I felt extremely hungry, like my insulin was low, even though I would eat a lot. The strange part was my weight loss. From July till September, I lost about 25 lbs. I went from almost 165 lbs to 138 lbs. I was afraid for my life because I had never been so skinny.

On top of the strange body sensations and weight loss, I started experiencing escalating blasts of anxiety, or what I consider “extreme adrenaline rushes”. Everyday at about 11 am, after my stomach turned, I began to feel anxious and this anxiety would accelerate throughout the day until about 10 or 11 pm. I compare the feeling to that of drinking about 15 cups of pre-workout or 20 Redbulls. Lot’s of energy! At first it feels great. Lot’s of motivation. You can get a lot of things done when you’re high on adrenaline. But after several days of experiencing these rushes, it begins to develop into irritability and frustration, at worst impulsivity, aggression, and delusionment.

Here’s what my days were like: I would go to work and by lunch time I was starting to move super fast, often feeling panicky and irritated. Then after work, I would go to my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class where I would utilize all my energy. When I got home, at about 8 pm, I would eat and just lay on the floor of my prayer room trying to breathe and survive. Usually I would calm down by about 11 pm, then go to sleep.

This would repeat everyday, and it literally drove me crazy! And while all the bodily sensation overwhelmed me, the real challenge was diffusing mental fixations that I would harbor: I couldn’t trust anyone; my wife, Beth, didn’t care about me; people were looking down at me; I wanted revenge on people who did me wrong; and I grew convinced that this aggressive self was who I really was, my “true self”.

These fixations haunted me everyday. They crowded my accelerated mind, full of chemical chaos. Sadly, I believed these fixations and began to behave in offensive and aggressive ways. I emotionally abused Beth and hurled insults at her until she moved out. I decided to hurt someone who had offended me. I tried to burn my house down with me in it. I quit my job and I turned myself to the mental hospital. Never did I imagine myself going crazy, not like this. I didn’t even know I was bipolar!

My admission to the mental hospital made it easier to see a psychiatrist and to get a clear diagnosis. I had started seeing a therapist a few months prior to my admission but he was focused on trauma therapy for PTSD. However, my psychiatrist who started treating me after my admission to the hospital insisted I was bipolar but he stuck with the diagnosis of Complex PTSD. Both Bipolar Disorder and PTSD share similar symptoms. The major difference is PTSD symptoms are usually triggered by certain experiences whereas Bipolar symptoms don’t need to be triggered. So I moved forward with the medication that my psychiatrist prescribed and eventually my symptoms calmed down. I was still usually amped and irritable, but not to the level that made me lose my mind.

With this level of control, I decided it was a good time to leave Fresno for a bit and try to stabilize. So I came to Antigua, Guatemala, a beautiful town with cobblestone streets and beautiful colonial architecture. The pace of life is slower here and the cost of living very affordable. I thought moving here could help me separate myself from the stressors and triggers that were agitating me back at home. And it worked! Not just because I got away from stressors but because I also found a good set of doctors/therapists who properly diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder, prescribing me the right medication, and setting me up on a smooth trajectory toward stability.

In December, my Guatemalan psychiatrist declared me stable and removed me from two medications. Whereas in previous months, much of my personal work focused on surviving and trying to get stable, which by God’s grace I achieved, now it is focused on capacity building–trying to re-establish and strengthen abilities and skills that I lost, like reading, writing, and working.

Journeying with Bipolar Disorder (or mental illness) is not easy. It will cause you to think too much about your failures, believing success will never happen again. It will confront you with the reality that people will not understand you nor what happens to your body and mind, and how these in turn affect your behavior. It will result in experiencing a level of rejection and abandonment — people will stay away from you, lose trust in you, or not take you serious as a “mentally ill” person. This may include people who are the closest to you, which can make you question whether or not you’re still meaningful to others. I find myself constantly asking, “Am I worthy of being loved anymore? Do people want to be around me?” And sadly these questions are asked in a place of profound loneliness. Very painful stuff! It’s thus understandable why isolation tends to be a default tendency for many with Bipolar Disorder. It’s hard to trust or feel accepted and loved, so the seemingly better option is staying away. Yet when one stays away, the mind often gets fixated on unhealthy thoughts and other temptations, like substance abuse and suicide.

