Drawing the Circle Wider

04/10/2015 01:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

For two weeks I was immersed in culture, community, and academia. The Hispanic Summer Program was an invaluable experience that affirmed, challenged, and stretched me in ways that I never imagined. Out of the 60 or so students in attendance, I was the only student representing Yale University at the Oblate School of Theology. The aim of the program seeks to train leaders for the work of ministry.

Out of a laundry list of theological courses offered, I chose to take worship and liturgy. I found this to be an extremely valuable course that has added much to my spiritual growth and development. This course was particularly fascinating as it presented an opportunity to promote unity and collaboration among ethic and non-ethnic persons, and benevolently challenged us to see and appreciate a diversity of worship styles. I focused my work on creating a prison-focused liturgy for primarily black and brown men who are impacted, exploited, and siphoned into the prison system.

I experienced the program as a chance to study theology outside of my social context. In a global and diverse world we cannot afford to overlook or underestimate unrepresented groups and their endless contributions to theological education. I learned that theological education is not singularly-focused, but rather unchained in its reach and scope. It has taught me to read widely and to engage the biblical text with a different set of lenses. It also encouraged me to bring my own voice to the conversation around theological discourse and inquiry. All too often we have been given a standard narrative account of the sacred text from the perspective of those whom consider themselves experts in hermeneutics and exegesis; and have not left much room for other interpretations.

On a different note, however, I would like to point towards the changing demographics in U.S. churches as another important reason for Yale students, and any other seminary student for that matter, to participate in the Hispanic Summer Program. The Latino church is growing, and racial, cultural and ethnic diversity within the life of the church is increasing. As future pastors, ministers and counselors it is important to be committed to making the 21st century church open and hospitable to a wide range of diversity challenges.

The program helped expand my network of colleagues who are interested in addressing racial injustice in the U.S. penal system and has fueled my continued study of issues of mass incarceration with a reading course at Yale Divinity School. In fact, a few years ago, I worked alongside another Yale Divinity School student, M. Kendrix, to bring Dr. Michelle Alexander to campus to discuss her book, The New Jim Crow in the age of Colorblindness. Much of Dr. Alexander's work undergirds my research around this very important human rights issue. This past year, I have been in more dialogue with professors, activists, legislative bodies, and community leaders on ways to improve our (in) justice system.

So, it was deeply enriching to engage and ground this complex issue in the realms of the church, by crafting a liturgy that spoke to these complex challenges faced in minority communities. I think there is value to having a liturgy that represents various cultures, even if the congregation is more or less mono-cultural. I think it creates space for multiple modes of intelligences' and theologies to speak. In other words, at the very least, I think this opens us up to different perspectives and liturgical world-views other than our own.

Each day I and four other seminarians were responsible for leading the worship service. With many faces, languages, heritages, and experiences, we gathered as one ecumenical community to praise and worship God. This experience was truly a celebration--a celebration and an invitation to share faith stories, testimonies, gifts, and God-given talents. It was an open space that promoted harmony over uniformity and Christological assimilation. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was in an environment that fully embraced my ecclesiastic culture and readily identified with my theological convictions. In other words, though we are people of difference, we are also people of particularity.

Our collective experiences assist in grounding our world views. It's precisely these experiences that helps to stretch our imagination beyond our own limitations, and inspires us to draw the circle wider--to journey outside of our social context and place of comfort--into the wandering lands of our neighbors, and to dream and long for a church with borderless boarders--one that extends radical hospitality to both friend and stranger.