For our 100th episode, we talk with Bishop Minerva Carcaño. Not only is she the current bishop of the San Francisco Episcopal Area, she is the first Hispanic woman appointed as a district superintendent in the continental United States and the first Hispanic female ever elected bishop. She is a leader in social justice ministries, probably best known for her long history of committed involvement in ministries with immigrants and refugees, the poor and communities on the US/Mexico border.
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And unknown to her until we spoke, she was the inspiration for these “Meet a Bishop” episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape.
It is a joy and honor to share our conversation with Bishop Minerva Carcaño.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño
- Bishop Carcaño serves the California-Nevada Conference.
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This episode posted on September 30, 2021.
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Prologue to episode 100
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to the 100th episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
For this 100th episode I got to talk to someone I’ve wanted to meet for some time, Bishop Minerva Carcaño. Not only is she the current bishop of the San Francisco Area, she’s also the first Hispanic woman appointed as a district superintendent in the United States and the first Hispanic female ever elected bishop. She’s a leader in social justice ministries and probably best known for her long history of committed involvement in ministries to immigrants and refugees, the poor in communities on the U.S.-Mexican border.
And, unknown to her until we spoke, she was the inspiration for these ‘Meet a Bishop’ episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape.
So it is a joy and an honor for me to get to share my conversation with Bishop Minerva Carcaño.
Joe: Bishop Carcaño, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño: Thank you. It’s great to be here with you.
Joe: It’s an honor to get to talk to you.
I read in your bishop’s bio, that you were born in Edinburg, Texas. I hope I’m pronouncing that right. …which is in the southernmost tip of Texas. What was it like growing up there?
Bishop Carcaño: It was wonderful. I grew up on a small family farm, extended family all living together on this small piece of land, cheap land. It was cheap because it was right next to the cemetery. And in fact to this day is still registered as cemetery settlement. So lots of stories about what it’s like to live next to a cemetery. But even more stories about how wonderful it is to live next to one’s family, extended family—grandparents, granddads and uncles, cousins. Just being together is just such a great memory.
I grew up in a small town. I went to the Hispanic, Latino, Spanish-speaking Methodist Church in town. There were two, one on each side of town. And I went to El Buen Pastor Methodist Church. And that was extended family as well. And so I have such great memories. We grew up in poverty and struggles, but there was never a sense of being poor. There wasn’t a sense of being burdened. Even when we worked hard in the fields it was a sense of joy and gratitude. Every morning gratitude to God for the new day and what would come in the new day and experiencing God’s mercy.
These were faithful people, not only my family members, but our church members. I grew up feeling very protected and very safe because of the deep faith that they shared with me and all of us.
Those who shape our faith (3:00)
Joe: Are there individual people that come to mind that were especially influential in your faith journey and in your journey growing up?
Bishop Carcaño: Sure. Very much so. My Grandmother Sofia. She was the matriarch of this large extended family. She had come from Mexico before there were the very pronounced immigration laws that we experience today. She and her family just came across the Rio Grande River in search of work and in search of life.
She married my grandfather, Raphael, who grew up right on the Rio Grande River, right on the edge of that. There’s many stories about his life and their life together. But she became the first Methodist, she and her sister Soilla. They had grown up in a little village in Mexico where it was so small that it was named for their family, Villa Los Cantu. She was a Cantu. It was that small. There was a small Catholic chapel in town. The priest came, she would say, twice a year to make sure everyone was well, to baptize and to marry and to bless the tombs of the places of rest of those who had died since he had last come.
But my grandmother would share that she had grown up with this yearning to know more about God and it was in south Texas in Edinburg where a brand new Methodist mission in the early 1900s, a brand new Methodist mission arose. She became aware of that mission through a layperson who walked the distance to the sharecropper farm where my grandparents’ extended family and friends lived and worked, and came to share the good news with them.
She certainly continues to this day to be a great influence. I can still hear her voice. There are many, many mesquite trees in south Texas. And one day this layman asked the people that he’d been in relationship with, sharing his witness with, if they wanted to gather for worship on a Sunday afternoon. They immediately said yes and then realized that logistically there wasn’t a place for them to gather. These were small homes on the sharecropper farm. But one of them said, we gather under the branches of the mesquite trees. So why don’t we gather there? We can worship God there, and they did.
