Ada María Isasi-Díaz, con Dios

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Ada María Isasi-Díaz and my co-pastor, Esther Vazquez

It is literally impossible to overstate the impact Ada María Isasi-Díaz had on my life and my theologizing. This post won’t do justice to that enormity. But I want to express my respect in whatever way I can. I am grieved to hear she has passed away, and yet, so thankful for the gift of her life.

In 1997, along with two other women — Marcia Stoesz and Esther Martinez [now Vazquez] — I was beginning a Bible study. We were part of a larger group of Mennonites who were dreaming of and working towards a new church, one that would begin with an anti-racist and multicultural identity, as an expression of our sense of calling and faithful discipleship. This larger group, made up of representatives of Spanish- and English-speaking Mennonite churches in north Texas, attempted without success to call a church planter to help us start this new church. Weary of waiting, Marcia, Esther and I sat down to pray and study the Bible together, hoping for a miracle from our mustard seed. We did get miracles; not the ones we expected; but we did get them. The first one, in my opinion, was finding the work of Ada María Isasi-Díaz.

Marcia and I did not want to be in charge of the Bible study; we thought that would be racist. Esther did not want to be in charge of the Bible study; she thought she did not have enough knowledge or experience. (We all had sooo much to learn; and we did. Some things ….) As we talked through our fears and dilemmas, I followed my usual approach when there was something I wanted to learn. I went looking for a book. Preferably one that would talk about reading the Bible from a Latina’s perspective.

What I found was Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s Mujerista Theology, and — to make a long story a little shorter — the chapter in it titled “Solidarity for the 21st Century.” Here we found wisdom for the road ahead, wisdom we turned to over and over as we struggled to create just community together, without enough time, money, space, people, or understanding.

For me, among many many enlightening lessons, the seminal point that punctured my heart then and continues to challenge me now is this one, about the nature and goal of solidarity love:

From a Christian perspective the goal of solidarity is to participate in the ongoing process of liberation through which we Christians become a significantly positive force in the unfolding of the “kin-dom” of God. At the center of the unfolding of the kin-dom is the salvific act of God. Salvation and liberation are interconnected. Salvation is gratuitously given by God; it flows from the very essence of God: love. … Our participation in the act of salvation is what we refer to as liberation. It consists of our work to transform the world. Liberation is both cause and effect of the struggle to have a love relationship with others, including God. (Mujerista Theology, 89-90)

The longer I reflected on these words, and tried (and failed and tried again and again) to live into them, the more these words expanded: into a philosophical tool for thinking with, into a doorway to myriad other scholars and theologians, into an ethic for living.

The tale of that journey is too long to tell here … but I do want to share one other story. Along the way, I began working on a doctorate in theology, and Ada accepted my invitation to serve as my external reader. I will say in all honesty that she and I did not see eye to eye. Despite my admiration for her and deep commitment to the ideas and ideals and praxis she had laid out, I was always wanting in her eyes. That hurt … but reader, hear me loud and clear: it was an honor to try to understand, and to try to learn from her, and even when she called me out and chewed me out in my dissertation defense and after a panel I spoke on at AAR, I still counted it a grace that she was taking me seriously enough to critique.

So, here’s the one last story. In one of our face to face conversations, she issued a direct challenge. I heard her loud and clear. I put the words in my heart, in my dissertation, and they are in the book that Palgrave MacMillan will publish someday this year. It’s titled Constructing Solidarity, and the whole book will be a paean to the woman who offered its challenge and its inspiration, whose hard-won wisdom inspired the work of the church Esther and I eventually co-pastored, The Church of Many Peoples. Let me share with you the message she gave me that day:

It is not theoretically valid from the perspective of liberation theology/philosophy to construct your argument mainly around what you can do for the oppressed. The moral agency of the oppressed in the process of our liberation is very key. For me, if you work at dismantling white racism because it is important for your own liberation … that would be an enormous contribution. We are always struggling to find ways of convincing those in power to understand that oppressing others is not in their best interest.

I’m still struggling, Profesora, for my own liberation, and to be an ally. Thank you that you challenged me all the way. Thank you for your words that challenge me still.

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