Throughout our lives Gracie and I have been struck by the enormous divide between the educated, and the poor and excluded– even within the church. A wealth of learning and valuable skills are held beyond the grasp of masses of impoverished people, unless deliberate efforts are made to effectively bridge these separations.
Last November I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion in Denver. Though a Bible scholar by training, I felt out of place among the thousands of scholars– most of them professors in universities or seminaries. Encounters with some of the scholars eased some of my discomfort.
I perused the book tables of all the major theology and biblical studies publishers, checking out new commentaries and books of interest. I made my way to many seminars on specialized topics, listening for new insights on familiar or not-so-familiar texts. I felt like a metal detector, hoping to come upon some buried treasure in the various seminar rooms. I was listening hard for good news, but struggled to hear it, though I barely scratched the surface as there were hundreds of options each day to choose from.
One evening I attended a reception hosted by the Hispanic Theological Initiative, an organization that supports Latinx students and scholars. The ballroom was full of mostly well-dressed people, name badges identifying them and their institutions. Food and deserts were plentiful and wine and beer were in abundance. A woman began speaking from a microphone at the front, warmly welcoming everyone to the reception. It was a festive occasion.
The woman at the front then invited people to give their applause as she showed photos on a big screen of PhD students who had been awarded their degrees, followed by those who had become assistant professors, or moved from assistant professor to associate professor, or associate professor to professor, or become deans or presidents. She invited these people forward, and everyone clapped and cheered. It was a beautiful show of support.
I appreciate their mission statement to: “Increase the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of Latinx PhD students across the nation by uniting and leveraging institutional resources (human, financial, and infrastructural)… and to “Increase the presence of Latinx leaders and faculty–especially, tenured faculty in seminaries, schools of theology, and universities.” Yet I couldn’t help but also feel overwhelmed with emotion as I found myself struck by the huge contrast between those celebrated and the people I serve here in the Skagit Valley.
I thought of the six or seven Mexican and Chicano inmates I visit in our local jail, most of whom are facing being “retained” by the prison system, and experiencing forced “graduations” from jail to years in prison. They are locked down 22-23 hours per day due to staff shortages. Once in prison they will join the millions of warehoused individuals, who have minimal opportunities for training of any kind in our increasingly cash-strapped and staff-lean mass-incarceration system.
After serving time, many will then be sent off to immigration detention, and they will eventually be deported to their countries of origin. Others will be released, deep in debt, often disconnected from family to the point of being homeless, with labels like “felon” and “ex-con” next to their name, blocking their future.
I thought of the farmworker families attending Tierra Nueva who go from the strawberry and blueberry fields in the summer months to pruning blueberry and raspberry plants and working the tulip fields during the cold winter months– never getting raises or promotions or congratulations.
The gap between what I experienced at the SBL/AAR annual meeting and the people we serve is immense. And the academic language I heard spoken as people read their scholarly papers would be completely unintelligible to most of the people we serve, as well as the world’s population. I lament the growing gap between the masses of men and women in our jails, prisons, homeless encampments, fields and factories– and the small elite of academic theologians and Bible scholars and their students.
As I stood near the back of the ball room considering these things, I suddenly noticed LED flameless candles flickering at the base of what turned out to be a memorial to Latinx theology professionals who had passed away. I approached the memorial and looked at the photos of the faces of person after person who had died, with their birth and death dates. I noticed that many had not lived long lives. Had they died of Covid? Cancer? In a car accident? There were no causes of death mentioned.
As I looked at face after face and read their names I was moved with emotion at all these lives cut short. I thought of my own mortality, and remembered a Scripture I often consider from Psalm 90:12 “So teach us to number our days, That we may present to you a heart of wisdom.”
I think of my own calling to bridge this divide– bringing the best biblical scholarship I can to the poor and excluded. I wonder how I can more effectively reduce this gap in the years of my life that remain.
We want to expand the offering of our Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins to pastors and leaders serving excluded populations all over the world.
For years I have felt called to launch a prisoner pastoral ministry training program, and have since completed a five-volume Guerrilla Bible Studies series that includes 52 tried-and-tested discipleship Bible studies can be used as part of this training.
There, in Denver I met a woman named Sara who has since helped us launch a Certificate in Reading the Bible for Liberation through The People’s Seminary. We now have a distance-learning program in which a number of prisoners are currently enrolled.
I am moved by how Jesus himself shows God’s heart to reach the masses, as he went “around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him” (Lk 8:1).
Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw the crowds, who “were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Mt 9:36-38).
Recruitment and training of these workers is urgently needed now, and like God who sends his best to the least, may we follow suit in whatever ways we are able.