My Stories

Resilience in Times of Resistance

Resilience is about resisting and overcoming, and you can’t effectively resist if you haven’t overcome your fears.”

Capture

Ivan gave this message at the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association) Conference in Detroit on October 5, 2017. If you’d like a readable copy of this message, please email ivancpaz@gmail.com with your request.

 

 

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My Stories

What I Learned Working in the Fields with My Neighbors

I’ve never had to work the fields in my life. I grew up watching family work the rugged campo, here, in the Central Valley (CA), where temperatures in the summer climb up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit, but I never spent a minute in the field. I often saw family members come home, bundled up in filthy clothes with dirt all over their faces, loudly expressing their exhaustion with groans when they came through the door. I grew up with usually more than one family in the house, and many of them—our parents, tíos, and tías—worked the fields so that, as they often reminded us, we who were young would not have to.21371128_10213621946479411_5932132027215457715_n

This past Labor Day I spent my day with my neighbors working in the fields. I didn’t choose to do this because I see myself as some noble leader or godly saint. Actually, I decided to join my neighbors because a few months ago, they—a group of women—challenged me to join them some time. We were in a neighbors’ gathering (we gather twice a month for coffee and community organizing work) and we ended up talking about the Latin@ immigrant experience, hard work, and the next generation. “You don’t know hard work!” Raquel said with a mischievous smile. “You come home exhausted from meetings in air-conditioned rooms.”

I know what Raquel was doing: She was intentionally, though playfully, agitating my machismo. She was trying to get me to prove myself and do something that I didn’t want to do. I know this technique–I have lots of sisters. But of course, it worked! I responded with, “Next time I have a holiday off from work, I will join you to show you I know how to work with my hands! I may have never worked the fields, but the spirit of hard work runs through my blood.”

That’s not how I felt on September 4, however.

So I rallied two friends of mine: Luis, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at a young age but also never worked the fields; and my friend Scott, an older White man who had his share in hard work to achieve his goals in life, but never in the context of the field. I thought it would be a good experience for each of us to have. Luis wanted to know what it was like to work the fields because for one reason or another, he had the privilege of not ending up diving into that trade like many others who immigrate do. Scott wanted to experience the struggle; he has been on an incredible journey trying to understand the reality his neighbors, who are often demonized in this country, live in. Me, I just wanted to show my neighbors I wasn’t a chump.

We met up with my neighbors near the Kerman area, and after they gave us a short orientation, we began to pick grapes. This is how it works: You basically cut a cluster of grapes with a hand size sickle; place them in a specifically sized, large plastic bowl; and then after the bowl is full, you drop the grapes on a large paper sheet, where they will be set to dry and become raisins.

At first, it was fun. I thought, “I could do this all day!” Then after two hours, the sun came out and in 30 minutes, I started feeling dehydrated. At one point, I noticed my friend Scott was not feeling good. So Luis and I encouraged him to grab a seat, drink water, and relax.

Three and a half hours went by and we found ourselves barely at the middle of the circuit. We still had a long way to go and our energy was running out. So we tried different techniques to try to finish the circuit more effectively. By the fifth hour, it was obvious that we were done. We only had about 20 feet remaining to finish the circuit but we were completely wiped out. It’s not a good sign when your body is not moving fast and your hands are starting to shake hard and cramp up. With a serious strike to my ego, we decided to call it a day. One of our neighbors, with a kind smile on his face, told us in Spanish that he would finish the job. We took his offer and headed back home.

We didn’t earn much. Each tray is worth 34 cents. We worked hard for five hours and gathered 168 trays of grapes between the three of us. Together we made $57.12, but split in three ways, we each made $19.04 for the five hours of hard work! While our neighbors dusted us in speed, I’m certain they don’t make a lot more. They’re such hard workers! I think the best way to express how I feel is to echo Luis’ words in his Instagram post:

“I’m humbled by the work of our campesinos. I was no match for their methodic hands. I will never understand how we pay $0.34 per tray. You would have to make 30 trays in one hour to make minimum wage. Today I made $4/hour. No air conditioned space to take your break, dust in your lunch, and long walks to the bathroom. But when you have no other choice, it’s what you do.”