So then, is isolation a solution? Is there another option? I’m still trying to figure that out. I must, nevertheless, share that I’m grateful for the abundant community of folks that have walked alongside of me this season. They have not let me wander away into extreme isolation.

In this next season, I am focusing on building my skills back up, winning my wife back, and apologizing to those I hurt when I went manic. One of the things that continually plays over and over again in my mind is the way I hurt people. I have a tender conscience and it is very bruised these days. I am now willing to apologize for or fix whatever damage I’ve created, and I am willing to do it without expecting people to understand me.

One thing I have learned about being bipolar (out of many things) is that when a bipolar person makes decisions that hurt others, it’s not wise to use one’s health condition as an excuse. I am learning that as I continue to apologize to others, I must take responsibility for my actions. I can quote my mental health condition to myself as a way of showing myself tenderness and compassion. But to other folks that may not work. For them, it’s much more important to accept responsibility. Yes, there is tension between knowing your excuse and taking full responsibility. But the tension is for us, bipolar folks, to bare. Other people simply will just not understand. And it’s okay. It is absolutely okay.

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My Stories

Baptized By Ink: A short documentary about a tattoo mission project in El Salvador

IMPORTANT:
  • Certain names, locations, and dates in this article have been removed or changed to protect the individuals involved in this project,
  • The faces and tattoos of the men being helped were blurred to protect their identities.
  • This short documentary is based on the Baptized by Ink blog post.

Click on video image below to watch the mini-documentary.

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Also, mention “Baptized by Ink” and get a DISCOUNT on your next tattoo with T-Rex (see flyer below).  Click on the image below to see his work on Instagram.

TRex Flyer

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Home, My Stories

Baptized By Ink: A story about a tattoo mission project in El Salvador

IMPORTANT:
  • Certain names, locations, and dates in this article have been removed or changed to protect the individuals involved in this project,
  • The faces and tattoos of the men being helped were blurred to protect their identities,
  • Click on hyperlinked content for more information on marked items,
  • Click here for Mini-documentary.

This past summer (2018), I visited my cousin Fernando in El Salvador. I usually visit him every year or so, and we catch up over endless amounts of pupusas. This time, however, the trip was different: I wasn’t simply visiting family; I was on a mission to help my cousin find salvation by baptizing him in ink.

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T-Rex tattooing Fernando

Let me explain.

El Salvador is a beautiful place but it can be dangerous, especially if you have tattoos. The public generally tends to associate tattoos with gangs. If you know enough about El Salvador’s culture of violence, you would understand that there are two gangs—MS 13 and 18 Street—that pretty much control the streets of El Salvador’s poor neighborhoods, and both of these gangs have the custom of covering their members’ bodies and faces with tattoos. The police, on the other hand, have grown in their understanding about tattoos and the role tattoos play among gang members. Whereas they once shared the same perspective with the public, officers now recognize the difference between street tattoos and professional body art. They now usually examine one’s tattoos more closely: If the tattoos are gang related, officers may detain the person, take photos of their tattoos, or interrogate them, sometimes with violence. The experts in tattoo identification, however, are gang members—they know almost instantly what is gang related and what is simply body art. If gang members stop and frisk you (a common practice among them) and you have a gang related tattoo not consistent with their gang, you will be in danger of violence and death. If the tattoo is just body art, they might let you go, that is, if they feel like letting you go.

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Fernando’s scars from tattoo removal efforts in El Salvador

My cousin Fernando has tattoos resembling the street culture of Los Angeles (CA). He was born in El Salvador and raised in Los Angeles, but was deported to his home country a few years ago after being arrested for a misdemeanor. When I visited my cousin in 2015, I noticed fresh, bulging scars protruding from his chest and forearms. He had begun to remove his tattoos, albeit, in a very non-traditional way: using a scalpel to slice and peel away several layers of skin. That’s when I told my cousin to stop torturing himself and wait for me to find another option. I promised I would help him figure out a safe alternative, but as I began to research options in El Salvador, I quickly discovered that there were no accessible resources for Fernando and that the gangs had shut down some of the only tattoo removal programs in the country. It is a risky thing for Fernando to leave his small village and find work in the city; how much more of a risk would it be for him to leave the village in order to seek an agency that removes tattoos?