My grandmother, to her last day, would say it was under the branches of the mesquite trees that I experienced God as I’d never experienced God. And it was in the singing of the hymns of faith that I heard Jesus calling, even calling me by name. It became my faith, as she would share it with me as a very little girl.
We can do all things (5:54)
My mother, her only daughter in the family of 9, was very much like my grandmother. In the cotton fields one day she said to me, We can do all things…all things, as I was struggling in the cotton fields, as a junior higher, picking cotton thinking this field is going to consume me. My mother, coming up after she’d picked her row and my row, and saying to me, We can do all things in Christ who sustains us. In that moment I felt the presence of God. I felt as if God had come down through my mother and sheltered me from the heat of the field and had healed my sense of brokenness as a little girl. I believed incredible women of faith.
But I remember also lay people from my church, devoted Sunday school teachers, one of whom was my junior high principal. And I always rejoiced in seeing him on Sunday and then seeing him during the week at school. There was a bond there because of that.
Incredible pastors who gave witness to our lives not only through words, but through deeds. I remember Reverend Jose Galindo who came at a very formative time in my life when I was 12, 13 and on into my high school years, who not only preached the prophetic word of God, but lived it.
I remember being so tired one day sitting on that third pew with my grandmother after having picked cotton all week and just being exhausted and falling asleep. Just falling asleep, and my grandmother taking pity on me and letting me sleep. Then suddenly I was awoken by these words that just brought me out of deep sleep. It was our pastor, Reverend Garlindo, saying, “God sees you in the fields. God knows you are suffering. He hears your cries. And God is attending to you. God is wrestling with those who oppress you, who pay you just a pittance. And God is with you.” I remember waking up and thinking, I want to know more about this God.
Then during the week to see him in our newspaper advocating for the rights of those of us who worked in the fields, those of us who were classified as the lowest of the lowest in this class system, in our educational system, simply because we were people of color, kids of color, challenging that assumption that because we were brown or black that we were not as smart as the other kids and deserved to be in the lower ranks.
So I remember faithful pastors, faithful lay people. I remember my mother, my grandmother.
I also remember my father. And my father was not the faith-bearer in our family. It was my mother. It was my grandmother. But my father opened my eyes to another aspect of God’s world. He was the one who introduced me to union organizing.
He worked for the International Paper Company. He introduced me to the fledgling union at his work, that he was a part of starting. He introduced me to United Farm Workers. And through that told me, these are people in need of God’s love, these are people who gather not out of defiance, but seeking justice. So, he also helped me along the way.
I remember when he had to leave home because he’d lost his job and couldn’t find work. He moved to California, interestingly enough, where I am now. And I was young and I remember him inviting my mother and me into my parents’ bedroom and asking me—me of all people, this little girl—to pray for him. I remember saying, “I don’t know how to pray. I can’t do it.” And he said, “God’s Spirit is in you.” And so I did pray, stumbled over the words. My mother picked it up. But it stirred within my heart a sense that maybe God’s spirit was within me as well.
A call to live in God’s house (10:37)
Joe: In those stories there are so many seeds of your ministry that I hear. Let’s just begin with that last piece. Was that the beginning of a sense of a call to ministry, do you think? Or how did you come to understand your call to ministry?
Bishop Carcaño: Actually, it came much earlier. It came under my father’s care as well.
I have always loved going to church, didn’t matter what it was. Could be an administrative board meeting or the United Methodist Women meeting, whatever. I loved going to church from a young as I can remember. And when I was about 5 my father, who took on tasks at the church…. He felt that that was his leadership role. He had no formal education. And he felt like he couldn’t serve on any board or committee with any ability to contribute. So he took on tasks.
He took on the task of replacing the vinyl flooring on the kindergarten classroom—my sister Betty and my classroom at that time. I begged him to let me go with him. I just begged him. My mother convinced him to let me go with him. And so I went with him and helped him as much as I could as a 5-year-old. I remember. I remember the room. I remember the building that was the old wood frame building of our church. Our church had built a newer building. And it was the old building and it was educational wing. And I remember playing with the cracks, the grooves in the vinyl trying to find treasure. And I think I found a little ring in the midst of doing that. And then when my father had gotten it loose from the floor I remember helping him push it, roll it over in all its cracked state, over to the wall. He had bought a new vinyl flooring and it was leaning against the corner of that little kindergarten Sunday school room. I can still smell it. I can still see it. It was yellow, my favorite color.