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I’ve been around long enough in the activist world to understand some of the structural mechanisms set in place in the American system that allow for this kind of work to unfairly capitalize on a cheap labor force and, more specifically, on a population of vulnerable people who tend to get unfairly scapegoated for many things. I have a lot more respect for my neighbors and my family. They have endured, especially in the past couple of years, unfair accusations and high levels of discrimination when they have only sought the best for their families and their people.

As I think about my family and my neighbors, I can’t help but remember the thought that came to me when I saw Raquel’s daughter in the circuit, curiously examining the grapes and dirt: “We are planted to bear good fruit, and we will not be moved until our dreams feed the world.”

The general public may not see now who we are, but one day they we will heal them.

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Theology & Practice

The Myth of Ontological Sinfulness: How the notion of inherent sinfulness contributes to the scapegoating of ethnic minorities.

(This is an essay presented by Ivan Paz at the American Academy of Religion [Western Region] in February 2017)


Introduction

A culture of conflict generally exists in the U.S. between the criminal justice system and people of color, especially those who live in economically disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods—who I will, for the sake of brevity, call “the urban poor”. This conflict has been graphically illustrated by the series of demonstrations for racial justice that have been occurring across the nation for the past few years. Concerned about the role of religion within this particular setting, this paper addresses the following question: instead of functioning as a prophetic voice and engaging in peace-building between the two, why is there a tendency among evangelical Protestants to side with the criminal justice system and support the institutional mistreatment of the urban poor?

While this tendency can be traced to the racial imagination that American Protestantism is rooted in, this paper focuses on the subtle fusion between two perspectives: the concept of ontological human sinfulness —i.e. the notion that humans are inherently sinful—and the assumption that crime is primarily an urban-poverty phenomenon. Drawing from Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory, this paper argues that this theological concept of the human functions as a powerful myth in evangelical-Protestant theology and that this myth is ideologically bound to the structural categories of criminality that have historically oppressed social minorities. To answer the question above, this bind compels the religious proponents of the myth to perceive the urban poor not only as sinners in a spiritual sense but as a kind of criminal-sinner whose suppression seems necessary for the establishment of order/justice in society.

Girardian Framework: Myth and Scapegoating

A common view in the field of anthropology is that myths are traditional narratives that engender cultural identity by explaining a community’s origins and sacred mission.[1]  According to Sigurd N. Skirbekk, myths generally (1) provide existential meaning to community members; (2) interpret complex social-struggles as conflicts between two cosmic forces; (3) incite members to participate in the culture of the community; (4) offer symbols that help members interpret social experiences; and (5) mobilize members toward specific social agendas.[2]

Girard agrees: myths are foundational narratives for culture and society. But in terms of how they are constructed, Girard argues that myths are transfigured accounts of collective violence against “a scapegoat”: that is, a person or a group of people who are regarded as the primary source for the problems that threaten a community’s wellbeing and whose expulsion seems to be a necessary step toward establishing order and peace.[3] Girard contends that behind the narrative of nearly every myth lies a true story of bloodshed but because the story is retold inter-generationally from the perspective of the persecutor, the story develops a seemingly innocent character of its own.

A basic understanding of Girard’s scapegoat theory is helpful here. According to Girard, humans are fundamentally imitative in nature: they have an instinctual tendency to imitate each other and a desire for others to imitate them. As the imitative relationship evolves, competition and rivalry ensues, creating conflict between those who are involved in the relationship. Girard calls this a mimetic crisis, at which point conflict escalates and becomes violent. The violence then spirals out of control, the community grows increasingly exhausted, and in its desperation for tranquility, the community dynamically converges upon an innocent victim who is blamed for the problems the community is experiencing. Assuming that the expulsion of the perceived culprit means the removal of the problems in the community, the victim is punished by exile or death. The perceived tranquility after the expulsion is interpreted as the result of a supernatural act and the scapegoat as type of divine messenger who sacrificed self for the community. The scapegoat becomes a sacred symbol of the community’s cultural unity and the story becomes the foundational myth for an emerging society, a myth that offers socio-structural precedents that supposedly will help prevent future crises.[4]

