Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks (she/her/ella) is a queer womanist minister, healer, writer, and life-long co-learner committed to the liberation of oppressed and colonized peoples, building power, and creating community. She currently serves as executive director of A Just Harvest, pastor at San Lucas UCC, and adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.
Rev. Pagán-Banks received her Masters of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary and her Doctorate in Ministry from the Chicago Theological Seminary where she has twice been named Hispanic Scholar. She is a joyful contributor in the newly released book “Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle.” Rev. Pagán-Banks lives in Chicago with her spouse and loves laughing and dancing with her beautiful grandchildren.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Vector Portrait by: Rafli
Patrick: Welcome to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. I am Dr. Reyes, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s senior director of learning design. And today I am especially excited for our guest. Our guests is Reverend Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks. She's a UCC minister and also the director of A Just Harvest in Rogers Park in Chicago and personally, one of the most inspiring humans I have ever met. Welcome Reverend Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks, executive director, pastor, professor, you're all the things. How are you doing?
Marilyn: I’m ok, how are you? It's so good to be here with you.
Patrick: It’s good to be with you too. Now I know what you do and all the cool things you get to do in the world, but I'm imagining that's not where you started. Tell me a little about yourself and where you grew up and yeah, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Marilyn: So I was born in Chicago. But I was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and I'm a survivor of parent kidnapping. So my dad took me from my mom when I was about four and raised me and I was raised in the Catholic tradition and went to Catholic school. And did all those things with church and didn't meet my biological mother again until I was 11. It's those kinds of things that you deal with that type of trauma and not even knowing that it's trauma happens to you in your life. Back in Chicago, came here to go to seminary and been here ever since.
Patrick: Wow. What did you imagine like living and surviving all that. What did you imagine for yourself as a teenager, a young adult? What were your career aspirations? What did you want to do in life?
Marilyn: I had lots of different ideas. I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. And I ended up running away from home when I was 15, because of some violence that happened at home and other things, and ended up in a group home. It was actually a Catholic institution again, just by happenstance. And the women, there were just very affirming and they noticed my leadership and allowed it to flourish.
What, I really remember so much about it is that they treated me with trust, but it doesn't mean that I didn't mess up because plenty of times I did, but they didn't come at me as someone who was going to mess up. And that was really something that stayed with me. But I told myself, when I grow up, I'm going to work with young people the way they worked with me, because that really made a difference in my life.
And then I did everything else but that, initially. And so when I graduated from high school, I went and lived with my boyfriend, had a baby and then had another baby. And then that promise kind of just stayed right here. I was working, still had my mind set on being a lawyer. So I worked for a legal clinic. And then I ended up working as a sales secretary. And then finally, I was like I need to keep that promise. And so I asked my daughter's daycare director, if she knew of some youth that I could volunteer with or work with. And it just so happens that that daycare was in a church. And I had never interacted with the church, because the entrances were separate and everything.
And so she goes, I run a daycare, I work with babies, but I think the pastor of this church is starting a new youth program. Maybe you should talk to him. And I had seen him once or twice. And again, he looked nothing like what I had been accustomed to. He would smoke cigarettes, wore his Birkenstocks. My kids knew him because they would see him once in a while and they'd say, Hey that's Reverend Jim!
And I said, that's not a Reverend, doing the very thing I hate when people do that to me. And I went to talk to him and he asks, why do you want to work with youth? And I don't know why I sat there and told that man my whole life story, including something I had never told anyone else. Which was that as a child, I had a recurring dream that Jesus was leading me somewhere and I was always following him.
And he was always looking back to make sure I was there and I was always following. And I never told anybody that, but I told him. And he said, I felt the spirit when you walked in the door, God is calling you to something. And I was in my own mind saying, this man is full of shit. He wants me to come to his church.
I'm Catholic. I don't know anything about anything else. And I was like, okay. And he was like, I'm not trying to get you to become part of this church, but I did feel that.
He goes I felt it and I just want to continue to explore that with you. At that time, I was a single mother with two children. But I was working, I had my own house.
You can do that in Cleveland. Can't do it here. And so he was like, I'm having a Bible study and it's mostly women right now. And there's another mother there, young mother who I think maybe you might be like a mentor to. She's a little younger than me. I agreed to come, but I kept saying to him, but I'm Catholic.
I'm not trying to leave my church and all that. And I have no issue with you being Catholic and coming to Bible study. It was through Bible study that I began to really tap into that memory of that call or that dream. I forgot to mention that growing up, I was drawn to the church, but part of it was, is it because I can be free at the church and not have to be at home?