No resources. No programs. But if you know me, you know that I keep my word—something the hood and prison taught me.

So I began a conversation with my friend, Terence Sutton, also known as T-Rex. Terence is a young professional tattoo artist, my “go-to” person when I want a tattoo. And he also has courage. When I asked him if he would ever go to El Salvador to cover up some street tattoos with quality body art in order to help create safety for young men who are trying to leave the streets, he said, “A little risk, a little adventure? Now that’s my kind of project … you can count me in!”

Then the idea got a little bigger after I spoke at the 2017 CCDA Conference in Detroit. After my message, two Salvadoran ministers approached me. It was as if though God was setting pieces before me. When I told them about the idea of going to El Salvador with my tattoo artist, they joined me in planning it out and the project took shape. We called it “Mission Tattoo”: a project aimed at helping five young men (including my cousin) get their gang related tattoos covered up with body art so they can be safer in public and more easily get plugged into a job. The plan: Terence and I, along with one of the ministers and his videography friend, would fly out to El Salvador to connect with the five young men and then tat them up at the church belonging to the other minister guy. This minister guy would then plug the young men to jobs and the videographer would turn all the footage into a short documentary about the project.

Then the tattoo candidates dropped out from the project. Apparently, the gangs in El Salvador don’t play around when it comes to tattoo removal efforts.

Back to the drawing board.

When I asked Terence what he thought we should do now, he said, “F*** it! Let’s just go anyway.” Thank you T-Rex! Real wisdom! So I thought to myself: I’ve never been a push over and it’s almost a useless task to use fear to control me, so why am I going to cancel this project? Fear just doesn’t work on me. I mean, what do you expect from a former gang member who isn’t afraid of death because he risked his life repeatedly and now deeply believes in the resurrection through Jesus Christ? A recipe for stubborn ambition, don’t you think? So we decided that we would go to El Salvador anyway, and help my cousin.

Then a small group from my church (First Presbyterian Church of Fresno) got behind the project, and a small group of friends joined us. This kind of support was amazing for me to experience because I tend to be critical of religion. Nevertheless, this group created a prayer and financial support team to fund the project. Then my friends from Holy Resistance offered to help me create the documentary, though I would have to collect the footage for them. They prepared me by showing me how to work my camera to capture quality pictures and videos.

And just like that, back to the mission.

Terence and I landed in El Salvador with five days to complete the mission, fully loaded with everything we needed: a rental car so we don’t have to ride public transit (too dangerous); lodging at a quality resort to avoid the attention the streets would give us (word on the street travels very fast in El Salvador); and a professional tattoo machine, which you don’t want to be caught with, either by the police or by the gangs–too much evidence!

The first two men that Terence tattooed were from my mom’s village. One was a friend of the family, with no particular ties to the streets. The other person, who we will call him “Elmer”, was my cousin’s friend. Elmer is a veteran gang member from MS 13 who was retired by the gang after putting in work for over a decade (being retired is an honor). Now, this dude is the real deal: He hurt a lot of people, has been in and out of prison, and has the traditional MS 13 tattoos all over his body and face. But get this: Elmer is a serious follower of Jesus, an active member of a small Pentecostal church, and an emerging evangelist waiting for God to send him out. It was a powerful experience for me to sit down with Elmer and hear stories of his experiences in the gang and his current challenges as a Christian. It’s stories like his that remind me that Jesus is most visible among those least expected to walk with God.

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Elmer getting tatted.

Everything was running perfectly well. Then as we began our drive to the resort, three police officers blocked the road and pulled me out of the car with guns in their hands. The crazy thing for me was that all but one of the officers were wearing normal clothes, so you can imagine what it may have felt like being stopped by what seemed to be civilians, holding guns, and interrogating you. I don’t usually get scared, but I nearly peed on myself at that moment. Then my cousin began to argue with the officers and I thought, “S***, this fool is gonna get us killed.” But they listened to him … he basically reasoned with them to let us go immediately; how many Americans don’t come to El Salvador because of its reputation for being the murder capital of the world and for having a corrupt police force; and if they want to see ongoing investment from tourist, they need to stop stereotyping and interrogating the country’s guests. Well, it worked. They asked for passports, cracked a joke, and then let us go. But our adrenaline didn’t let us go. We drove with eyes fully alert of our surroundings.

