Freedom Schools offer a summer of possibilities for the next generation

At an airy school site in southeast Washington, D.C., several children gather around an outdoor planter filled with espresso-colored dirt. It’s about 3:30 on a bright summer afternoon, and the students have been there since morning.

They began the day with harambee, a high-energy ritual that lets students pull together and celebrate themselves, before going into a sewing exercise and then a nutrition lesson. Now comes the gardening, where they learn a handy fact — how lavender can repel mosquitos — and start to grow their own plants.

As these students — known here as scholars — congregate, a college-age instructor (also known as a servant leader) watches over them while parents and other site staff linger outside and inside the school.

All of this is part of a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools six-week summer session. And since CDF’s mission is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities,” this program is key.

children's activity
Harambee is a high-energy start to the day as the scholars celebrate themselves and pull together.

In fact, CDF Freedom Schools, also offered as after-school programs, are the “heart and soul” of what the Children’s Defense Fund is doing for children and their well-being, said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s president and chief executive officer. Through CDF’s partnerships and work with children, families and communities, Wilson said, the program “helps us to prioritize what we’re speaking about, what we’re advocating around, and the policies we believe families need to create the conditions for their children to thrive.”

A program with history

CDF has a record of helping communities. Civil rights pioneer Marian Wright Edelman, credited as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, founded the nonprofit in 1973 after dedicating her early career to defending the civil liberties of people who faced poverty and discrimination.

Today, the CDF Freedom Schools program is offered to students in kindergarten through 12th grade around the country in community centers, schools, juvenile justice centers, churches and other settings. In 2021, more than 7,200 scholars participated in programs in 26 states and 75 cities.

Freedom Schools have their origin in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which gathered college students to work for justice and voting rights for Black citizens. Back then, these college students volunteered to teach younger students traditional subjects like reading, math and science, along with Black history, constitutional rights and other topics not covered in Mississippi public schools, said Kristal Moore Clemons, the national director of CDF Freedom Schools.

How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?

music class
Scholars practice a song to be performed at their end-of-summer celebration.

The early Freedom Schools were established to build the next generation of voters, Clemons said, noting that leaders thought that if they could “crack” Mississippi, they could do the same with other Southern states.

“Our faith-based partners have always played a role in the movement,” she said, explaining that most of the original Freedom Schools operated in churches or community centers.

CDF started its Freedom Schools program in 1995 to help children who lacked access to high-quality literacy programs. Each year, many students — especially those from historically disadvantaged groups — experience summer learning loss. Recent literature on this loss has been mixed, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, but one theory cited in the report suggests that lower-income students might learn less over the summer because “the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but not for students from advantaged backgrounds.”

To support students, the CDF model has five components: high-quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?

kids looking at a doll
Scholars play together between Freedom School activities.

Since its start, more than 169,000 children have experienced Freedom Schools, and more than 19,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the model, which offers a research-based and multicultural curriculum. The majority of students in 2021 identified as Black/African American (68.4%), with the second-most represented group identifying as Hispanic/Latino (13%).

Because the schools are free to families, parents and guardians don’t incur the expenses they might otherwise have for child care, camps or academic programs. This can be especially helpful in low-income communities.

A vital part of a big mission

School systems vary state to state, and there can be battles over what is offered in the classroom. For instance, some schools now are dealing with banned books and debates about critical race theory, among other issues, Clemons said.

Children also continue to face changes within the system, such as periods of distance learning and isolation, because of the COVID pandemic. Some students are dealing with news of school shootings and racial injustice as well.

“Every year, we choose a different issue that scholars across the country will organize around and take action on,” said Wilson, the CEO. “This year, we’ve chosen climate justice, because we recognize that the planet is a place that our young people will inherit and that climate justice is racial justice.”

How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?

children with protest signs
During National Days of Social Action, scholars take on issues important to them and to their communities.

Scholars come together, discuss the issue and share their ideas for solutions on coordinated National Days of Social Action — and they’re allowed to dream, said Joy Masha, program director for the Washington, D.C., CDF Freedom Schools. Scholars might propose a rally, a call to action to a state council member or the creation of more programs for children in their community, among other means of advocacy.

Because educators may not be able to deviate from state curriculum requirements tied to testing, Freedom Schools historically have supplemented content that traditional teachers could not offer, Clemons said. That includes books featuring people of color — important since fewer than 27% of children’s books published in the United States feature nonwhite children, according to CDF — and educating scholars about figures in history.