Or is it really because there's something to this and I didn't have any way to process any of that because again, growing up Catholic, the only option was to be a nun. For two seconds my dad was excited about the possibility, but I was always a little boy crazy, girl crazy and I wanted children. In my mind it was like, that's not a possibility, but if I grow up and I'm a good person, then that's about as much as I can do. So fast forwarding back to this thing. So went to Bible study. And was learning all these things I hadn't learned before, but I felt this guilt around having children without being married, the things I had done, ran away, all these things.
And so one day I just burst into tears and I'm like, I'm going to go to hell. And everybody in that room is looking at me and it was just a small group of us. But the pastor said to me, Marilyn, you're not going to go to hell. God knows more than what you've just, God knows you and God knows more than what you've done and God knows your whole story.
And talked a little bit about what it means to have sex outside of marriage, the church side of that, but also his understanding theologically around that in terms of consent and loving relationships and right relationships. That kind of thing. And again, in my mind, I had a hard time trusting and so I'm like he's saying these things to make me feel better cause he wants me to come to his church. I really had a hard time trusting this man. And I guess given all that I had gone through, it was understandable. Then I started going to church and I sang in the choir, but after church I would leave and go to the noon service at the Catholic church because I was Catholic. And it wasn't until my car broke down.
I could walk to this church in five minutes from my house, but to get to the Catholic church, it would take maybe 30 minutes or more. And so I wasn't making it as often. When I missed church with him, maybe not the first Sunday, but if I missed two Sundays, he'd call to check on me. When I missed church at the Catholic church, and my daughter also went to Catholic school there, they would send me a letter at the end of the year to say, if you want to be considered a member, you need to have at least contributed $5 a week. So here's your bill. [Laughter]
There was never the sense of we miss you, are you okay none of that. So I just stopped going and just paid the 60 bucks, whatever it was a year so my daughter would have reduced tuition. But I didn't join the other church yet. And then I ended up, he took me to this gathering of the denomination, it's a United Church of Christ church.
And it was the year that they declared themselves multi-cultural, multi-racial and an open church for all. And I witnessed this kind of gathering I had never seen before. Men and women and all kinds of folk and clergy that looked like me, even though I wasn't clergy yet. And it was there that I was like, Oh I can do this. Maybe I am called to this. There is a way for me to follow Jesus without having to become a nun. And that's where it all began.
Patrick: When you went to that spot, did you have conversations with people, not just the inner ‘I could do this.’ Did you have any conversations with people that said you should do this? When did that become part of the conversation?
Marilyn: It was mostly because I didn't know anybody there, I was new to the church. The pastor would introduce me to some people, and of course then he would say, she's a member of the church and I we’re just starting a call and that kind of thing. And so I did talk to some folks that were from Chicago, who were part of the seminary community up here, but they didn't know me enough to like affirm or confirm anything, but they did say, if you come, we'll support you and we need more folks like you and that kind of thing.
Patrick: You go back to church, I'm assuming you'd picked up this youth ministry work. You started living in to this call. When does it become your kind of church home? And you start imagining a call?
Marilyn: Again, it was the community, right? So because they made space for me without forcing me to join right away. The community itself, the pastor and the congregation affirmed my call. They were constantly inviting me to lead and to participate. Outside of the youth program they had again, they had the choir and then they had what they called Saturday school for kids. And so they would invite me to not just come and volunteer, but to just bring my kids and allow my kids to be a part of the program. They asked me to lead worship, like I read scripture.
It was a pretty white elderly congregation. When I brought my family, we start to make it more multi cultural just by being present. And they were like, we love to hear you read scripture. We can hear the text come alive when you read scripture. And so some of that just began to affirm sort of the place that I had in the church.
And again, I resisted the voice that I was hearing and it wasn't until I began to hear the community, what you say in your book, the community affirming what I was hearing, that it became real for me.
Patrick: What do you do with that? What do you do when you have this community? Imagining surviving youth getting through Catholic education where no one's affirming your sense of call, to coming into this community that says you are not just welcome here, we think you could lead here. This is a gift. This is a charism that you have. What do you do with that? I think the word you used earlier was trust that trust of leadership.
Marilyn: I have to say, Patrick, it's taken me a long time to even begin to trust that trust. I remember just resisting every step of the way. There was a draw in this call, but then there was just like who I was that I had created that had protected me all this time. And so letting go of that has been a long process. I was going to church, and I was engaged, but it wasn't my full self right away until I just kept having these conversations with folks in the community.
