Tuesday, January 12, 2010

35 Harder to Breathe

I transitioned into my junior year of college and had to participate in a theology department right of passage: an externship (why it was called that I do not understand). The pressure as one of the few Spanish speaking theology majors was to do the externship with one of the local Spanish churches. I actually ended up with two churches, the St. Helena Spanish Church and the Napa one because these churches shared a pastor.

The vast majority of the externs were assigned to one of the local churches that had a full time assigned preacher and several elders. They got to learn a lot but often got to speak once or maybe twice during their entire year there. Because the pastor at my church alternated between the two, I got to speak between these churches almost every other weekend (I was at the opposite church that he was at typically). The churches were radically different; St. Helena was an older very traditional church dwindling in members and content to just have a place to worship week after week while the Napa church had far more youth and energy, a spirit of evangelism and vitality. I suspect that part of the reason that these churches were so different was actually fairly simple to explain. The St. Helena church was by and large composed of people who were associated with PUC, people who worked in the Adventist system and were inundated and were really looking mostly to worship in the language their heart spoke, Spanish. The Napa congregation lived in the real world, among people of various faiths if any at all and did not live in a town like Angwin where everything shut down for the Sabbath. Their faith was more alive the same reason healthy people are, because it had to exercise more, had to be fed with a better diet to sustain challenges of the real world.

The year at South Bay had changed many of my perspectives but I possessed the same fault then that I do now: since I had a position now even if I had previously believed the opposite, it was always right. Too infrequently in my life, have I had the grace to realize that perhaps different perspectives are both valid and necessary. No, in my view, there had to be a better way and a better truth. This isn’t to say that I didn’t try to validate the beliefs of my parishioners. Invoking my mother’s conservativeness, I tried to be what a good conservative pastor ought to be. I tried to dress the part (even to the point of taking off my wedding band when I was around church members since conservative Adventists have a problem with jewelry ), speak the part (my sermons still had some edge to them but it was edge about social justice and getting up and doing something, not about some theological premises I disagreed with) and at some level be the part. I hoped to convert Shannon into this cooking, cleaning Hispanic domestic woman like my mother had been. I over embellished (but truly believed) that her meals and her keeping the house in order were both spectacular and a great source of joy in her life. She was 20 years old at the time and still trying to figure out this marriage and this pastor’s wife thing and in her low key low maintenance way going along with the flow because she’s never been the type to fight battles that aren’t worth fighting (that’s my specialty).

Anyway, trying to pretend to be someone else in order to placate your parishioners and to make your mother proud may work for many but someone who has a persona and personality as strong as mine, it was wearing me down. I can’t tell you that I realized it at the time and it may well not have been until I was writing this that I became aware of it or rewrote it into history but it was chipping away at me. There is a principle in psychology that says that if your actions contradict your thoughts, you are far more likely to change your thoughts than your actions. I guess I was hoping that I could fake it until I make it but what had worked at least a few other times was not working.

On the days I’m most honest it wasn’t simply the fact that I’d gotten past some of the conservative Adventist cultural values. I’d gotten past many of the Hispanic ones themselves. Shannon both then and now was very interested in learning more about my Mexican culture, improving her Spanish and being tuned to this part of me but it didn’t happen. The student organization of Latinos kept trying to recruit me to be a bigger part of their organization but I never petered out. My rationale was that these guys were almost exclusively children of immigrants, not actual immigrants like myself. I had up until then refused to become a US citizen and did for several years after that wanting to maintain my “Mexican identity” but the truth was that I was not from the US because I had not integrated myself well into it but I was also not from Mexico because I’d left.

This was all well and good when I was the pastor’s assistant, the student doing the extern program but then something happened midyear. The pastor I was working under, Pastor Dena, was hired as a conference official. The churches decided in the interim of finding a new pastor, they would “hire” me. They began to pay me a modest student salary and suddenly I was now “the pastor.” Interestingly enough, several of the church members around that time went from calling me Iram to calling me pastor, a notable few refusing to going back to calling me Iram even after I asked them to. The title I’d craved my entire life was actually incredibly intimidating to carry. Hispanic culture has a tradition on turning to titles and positions for authority rather than experience. The fact that I was now the pastor made people ask for my opinion and follow it more precisely than they ever had.

I was trying to pretend to be a conservative, traditional Hispanic Adventist minister and I was missing on key points but not admitting it to anyone including myself. I was struggling with a sense of idenity. The frustrations of the classroom and this were really weighing me down but like an athlete who is tearing down a muscle, I would not allow my mind to allow the fact that there was an injury developing which by use was getting worse.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t great moments during that time. People asked me to be part of their weddings, to help out with funerals, to dedicate children. I again took the approach that I had in South Bay of visiting people in their homes and their jobs and finding out about them. The stories of their immigrating into this foreign land from all over Latin America and finding a way to succeed in this country. I echoed their stories but they were better connected to where they had left than I had perhaps ever been. They were receptive to me and like the South Bay church, they liked me in their own way. They welcomed me into their homes and gave me advice on life and marriage and listened to my views on the Bible. Many took notes during my sermons and several asked for copies on tape or cd because they said that was the message they needed that day (I’m flattered that some of the sermons I wrote the are still used to teach students at PUC to preach)

One of the church board members at that time allegedly started having an affair. She was single and he was one of the church deacons and relatively recently married. This came up during a meeting of the disciplinary board and more than a few of the board members wanted to have their names removed from church membership, excommunicated if you will. This doesn’t have that often but it does occur. I fought it with every ounce of my vigor and argued that perhaps it was appropriate to remove them from church leadership but that we were not going to make this a spectacle. It was a relief to have that view prevail and showed me that grace had really become my method of operation when push came to shove. The people I had the most problem with were those who came across as legalistic. It really tore my mind then because I still wanted to be all things to all people and wanted every church member to like me. I would pace my living room floor at home and tell Shannon that I would find a way to both work with them and make progress with them. The belief that all people could be improved on by the grace of God and with some help from a good pastor made me try to work very hard with people but I was not recognizing that someone else wanting them to change would not be enough impetus.

Nonetheless, pretending to be someone else at my church, arguing with the theology majors, not having enough outlets for my energy, trying to change people who felt no need for change was wearing me out. It got to where for the last couple of months of my junior year and the beginning of the summer, almost every single Sabbath, I went into the men’s bathroom, locked myself in a stall, collapsed onto the floor and just started breathing deeply in and out to get my composure. The longer I did that the harder each week got.

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