Then, this happened …

The resort was supposed to help us get away from the possible danger of the streets. And while it removed us from the proximity of MS 13 and 18 Street, it put us in proximity to a different kind of gang: the cartels.

On our last night at the resort, after finishing my cousin’s tattoos, we went over to the resort’s nightclub to get a drink and chill. I don’t drink but I do enjoy hanging out with friends who do drink. There were lots of families and young people dancing. All of sudden, I see Terence take his last drink, wipe his mouth, and begin dancing to Spanish music with Hip Hop style movement. All eyes on him … but when he finished, the crowd roared to the unique mix that he displayed. Then my cousin jumps in after him and starts break dancing, and the crowds thunder. No one dared challenge them to a dance battle, though. Suddenly, out of nowhere it seems, this big guy, probably about 40 years of age, comes up to both of them with his buddy by his side and starts serenading Terence and Fernando with affirmations.

The next day, while we are packing up the car and getting ready to head out, this big guy calls out to Terrance, and I see Terence’s facial expression: not excited at all. Somehow, this guy convinces us to join him, his buddy, and a young woman for lunch—all you can eat ceviche. I answered, “No, thanks.” But my cousin and Terrance kept insisting, “Ivan, this guy is big stuff! We have to eat with them.”

I didn’t get it. In fact, when the big guy’s buddy asked me about my martial arts skills, I busted out with a headlock on him and some knees to his gut. He responded, “Well, I don’t know any of that. I just shoot people,” to which I replied, “Well, I catch bullets with my teeth.” Then the young woman seemed concerned and told him not to take me personally, “He’s just kidding,” she said. I didn’t understand that this guy was the big guy’s body guard—when I asked him what he did for a living, he said he worked as a security officer. Security … shoot people … “big stuff” … oh, and his last name, which I can’t mention here … I don’t know why I didn’t get it.

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The big guy and his crew

The big guy didn’t want to let us go. In fact, he said not to worry about our flight and turning in the rental; that he would cover all our costs for staying longer, and that we were going to stay longer. Gulp! Terence, Fernando, and I whispered to each other during the hang out how we should flee, and when we found the right time, we took off, jumped in the car, and zoomed out to the airport, fearing the possibility of an unknown car pulling up to us to kill us. We argued and blamed each other for the first hour. Then there was a moment of silence. Suddenly, I ask, “Hey guys … remember that one time when … the time we almost got kidnapped by a cartel leader?” Laughter broke out and the frustration vanished.

Mission Tattoo Complete.

I went to El Salvador to help my cousin, hoping that he would also come to know God in a personal way. Well, I helped him cover up his tattoos to get a fresh start, but I didn’t have the spiritual impact I was expecting–I was hoping he would surrender to God and find a new drive for living, even in a land that feels somewhat foreign to him. Nevertheless, about three weeks after my return home, Fernando calls me to tell me that he no longer drinks and has been going to church. Moreover, because he no longer has the street tattoos he once had, he is now able to travel to other towns with relative ease; and guess what? Yes, Fernando is now forming a local dance club for teens in the surrounding villages as an alternative to the streets. The name of the group is BBoyz Break Dancing Crew, and he has invited me to help support it. I think I sense a Mission Break Dancing Project coming soon, don’t you think?

There is so much to process from this trip. Two things come to mind for now: First, I’ve been thinking a lot about how important it is for us Americans to stay informed about how our immigration policies affect people and the role our nation played in creating the culture of violence, the gang epidemic in, and the waves of migrations from Central America. Second, I have to remind myself that God is very present in El Salvador and that any effort, including this Mission Tattoo Project, is nothing but a very small part to God’s big plan for the people of this beautiful country. The true heroes in the land can be found among the poor and even among those who have been labeled notorious gang leaders.

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T-Rex and me (Ivan Paz)

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Theology & Practice

Evaluating Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology

 

In her work En La Lucha, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz provides one of the clearest sketches on the two-decade old development of Mujerista theology, which is an attempt to give voice to marginalized Latinas living in the U.S. The term La lucha (“the struggle”), according to Isasi-Diaz, refers to the daily fight Latinas are engaged in against various forms of oppressi51H6BS5H75L._AA160_on, viz.  racism, sexism, cultural suppression, and poverty, in the context of the media, the church, academia, or society. As a Latina feminist-liberation theology, Mujerista theology analyzes Latina’s socio-economic situation and their struggle in light of liberative-praxis, utilizing sociological and ethnographical frameworks for personal stories, having as a goal a kind of liberation that gives Latinas consciousness of their spiritual-cultural assets with the space to contribute theologically.