How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?

child holding books
Freedom Schools make sure their scholars have access to books that feature people of color. At the end of summer, they each take a stack of books home.

“We don’t want to be controversial. Freedom Schools are not here to break down the status quo. We’re here to be in community with people,” Clemons said.

“We’re here to show children that [if] you want to be a scientist, great. If you want to be a yoga instructor, great. If you want to be the next vice president — because we have books on Kamala Harris — you can do that.”

Some parents say they appreciate the programming and the ability to participate via weekly meetings. Rochelle Gibbons has two children enrolled in the D.C. summer program. If she were to send them to camp instead, they’d simply play, she said. But here they read and build relationships as scholars.

Another D.C. parent, Ashley Jones, said she also appreciates the model. Freedom Schools staff care about the children and the environment that families live in, she said, and teach children that they’re not too young to make a difference.

That lesson is big. Because children are listening. Processing current events. And sharing their thoughts.

child with book
Scholars at Freedom Schools across the country focused on the issue of climate justice this summer.

Gibbons’ daughter, Dyllon-Rose Gaskin, did just that after her mother spoke at a recent parent meeting in the classroom. The 10-year-old scholar said the program allows her to read books every day and discover new words.

“I learn a lot,” she said, explaining that she’s finding out “interesting stuff” in a fun way.

“Miss Joy has a strong voice, and it helps me speak up sometimes,” she said of Masha’s work at the site.

So what exactly would she speak up about? Dyllon-Rose simply said, “I would speak up about, like, gun violence and different things around the world, like homeless[ness].”

How does it feel to know about these issues as a child?

“People are getting killed … every day, and that’s sad, because people are losing their lives for no reason,” Dyllon-Rose said.

Looking toward a happier future, she shared her desire to be a teacher, a hand model, the vice president, a mayor and “a lot more.”

This kind of exchange, where scholars discuss a range of subjects, is not unusual.

After years of working in the space, Masha said she understands that age does not necessarily determine a child’s experience. Gun violence was the scholars’ issue for 2021.

“As we see more gun violence here in D.C., we know that we can have these conversations with our young people, because our model allows us to do that,” she said. “So if gun violence is a topic that young people want to not only talk about but address, then we explore that solution with them and help them put it into action.”

Within integrated reading curriculum lessons, Freedom Schools use books to explore particular issues and allow scholars to analyze each plot and connect it to the community. Schools also offer parents resources for talking with children about these issues.

children
Along with academics, scholars build relationships and learn they aren’t too young to make a difference through Freedom Schools.

The faith connection

To make an impact, CDF partners with various institutions and organizations. To run a program, would-be executive directors apply on CDF’s website and learn about the training, fiduciary and programmatic requirements that accepted sponsor organizations must maintain.

CDF recommends that, at a minimum, facilities be licensed to serve children. Programs then do their own fundraising to bring Freedom Schools sites to fruition, with CDF recommending that programs cover costs for at least 30 scholars.

Since faith communities have a long history of social action and advocacy work, this connection continues to resonate.

Wilson, who also serves on the Duke Divinity School board of visitors, references Jesus’ words with respect to CDF’s work and notes that defending children is “a religious commitment that is resonant with the call of the Christ.”

“For an audience of clergy, I say, ‘If Jesus did not walk among us, then Jesus has less capacity to connect with us,’” he said. “The God that I serve is one who took up flesh and walked with humanity.”

It is this walk that others also highlight.

Starsky Wilson
Freedom Schools are at the heart and soul of what CDF does for children and their well-being, according to the Rev. Starsky Wilson, CDF president and CEO.

The Rev. Dr. Van H. Moody II, founding pastor of The Worship Center Christian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, said his church has offered Freedom Schools for several years. He said children in communities of color may not have access to early childhood education, which can put them “behind the eight ball” when they start school. Added to this, summer learning loss can have cumulative effects. But Freedom Schools can help.

“It’s a beautiful program that really checks a lot of boxes that we’re passionate about,” Moody said, noting that it helps kids grow academically, helps them become more well-rounded because they gain a historical foundation, and helps empower them to become conscious changemakers.

His church began supporting the program through funds dedicated to missions, and in recent years has funded it via an endowment, along with public and private partnerships.