If Girard is correct, then myths are never innocent stories; they are full of violence. They not only contain hidden accounts of bloodshed, but they also have the power to reinforce patterns of institutional scapegoating across multiple generations because myths, Girard argues, function as texts of persecution: i.e. narratives that incite violence on vulnerable social outcasts. When a society experiences cultural challenges, the imagination of the myth often compels the members of that society to resolve the crisis in ways that correspond with the principles that they have inherited from the myth. Desiring order, a society blames and sacrifices those whose presence is incongruous with the dominant culture—a culture that was shaped by its founding myth. Unfortunately, many do not think critically about the perspectives that are handed to them. Such is the case with many evangelicals in the U.S. They have blindly accepted a theological framework that is grounded in an erroneous myth about an inherently sinful, human nature, a myth that conceals an ideological scheme of domination that tends to target communities of color.

Ontological Sinfulness is a Dangerous Myth

The evangelical concept of ontological human sinfulness—or OHS for brevity—is a myth. Just as a myth provides a foundational narrative for a community, the concept of OHS provides a foundational narrative about human origins and the problem of evil (Adam and Eve sinned and transmitted a sinful nature to humanity). As a myth, it also identifies a problem (sinful humans liable to divine punishment) while presenting a solution (surrogate punishment through Christ’s body). In these ways, the concept of OHS functions as a myth, engendering a religious imagination that nurtures evangelical identity and incites Christian participation in a projected drama of redemption. This religious imagination, however, has a tendency to be co-opted by state powers that have an invested interest in social control.

Consider the Protestant connection to manifest destiny, the early American notion that the U.S. would lead the world in human progress. Manifest destiny assumed that white Americans were a superior race, ordained by God to populate the new world and establish order. These assumptions, however, were driven by an ideological interest in westward expansion. Along with the pioneers of this expansionist project, many of the revivalists, the predecessors of evangelical Protestants, were inspired to expand Christianity westward by “preaching salvation” to the non-Christian natives.

Proselytizing may seem like a pious undertaking to many Christians, but the truth is that land was coveted, slave-labor was needed, and the natives were regarded nuisance. Since human beings were considered depraved and divinely condemned by most early American Protestants, and since the cultural and physical characteristics of Native American, Mexican, and African peoples seemed non-Christian, these ethnic groups were regarded as deserving of God’s wrath. They became perfect targets for larceny, violence, and repression. A hierarchy of racial categories was developed and a racist illusion—buttressed by law and Protestant thought—was brought forth, resulting in the plundering of land from Native Americans, as well as the taking of freedom from Blacks.[5]

This mechanism of domination and violence continues to be active in American institutions of justice today, and social minorities are the most vulnerable. When society experiences social challenges, social minorities are quickly blamed and scapegoated because they are typically seen as a nuisance to the prevailing order.

My Experience with Fresno’s Cease Fire Program

In 2010, I participated in a gang intervention forum called Fresno Cease Fire. This forum, which took place in a church facility, was a collaborative effort between evangelical ministry leaders and local government, intending to confront gang-members for their street violence.[6] Having been ordered by probation and parole, gang-members arrived.[7] The men were asked to sit in a group and face a panel of officers. Behind the panel hung a large backdrop, displaying the mugshots of several gang-members with details of their criminal convictions. Officers began the session by delivering a message to them: “leave the gang or face the full force of the criminal justice system.”[8] When the officers finished speaking, they left the building. Then it was the ministers’ turn to approach the gang-members with resources and “the gospel”.

