First Person

Grappling with race as a white college chaplain

I can choose to be in situations where I feel uncomfortable. My students of color can't.

Every Sunday night, I lead a program for ten to 15 students. We eat dinner and discuss a topic of their choosing. The students mostly come from mainline Protestant backgrounds, as I do. I told myself that students of color weren’t coming because they didn’t know me yet and didn’t know that I was an ally. But I hadn’t reached out to them either. In fact, I felt insecure and awkward around them, aware of my white privilege and my ignorance of their reality. I wanted to find ways to connect, but also knew that doing so would lead me into unfamiliar territory. It was easier to believe that what I was offering was good enough, and if our students of color didn’t choose to participate, that was OK.

Then I got to know Jocelyn Velacquez. Jocelyn was referred to me by a professor because she was struggling to find her place as a Latina at our small, predominantly white school nestled in the cornfields of west central Illinois. Our relationship grew on a spring break trip to Washington, D.C., during which we discussed liberation theology and decided to read Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology together over the summer.

Mujerista theology developed out of Isasi-Diaz’s experiences as a Cuban-born Latina living in the States. For her, the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s was preoccupied with the experience of white Anglo women. She saw the need for a theological method that took seriously the religious understandings and practices of Latinas as a source for theology. Mujerista theology is more than a theory. It is itself a liberative praxis, a reflective action that empowers Latinas to be theologians themselves.