I love Mujerista theology.

Isasi-Diaz’s contextual theology is helpful in three ways. One, her model for liberative-praxis is innovative and crucial for the biblical vision of denouncing the powers of oppression and exposing its injustice. Two, she has personal liberation as her teleological enterprise. Three, she not only critically deconstructs the external context of the Latina community but also the oppressive patterns within, created by a woman’s insecurity.  Finally, four, she affirms Mestizaje as a type of eschatological confrontation to a pluralistic world that is trying to figure out how to materialize the idea of “unity-in-diversity” (33). But what I really love the most is how she synthesizes life, praxis, and reflection in her theology, describing it as an organic activity engaged by Latinos in general and Latinas in particular (177).

Ay Isasi, porque? There are some things, however, that I need to question, maybe critique..

Isasi-Diaz’s theological conclusions are definitely insightful. However, I believe that her methodological process is intentionally reductionistic and narrow. In page 5 she states the process of her method as follows:

After establishing our goal as liberation-fullness of life, we begin to delineate the means needed to achieve it. And the starting point for considering the goal is the reality of Latinas: our daily experiences. Using experiences as a basis we begin to create spaces, process, and institutions where we can operate in accord with our goal (5).

Like a person on a journey who looks toward a predetermined destination in the distant horizon, then looks at his or her own feet, and then begins carving the path toward that horizon, Isasi-Diaz engages the theological journey by setting the goal first and then looking at the starting point which is “Latina’s daily experiences” and moving forward. In other words, rather than allowing experiences to become premises, which will then shape the conclusion, Isasi-Diaz first sets the goal–or conclusion–which then shapes her lenses–or the premises which will shape her perception of the world and her experience of it–then she moves toward the goal and creates “spaces, process, and institutions.” The problem, I find, is that by setting the conclusion of the theological task first (liberation) and then moving toward it with its premise (experiences) already determined by the goal does not create more space but rather reduces that space specifically for the agenda of the one theologizing–a very narrow approach. The only space it will create will be for others who have similar experiences and conclusions about what the goal should be. Her method is thus not inclusive but too narrow and exclusive.

Isasi-Diaz’s pre-commitments in her method are evident but building on them theologically requires a word of caution. Her pre-commitments are especially clear in page 167 where she does not hesitate to indicate what they are:

From the very beginning of our attempts to articulate a mujerista theology, the centrality of praxis has been clear… based on an analysis of historical reality perceived through the lens of an option for and commitment to the liberation of Latinas (Isasi-Diaz).

While her pre-commitments are definitely respectable, my question is how can one develop a theology properly with their goal already set as their premise? Or how can one begin theologizing biblically using contextual presuppositions?

I am sure that Isasi-Diaz would reply by saying, “Everyone does it, I just happen to be straight forward about it instead of keeping my agenda hidden or locked in unconsciousness.” True. There is truth to this, but apart from it, I think that by applying her method seriously in the religious context at the expense of a biblical christology produces a model that can become instrumentally dangerous in the hands of the wrong people. This makes it easy for some body to use this framework to support an unblical and oppressive agenda. For example, if my experience as a Latino male is one by which I feel my North American context has (1) siphoned all worth from my culture by appropriating it for economic gain, (2) suppressed my leadership because it is not White, and (3) set my wife’s authority in the household over mine in the name of modern egalitarianism (which contradicts my indigenous warrior roots), then I can easily take Isasi-Diaz’s method and create an indigenous theology, or more preferably a Machismo theology, that would ultimately uphold machismo while it oppresses Latinas … against Isasi-Diaz’s wishes! My cultural identity would experience liberation from modernity, but my female friends would still continue to suffer.

Lastly, is Isasi-Diaz’s theological method even biblical? Is it irreducibly cultural or is it consistent with scripture?

