Renewal from the margins

September 6th, 2022

After finishing the book, The People Called Metodista: Renewing Doctrine, Worship, and Mission from the Margins, a persistent question keeps coming to mind: where are the margins? It is a question that calls us to interrogate our own position in the church and society, and it also invites us to both ask and remember how those margins were created. Edgardo Colón-Emeric envisions renewal as someone who has been both at the center and at the margins. As a Puerto Rican academic and pastor serving in a very Eurocentric denomination, he’s lived and worked in marginal spaces. Now he’s also a pastor who currently lives out his calling serving as the dean of Duke Divinity School—a central place in the theological academy. He has also served among marginalized congregations in Durham and the Methodist pastors of El Salvador, and even now he draws on these experiences in imagining a future for Methodism in both places.

Colón-Emeric identifies the margins with the social location of the people called “metodista,” the Latin American Methodist churches that have served God from places of disempowerment. 

I came to this book with great hope for renewing the Methodist movement from the Latinx margins, being a multiracial Latino pastor who half-time serves a rural, bilingual United Methodist congregation, and half-time as the North Carolina Annual Conference Director of Youth Ministry. 

In my work both with the local church and the annual conference, I have come to realize just how difficult it can be to speak words of renewal calling the church to learn from marginalized racial minorities. Those leading us toward such renewal often charge us to look at the church’s complicity with the forces of empire and the history of white supremacy in our culture. The struggle is that in doing so, we often find ourselves speaking to those who already understand and agree with such assessments. Edgardo Colón-Emeric, while naming many of the historic challenges of the church, also uplifts the virtues of learning from Brown Methodists more than exposing and denigrating the vices that keep them at the margins. His training as both a theologian and church leader allows him to take the same approach that many other Methodist scholars have by placing the life of John Wesley in conversation with a target group of people. 

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At a time when the global United Methodist Church is being rent asunder by schism, both sides would do well to pay attention to this book. The United Methodist Church in the United States, for most of its history, has been powerful and affluent, in comparison to other denominations. Listening to Latinx Methodists, who usually come from lower socioeconomic and disempowered communities, we are reminded that it was not to the religious elite that Jesus Christ chose to go, but to the margins. Colón-Emeric takes care to warn his readers against deifying poor or marginalized groups, while also reminding us of the particular ways in which all of our beliefs are uniquely held together in the Latinx experience.

In my own life, I have been formed by both conservative and progressive people, neither of which particularly liked the labels that had been placed on them. My conservative neighbors taught me to appreciate a relationship with Jesus Christ that means salvation for me personally, and my progressive neighbors taught me to appreciate how Jesus Christ means liberation for the oppressed around me. In this false dichotomy—one at play in the lives of many experiencing this schism—we hear a faint calling to unite this pair so long disjointed. Colón-Emeric talks about the lived soteriology of the metodistas: a practice of individual salvation that grew up amidst a people so often living under the threat of physical violence, oppression, or squalor, a belief in salvation that automatically overflowed into liberation.  

Colón-Emeric calls his readers to consider what evangelism and ecumenism have to do with liberation. Metodistas are not a monolith, but we can find many cultural distinctives interwoven in their narrative. The ecumenical heart that once beat so strongly in the Methodist movement remains alive in the metodistas who survive through partnership with others who have found faith in different traditions and practices. The book is organized into eight primary essays, and one of them deals with the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Central American Catholicism—a practice I would imagine with which most of my United Methodist siblings here in the United States are unfamiliar. And yet, in paying attention to such practices and how they inform the lives of those who call themselves “Methodist” in neighboring parts of the world, we can opportunities for renewal through ecumenical practice in our own places. In so many ways Colón-Emeric reminds us of how John Wesley who looked at the lives of Christians who should have been at odds with his own particular ‘brand,’ and he recognized in them God’s presence. 

At a time when so many churches are struggling just to go through the motions of worship, we are invited to consider worship’s telos, the vision of New Creation—that in the end, God will make all things new. Colón-Emeric points again to metodistas, people who have struggled so greatly and find purpose in the act of fiesta. Fiesta’s celebration is a declaration that we have something worth celebrating in our life together—even and especially when all evidence is to the contrary. This call to celebrate, even in the face of squalor, is one that my church answers every month with a bilingual dinner. On one hand, this church fits the categories we continually hear today—diminished, dying, disconnected—and yet these dinners are a space where we continually find that celebration brings a renewed anticipation for new creation.

The United Methodist Church is worth viewing not only through the culture of metodistas but also through the Spanish language itself. Colón-Emeric gives several examples of how renewal can come to the church through singing Methodist hymns in Spanish, finding words that describe both the internal experience of grace with external grace and justice seeking. 

The book describes the need for renewal in light of secularity’s great eclipse. Mentioning the sinful way in which Christianity was brought to the Americas by conquistadors and colonizers who carried both Bibles and swords, Colón-Emeric says that we as Christians on this continent have served God in light of an eclipse before. And even though he diagnoses the problem of secularity and the invitation towards renewal from the margins, it is beyond the scope of the book to wrestle with some of the more challenging possibilities of secularity.

The reality of a dwindling Christian church has many people vying for resources, exposing their essential materiality as a fundamental driving commitment. This is the point where Colón-Emeric speaks a final word about reconciliation. He reminds the reader that the New Testament word translated as “reconciliation” is a word related to reconnecting estranged spouses, and in that connection we find another challenging-yet-hopeful option for renewal. Going to the margins not only gives us a framework for connecting with Latinx Methodists and other marginalized Christians. It also gives us the framework for reconnecting with the other part of ourselves from whom we have been divorced.

As a pastor to a small congregation that went from full-time to half time when we began the arduous work of integration, this book gives me hope, and it gives me pause. It is meant as a call to renewal by learning from methodistas, but my own experience is proof of how deeply homogeneity lives in some of us. While the active members of the church I serve have committed themselves to the miracle of being “a church for everyone,“ we have also been more than decimated by the pain of people leaving because our focus on equity with Spanish-speaking church members was “too political.“

Readers of Colón-Emeric’s book will find great encouragement to learn from their Latinx Methodist sisters and brothers, and they should also be encouraged to seek this renewal as part of a larger effort. If they are a homogenous, English-speaking congregation, this lesson of renewal should be a part of the summons to anti-racist work, realizing the way that our salvation always comes through the actions of Jesus Christ at the margins. If readers of this book seek to implement its wisdom by becoming a multicultural, multilingual church, that work should likewise be done within a much longer process seeking to empower the voices of those coming from the margins.

I believe that anybody looking at the church’s place in the United States—whether Methodist or otherwise—could readily name our need for renewal like a desert wanderer needs water. Those tired of reading books that lament the problems will find hope in this summons to such a renewal, along with clear visions of where such renewing resources can be found and enacted. Whether or not the leadership and systems of the United States Methodist churches are able to implement renewal from the methodista witness, we can at least take encouragement from the dream and vision of the possibility of such renewal. In doing so, may we live life in the subjunctive, in the voice of possibility: “Ojalá,“ “If God wills it.“

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