“Our faith informs us about how important it is for us to make sure that the next generation not only knows God but that they are prepared to continue to really stand on the shoulders of the preceding generation and to carry the mantle forward,” Moody said.

Birmingham has both a high murder rate and a high violence rate, and many kids are coming from communities where they haven’t seen themselves in a positive light. With these schools, the pastor said, scholars can see the possibilities of what they can be.

“In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often taught to talk about the goodness of God and their faith principles with their children and their children’s children,” Moody said. “For us, pouring into the next generation, making sure that the next generation is educated … and prepared to live their best life and affect society in a positive way is an extension of what we believe God has called us to do.”

What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?

Questions to consider

  • How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
  • How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
  • How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
  • How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
  • What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?

It was an hour before the doors would open. I was beginning to panic. The chairs were set, the sound check was done, and the speakers were ready. All I had left to do was set up the giant TheoEd letters on the stage. The problem was, the lowercase e would not stay in place. It leaned a little to the left, a little to the right, and sometimes it would flop over on its side.

After 18 months of planning and promoting, I thought, this e was about to ruin everything! In truth, it was the least of my concerns.

What I was trying to pull off back in 2017 was risky. At that time, I was a scholar-in-residence at a large church in Atlanta, and I was working with a group of lay leaders to re-imagine the congregation’s annual sermon and lecture series.

We wanted something fresh, something that could reach out into the community. We wanted to make the best learning available in a format that was accessible and engaging to a broader audience.

We wanted to bring a little bit of TED to church.

But could we really pull it off? Would leading thinkers in the church and the academy be willing to give the talk of their lives in 20 minutes or less, as TED Talks do? Would audiences show up? Could we produce the whole thing with the impeccable quality of TED?

We sold out that first TheoEd event, the speakers were fabulous, and the e stayed put.

Since then, we’ve put on seven TheoEd shows, with several thousand in attendance and more than 100,000 viewing our talks online. We have developed discussion guides to go along with each talk and a prize for graduate students. For the first time this February, we took TheoEd on the road, visiting Charlotte, North Carolina.

Through TheoEd, we’ve tried to do for the Bible, theology and spirituality what TED has done for technology, entertainment and design. In the process, we have been learning a lot about what it takes to engage public audiences in conversations about God, religion and the power of faith to shape lives and communities.

Here are three discoveries and how they might help churches and seminaries rethink their approach to education.

Re-imagining the sage on the stage

Conventional wisdom has it that the sage on the stage is dead. At least, that’s what I took away from Parker Palmer’s “The Courage to Teach” when I read it in seminary. Palmer describes a “community of learning” in which the expert is displaced from the center of attention and learning happens through a nonhierarchical web of relations between students, subject and teacher. I love this model and use it in the seminary classes I teach.

Much like Palmer, the TED organizers are convinced that the traditional academic lecture is not an effective vehicle for engaging most audiences. What Palmer solves through decentered, discussion-based learning, TED solves through well-coached speakers, compelling short-format talks, an attractive stage and high-end production.

We’ve followed a similar path in TheoEd. Getting there isn’t easy, as most of our speakers are more comfortable reading lectures from a lectern or delivering sermons from a pulpit. If there’s a secret sauce to TheoEd, it’s the insistence on the highly polished, no-notes, short-talk format that TED popularized.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas. We’ll have to let go of some well-established models of education, and we’ll have to lean into creative experiments. Some of those might look like what Palmer describes. Others might, like TED, try to re-imagine the role of the sage and the design of the stage.

Reaching the second audience

What sets TED apart from most speaker series is that its primary audience is not the people who attend in-person conferences. Rather, TED is all about the “second audience” — those who experience its content only digitally. Focusing on the second audience doesn’t just involve remembering to turn on the camera and set up the livestream. From how the speakers are coached to where the cameras are placed, the whole point of TED is to make the second audience feel like the primary audience.

We try to do the same with TheoEd. A case in point: During our February 2020 event, a speaker’s microphone malfunctioned during the first few minutes of the talk. The in-person audience could still hear the speaker, but the malfunction would render the digital recording unusable. Having prepared for this scenario, we paused the talk, fixed the microphone and asked the speaker to start over.

It was a bit awkward for the in-person audience, but we were convinced that this was worth it, because we knew that far more people would eventually listen to this talk through our website than were actually in the room that day.