As the ministers approached the men, I approached “Wicked,” the one who seemed to be the most influential among the gang-members. Having come from the same background, I assumed that I would easily connect with him. I was wrong. Before I uttered my first word, Wicked said, “Look dog… You ain’t here for us. You are here for the cops. In fact, you are one with them, so fuck you! You ain’t nothing but a sell-out.”[9] I was discouraged! We were only trying to help them, I thought. When I shared what Wicked had said to me with one of the other ministers who had been present, his response was, “Ivan, these criminals are sinners. They need to accept the gospel and change their ways, otherwise they will suffer the consequences of God’s justice.”

Protestant evangelicals who embrace the myth of OHS are not always aware of how their perspective of human nature is bound to notions of criminality. Yet the reality is that the two intersect quite often. This carries serious implications for the ways in which one understands the urban context. If crime is understood as a direct result of ontological sinfulness and there tends to be a preponderance of crime in urban neighborhoods, will it not be logical to assume that a preponderance of sinfulness exists there as well? Indeed this is often the assumption. Just ask ordinary, evangelical folks, “Where is the bad side of town?” Watch them point their finger toward the inner-city. Then ask them, “Where do you see human depravity the most in your city?” Watch their finger point in the same direction again. They may claim that all sins are equally evil and that all humans are equally sinful, yet the concentration of criminal reports connected to these types of neighborhoods and the evangelical tendency to associate crime with sin compels these folks to associate depravity with the inner-city at a much higher level than economically affluent areas. In theory, all people are sinful but in practice, the urban poor are the ones who are treated as sinners. They seem spiritually lost, more dangerous, intimidating, and in even greater need of “the transformative power of the gospel”.

Two Lenses and The Illusion of the Criminal-Sinner

The tendency to perceive the urban poor in terms of sinfulness and criminality results from the subtle fusion of two perspectives: the myth of OHS and the notion of urban criminality—that is, the host of criminal stereotypes associated with disenfranchised inner-city neighborhoods as a result of the illusion cast by the criminal justice system and mass media. While OHS is fundamentally a theological perspective maintained by many Christians, the notion of urban criminality is generally a secular perspective held by a large portion of the American population, Christian and non-Christian alike. Analogous to the way that two lenses on a set of 3D glasses function together to produce powerful and life-like illusions out of certain medium, these two perspectives tend to merge together, creating for many evangelicals an image of depravity when they consider the urban poor.

Let me delineate this a bit further. One lens, the myth of OHS, creates the perception that human nature is totally depraved and that all humans are equally sinful. The other lens, the notion of urban criminality, associates crime with the urban context. If the two views are like lenses on a set of 3D glasses, then the concept of divine right is like the bridge between a pair of glasses, the piece that holds the lenses together. The Protestant concept of divine right hybridizes notions of sin and crime, and through this hybridity, notions of criminality and sinfulness intersect. On the one hand, the notion of urban criminality compels the perspective of OHS to direct its theological focus on the concreteness of the urban context and apply its interpretation of human nature on the urban poor. On the other hand, the perspective of OHS ascribes a spiritual dimension to the perspective of urban criminality, so that criminal behavior begins to look more like the outworking of human depravity rather than the result of social and economic inequity. As a result of this conceptual synthesis, people of color—esp. from poor urban neighborhoods—are perceived not only as sinners but as criminally inclined sinners.

The Fusion of the Two Perspectives

Evangelicals should not assume that they are somehow uniquely shielded from the influence of the criminal justice system and the media, nor that they are blameless from stereotyping the urban poor. If there is anything unique about evangelicals, it is that they add another dimension to the stereotypes, a dimension that is spiritual in nature. Like the two lenses on the set of 3D glasses, the lens of urban criminality works together with the lens of OHS to create for the Christian a sinister image of the urban poor. The former lens obscures from their perception any innocence the poor may have had, while the latter supplants the biblical claim that the poor bear the image of God. When the perception of the two lenses fuse into one, the religious imagination of evangelicals incorporates the ideological dimensions connected to notions of urban criminality, producing the illusion that the urban poor are culprits responsible for the problems threaten the social order. Evangelicals wearing these set of lenses find the illusion powerful and irresistible because it seems to stand on truth.[10]

The two perspectives, urban criminality and OHS, easily combine in the mind of the Christian. I identify three reasons for this. The first reason is that both perspectives pay special attention to deviant behavior. The perspective of urban criminality, influenced mostly by the criminal justice system, pays special attention to illegal behavior in an effort to identify crime. The myth of OHS focuses on all human behavior and interprets it as rooted in selfishness and depraved desire. The main difference between the two is that the latter locates malevolence inside of the human’s being while the former identifies it in the acts themselves, or in places where these acts often take place. Nonetheless, notions of urban criminality, like the religious view, also absolutize evil in humans by labeling offenders as criminals.

