Faith at the Tipping Point

Ada María Isasi-Díaz is a leading voice of mujerista theology, a liberation theology rooted in the everyday experience of Latinas. As her foundational 1996 book Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century puts it, her work aims at creating “a public voice for Latinas and capturing a political space for that voice,” including in academic theology. Isasi-Díaz is professor emerita of ethics and theology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Sojourners associate editor Elizabeth Palmberg interviewed her in November at the Call to Action conference in Milwaukee.

Elizabeth Palmberg: The U.S. will soon reach a demographic tipping point at which no ethnic group is in the majority. What challenges and opportunities do you see this presenting to Latina spirituality, and to the nation as a whole?

Ada María Isasi-Díaz: We’re either going to have a radical change in perspective or continue to have enormous inequality and ill-treatment of people whom we see as “other”—who don’t look like those in power, are not white, and so forth. The tipping point means that the hour of reckoning is coming. One of the things we need to work on is: How do we change? How do we understand differences?

We have always equated differences with incompatibility, but that’s not true. Many differences are not incompatible. That’s the kind of work that we need to demand of our leaders—church leaders, political leaders. We need to talk about differences; we can’t just sweep them under the rug. Differences do not have to divide us; they can enrich us.

We have never realized the terrible loss it was for us in this country that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; that César Chávez died too young. We lost leaders who could have taken us in another direction, who could have turned civil rights into a much deeper reality impacting our culture, our spirituality, our religion. Unfortunately, other leaders have not arisen to help us deal with differences in a constructive way.

In your work, you’ve emphasized the importance of solidarity on many levels. What theological insights do you have about how the U.S. as a community, and as a government, is treating immigrants?

I don’t know that it’s a theological insight. In moral theology and in ethics we capitalize on what are “human values,” and then we look at it from our Christian perspective. I’m not claiming that these are only religious values; I see solidarity as a human value.

One reason solidarity is all the more relevant is that now we live in this globalized world. When we talk about globalization, we always talk about money, capital, crossing borders back and forth. We never stop to look at the people who make globalization possible: the immigrants from all over the world who constantly cross borders back and forth.

In January 2011, I was in Africa. I talked to some Africans who had gone to Europe, were able to get legal documents in Europe, but then were having a hard time coming back to their countries. Their countries don’t want them back because they want to get rid of more people. The fact that we have ignored the immigration issue as an element intrinsic to globalization is very important.

What about in the United States?

Here in the U.S., there’s enormous ignorance of the whole issue, particularly of Mexican immigration. Very few people have ever heard that initially there was a guest worker program early in the 20th century, the bracero program, which brought Mexicans to the U.S. and treated them terribly—slave conditions. When there was no more use for them, they said, “We don’t want you any longer.”

Today Washington state, for example, is having enormous problems because it needs 10,000 people to pick apples, and there are few people in the United States willing to do that work. Recently, they were trying to have a new guest worker program. At the same time you have Alabama passing this terrible law against immigrants.

The lack of awareness of the movement of peoples around the world is disgraceful. For me, to work on getting people to know the history behind Mexican immigration is extremely important.

Do we know the history behind immigration from Central America? How is the United States, for example, responsible for it because of the contra war and what that meant in Nicaragua? How is the United States responsible because of the war the U.S. supported in El Salvador, and then NAFTA, and other treaties like NAFTA, that leave people no work in the countryside? There’s just a lot of ignorance of the reasons behind why people have to come here.

Since mujerista theology begins from personal experience, can you describe a moment in your own life that helped form your work as a theologian?

I spent three years in the late ’60s in Peru as a missionary. Those were the most formative years in my life. I worked in a very poor area of Lima, and it was there that I had the enormous grace—I cannot call it anything else—of beginning to understand the importance for the people, in their daily struggle, of their religion. I went there with the old missionary idea of “I’m going to teach them about Jesus.” With the help of those who were involved in the beginnings of liberation theology, I came to realize that the poor were the ones who had so much to teach me.

I spent the three years there listening. It was then that I came to realize that theology is not just explaining church teaching and what the gospels say. No, theology has to start by reflecting on the religious understanding and practices of the grassroots people. What does having faith mean for them? Who is God for them? How do they understand Jesus?

That was very early on. For a while I did not work on theology or in the church, but when I came back to do theology, Yolanda Tarango, the co-author on my first book, asked me, “Well, how are we going to do it?” I said, “Let’s just gather the women and let them talk to us about who is God for them.” And that’s what we did. We spent weekends listening to them to come to an understanding of who and what the divine is for them—how God operates in their lives.

That’s what I consider the kernel of mujerista theology—that method of listening to the religious understandings and practices of the women and using that as the source. It came from this enormous gift that was given me when I was in Lima when I was young, and that has remained with me all my life.

And you are writing a new book?

Yes, for the book I’m writing now, I’ve been talking with grassroots Latinas. You cannot imagine—it’s such a joy! I spend about two hours with each of them, then I take a bus and the subway back home. I do so with this deep feeling of being blessed by all that they have shared with me and how they have entrusted their story to me.

I remember, growing up in the very traditional, pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, the priest would take the consecrated host and put it in the monstrance [a vessel used to display the Eucharist] and place it on the altar for adoration—that’s how I feel after I meet with the women. It’s as if I can touch God in a very special way. One day a woman shared her story with me and I thought, “I’m like a monstrance carrying her story in me.” That for me was just immense grace.

Is there a particular insight you’ve gained in these interviews?

As researchers, we usually come with our questions. If I ask the women, “What do you think about justice?” they look at me blankly. So instead I ask them to tell me a little bit about their lives. I ask them, do you think what happened to you or what you did was fair? Now, that’s language they understand. They’ll answer—and I gain insight into what they think justice is about.

For this project, I’ve been asking them a particular question: “Do you think life has been fair to you?” It is amazing to me that women who have had very difficult lives say, “Yeah, life’s been pretty fair.” I say to myself, “How can you say life has been fair given all that you have suffered and endured?” But they always say things such as, “Well, I know a lot of people who have it worse than I do, or have gone through more difficulties.”

Theologically, this has been a very important insight to me. They don’t see themselves as victims. All of this theology of suffering—I’ve never agreed with it. I’m not saying that suffering is not there, but that’s not where they draw their strength. They’ll say, “You know, I’m suffering because of my son.” But if you ask them, they see their lives as la lucha, as a struggle, precisely against suffering. They are not passive victims. They create meaning for their lives, no matter how terrible the circumstances are that they face.

And la lucha is connected with solidarity?

In my understanding of solidarity and compassion, it’s not in any way about what I do or what I give others. It’s the interconnections we create with other, how we support each other.

For an article on Christology in my book La Lucha Continues, I interviewed Latinas. I learned that they don’t see God as the “magic God” who makes things happen. No. They see God as walking with them. God sustains them en la lucha, in the everyday struggle. That’s who God is for them. That is what Christ means. Jesus is with them, sustains them. Not that Jesus solves their problems or anything like that.

All my insights come from talking with grassroots Latinas. Some people do not take my work very seriously. They think it’s more like ethnography and sociology than theology, but you know what? If I, with my theological work, can validate how these women live their religion, then I will consider my work to have been worthwhile.

When Latinas say to me “Ojalá” [“God willing”], it’s not just a phrase: It’s their reality. They live in the sense that the divine is with them and helps them and moves them. Those experiences are always a blessing for me. I also like to do research in the library, but nothing compares to talking with the women.

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