I remember my father saying that he needed something, a hammer, a tool, to replace this vinyl flooring and asked me just to sit and stay and he would be right back, and invited me to sit between the old vinyl and the new vinyl. I sat, loving just being there. I could hear my father’s footsteps as he left that little building. And the moment, the instant I ceased hearing his footsteps I felt this presence in that room. It did not frighten me. It felt like a loving presence. It felt like a good presence. And I felt it. I remember looking for it. And I remember sitting back and just waiting for it, waiting for it. And then feeling this presence lean ever so gently down and embrace me. And I remember feeling this incredible joy in my heart. I remember smiling. I remember giggling a little bit. And then my father came into the room. And I remember thinking all the way home that afternoon that I wanted to forever…forever…live in God’s house.
That started me on the journey of trying to figure out, as a little girl, then as I went on to elementary school and junior high and finally high school, figuring out how do I do it so that I can live in God’s house because of the joy, the love that I’d experienced that afternoon. And so now in retrospect I believe that was my call to ministry. And I just needed to wait upon the Lord to give it shape.
Joe: What a beautiful memory! What a beautiful memory!
Faith & justice (14:39)
The other piece I heard in there earlier, was a connection between your faith journey and justice issues. Right? That faith wasn’t something that was on Sunday or on the side. It was integral to how you lived in the world. I know that’s a big part of your ministry today. Do you still reflect on those early times that kind of led you into where you are now?
Bishop Carcaño: I do all the time. And it happened in my family. It happened in that nest of shaping me because my family truly lived their faith. My grandparents, my mother, my father in his own way, lived their faith as well.
I remember thinking that I must have the largest family in the world when I was a little girl and into my high school years because people were always coming. From the earliest memory I have, people were always coming into our homes, into our family. And we were invited to call them aunt, uncle. And so I thought I have the largest family.
It was about in high school that I learned that no, those were persons that my family had welcomed in. They came from immigrant roots. They knew what it was like to be an immigrant. They came out of poverty. They knew what it was like to be in poverty.
My grandfather, Raphael, was a very strong, very intelligent man, very respected man not only in our extended family, but in our small town—on thee Latino side of town, the Hispanic side. I remember that people would come to our door when I was there—I called it our door because my grandparents’ home was our home. And they would come to the door and ask him for help. And he would go out and help. Sometimes that family had a young person who had been picked up and was in jail. Maybe there was a family squabble and they needed a wise person to come and help them work through it.
That was the home that I grew up in. You welcomed the stranger. They were not strangers. They were God’s children. They were family in the name of God, in the sense of faithful family, faith family. That’s part of my DNA.
I learned this in church as well. I learned early on that we were a people, Wesleyan people, who believed in going deep with God, personal piety, study your Bible, pray, don’t let a single day go by without the study of Scripture and prayer, but then go out and live your faith, make a difference in the world. And so it was both what I was nurtured into in my family and my church family. And I can be no other way. That’s the bottom line.
Being the first (17:51)
Joe: I also note that you have been a bit of a trailblazer. You were the first Hispanic woman, I believed, as a district superintendent in the continental U.S. And you were the first Hispanic woman elected bishop. What’s that like?
I imagine those are real honors, but what’s it like to be the first?
Bishop Carcaño: I was also the first woman ordained in my annual conference. I did not know that because there were 3 women who were serving as lay pastors at that point. And they were so wonderful. They were such great mentors, that I thought I was following in their footsteps. And I was because they were mentors. I just didn’t know until the very day of my ordination that I would be the first ordained woman in my conference.
Then I became the first district superintendent, as you mentioned, and the first Hispanic woman bishop.
It’s been amazing to me, amazing because I’d never imagined those things. I never imagined what God had in God’s own mind for me. I’ve just simply tried to walk day by day going where God sends me and calls me to. And this is what’s come about. Every time I have felt this overwhelming sense of being, not unable because I’ve trusted God makes us able, unworthy. Unworthy. That’s what the feeling has been.
And with gratitude to God, feeling a sense of great responsibility because of knowing how women are treated; how women are dismissed; how women’s witness has not always been welcomed or heard, and feeling the great responsibility of doing well so that the even mightier voices of other women who have touched my life and transformed my life and helped me along the way. Their voices would be heard, their gifts would be received. And so it’s been a mixture of all those feelings and sense of responsibility and gratitude—gratitude to God and gratitude to those who have mentored me and who have opened those doors for me.
