Different Year, Same Story
Recently an emerging Latina leader posted this article in my Alma Mater’s Mosaic Bulletin (pg 14). Notice anything?
Seven years ago, this interview of me was posted in the Graduate Scrawl (student newspaper) at the same institution:
[Editors’ note: Sandra Van Opstal graduates in December with her MDiv. She has been recognized in numerous ways by students and faculty for her passion for worship and preaching in the context of multicultural fellowship and racial reconciliation, as well as for excellence in academics. Additionally, she was instrumental in founding Blacks and Latinos at Trinity and the Mosaic Formation Group. We believe her perspective on TEDS, theology, and the MDiv is important and prophetic.]
Tell us a bit about yourself. What are some facets of your story that have significantly shaped who you are today?
The first significant factor is growing up as a child of two immigrants from Latin America; the second has been my journey of faith. When I was very young, we moved from a mixed income Latino neighborhood in Chicago to an almost exclusively white Northwest suburb. I had to learn a new language and a whole new set of cultural norms. I also learned very quickly that to my neighbors, being Latino was undesirable. In order to excel in school and socially, I developed an identity for home, and another one for outside the home. This served me well for a time, but it all came crashing down when I heard urban practitioner Bob Lupton speak of the movement of people of color to the suburbs and how they were “unwelcomed intruders.” That day my heart was pierced and I began to weep. He had named the feeling I had been carrying, even into my experience at Trinity.
Having grown up in a very religious home, I had an understanding of who God was. In 1987, as a teenager, I made a life-altering step and professed Jesus as my Savior and was baptized. It wasn’t however until college that I understood that my choice had implications for my life. The Lord had shown me that living for him was, as Mark Labberton says, “a dangerous act of worship.” I left my dreams of being the next Gloria Estefan and joined ministry with InterVarsity.
You’ve been worship director for the Urbana team for two years now, all while being a student. First, tell us briefly what that entails and how you became involved with them; second, I’d be interested to hear how your MDiv coursework has influenced your involvement with Urbana and vice versa.
The Urbana Missions Convention, hosted by IV USA and IV Canada, is a triennial convention that exposes and invites students to global missions. In 2003, I auditioned and participated as a member of the worship team. In 2009, I was invited to be the Director of Worship for Urbana and had the privilege of training a team of worship leaders from across the country in theology and methodology of diverse worship. I accepted the invitation because I am passionate about global missions, worship and leadership development- this job was the intersection of the three. Two years later I find myself attracted to the role again for the same reasons, but with a keener ability to train my team and a goal of developing models of multiethnic worship that will help churches become more effective in reconciliation.
My coursework in church history, cultural anthropology, socio-cultural exegesis, worship, and biblical studies has been paramount to developing a theology of worship and a philosophy of multiethnic worship. I am currently working on a guided study with Dr. Roy, which I am hoping to develop into a book by the end of 2012.
As a woman of color, you have a unique and underrepresented perspective on the MDiv. Has this been challenging?
A mentor advised me to come to TEDS because he knew that I had a calling to influence suburban white evangelical churches in the area of reconciliation and justice. He encouraged me to consider that both the experience and credentials of TEDS would position me to have a more effective ministry. So, as a Latina, I intentionally came to TEDS to be surrounded by majority culture. I knew the academic rigor would prepare me to better reach the people God was calling me to serve. I can say with confidence that it was the best decision for me. I have enjoyed office hours with lively conversations, and moments of repentance and vulnerability with friends on opposite sides of an argument.
As a Latina, there is not one class, chapel, or extracurricular experience for me that is not cross-cultural. (It does something to your identity when a majority of the people on campus from your ethnic group are cleaning or serving food and not studying alongside of you.) I was pretty sure that I would be one of very few women, and the only Latino, in most of my classes. This was significant because I was not coming to the experience with the same set of assumptions as the majority of my classmates. I can remember leaving lectures and informal discussions over the years full of thoughts and frustrations.
I believe that to create a community that is inclusive of international and ethnic minority students, changes need to occur on an interpersonal and institutional level. We must create an environment and structure that declares, “Reconciliation and inclusivity is not nice; it’s necessary.” We will need to engage on new levels in relationships as well as create space for marginal voices in curriculum, faculty representation, and academic programs with intentional focus on developing global leaders that can engage all cultures with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Over the years, I often wondered if anyone would notice if those of us that were underrepresented left the seminary. I wondered if we would be missed. I wondered if we were needed. Was our presence in the classroom nice, or necessary?
While my experience at TEDS has been full of dissonance and venting commutes home, I have deeply appreciated the support of those professors who have encouraged me to speak up in class and challenge them with my perspective. They equipped me, inspired me, pushed me and cheered me on. These professors came to campus when on sabbatical to hear me preach in chapel. They created space for me to be fully me as I preached in lab- to bring all of my feminine Latina passion to the excellent exegetical work I had been taught. They opened their office doors to me when I was facing ministry crises. They cried in class and made me feel at home. They enhanced me instead of changing me. To them I can only say, “Muchisimas gracias!”
Let’s get a bit more specific – there are many who feel that Trinity’s MDiv can feel hostile to women of any color. Have you felt that way? If so, what would your advice be to someone with a similar background as yourself who finds herself struggling to make sense of the various challenges the program presents (aside from the usual challenges of things like papers and Hebrew exegesis)?
In reaction to some early experiences with peers, I committed to being at the top academically. I figured that only then would I earn the “right to speak” into the theological dissonance, and be heard as an equal in the classroom. Despite my good grades and over a decade of full-time ministry, I realized that there were going to be classmates who questioned the biblical integrity of my faith traditions.
It wasn’t until sharing my frustrations with a friend that he told me: “if you don’t speak up your presence in the classroom is a detriment to your peers and this institution. There will be a ‘perception’ of diversity at Trinity if the people who come from the margins (ethnically, culturally, and theologically) don’t challenge the majority views. It would better for you not to be here than to be here and not speak up.” He emboldened me to participate but even now when I speak up in class I count the cost of what I share and often I feel like I’ve exposed myself without any knowledge of how I was received.
My advice for women (and men) of color is to speak firmly, with all gentleness and respect, so that the education of our brothers and sisters is complimented by our presence. Share your perspective, even at the risk of personal cost. When you hear something off color (pun intended) in class, speak up. Confront your brothers and sisters in love that they may understand and repent. Be prophetic without being prickly.
Seven years have passed…. notice anything?
Trends that remain if you are a Latina in seminary:
- Every space – class, chapel, or extracurricular – will be a cross-cultural experience.
- Your stories need to be told so that “perceptions of diversity” can be challenged and transformed, but this will come at a personal cost.
- The experience of being a Latina in seminary is different than being White, Black, Asian or Native American. Because it is unique and because the lack of representation is so incredible, the pressure to assimilate is dominant.
To my fellow Latina seminarians: it may take seven more years, but our time is coming. Mañana.