And every time I said no, or it wasn't going to happen, then it would. So for example, I didn't have a bachelor's degree. I had an associates degree and the pastor was like, you should sign up for seminary. I said, look, I got these kids. I don't have time to go back to school. And he's like, do you know that there's this rule that allows a certain percentage of folks to come in based on experience and all that.
And I'm like, I haven't had that much life experience around this ministry stuff, blah, blah, blah. And they accepted me. I'm like, they're never going to accept me, but they did. And then I'm like, I can't afford to do this. It's nice, but I'm not going to go. They gave me a full tuition scholarship. Every no I had, there was something that was transforming that no into a yes, and beginning to chip away at that doubt and chip away at the way that I would undermine my own sense of call or even begin to doubt what the community was seeing and saying to me. On one hand, I, I felt it literally like saving me and steeling my spirit.
And on the other hand I was constantly saying it can't be true, it can't be right. Until God was like, okay. And here I am!
But then I went to seminary again, still clear about a call, but unclear about how that would show up. My world was so tiny around what it meant to be church. And so I was like, I don't know if I could be a pastor because I want to be about social justice. I want to be about the fight. I want to be about the struggle. I don't want these restrictions to get in the way. And coming to seminary, coming to Chicago and seeing how ministry doesn't have to be one thing or show up one way was just mind-blowing and amazing. But also learning through community organizing that the church can be that place where fighting can happen. Struggle can happen. And that it doesn't have to be this kind of very stiff, all about just praying and being good, but it really could be about all these other things.
Patrick: What did you do with that theological education? So you get an M Div. I know you didn't just stop there with your education either, but I imagine there's a call to ministry and there's a call to keep pursuing these sorts of questions. What were your next steps?
Marilyn: Again, visiting a lot of different places of ministry, but holding onto my commitment around initially, I thought I had the strong commitment around youth ministry turned out that I really didn't have the temperament for that. Learned that through trying to do it and even though in this current role, I got here through a church where I did do youth ministry.
So it's not that it's stuff I couldn't do, it just wasn't as much of my call as I thought it was. And actually now that I said that, I think part of it is just me shifting what it meant to do that work. So, what I've learned is that even in this ministry, and even if I felt this call to give back because of how folks showed up for me, it wasn't about me coming in to fix or save the world right? Now, growing up as a child who was taken from her mother and brought into a family that sometimes wanted me, and sometimes didn't, I was the fixer because I wanted to keep everybody happy. But that's why I couldn't work with kids because I was trying to be their mama. I'm trying to fix their life. And they're like, you ain't my mama and you can't tell me what to do, blah, blah, blah, that kind of thing.
And even now, the newest kind of growth for me has been moving away from this space of hero to healer. In the book Leading a New Way, they talk about warrior hero to warrior healer, and learning, to walk with people and not be the one who's going to be the one to save people.
Patrick: You're absolutely healing your community. And you've done that through a number of ways. You've been the executive director of a program since 2003, right?
Marilyn: 2002. 18 years, yeah.
Patrick: 2002. 18 years. Tell us about A Just Harvest. That's not just any ministry, that is healing work. Tell us about that.
Marilyn: We started off as a soup kitchen of a local church, a UCC church. And when I came along, there had just been a commitment to expand into food work, doing the work that would get at the root causes of hunger and poverty. That's what drew me to this work. And that's why I agreed to come. So we started community organizing. We hired an organizer, we began to have conversations with the community to figure out, not out of a place of shame, why are you here every day? What can we do to begin to make sure you have what you need even while we're continuing to be a place of hospitality and welcoming every single day, no questions asked no need to prove that you need it. Don't have to look a certain way.
Anybody can show up. And then did that for several years. And then in conversation with the community realized, yes, we're going to keep feeding people while they're hungry. Yes, we need to do this work, but it's long haul work. In the meantime, people need to earn an income and take care of their families today. One example, this came up when I had a conversation with a young man who was hiding from the police. I was just told that his brother got arrested because the police thought he was the brother. Like he allowed his brother, like they worked it out because his brother was less going to be in trouble. And so I saw him later.
And I said, yeah, I just heard about all that crazy mess. My kids tell me everything. And I'm like, aren't you tired of that? When are you going to be tired of that? I was talking to him like that on the corner. And he's like, well I need a job. You're going to give me a job? And what can I say? What can I say?
And so we realized we need to be figuring out ways to create opportunities for folks to make an income. So we started doing community and economic development, using an asset based approach, having conversations with the guys on the block and saying, look, you on that block every day, you got good work ethic.
