Recently named an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago, Josefrayn Sánchez-Perry (M. Div., 2014) teaches historical theology and focuses on early modern theologies, colonialism and Indigenous traditions of Mesoamerica.
Sánchez-Perry says that Perkins courses in church history taught by Bruce Marshall and Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, along with his own Mexican heritage, awakened his interest in the “edges” of Christian orthodoxy, and how Christians have interacted with indigenous and Native peoples of the Americas.
“In those courses, I learned about the centers in the history of church doctrine, orthodoxy and belief,” he said. “But I also started to explore: if these were the boundaries that orthodoxy had created, what’s outside of these edges?”
He wrote a paper exploring Easter Week practices in Guatemala, looking at Mayan influences and traditions that became part of Christianity there. That paper won the 2014 Albert C. Outler Award for Best Essay in Theology.
“I wanted to grapple with the meaning of people introducing their own practices and concepts, that didn’t necessarily fit within the theological frameworks of Catholic Christianity—but more specifically with the ideological presentations of Christianity,” he said. “Are there ways to understand this process? What is it these communities are introducing to this religious tradition?”
While pursuing his M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, he developed an interest in indigenous languages, and worked on an online, open access Nahuatl-language curriculum with the help of Nahuatl-speakers Sabina Cruz de la Cruz and Catalina Cruz de la Cruz. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs. Nahuatl has been spoken in central Mexico since at least the fourth century CE, and today is spoken by about 1.5 million people. The project involved native speakers, professors who knew the language, web developers and grant writers. The course was designed for those at the undergraduate level and above. Anyone with an internet connection can access the course.
Sánchez-Perry added that his time studying Greek during his undergraduate program at Northwestern College in Iowa provided an excellent foundation for learning an indigenous language.
“Greek is agglutinative – that is, it has little parts that you put together to form intelligible sentence structure,” he said. “The indigenous Nahuatl language is not like any European language, including Spanish, but it is like Greek, Latin or Hebrew in that it is also agglutinative. So my studies in biblical languages were a great introduction to understand basic Nahuatl.”
Sánchez-Perry’s dissertation is a study of the way that Franciscan and Dominican Catholics interacted with Nahuatl speakers in the colonial period, but also how they violently enforced the Christian religion. “Nahuatl speakers knew how to read and write in their own language, using their own complex hieroglyphic script, but Christian friars forced them to learn Latin, Spanish, and a Roman alphabetic version of Nahuatl.” Learning Nahuatl revealed to him the intricacies of how language is a big part of theology and religion.
After graduating from Perkins, and before pursuing his M.A. and Ph.D., Sánchez-Perry also spent two years as a chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas as part of the CPE program. That was another very formative experience.
“I wanted to take a break during those two years, but it wasn’t totally a break,” he said. “Being a chaplain in a hospital where people are suffering, where there’s turmoil and a lot of emotional conversations, gave me a different outlook. All the things that I learned in seminary were suddenly contextualized in the hospital. It changed my pedagogy and my whole demeanor as an academic. I became more pastoral in my approach.”
At Loyola, he is working on his first monograph, which focuses on household ritual specialists in Aztec city-states before and after European occupation, and how Spanish local officials and Christian friars both abdicated and co-opted Nahua religious systems to enforce the Christian religion and European civility.
Sánchez-Perry is excited to have landed a tenure track position at Loyola University, in part because it’s situated in Chicago. He lives in the northern Chicago area with his wife Alli and their two dogs, both rescues. Chicago offers access to two important institutions: The Art Institute of Chicago and the Newberry Library, a research institution with 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, and 5 million manuscript pages spanning the Middle Ages to the present. That allows him to take students to the Art Institute and the Newberry to view and appreciate medieval Christian art as well as indigenous art.
“When I’m teaching undergraduate and graduate theology students, I talk about Christianity’s contact with indigenous groups,” he said. “It’s not always positive. We have some difficult conversations. I’m trying to get students to really think through the complicated history of the church.”