Second, both perspectives hold human beings responsible for evil in one form or another. The myth of OHS presumes that all humans are guilty of lawlessness because they have broken God’s law and are born with a nature that is offensive to divine standards. The perspective of urban criminality assumes that people are guilty when legal authorities and the data they provide declare it. Both perspectives follow a pattern of legality yet the religious one seems to be more rigid and less merciful because, according to its logic, one cannot be absolved from wrongful acts unless blood is spilled. Nevertheless, both perspectives use similar concepts of legality to hold humans responsible for evil and, as a result, the two almost inevitably combine. This was evident in the collaboration between the church ministers and Fresno police officers as they attempted to confront and hold the gang-members accountable for their violence.

Finally, both perspectives interact in a complimentary way. Notions of urban criminality reinforce the concept of ontological sinfulness by supplying it with empirical evidence. Apart from observable or measurable phenomena, the claim that sinfulness resides inside of the human is an untenable idea—for on what empirical grounds can one make such a claim? But people holding the myth of OHS usually capitalize on data depicting evil and interpret it as evidence of inherent sinfulness. For example, one pastor, referring to the Ferguson protests, said, “When the men and women and young people were rioting… they were manifesting the natural depravity of their hearts.”[11] In turn, notions of urban criminality gain religious adherents and the criminal justice system gains moral validation, especially in their institutional suppression of criminalized people.

Conclusion

People who wear glasses typically view the world around them without consciously paying attention to the lenses they are wearing, nor do they critically assess how their lenses shape the way they view the world. They just observe. Likewise, evangelicals are not always aware that they view the world through certain perspectives and they are not always keen to assess the ways in which their lenses affect the way they perceive the world. They simply observe. In regard to the myth of OHS and the notion of urban criminality, evangelicals are generally oblivious to the fact that together these two lenses create the kind of perception which make the urban poor not only vulnerable to institutional scapegoating. They do not immediately sense the ideological dynamics at work because the myth of OHS absorbs notions of urban criminality into its own mythical narrative of sin and redemption. Thus when police interrogate, beat, or kill a person of color from the urban context or when the courts incarcerate or execute them in overwhelming amounts, evangelicals do not usually look at the criminal justice system with suspicion. Instead, they tend to respond indifferently or support the system. They may see themselves as “a voice” in the urban wilderness, calling people to salvation, but as soon as Wicked knocks their lenses off with his words, as he did to me, they will discover that they seem more like the religious voice of a lynch mob, calling the urban poor to recant or suffer institutional punishment.

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Society/Culture

Identifying Challenges Among Emerging Latinx Christian Leaders in Fresno’s (CA) Evangelical Context

On August 14, 2016, I met with a group of six Latinx leaders (“x”–prevents gender categories from dominating the ethnic label). The purpose of this meeting was to have a conversation about our experiences in Fresno’s (CA) Evangelical context. Every person in this group was, what we now call, an Emerging Latinx Christian leader (ELCL): a young professional who not only has a complex, Latinx, ethnic/cultural identity, but also a stake-hold in Fresno’s Evangelical / Protestant setting, with an increasing level of leadership therein. This conversation turned into several discussions that brought to the surface a common concern for the spiritual, social, and professional well-being of other ELCLs. As a result, this group formed into an intentional cohort that has been meeting on a regular basis, and in February 2017, this cohort decided to launch a self-reporting survey to explore how to better understand the broader experience of other ELCLs in Fresno’s Evangelical Context.

