In the beginning was a Story, and that Story is good. That Story is ours.
With those words, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey began her lecture, a meditation on the importance of story in the community of faith and in the struggle for justice.
“If you think about it, story is the main differentiator that we humans have from the rest of the animal kingdom,” she said. “From the beginning we have relied on stories to help us navigate life on this planet. Not only do we share stories, we bring our own story.”
Harvey was speaking at the Barton Lecture on September 20 on the campus of Perkins. Some 35 people attended in person, with 45 joining online. The Barton Lecture aims to disseminate knowledge of Hispanic/Latin@ theology and ministry for the benefit of the academy, the church and the wider public.
Harvey has served as Bishop of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church since 2012. She earned an M.Div. at Perkins as a member of the first class to graduate from the Houston-Galveston program. The program was launched during the tenure of Robin Lovin, then dean of Perkins, who was in the audience that evening, and is currently led by Hugo Magallanes, associate dean of academic affairs, who introduced Harvey’s lecture. Harvey also currently serves as the President of the Council of Bishops and is a member of the Perkins School of Theology Executive Board.
In the lecture, Harvey shared her own story and encouraged those in the audience to share their stories, too. She noted that the one who mastered the sharing of the story – Jesus – often spoke in parables.
“Those parables continue to speak to us even today,” she said. “The question is, what new parables are we telling? But we must first ask ourselves: What are we saying about ourselves through our story? What are we telling the world about the movement of God in our lives as Hispanic Latinos? Are we telling our story? Do we believe our story is good? And do we believe that our story is ours to tell?”
Harvey shared photos from her childhood home in Big Spring, Texas – “one with the Virgin Mary in the front yard … the one on the wrong side of the tracks.”
There, Harvey grew up surrounded by family: her grandparents, who were born in Chihuahua, Mexico, her parents, two siblings, and an array of primos, primas, tias, and tios (cousins, aunts and uncles), not all of them officially related.
“This is the house that built me,” she said. “El barrio raised me. Life was not easy, but it was filled with love. It was also filled with stories. Everything in our culture is about a story.”
Stories can be good, she said, but they can also be dangerous. Stories can be used to dispossess and malign, but they can also empower and humanize.
“Our story has the power to empower, and to humanize, and to repair broken dignity,” she said. “Our story is one of diversity. Our story is our story, and it is good.”
Harvey recalled a story of shared meals in her mother’s home. One year, she came home from college for Thanksgiving. She noticed a young man at the table that she didn’t recognize. She asked: “Who are you?”
The visitor told her he had met her cousin at the local community college. The cousin told him that her mother’s house always had great Thanksgiving meals. However, that cousin wasn’t present.
“Somehow this fellow had slipped in and he had assimilated himself into the family and shared this meal with us,” she said. “I’ll never forget that story. That’s my table then and my table still is today. It’s a metaphor for who I am.”
Throughout the lecture, Harvey invited those in attendance to repeat the litany that opened her lecture, written by Britney Winn Lee: In the beginning was a story. And that story is good. That story is ours.
She also paused her lecture to invite members of the audience to turn to a nearby attendee and to discuss questions she posed: “Who do people say that you are? And who do you say that you are? What are two or three statements that you absolutely believe?
“Your story shapes who you are,” she said. “It raises you and shapes what you believe.
“Our greatest and most important identity is as a child of God. Who we are versus what we are. We are part of one another’s story. My story is incomplete without yours. We are actors in one’s another’s story. That’s the beauty of diversity. This story is not mine. It is ours. Our story is rich, and it heals hurts. It is filled with experiences of reconciliation, of grace, mercy, justice and love. Our story is the gospel story. It’s the new parable. And it’s not reserved for certain people.”
Harvey added that it is the story of 15,000 immigrants under a bridge in Del Rio, and it is the story of thousands in the Hispanic community who died of COVID in disproportionately high numbers.
“We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God,” she said. “We must never neglect that gift.
“We have a story to tell to the nations. It is a story that has the capacity to change hearts, a story that can turn darkness into light. That story is ours and it is good.”
The Roy D. Barton Lectureship was established in 1995 to honor Dr. Barton for his distinguished service to the seminary and his equally distinguished service to the Hispanic United Methodist Church. Dr. Barton served as the founding Director of The Hispanic/Latin@ Ministries Program (then called the Mexican American Program) and Associate Professor of Practical Theology in Perkins School of Theology from 1974 until his retirement in 1995.
Over the years, the lectureship has featured many prominent Hispanic speakers, including Dr. Justo L. González, Dr. Daisy L. Machado, Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Bishop Ruben Saenz, Jr., Dr. Loida Martell, Dr. Hugo Magallanes, Dr. Fernando Segovia, and Dr. Harold J. Recinos.
To view the lecture, visit https://smu.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=115237fa-f72d-4ff9-93ca-adaa001c2007.