It is very evident that her contextual theology is an integrative theology using both anthropology and the social sciences, and in this sense, it’s difficult to determine whether or not Mujerista theology is biblical. This doesn’t mean that it would be unbiblical in the detrimental sense. Apart from experience and praxis, however, ethnographic tools are Isasi-Diaz’s primary tools. She uses them to develop her convictions and thoughts. I don’t find this expanding the optional possibilities that help create a new history and a more inclusive theology. I see her mostly explaining her thoughts redundantly. I believe this is because the circle of logic she uses is self-reinforcing, narrowly skewed, and limited as a framework that cannot go outside of itself to explore other ways of attaining her teleological mark even though she wants to advocate for inclusivity. I believe that if Isasi-Diaz was to rearrange her thesis for the liberation of Latinas within a Christological framework, not only would she get some of the same conclusions she is already pressing, if not better ones, but her methodological process would become more biblically based, unquestionably Christological, and more safeguarded from others who may want to use it for selfish or oppressive endeavors.

Where do we go from here?

I have been noticing the direction that liberation theology is going. I am concerned. As a liberation theology proponent I strongly believe that a gospel “lived out” is not only more important than a gospel exclusively “thought out.” However, if we do not put an effort in really “thinking out” what “living out” looks like specifically in the narrative of God’s redemption for his people and particularly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the narrative he pioneered for us, we will find ourselves developing theology upon sandy ground and cultural constructs that will together with the changing times fade away.

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My Stories

“Please Call Me Professor Paz” – A Prison Story

“Professor Unruh …” I called on my teacher, my political science instructor. I was an undergraduate student at Fresno Pacific University.

“Please, Richard,” he gently corrected me. “Just call me Richard.”

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This was a very cool thing: Mr. Unruh, or “Richard”, made himself personal to us, his students, by offering his first name instead of his professional title. I’ve never been fond of using professional labels to address people that played significant roles in my life. It’s difficult for me, unless the person is a stranger. Major points for Mr. Unruh! But as much as Mr. Unruh inspired me to be humble in my professional identity, I had an opposite response to my students when I became a professor. When one of my students asked me how I’d like to be referenced, I answered, “Please, call me Professor Paz.”

In 2017, I had the privilege of creating and teaching a course for the Masters Degree in the Ministry, Leadership, and Culture program at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. The name of the course is Forming a Community of Mercy, Justice, and Peace. This course is designed to equip students to think critically about their theological anthropology and its relation to the reality of social injustice in their local context—namely around the intersectionality of racism, classism, and sexism. This course also introduces students to a few community organizing frameworks that can help them form the kind of faith community that is committed to justice and peace.

This was my first time teaching as an adjunct professor for a higher learning institution, and I had made up my mind not long after my encounter with Mr. Unruh that if I ever became a professor, I’d prefer students address me by my title “Professor” rather than by my first name. This conclusion had nothing to do with propriety or humility, nor with what seemed more professional or personal. This conclusion was rather inspired by my ambitious dream to attain what many would consider an impossible goal–becoming a professor–and to stop the mouths of my critics and adversaries, including the ones who live in my head.

Let me share a little story …

In 2001, I sat down to play chess with a wise, Muslim brother named Abdul Mohammad. We were both inmates in Fresno’s County Jail, awaiting our prison sentence. I was facing over 20 years of charges for gang related violence, though I was ultimately sentenced to 8 (five in prison and three on parole).

Abdul moved one of his pawns and then asked me, “What is your plan?”

“Plan? What do you mean?” I retorted. “I can’t tell you my plan, otherwise, you’ll beat me.”

Abdul moved another chess piece and said, “I’m not talking about chess.”

Momentary confusion.

“You got heart,” Abdul said. “You got what it takes to make it, more than these fights you get yourself into. But you gotta have a plan. What’s your plan, little brother?”

I was taken back! I never had anyone speak to me with such depth, provoking me to think about my future. For most of my life, up this point, I thought a lot about the past and the present—the things that happened to me, good and bad, and the things I needed to do “today”, maybe tomorrow, just to survive. But the future? Hardly. I didn’t like to think about the future because most of what I saw there waiting for me were two options: prison or death. And I was obviously already bound to the first; the second was swift in coming. Thinking about the future was something I reserved merely for fantasizing about a comfortable life. And that’s about it—pure fantasy, imaginary hedonism, momentary escapes from reality. So the best thing to do, in my mind, was to avoid thinking about what seemed unavoidable—prison and death—and enjoy the fantasy, as well as moments of peace, until death arrived.