According to this survey, most respondents shared that although they tend to seemingly function well in Fresno’s Christian (viz. Evangelical and predominantly White) setting, they have experienced different forms of racism and levels of social anxiety . The results of this survey have compelled us to deeply reflect on the following question: Is there unresolved / unaddressed racial dynamics taking place in Fresno’s Evangelical / Protestant context that need to be discussed / engaged?

*The following presents the results of the survey. This survey was completed on March 16, 2017 by 47 emerging, Latinx leaders from Fresno. The Data was compiled by Sarah Cuevas and Dallhana Garcia in May 2017.

Demographic Data, Education, and Church Affiliation

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General Experience of Emerging Latinx Leaders In Fresno (CA) Christian Context

Top three “challenging things” about being a Latinx Christian in Fresno, CA (in ranking order)

  1. Dissonance with dominant, white culture
  2. Being misunderstood (from both white and Latinx groups)
  3. Facing barriers to leadership

Top three “best things” about being a Latinx Christian in Fresno, CA (in ranking order)

  1. How we embrace our culture (food, language, family, etc.)
  2. A strong community
  3. Beauty in our diversity

Experience of Explicit Racism

Have you ever experienced explicit racism in Fresno’s Christian context?
Yes 36.2% 17
No 57.4% 27
Not Sure/ NA 6.4% 3

Sample of Descriptive Answers:

YES

  • “Preached from the pulpit, excluded from certain meetings, denied financial support, flamed on social media.”
  • “I have had to confront explicit racism several times”
  • People have used scripture to support legalism/racism (in regards to immigration)
  • “I’ve been treated lower or ‘not good enough’ because of my upbringing”

NO

  • “Not been in Fresno’s Christian context enough to know”
  • “Not necessarily, but some older folks have misconceptions about inner city missions”
  • “Lightness of my skin

MAYBE

  • “Hard to say”
  • “Not that I recall”

Experiences of Microaggressions (Implicit Racism)

Have you ever experienced microaggressions in Fresno’s Christian context?
Yes 59.6% 28
No 34% 16
Somewhat 6.4% 3

Sample of Descriptive Answers:

YES

  • “Been asked questioned based on [racial/cultural] assumptions”
  • “I love Mexican people, but if you can’t come legally then you should expect to legal consequences. Nobody is above the law, not even me”
  • “Border jokes”
  • “Being offered lower paying position, while White friends move up the ladder”
  • “Not asked to speak at church functions”
  • “Power dynamics of white leadership”
  • “Only being welcomed to tables because I am Latina/Christian/ Educated/Connected to the community”

NO

  • “Half Mexican. Half White. Treated as white”
  • “Not that I remember”

SOMEWHAT / SOMETIMES

  • “I just felt like my experience or perspective was not deemed as important or valued or less willing to be understood or validated”

Functioning Well / Experiencing Anxiety

Do you tend to overtly function well in predominantly white, social settings?
Yes 51.1% 24
No 21.3% 10
Somewhat 27.7% 13

Sample of Descriptive Answers:

YES

  • “Able to get by”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable”
  • “Adapt… [I need] to be twice as smart and accomplished to be at the table”

NO

  • “Become extremely self-aware”
  • “I don’t belong”
  • “I feel like an attraction”

SOMETIMES

  • “Learn to adapt and function”
  • “Feel out of place”
  • “Can’t be open or express my opinions”
Do you tend to experience internal anxiety in predominantly white, social settings?
Yes 51.1% 26
No 25.5% 12
Somewhat 23.4% 11

Correlation Chart: Experience of Internal Anxiety & Functioning Well

Functioning Well Anxiety Somewhat No
No 6 3 1
Somewhat 8 4 1
Yes 10 4 10

Experiences of Empowerment and Disempowerment

Empowerment vs. Disempowerment
Empowerment 51.0% 25
Disempowerment 34.7% 17
I dont know/ Somewhat 14.3% 7

Sample of Descriptive Answers:

