On a Saturday morning, before a solemn crowd, the words of Hal Recinos’s poem “Rising” voiced the agony of people at the border, punctuated by interludes of dissonant and dolorous music:
we are the hungry,
the lame, the naked, the sick,
the women, the widows, the
Gay and the unnamed leaving
Christ speechless in church.
As the words and music conveyed, those in the borderlands live precarious and chaotic lives. Others in the Latinx community fear deportation and hatred or struggle with poverty. What sustains them? What gives them hope in the face of despair?
More than 200 theologians, artists, musicians, scholars and community members grappled with those and other questions at a two-day conference, “The Art of Resilience – Latinx Public Witness in Troubled Times.” The sold-out event took place Friday and Saturday, September 20-21, at Perkins School of Theology and Meadows School of the Arts on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU).
This event gave participants the opportunity to interact with outstanding Latinx scholars, local artists, and religious and community leaders to reflect deeply on race, gender and immigration as matters of moral and faith concerns, said Isabel Docampo, Director of The Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions at Perkins, which presented the program. Her welcome included this prayer, “May the God of Hope fill you with joy and peace in believing, in spite of our troubled times, that we are, indeed, alive with the hope that is needed to build a flourishing future together. “
As part of the program, the Meadows School of the Arts hosted an art exhibit and a performance by New York Latina playwright Jessica Carmona of her original work, “Elvira: The Immigration Play.” Headsets were available for Spanish-speaking attendees who needed translation.
Special music performed during the weekend was composed by Ars lubilorum, a Latin-American collective of composers that research the intersection of Christian liturgical traditions and new music. Marcell Silva Steuernagel, director of Perkins’ Master of Sacred Music program, is a member along with Marcio Steuernagel and Lucas Ferreira Fruhauf.
The two-day event kicked off on Friday, September 20, with the Roy Barton Lecture featuring Dr. Fernando Segovia, Oberlin Graduate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dr. Segovia spoke of the struggle in academia to maintain and support centers such as The Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions at Perkins. Without these centers, he said, “the needs of non-white student populations may go unmet, especially in light of the upsurge of white supremacy and xenophobia and increasingly unjust economic realities.”1 He spoke of the hope that centers such as the one at Perkins offer.
Day One: September 20
The focus of the first day was on how current events on the U.S. – Mexico border impact women, with a keynote by Dr. Daisy Machado, professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
“The unfortunate reality for millions of Latinx people is that we are under siege,” she said. “It began in 2016 when Donald Trump disparaged Mexicans as ‘drug dealers, criminals and rapists,’ and unfortunately has only intensified.”
Dr. Machado also highlighted the concept of “Lived Religion,” which examines the connection of religious beliefs and practices in daily life.
“Lived Religion cannot be neatly separated from the practices of everyday life, from the desires and hopes of people, from the spaces people inhabit, from daily realities and struggles,” Machado said. By paying attention to Lived Religion among suffering people in the Latinx community, she added, the church is better able to help them see clearly the Divine at work in their lives and bring hope.
Machado described devotional practices in the borderlands related to Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church but venerated by many laypeople. Santa Muerte “gives meaning without judgment, speaking to the concerns of the social outcast, to people in prison, to the poor and dispossessed,” Machado said.
Three panelists reflected on Machado’s keynote. Maria José Recinos, Director of the Oscar Romero Center for Community Health and Education, said that faith is an important resource for her clients, mostly women and children, struggling with trauma, mental illness or unimaginable loss and grief.
“As a psychotherapist, I always ask, ‘What is the strength?’” she said. “Often, it’s the community and the religion. It’s important to respect all of these symbols.”
Mayra Picos-Lee, Senior Lecturer in Counseling at Palmer Theological Seminary, noted that death is a reality that Americans try to avoid at all costs, but in the borderlands, it’s a constant reality for many. Folk saints like Santa Muerte, who is depicted as a skeleton, help people cope.
“I think of my Mexican roots, and the celebrations of the Day of the Dead, and how we have contemplated death as part of life,” she said.
“This is not a time for hopelessness or despair,” said panelist Maria Pilar Aquino, Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Diego. “Another world is possible. People around the world are no longer passive or indifferent. They have moved from survival to resistance.”
Day Two: September 21
The second day’s program focused on racism and the rising nativism in the U.S. as it’s shaping faith, culture, politics and economics. Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, James B. Duke Professor of Sociology at Duke University, presented the keynote. He described how “racialized emotions” against Latinx and all persons of color affect elections and public dialogue.
“Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Latinx people were not part of the community that would Make America Great Again,” he said. “Trump validates whites’ fears about the browning of America. He’s redirecting aggression against immigrants, who were falsely accused of being responsible for their economic hardships. But we can’t assume Trump supporters are prodigals beyond redemption.”
Responding to Bonilla-Silva’s address were panel members Bishop Minerva Garza Carcaño of the California-Nevada Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church; George Martinez, Immigration specialist and Professor of Law at SMU; and Neil Foley, historian and the Robert H. and Nancy Dedman Chair in History at SMU.
Trump did not come into power in a vacuum, Carcaño noted. Millions were deported during Obama years, and the treatment of migrant children has been substandard for years. “We have not been able to deal with our institutional racism as a society,” she said.
Foley described how nativism and racism have been part of the United States since its founding. “One of the first laws to pass was the 1790 Naturalization Act,” he said. “That said that the only people who could become American citizens were those who were free and white.”
Martinez sounded an alarm, noting laws like Arizona SB 1070 (the “papers please” immigration law, which also outlawed Mexican American studies there) specifically targeting Latinx people.
“I think some rational legal machinery is being put into place for some potentially very serious matters,” he said. “I want to make a plea for urgency.”
The event concluded with a worship celebration led by Marcell Steuernagel and Hal Recinos, Professor of Church and Society at Perkins, with Bishop Minerva Carcaño preaching. The service featured Latinx music, including “Tenemos Esperanza” (We have hope) the first worship piece written in the style of tango.
Bishop Carcaño’s message centered on Psalm 23, a passage often read at funerals.
“This Psalm was never about the end of life for we Christians,” she said. “It’s a mighty witness for a good and faithful shepherd. And no one is able to give faithful witness to this more than one who suffers.”
Carcaño shared the story of a woman who was lost in the desert while trying to migrate to the U.S., hungry and dying of thirst. At one point, when she was nearly unconscious, she found a bottle of water nestled in the sand. For this woman, Psalm 23’s promises are real.
“We may become discouraged by the hopelessness because of the present evil that is among us,” Carcaño said. “But God is faithful, and we should not despair.”
Read Hal Recinos’s poem “Rising”
Footnotes: 1. Aldredge-Clanton, J. (2019, September 23). The Art of Resilience: Latinx Public Witness in Troubled Times [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://jannaldredgeclanton.com/blog/?p=8560