If churches and seminaries are going to get serious about using digital media to reach new audiences, they will have to start designing offerings with the second audience squarely in mind.

How will that change things? It will mean paying more attention to elements like lighting, sound quality, camera angles, stage design and run of show. It will also mean making strategic decisions about which offerings should be online and which should not — doing less might well be the key to doing better when it comes to reaching the second audience.

Creating communities of curious souls

The look and feel of TED is inviting and inquisitive. The talks prompt the audience to ask questions and to consider new ideas — or to revisit old ones. The point of TED, as its website says, is to create “a community of curious souls.”

Isn’t that what a church should be — a community of curious souls? Becoming such a community will mean valuing questions over creeds, dialogue over dogmatism (whether conservative or liberal) and wrestling with difficult texts over trying to protect God from people’s doubts.

It will also mean rethinking where education happens. We’ve chosen to hold TheoEd in community centers and performance venues rather than church sanctuaries. We’ve found that these spaces can be more inviting to those for whom the institutional church has ceased to be a place of meaningful belonging.

Rather than inviting people to their buildings, perhaps it’s time for churches and seminaries to do their work out where their audiences are already gathering — coffee shops, pubs, community centers, art venues, gyms, parks.

Taking TED to church is no panacea for all that ails traditional models of Christian learning and theological education. But learning from TED is, as their tagline puts it, an idea worth spreading.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

When I was a child, I would repeat this adage to myself whenever someone bullied me because of my sexuality. The trouble is that words can and do cause harm.

In a 2019 national survey, approximately 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ high school students reported being bullied at school, almost double the average of their straight peers.

And the problem doesn’t disappear at church. LGBTQ+ youth need safe spaces to be and discover themselves. They can’t do that in church if they don’t experience clear messages about their belonging and dignity.

I have a lot of experience in churches, both as a former pastor and as a layperson, and a problem I continually encounter in churches in the United States is a lack of clear language about gender and sexuality.

Rather than having clear statements about their theological commitments, churches will say a lot but really remain quite vague about their beliefs or commitments on inclusion.

I’ve observed a new kind of lip service on church websites’ “about” pages. A church might say they believe that all people are created in the image of God, but what does that really mean? Will they hire LGBTQ+ folks to leadership positions? Will they marry them in their sanctuary? Will they embrace sex workers as legitimate followers of Christ?

We’re left to wonder whether they simply did not think these sections through, are being evasive for fear of offending, or more nefariously, are attempting to bait people to attend, only to reveal their theological commitments once a new attendee has begun investing in the community.

This lack of words, of clear statements on topics such as support for LGBTQ+ persons, only fosters bullying and hate speech in our churches.

When churches remain silent on the topic of LGBTQ+ folks, we are in fact establishing a stance by default. Not only does our silence not stop hate toward LGBTQ+ folks; it creates the space for it to flourish. Our words can cause harm or healing; our silence benefits only those who already have power.

One of the most crucial steps toward stopping the bullying of LGBTQ+ folks in our churches is to be transparent about our support of LGBTQ+ persons. Clearly stating our support on the church website is the least we can do to create a space that does not tolerate bullying.

Furthermore, declaring the church’s support of LGBTQ+ folks from the pulpit ensures that those physically in our church know the stance and gives congregants language to articulate that same support outside the church building.

Does your church have a library or an area where people can borrow books? Put LGBTQ+ literature in your libraries!

From children’s books to social commentaries, accessible materials that support and are written by LGBTQ+ authors will aid in our caring for all in our community. LGBTQ+ organizations like The Trevor Project often share lists of must-read books on their websites, and most queer literature can be pulled up by a simple internet search.

Another crucial part of supporting LGBTQ+ folks in our churches is having groups that are specifically for queer volunteers and leaders within the church. There might already be lovely LGBTQ+ groups that meet in the area, and yes, we should make those groups known to our community.

If there are no groups that support the LGBTQ+ community, then there is even more reason to start them up in our own churches. Having these groups makes offering aid to LGBTQ+ persons more tangible and helps create groups that aim to support folks who typically are in need of support.

Groups like PFLAG are a great way to create a safe and multifaith dialogue that is centered on the care for LGBTQ+ children and youth and their families. As we create and offer spaces to openly discuss LGBTQ+ issues, we also provide opportunities for education and increase the safety of LGBTQ+ folks not only in our churches but in our whole community.