Abdul changed this. He provoked me to think clearly. He challenged me to pull the curtain back and peek into my future with hope, yes, even from a hopeless cellblock. And I did. What I discovered was a future with more options than just prison and death. I saw a future filled with opportunities, but available only if I began to prepare now, today.

Inspired by hope and later by a dream that God would send me to college, I picked up a few books and began to re-educate myself, studying everything from basic math to political science. I fell in love with learning and came to the conclusion that becoming a professor was part of God’s plan for me, even though my starting point to that goal was in the California Department of Corrections.

For most of my life, I doubted myself. When I was a kid, my second grade teacher told me that I could become whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, and I smiled with overwhelming joy. But it didn’t take long for poverty, my dad’s deportation to Mexico, and the challenges that come with both of these to change my heart. I lost interest in dreaming as a kid, but for whatever reason, I believed this dream as an adult—the dream that I would go to college and someday become a professor!

“Look where the fuck you at, bro!” One of my older, inmate friends once told me. “You’re in prison, and the world ain’t even trying to hire us to clean their toilets and now you want to become a professor? I ain’t trying to be a jerk, but I just don’t want to see you create false hope for yourself.”

Those that know me can tell you that I’m a pretty stubborn guy. So while these words bothered me, they only provoked me to push harder. Hence I kept studying, reading, and writing essays. I even finished my GED (General Equivalency Diploma), since I didn’t get to graduate high school before going to prison. I was determined to pursue my dream … until I met Sergeant Hernandez.

“Who you run with?” Sergeant Hernandez asked me as I stood naked in the middle of the cellblock with my arms stretched out horizontally while two rookie officers searched me and my clothes. I had been moved to a prison yard (or campus) where no one knew me, and when I first arrived, I told the officers I was not part of any gang, even though on record I was still associated with my old gang and categorized as a Bulldog gang member. So when this inconsistency caught the attention of the officers, they dragged me out of my cell at midnight and interrogated me in the middle of the cellblock, in front of everyone’s doors.

“I don’t run with anyone, sir.” I responded.

“Everyone’s gotta run with someone,” the sergeant responded. “You’re in prison.”

“I know. I just run with Jesus,” I replied. “I’m just trying to do my time so I can get out and go to school.”

I opened my mouth too much.

“School? Like college?” The sergeant asked with a doubtful expression on his face.

“Yes, sir,” I answered with a little joy in my tone. “I’m gonna go to college to become a professor.”

And then it came …

“Hey, fellas!” Sergeant Hernandez shouted loudly. “You hear this guy? Mr. Paz here is on his way to become a professor … with a degree from Avenal State Prison!”

One officer chuckled. The other just grinned. Then Sergeant Hernandez lowered his voice and said, “We gotta take this guy in. He might be a ‘torpido.’” A ‘torpido’ is a secret agent from a gang who hides his/her identity and affiliation in order to enter enemy territory and eliminate the target. The officers concluded that as a possible torpido, it was best to put me away. So they handcuffed me and escorted me to a new cell block in “ad seg” (administrative segregation), what most people know as “The Hole”, that is, solitary confinement. The officers opened the cell door and threw me in as Sergeant Hernandez chaffed, “Welcome to your new study room, professor.”

I was humiliated beyond measure. I should have just kept my mouth shut! I don’t know why I allowed myself to skip in circles and tell the prison world about my goals. It was stupid! I can assure you, however, that this experience really put me in check. And from that point on, I never shared with anyone again. Why? So they can laugh at me?

But God is faithful.

It’s been over a decade since then. And a lot has happened, including my teaching role at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. This role may be a part time, adjunct position, but it’s still a position in teaching at a higher learning institution. It’s still real, and it has become the kind of position that is connected to the kind of story that I could turn around at Sergeant Hernandez, the critics in my past, and the adversary who still lives in my head, and say, “I told you so.” The funny thing now, however, is that I don’t have to say that, or anything at all. Why? Because my students and colleagues knowingly or unknowingly remind me every time we interact that I am victorious … that I am Professor Paz.

God is good.

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