You're showing up. How do we transfer that into something that is not going to get you either killed or in jail? Now there's no magic wand. It hasn't been easy. They're going to make more money doing that than they ever are with us. But little by little we're beginning to pull folks into the work because they really are, they really are tired of it. Especially the ones as they get older. They have children, they want to be around for their children, or they've lost loved ones and they don't want to be next. But it's exciting and it's heartbreaking at the same time, because there's never enough. Things don't happen quickly enough.
They're seeing it. They believe it, but it's still, I think there just isn't enough for them to let it all go let the other things go just yet. That's what we do here. Those are the three strategies; direct service, community organizing, and community and economic development with a commitment to putting ourselves out of business.
Really questioning the whole nonprofit, industrial complex. Questioning our own sort of ways of showing up so that we make sure we're not just perpetuating our own existence. Taking the risks, right? Like I've had board members say, we gotta make sure we don't do anything that's going to put that kitchen at risk.
And then me having to push back and just say, yes, we want to make sure we're here because people need us, but we are not here just to protect that community kitchen. If protecting that kitchen means that we're not paying attention to what's happening on the block then we need to stop. If we're not about the wellbeing and the transformation and liberation of this community, we should shut our doors.
I've said that to the board, I've cried it to the board. I think they don't know what to do with me. [Laughter] And for the most part, I think they have the same passion, but there's always this kind of fear, right? It's this fear of not stirring too much trouble. Not doing something that might keep our donors from supporting us. We're not gonna ever be intentionally reckless, but we can't be risk averse because we don't, we don't want to lose donors. Not if we want to be faithful to the call.
Patrick: Wow, I'm hearing this sense of call and leadership to heal the block, running this organization, that isn't all that you do. How did you get a call to be a pastor too?
Marilyn: I'm very churchy and I don't know, I would assume that it had something to do with me growing up in church. And I love worship. I love being in community. And again, if it wasn't for community, I don't know where I would be. Audre Lord said without community, there is no liberation.
So the church that I'm at now was actually the very first church I was ever called to as a student. I wasn't quite ready yet then. I only lasted there two years that time. And again, it wasn't me looking for the church. Again it was the community identifying something and making space and opportunity, and then engaging with people. And in this particular congregation is very justice minded. It's not like any church that I've ever known.
And what we're doing now is really owning who we are as a church. Not apologizing for focusing on our, what we call compassionate outreach and not being so tied up in worship, even though we understand the importance and centrality of worship. So that's why this particular congregation has been a really good fit in the sense that we're all about the community. And understanding that's what church is to be with community, to respond to the needs of the community.
To be led by community, not only lead it. And yes, we do ground ourselves in our faith. And we know that worship has a role in that, but I'm trying to get us to a point where we stop beating ourselves up because we're so tiny. Because we're serving hundreds of people every single week. And really trying to like smack back against the institution that is always focusing on, like we've had folks from institutions say y'all are doing great work, now you need to focus on the spirituality aspect of it.
The church is not supposed to be just social service. The spirituality of it is this! We are embodying Christ love every single day. How much more spiritual can you be when you're offering food to somebody who's hungry or clothing to somebody who's walking around with his shoes busted open? I see a part of my vocation is really to push back against a system that wants to one, put Jesus in a box, but also lock the church up in this idea of a building or Sunday morning.
Patrick: Tell me a little bit about what A Just Harvest is doing now.
Marilyn: Because we've heard from the community and actually you could feel the pain and the trauma and COVID hasn't stopped gun violence. COVID hasn't stopped the drug overdose and it hasn't stopped suicide. And we've experienced all of that within these last 12 months on top of COVID. And so it's become apparent. We already knew that there's some healing that needed to happen. We've already had a plan for a community wellness hub down the line, but in conversation with the team and with the community members that I've been working with, we're like we need to do some of this work now. Before we have a new space, let's just begin to figure out what we can do. And that has shown up in accompanying folks in bereavement processes, helping them bury their loved ones, putting together programs for the funerals. It's shown up as just sitting with people at the hospital or outside of the morgue.
But also, how do we create a space here so if somebody needs to just drop in and have somebody see them in their pain, hear them, or if folk just need to be in a circle, we're doing circle keeping. Really committed to the fact that we talk about nutrition and we talk about making sure people have housing, that wellness is not just material, but it's also spiritual and emotional, mental. And we're not trying to be everything for everyone, but we do feel called again, a new call as an organization to expand what we've already been doing to include this type of work, because you can feel the heaviness and the despair in the community.
And we want our folks to not just survive what's happening now. Our folks deserve to thrive. There's also been this upsurge of entrepreneurialship and pop-up shops, and it's just amazing how brilliant our community is. And so part of that wellness center will also be if somebody needs a spot to come and work on their business, let's have a room for that, let's have a space for that. So we're excited about it. It's this collective imagination and this collective understanding of working together through this hard time, that just gives me hope to keep at it.