Hosting special small group conversations is another way to minimize hate speech in our churches. Back in 2018, I held a class in a church after worship on the use of pronouns and how we can better support and love our neighbors who are transgender. This forum was like an English 101 class. We spoke about how pronouns are used in English versus other Germanic languages. By having this conversation, we began to see how using the correct pronouns for a person can aid in making people feel safer and understood.

Not making a clear stance in our churches on LGBTQ+ support harms people as well as churches. Running from the confusion and misunderstandings of the LGBTQ+ community will not make others feel safe.

The absence of concise and transparent statements accessible to the church creates a breeding ground of anonymity and bullying.

When the worth and acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks is made clear, then we can create a safe place for people to be fully who God created them to be.

This won’t guarantee that LGBTQ+ people will love our churches or feel free from fear within their walls. But if we create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ folks to come and take part in a community and fully be themselves, even for a moment, that is the best grace we can offer.

Interested in learning more?

Here are a few book recommendations for churches on LGBTQ+ issues:

As a professor at UCLA Chavez, Robert Chao Romero witnessed a struggle happening in many of his Latino and Latina students. They were struggling to reconcile the Christianity of their upbringing with their desire for justice in their daily lives.

Like Chao Romero himself at one point in his life, they felt theologically homeless.

“I’m thoroughly versed in liberation theology and other movements, but I never considered the fact that other brown people are wrestling to find their place as Christians as I have,” Chao Romero said.

Brown Church To search for and create that theological home is the goal of his recent book, “Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology and Identity.”

In the book, Chao Romero presents the “cultural wealth” of Latino/a church history, highlighting the justice message present from the 16th century onward. Not only will Latinos/as learn from this history, he says, but the entire church can learn from its history of deconstructing and reconstructing Christianity.

Chao Romero received a J.D. from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Latin American history from UCLA. He is also the author of “The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940,” which won the 2012 Latina/o Studies Section Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association.

Chao Romero spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the diversity of Latinos/as, what he means by “brown church,” and what its theology says to the present moment. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What’s the personal story behind writing this book?

Robert Chao Romero: When I got tenure at UCLA, it was not related to scholarship in this area. My first book is a book about the Chinese in Mexico, which is sort of related to my own background. My mom is an immigrant from Hubei in central China. My dad is an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, northern Mexico. My first 10 years or so as a professor, I was actively engaged in ministry with my wife working with activist students, but my scholarship was all about Asians in Latin America, which was great, and I loved that, but there was no integration there.

I wanted to integrate my scholarship with my experience being a pastor and so forth. I was tired of leaving two-thirds of myself outside the door. I wanted to bring myself in, my full self in.

That led me on the road to “Brown Church.” I went on a sabbatical. I studied at Fuller, and I began to figure out how do I reconcile faith, justice and this long history of the Latino community, this very complicated history of interaction with Christianity from the colonial period into Jim Crow to the present moment. There’s a very complicated history between the Latino community and Christianity, at least as an institution, and I wondered if there was a way to reconcile that or to understand that.

The posture of the field of Latino studies is that Christianity is simply a racist, classist and sexist religion. That’s kind of the party line, if you will, among the vast majority of scholars. But that’s not the experience of most of the Latino community itself.

We’re a very faithful community. Our grandparents, our parents, our communities all have faith. If you look at the statistics from Pew, it’s like over 80% identify with the Christian faith in one expression or another, and so for the discipline of Latino/a studies to just not engage Christianity for better or for worse just doesn’t make any sense.

If we claim that we want to understand the Latino community but we very conspicuously leave out the Christian faith, whether Catholic or Protestant or evangelical or mainline or whatever, I think it’s disingenuous. “Brown Church” was my attempt to reconcile those questions and address these different issues.

Another thing I’ll say is the main goal of “Brown Church” is to provide a spiritual home for many. There are thousands if not millions of spiritually homeless Latino/a students. They are in these borderlands of Christianity and activism, Christianity and social justice, spiritual borderlands, because they want to reconcile the two but they don’t know how because of this complicated history. It’s religious, it’s theological, it’s political, it’s historical. It’s issues of gender, race. Christianity is so complicated for us, and it always has been.

I wanted to write “Brown Church” to be a window into 500 years of Latino Christian community cultural wealth.

F&L: How do you define the brown church?

