We Journey Together: Pete Pero from the Classroom Seat

From Our Interno Abel Arroyo

We Journey Together: Pete Pero from the Classroom Seat 

As I walked into the classroom two things were clear to me – I had a marginal idea of what this class was about, and I wasn’t doing it out of some kind of theological curiosity. I signed up for a class on “The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.” mainly because someone I liked was in that class. 

As you can see, I would never claim to be a paragon of virtue. 

 Me getting ready to preach

Me getting ready to preach

As I waited for class to start and texted the person I had literally signed up this class for, in came Doctor Pero. I immediately dropped the conversation, primarily out of respect for this man I was seeing for the first time. But by virtue of his presence in the room I had an immediate realization. I had no idea there were scholars of color in the ELCA. Being a first generation immigrant in the ELCA for me means that you are kind of stuck in –sorry, intrinsically belong – in certain circles and read certain books and hear about certain authors and last names. One KNOWS there’s people of color in the ELCA because, well, I’m here, and I’m not the first nor the only one. But thus far my experience with people of color in church was that we’re great for mission development and task forces. You know, we’re “voices” and “perspectives” – great to enrich the discourse of the larger church. 

The man in front of me was loud and outspoken, loving and relatable, cheeky and truthful. With his laughter and constant challenge to not think about how we can love but to love, was probably the most revolutionary concept I have heard so far in my seminary career. It was hope for me. 

Now please don’t get me wrong, we were not close. We never shared martinis and talked about his journey (Doctor Pero was fond of martinis). 

We never talked about his experience as a scholar of color. We never talked about any of that. Do I regret it? Yeah, but as I look forward in my own career, call, and ministry, as I look back and recognize the shoulders on which I stand, I feel honored to have met him. 

As the semester unfolded this man not once lectured. Rather, he shared his journey with the students, as if sharing the most precious thing he could offer, and I actually started paying attention. I poured through the Revered Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr’s sermons – and as I started to grasp his idea of the “Beloved Community” I found similarities to my understanding of comunidad. 

When I speak of comunidad (Spanish for “community”), I speak of a space where the common experience is one of liminality, not of ends. A space where people can embrace in the fluidity of their journey, and know that even if we distance one another – be it through moral or ethical stands, socio-economic realities or ideo-logical discourse – one can still acknowledge that growth is possible and belonging is unques-tioned. 

I believe this understanding of comunidad as a communal journey rather than an established end echoes the concept of “the Beloved Community” where transformation is key, and establishing new bonds between the ones who once only related as oppressed and oppressor is possible. 

Through Doctor Pero’s stories in that classroom not only did I learn about African American theology, but also was inspired to articulate my own theological voice, not as an ELCA Lutheran, but as a Latino, an immigrant, and a Lutheran who is part of the ELCA. 

Doctor Pero’s example, examine one’s life as a completely valid resource of theological reflection, was a breath of fresh air for me – to look deep into one’s own story to recognize the Holy Spirit being active throughout the whole thing. 

As a Latino, one of the stereotypes we are faced with is that we feel our feelings, and we feel them unabashedly. So I started to deal with my own story and my own feelings as resources for theological reflection. 

I learned from Doctor Pero to recognize plurality within myself, and learned how every label I carried, self-imposed or otherwise, could not and should not exist in a vacuum. That one can’t separate feelings and thoughts, which closely shape one another, so that every experience we have has the potential to shape our understanding of the world and the divine. 

 Mama, me, and Papa

Mama, me, and Papa

Thanks to Doctor Pero now I know that I am not an asset to the church, I am the church. 

That my story is not tangential to the church, but integral to it. That I hold within my journey both privilege and oppression. That my voice and the voice of every person of color in the church is necessary to grow, to upset the status quo, to reclaim and to lift what the dominant culture is not willing to engage or is blind to. 

A baptism at one of the sites of my internship. Baptism was crucial to Doctor Pero. My stepping into that classroom may have started as anecdotal, almost an afterthought, but as I keep going through my journey as a seminarian – and as a person of color called to the ministry of word and sacrament in the United States – Doctor Pero was the one who challenged me to look at my journey not only as my own, but as part of the journey of the communities of color and our faith journey in the United States. 

I hope that as the years go by I don’t forget that my journey, as well as everyone else’s, is a God given gift that makes up the complex and multi-layered tapestry that is the church. And if all else fails, I will at least know that a martini will not solve anything, but it will give you space to think.