EMPOWERED

  • “Overall empowered. The director of the Christian camp told me he would value any input I had about how the camp operates. “
  • “I feel empowered by my Christian mentors.”
  • “By my church, yes, but only because my husband was on staff with the church.”
  • “By my workplace, yes. My supervisor always gives me an opportunity to speak and share my ideas during our meetings and always nominates to speak at different engagements. His belief in me helps me believe in myself.”
  • “Yes, I have authority to craft the programs that our students participate in, and can speak openly about the ways that our church’s religious education system operates. However, in RC contexts the fixed liturgical rites make it difficult to introduce explicit justice-oriented activity apart from the initiative of the bishop, for example.”

DISEMPOWERED

  • “I’ve been disempowered by my church because there’s a family that thinks they have a right to run the church.”
  • “I do not feel empowered or invited by the leadership at my home church. Outside of the central valley, yes I do. “
  • “I have been invited but only to be used as a token or representative a my ethnicity or culture. asking for my perspective then shutting it down isnt really empowerment.”
  • “No, we have been in a Volunteer Pastoral role for eight years and since we serve a marginalized community all offerings goes to the upkeep of the church and to serve the neighborhood. We don’t have the denomination support and I am already burnt out. “

Correlation Graph: Level of Empowerment-Disempowerment and Level of Ethnic Identity

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* For more information about this survey and its more comprehensive form, please contact Sarah Cuevas at sarahcuevas16@gmail.com
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Society/Culture

The Hidden Face of Urban Leaders in Fresno CA–¡Nuestras Madres! (Our Mothers)

When we think of Christian urban leaders, the first image that comes to mind for most of us in the Christian context is the image of a well-trained, program director or CEO of a faith based non-profit organization/program. We tend to see this type of person as the one who leads groups of people in the direction of changing their inner-city neighborhood.

But that is not necessarily the case in Fresno.

For the past decade or so, Beth (my spouse) and I have been deeply invested in the relational fabric of downtown Fresno, engaging development work with ministry and civic leaders, contributing to projects that aim at creating change and hope. But the more intentional Beth and I made ourselves with our neighbors, the more we began to discover a different image of a Christian, urban leader: one that looked more like a Spanish speaking mother between 20 and 50 years of age, whose husband works in the fields or construction, who helps navigate traffic before and after school hours, who pushes a stroller to council meetings to advocate for her neighborhood, and who never misses a Sunday Mass service. This is the real image of a Christian urban leader in most of our downtown neighborhoods. Unfortunately, not many see this, but it’s okay because these women are not seeking praise or glory. They are only doing what they believe is the right thing to do.

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Mariachis play at the Mother’s Day celebration

Beth and I have offered our property as a meeting place for our neighbors. There they meet regularly to brainstorm ways they can change the neighborhood. Having finished a few projects—getting their council member to fix a couple of alleys and compelling a slumlord to rehab a house that was being squatted in—Raquel, one of the group’s leaders, decided it was time to honor the women on Mother’s Day with a fiesta where all the families can come and celebrate the hard working women in the neighborhood. As they began to plan, a type of Acts 6 (Conflict over neglected widows) moment occurred: the group was divided over the dates—the Mexican mother’s day and the U.S. version of mother’s day—not to mention that some women did not have their husbands either because of deportations, marital conflict, and other circumstances. So some women felt that a family oriented celebration would leave many women feeling neglected. On top of that, having the money was a challenge. But we were reminded that we should not plan around money but around God because God is bigger than money. Plus, God validates the mothers in our area. The result: the women organized two celebrations—one on the Mexican day for women only and one on the U.S. day for families.

The celebrations were amazing. There was lots of food, mariachis, dancing, but most of all … the celebration, smiles, and laughter reminded us that we owe a lot to the mothers (biological or covenantal)—esp. those doing all of the work behind the scenes in our neighborhoods and our churches. They do so much without a demand to be seen. But God sees them, and we walk with God, we can begin to see them as well.

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(Jefferson Neighborhood Leaders: Alejandra, Raquel, Adriana, Andrea)

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