RCR: I define the brown church as the 500-year Latino/a social justice tradition, in simple terms. The brown church is actually older than the Protestant/Catholic divide. Its social justice tradition dates back to 1511.

After Columbus got lost and landed in the Caribbean and enslaved all the hundreds of thousands of natives there, which began the conquest of the Americas, a Dominican friar named Antonio de Montesinos saw all these terrible abuses, which was really genocide, and denounced all the Spanish elites of the island. He preached to them and said that he was the voice of one crying in the wilderness and that they were abusing and exploiting the Indigenous people of the land and if they didn’t repent, God was going to punish the nation of Spain and send them all to hell.

This Dominican friar preached the first prophetic racial justice sermon in the Americas in 1511 in this straw-thatched little chapel, and the book chronicles the history ever since, from the colonial period to the U.S. conquest of half of Mexico to Jim Crow segregation to Cesar Chavez to the undocumented immigrant student movement.

It’s important to also flesh out what I mean by “brown.” When I talk about brown, it’s really a metaphor for a couple of things. First, the vast and beautiful cultural mixture that’s in Latin America. In Latin America, we’re everything culturally and ethnically. We have Jewish Latinos/as. We have Asian Latinos/as like myself. We have Indigenous, Spanish, any mixture, anything. So brown is first of all a metaphor for that.

The second meaning of brown is a metaphor for the racial liminality that we experience as Latinos/as in the United States in between Black and white in terms of social constructs, in terms of historical Jim Crow segregation, in terms of political discussion and debate, in terms of denominational structures. We’re in this in-between space, and we have been for hundreds of years.

To give an example of this racial liminality, during the time of Jim Crow, a lot of people don’t know that Latinos/as were segregated as well. There was segregated housing, segregated schools, segregated pools, segregated everything. But then there’s a U.S. Supreme Court case called Hernandez v. Texas, and other cases as well, where we went to the courts and said, “You can’t segregate us, because we’re white.” That was our argument. But were a special kind of white that still experiences discrimination.

And the judges would sit there and scratch their heads and call in expert witnesses from UCLA or USC or different places, and they’d say, “What do you think, professor of anthropology, are Latinos white?” They’d sit there for a couple of days and debate it. Then the court said, “Yeah, actually Mexican Americans are white.” But then we just returned to our homes in our cities, whether it was Pasadena or LA or Texas, and they would still discriminate against us anyway. They’d just find other reasons to, other than the racial argument. That’s a good example of how we’ve been always in between.

F&L: What do you hope people will learn from the book?

RCR: “Brown Church” is trying to lift up to the body of Christ the fact that as Latinas and Latinos, we are God’s children too. We’re not the same as the Anglo church. We’re not the same as the Black church. We’ve been journeying with Jesus for 500 years, and we have our own beautiful, God-given community, and the cultural wealth and history and theology that comes from that. The brown church is just a different entry point into the beloved community.

We’re not perfect. You can say that for every ethnic group. The Latino culture — we have amazing glory and honor, but we also have this thing that’s called machismo that destroys people and families. And thank God that’s not going to make it into heaven. Latina pastors and theologians like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in 17th-century Mexico and Ada María Isasi-Díaz in the present have articulated a “preferential option for women,” meaning that in a sinful and broken world, women experience exploitation and God takes their side in their oppression. Unfortunately, machismo is still a reality in many Latino churches, and much growth needs to happen with respect to the inclusion of women in institutional leadership.

The Spirit has journeyed with us as the brown church, and we have this 500 years of community cultural wealth that God has given us. We are a part of the body of Christ too, and we want to offer this wealth as 1 Corinthians 12 talks about. The larger church needs us. We’re not just an afterthought.

In this particular political moment, where the U.S. is so racially divided — as the brown church, we’ve been wrestling with these issues for 500 years. It’s not new to us. We haven’t seen things in a Black/white binary for 500 years. As my friend and scholar Dr. Tony Lin taught me, we’ve been thinking outside a white/Black binary because we’ve had to.

Another application of “Brown Church” is that many people, millions of people, are currently deconstructing their Christian faith in light of many current events and trying to reconstruct it in a way that’s faithful. I think there’s some good deconstruction happening, but I think there’s very little healthy reconstruction happening. The brown church has been deconstructing and reconstructing for 500 years, and there are many lessons to be learned from this history of the brown church, and also the living, breathing, thriving community of faith that is the Latino community in the United States today.