Patrick: It's ministry and work, it’s listening to the community and what the needs are. And as you said, being a healer and running a healing ministry, that means being responsive to the community. That's incredible. I'm going to speak on behalf of our listeners, whoever hears this, I know they're saying yes, I want to do that. I want to heal my block. I want to be inspired by Jesus because you're absolutely right. That is at least in Jesus depicted in the gospels is doing work and direct service feeding the hungry clothing the naked. This is the work of ministry you're doing that work. How do you do it? There are only so many hours in the day, so many days in a week. So many years in the life, how do you do and live out your call?
Marilyn: Again, in community. My role at San Lucas is very part time. And the blessing about San Lucas, again it's a strong lay led congregation. Like the other day, one of the leaders called me and said there was a lady here who wanted prayer and I had to tell them the pastor wasn't here. I said, Carmen, you can pray for people. The pastor doesn't have to be there to pray. But the thing that really makes all this possible is, to me, I see it as one call, one vocation, just various settings. The work of San Lucas is not different than the work that's here. We're a congregation that feeds hungry people we're a congregation that's about the wellbeing of the community, we're a congregation that makes sure that folks aren't just forgotten, that they know they're loved and that they belong.
And that's what we do here and the blessing of it again, because we have such strong lay leaders, I don't have to be present for that work to happen. They've been doing it. They going to keep doing it, whether I'm there or not, because that is who we are as a church. And so to be able to balance it all is because it's all connected.
It's all connected. It's the ministry of hospitality it's the ministry of accompaniment. It's a ministry of honoring relationship and it's a ministry of really grounding ourselves in the community.
Patrick: Wow. Only have one more question for you as you live into this one call, which, sounds beautiful because it's also not just your vocation, it's the vocation of the community you're shepherding. As we reflect on your life as a survivor, as someone who's following this dream, I mean I'm going back to the dream of Jesus leading you, how much of your sense of call is guided by some sort of inner voice or connection to God or divine? This is what I'm called to do. This one call comes from somewhere inside me and how much comes from the community.
Marilyn: I think that the call came directly to me, but given all the other things that I was contending with, it took the community to see it and to point it out in such a way that it helped me to believe it. I think we keep coming back to trust, but that's a big issue for me. I remember one time I was having a conversation with a group of pastors and we were talking about our calls and our struggles and this and that.
And I was having a hard time with something. And she said to me, Marilyn, I hear you. And I get this and I hear your faith. You have faith in God, but do you trust God? And that question always stayed with me and I believe that I do, but I also believe that's something I have to work on every day.
Because I wasn't trusting my own voice and I wasn't trusting my own experience, that it was the community that helped me. That's something that I do. When I see potential or if I see a gift, I acknowledge it. I'll speak to it. But I also feel like I am working on trusting my own voice.
I have to be mindful that I don't always need outside affirmation. And it's not that it's wrong. At some point I do want to not always have to go double check. If that makes any sense.
Patrick: It makes total sense is that, is that trust goes two ways here. It's the trust that the community put in you that God put in you, it's also you trusting the community and God, it's a two way street here. That's absolutely beautiful. I just want to say thank you for sharing your story. Rev Dr. Pagán-Banks, you are inspiring and I love and appreciate you so much. I'm renewed by this conversation because you are not just living into your own call and your story's inspiring, but you're doing what a church is called to do in the world and really healing the block.
That is what we're called to do. And I'm just, I'm grateful that that you're living into that and you're leading congregations, communities and others like myself to do that work likewise. I'm so grateful for you and grateful for your time.
Marilyn: I appreciate you Patrick and I appreciate the invitation and I'm just grateful for your spirit. And I have to say that anytime I read something that you've written or see something on Facebook, you inspire me, so thank you. I really appreciate it. The more I'm connected to people like you and others who see this work as heart-work and the fact that we can't do it by ourselves, I wouldn't be here without community. I wouldn't be here without even knowing the folks I can't see, but knowing that they're still being community for me and I'm community for them.
Patrick: Thanks for joining us again on the sound of the genuine. You can find this resource and many more at fteleaders.org. FTE is a leadership incubator, cultivating diverse young adults to be faithful, wise and courageous leaders for the church in the Academy.
And if you felt inspired, do us a favor and share this audio series with a friend. Special shout out to design managers Elsie Barnhart and Heather Wallace, and @YaliBeats for his music. Thank you again for listening and see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.