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Heritage & Latinidad

Coming from a Cuban family, I really want to dedicate this article to a family friend Clara Ivey Soto and to the immigrants who arrived on US shores in both 1958 and 1970. The stories of my family coming to the US shores has always been my driving force in the church, and what must be included as we seek to be a church of inclusion for everybody. It is our stories that actually define who we are. And without them, without telling our children about them, or without caring about how they are preserved limits how our country and church can become a place that respects, honors and loves all our peoples. This is the point of Hispanic Heritage Month. It is a time where we can honor the stories that have brought so many of our families and friends to our shores. We can forget who we are when we forget where we came from, we cannot really know where we are going. My roots have defined me, molded me, and made the person that I am today. I cannot be the pastor that I am without understanding the roots where my family came from.

I joke about this all the time, but I used to always say that if you wanted to come to to a family gathering with my family then you could never get away from hearing the stories of the Cuba that my family saw. However, these experiences of my family shaped me, molded me and created in me a sense of who I am. At times, I think there are many peoples who think its best to just move away from where we came from if we ever want to be who we want to be be. But, without understanding where one came from how can one ever understand where want to be? If we are going to live into the reason’s behind Hispanic Heritage Month, it comes from the experiences of those that raised us. Without their experiences, we would not be who we are today.

In my current appointment, I serve in an area where Hispanic and Latinx identity are constantly around and discussed. As we move through Hispanic Heritage Month, I have been struck by the Dia de Los Muertos art walk and displays. As some are around painting faces, enjoying the food and camaraderie, it is the satires of our antepasados, our ancestors that really strikes me. The reason for Dia de Los Muertos is to remember the family that came before. In fact, it is a day where the both the dead and living come together. It’s about a moment where the living can learn from the dead and a time to understand how the dead have influenced and continually influence the living. The living and dead are both one and the stories of the past lead us to both the present and then the future. In other words, the stories of those before us continually lead and affect us towards who we are today, and who we want to be tomorrow.

Our Heritage

This Hispanic Heritage Month I really want to focus on the stories that have defined ourselves, but also towards what we want to be. Because, without understanding where we came from, we will never really to be able to move forward to the place where we want to be. I am reminded constantly about my own family gatherings where at times I would sit around my grandfather, great grandfather, uncle and aunt in my family and hear their stories about how my family was in Cuba and how they left for a better life in the United States. Hearing these stories were always so fascinating to me, because it came from a time that just doesn’t exist today. By hearing what my family felt, believed, understood, and wanted for our family in and out of Cuba, I always wanted to sit around that table even longer and hear more about my family’s understandings.

It was that history that always weighed on me. It gave me a confidence that reminded me that I had a spirit of ancestors that supported and lead me in new journeys where I needed support. I have been reminded lately, by the death by Clara Ivey Soto, a dear family friend. She was a co-founder of so many Hispanic ministries across the California-Pacific Conference and others across the denomination. It has been her death that I have been lately reminded me how important it is to always remember where I came from. This person, her family was heavily

involved in Cuban Methodism and how it survived the Cuban Revolution. By hearing her story, and that of her brother, it has reminded me of how important the church has not only been for those that needed it in the midst of deep trauma and pain. But for me, it has reminded me of how important that must be towards many of the debates that we are having in our country today about what type of democracy we want to be; as well, it has reminded me of what kind of church we need to be in our world today.

I never thought my family’s stories would be an important part of my ministry. But, as we face so many issues about freedom and choice today, I am being reminded daily of the importance of my family’s stories and how their “salida”, exit from Cuba, means today. For many in the Cuban community, it is a deep source of sadness. And, I understand that sadness as that is very present still in my family today. However, for me today, it has been a source of strength, reminding me of what my family came from and why they came to this country. It has led me towards what kind of ministry the local church has to be for so many peoples looking to our towers, sanctuaries to be.

When we are a place of refuge for so many of our communities that are hurting because the political, economic and social divisions that have been destroying what we have held dear for so long, our church has to be the place of refuge that our stories remind us we have been before. As we look at all the stories that have driven our families, we can become a church that transforms the world by their impact. An impact that reminds us of where we came from. A love that leads us towards new places, new peoples, and new understandings.

As we allow the love that came from our stories to lead us, we become a people and church that actually allows ourselves and our presents and futures to be transformed by them. We become a place where we let others in, when we thought we should never let them in. We become people that allow others with similar stories but different backgrounds into our lives and work with them to build a better world for everyone.

Our Stories

It is our stories that are our commonality. A commonality that allows to see each and every person for who they are. It’s through our stories that we can see people’s pains, joys, questions and beliefs. And as we are looking for hope in all of the division within the world and our church, we should look to our stories to help us be a people that we want to be. Our church is quite as divided as the current political and economic world is at the moment. And what I have heard throughout my own church is how can we move forward with the possibility of everything falling apart?

I believe our stories are the most important aspect of what can allow us to move forward. As we lean into where we came from, everything else can really fall into place. Remembering friends such as Clara Ivey Soto, or my grandfather, who was instrumental in teaching me about my family history, I believe the world can truly be transformed for the better. It’s through the stories of my family in Cuba, how they escaped Communism and came to a new country seeking the freedoms that they had been denied, has taught me how to live in this U.S. It is my story that has taught me to listen to others and how they must be heard.

I really hope that as we look at an unprecedented Hispanic Heritage Month. With so much impacting each of our lives and changing the way we think about our world and church, lets pray and lean into our stories. Let’s think about the family and those before us that have taught and lead us. When we remember and let the love and courage that came from our ancestors can shape how we want our future to become. So, let’s let their light shine within us so that the world and church can be transformed for the better by it.

Phillip currently is Pastor of La Plaza United Methodist Church in downtown Los Angeles.

He graduated from Boston University School of Theology, where he studied how God’s love can extend communities can work to serve the kingdom of God in a local church that many have written off as dead. Working with reputable churches such as Open Space Inland Empire in Upland, CA, All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA, and Connexion Church in Sommerville, MA, Phillip is experienced working with both small and large faith communities. Working mainly with young adult communities, Phillip has helped create and sustain viable ministries that call new people towards a renewed church. By doing this work, Phillip helps churches find the bridge between how the old and the new can live side by side in the local church.

Phillip is a cat lover and avid tennis player. 

Originally published November 17, 2022.

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