Renewal at home (20:24)
Joe: I know being a bishop is a super busy job and you spend a lot of time doing a lot of bishop things, I imagine. When you have time for yourself and you have time just to kind of do what you do like to do just for the fun of it, what’s something that you enjoy?
Bishop Carcaño: I’ll tell you one of the things I do every year, kind of a pilgrimage, is I head to South Padre Island, the closest island to the place where I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley. It was where we would go on vacation as a family because it was what we could afford. We could go to the beach and pitch a tent and cook our meals out there.
It became a refuge for me, to this day. So every year of my life, with the exception of those years when I’ve been called to move in either appointment and now assignment, or Covid, I’ve gone to South Padre Island to spend time there just to be still and be open to the movement of God’s spirit, to be renewed in a land that I’ve known all my life, kind of the bedrock area of who I am today, that strengthens me. And so that’s one thing that I do.
I also love movies. I love movies. So I try to catch up on all the movies that I can. And during Covid with opportunities to watch more movies I’ve thoroughly appreciated international series in other languages with, of course, the English captions, because it’s given me new perspective on the world and how different cultures view things and how they relate to things. I love mysteries, espionages. I love romances. And so it’s been wonderful to do a bit of all of that.
How the Bishop keeps her spirit in shape (22:24)
Joe: That’s wonderful. So the last question that we ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is simply this: What’s something that you do to keep your spirit in shape?
Bishop Carcaño: Well, I follow the lectionary, week by week. I follow the lectionary because it grounds me. It takes me to new places. And it gives me the sense of being connected—connected not only to The United Methodist Church, but the body of Christ, knowing that the lectionary is basic to all of our many denominations. And it makes me feel connected. And I rejoice in that.
And I always end the day reading The Upper Room because my grandmother and my mother read The Upper Room. They read it in the morning. I read it in the evening. And again, it just allows me to let go of the day. It brings back the memory of who I am and these women who I feel around me all the time, who sustain me and are with me.
I’ve also now begun a practice of inquiring about the glimpses of God that others beyond the church, others of different faiths, others of no faith, I’m asking them this question. I had the opportunity to work on a secular foundation board, related to health. And the board is a board of people from many different faiths, and different places. Because I am clergy, they often ask me about my faith, ask me questions, or share with me concerns, ask me for prayer. I’ve begun to ask them, as one example, “So how’s it going? Have you caught a glimpse of God lately? What are you reading that nurtures your spirit?” And they’ve led me to some very wonderful places of connection with them and with God as well.
Joe: I love that. That’s beautiful. That’s wonderful. Bishop Carcaño, thank you so much for taking the time to do this today. I really appreciate getting to be with you.
Bishop Carcaño: Thank you, Joe. Thank you for your patience. It takes patience to hear all this stuff.
Meet a Bishop beginnings (24:50)
Joe: It’s wonderful. And I want you to know we started this ‘Meet a Bishop’ conversation like maybe three and a half years ago, something like that. And a lot of it grows out of…. You and I were in the same room together, unbeknownst, like a gigantic conference room. And I heard you talking behind me. And I just wanted to meet you and have these conversations with the bishops. And I’ve wondered if I could do that. And so we started asking this, like…. can we have these conversations. And sure enough it has worked out. And I’m so grateful to get to have these with you and many of our bishops.
Bishop Carcaño: That really touches me. Where was this?
Joe: It was actually in General Conference 2016 in one of those big media rooms.
Bishop Carcaño: Yeah.
Joe: And you walked right behind, just chatting with someone else.
Bishop Carcaño: Yes.
Joe: It was just a wonderful…. Like, I knew you as "Bishop Carcaño," with all of these wonderful things. And just to hear the faithful person having a regular conversation, I thought how wonderful it would be to be able to do this for others to be able to hear these kinds of conversations that I’m privileged to get to hear from time to time, and certainly privileged to get to have. So it has been a great honor to get to talk to you.
Bishop Carcaño: You are now friend as well. I thank God for you.
Joe: Thanks again. I really do appreciate you taking the time to do this. It really is…it really is an honor.
Bishop Carcaño: God bless you. Take good care.
Joe: Thank you. You, too.
Joe: That was Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the San Francisco episcopal area.
To learn more about her and her ministries, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation, you’ll find a link to my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Thank you so much for listening to our 100th episode. It continues to be an honor and a privilege to bring you these conversations that are meant to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. We’ll be back soon with conversation 101. I’m Joe Iovino, peace.