Sound of the Genuine

Claudia Rubalcava: Pastor for Justice

July 29, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 10
Sound of the Genuine
Claudia Rubalcava: Pastor for Justice
Show Notes Transcript

Claudia Aguilar Rubalcava is pastor at First Mennonite Church of Denver, Colorado. Being bilingual, bicultural, and binational is part of her call to build bridges among different groups of people. She is a certified yoga instructor and loves music, dogs, cooking, and baking. She is interested in ecumenical and interfaith efforts to bring justice and peace to every being. When not working, she is spending time in her garden with her husband Doug and their dog Bruno. 

Instagram: @clau.aguilar.rubalcava

Twitter: @AxiaDharma

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

Patrick: Welcome back 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 and today we got Reverend Claudia Rubalcava who is one of the most inspiring social justice-oriented pastors, who I met down here in Decatur. 

She left us to move to Denver, to lead up a Mennonite church, but I am so glad despite her move that she's joined us here on the Sound of the Genuine, so she could share her story and her journey to becoming the pastor that inspires me.   

Rev. Claudia. It's good to see ya! How are you doing? 

Claudia: I'm doing great. Hi Patrick. It's so good to see your face after so long. 

Patrick: Yeah, same. So tell me about yourself. Where'd you grow up? Tell me about your family. 

Claudia: I grew up in Mexico City but I was born in Northwest Mexico in the state of Sonora, which is the state that borders Arizona. My family is all from there. But I grew up in Culiacán, it is a very old part of town, but the place where I grew up used to be cornfields. All of our life revolved in a very small perimeter within the city. It's kind of very strange in the midst of traffic and all the things that people associate with Mexico City - pollution, traffic, but then there's this small town feel to where I grew up. It was really fun. I had the best childhood.  

Patrick: As you think about this ideal childhood, what did you want to do when you grew up? 

Claudia: I have parents who always said just be what you want to be, do what you want to do. And my dad is a jazz musician. My mom is a dentist, and she's the first one to go to college in her family. So they were like fight for your dreams. I was like, I want to be a poet! And they're like, not that! 

Patrick: Why didn't they want you to be a poet? 

Claudia: They said you're going to starve. They came from really humble backgrounds. I think that they're, till this point, afraid of any of us experiencing the poverty that they experienced. My mom ate mangoes for two weeks because she had a mango tree in her house and that was all there was. They didn't have shoes. They would write on the paper you used to wrap tortillas.   It is just the extreme poverty and they had made it finally to middle-class and they're like, you are not going back to poverty.

Patrick: What did they have in mind for you? Did they give you alternatives? 

Claudia: When I applied to college, I was accepted in UNAM, which is the public university in Mexico City. They were like well we think that business administration would be good for you. So that's the career that I had chosen, but then there was a strike that worked all in my favor.

They had to put me in this expensive private university and I chose a major that would have some of that business part and would let me study literature and history and all the things that I loved. So I chose international relations as my major. 

Patrick: Knowing that you're going to end up being a pastor, was any of that in the imagination at this time, thinking through maybe I want to serve in the church? I mean is the church playing a role in your life at this moment?

Claudia: I remember saying I wanted to be a nun when I was six or seven. Then I had my first crush on this guy named Eduardo and I was like, maybe not. I'm not going to be a nun.  And that was the end of it. But I was very involved in our Catholic parish. I took six years of catechism to have my first communion and then four years to do my confirmation and then never got confirmed. I was just very involved, mostly because my mom who grew up Baptist and Protestant was persecuted because of her faith. She was beat up as a child, her long braids that she carried because of her faith tradition were cut out in school while the teacher saw. So she was like I don't want you to experience what I experienced. You're going to be good Catholics. You're going to go to church every Sunday. We're going to do Protestant things, read the Bible at home.That's what we did. That's how we grew up. We grew up very involved in the church. 

Patrick: And was there ever an imagining when you were studying business administration and literature and expanding what you want to do, was there ever a thought that these things go together or was it this is what I did at home or what I did on Sunday and this is what I'm studying for Monday through Saturday.

Claudia: I studied to be confirmed and then I didn't because there were  things that I just didn't agree with in our parish. During high school and all those years, the first year of college, I was just very much out of any faith tradition. Like I read the Koran and I read the story of Buddha and I was always interested in philosophy and religion. And I went to a Catholic high school so I still had to read like the Song of Songs. I had a really cool literature professor, so we read the Mahabharata and all these Indian texts… Ramayana.

It was really great. And I explored other faiths. Then in college, I started going to a campus ministry that changed my life forever. It was interdenominational  campus ministry, and all these campus ministers were from Georgia Tech.  They had graduated college, they were 23, 24, very young. They were sent to evangelize those heathen's also known as Catholics. They got to Mexico and they found out that we were Christian already and they were like let's just deepen their faith and hang out. I don't have a college life outside of campus ministry. I was super involved. 

Patrick: And what type of things did this campus ministry do? Was it just  traditional campus ministry? Let's gather folks do a Bible study, maybe a little worship, sharing meals. What was it that like sparked your imagination? 

Claudia: On Thursdays, when we had Bible study they introduced you and you have the Bible study and all of that, and the free meal. It was a Mexican version of a campus ministry. There was dancing. So we danced salsa till 10 or 11 at night. And then we had all these service projects but they were ongoing. And that was the part that was so different from what other people think of mission. People just go and do one good deed and paint, whatever thing and then leave. We were involved every week, twice a week, in this orphanage run by a Catholic nun, Madre Christina, who I think she's one of the biggest influences in my life. She was a Carmelite and she left her order to start this orphanage and she had no money, no support from the archdiocese. She just felt the call and started it. She had this giant house, probably you could fit normally 12 people. She had like 50 kids who were just running around, taking care of each other. She was 70 years old. Just building relationships with those kids and with Madre Christina was the highlight of my college experience. I owe a lot of who I am to her and to our campus ministers who were very intentional. They grasped what Mexican culture was.

They were like, we cannot do gringo things, playing ping pong. After Bible study let's dance salsa! And we cannot baptize again, which was one of the reasons why they were terminated eventually. We cannot baptize again people who are baptized. They already believe in God. So they were very attentive to things like that, even though they were so young and they didn't have formal theological education.

Patrick: So what do you do with this? Eventually campus ministry ends cause you end college.  What do you do after that?

Claudia: I didn't finish college that fast because I went to Chile to start a  campus ministry with them in Santiago. And I did that for almost a year. So I got more into the background and the backstage of campus ministry and what it entailed and fundraising and all of that. Then I graduated college and I became an intern for my campus minister in Mexico City. It was a scandal in Mexico because I left my home at 23 to live in another house with a bunch of people.

That is so foreign to Mexico and Mexico City culture. You'll leave when you marry and that's it. So all my neighbors were like is she on drugs? Is she pregnant? They were like, oh no she's working in religion. Even worse. So that was the beginning, except for a couple of periods of time, I haven't really stopped working in ministry. 

And one of my campus ministers who left to be in Chile as the main campus minister, he and his wife started looking at seminaries for him to attend. So he started getting more serious about theological education and he started attending some classes and he went to a conference and the lecturer was Dr. Justo Gonzalez who was at some point professor of history at Emory University at Candler. And so he goes to his conference, meets Justo and Justo's like, so you're telling me you were born and raised in Decatur, Georgia, that you're Presbyterian, and that you're trying to go to seminary in Argentina when there's a seminary down the street from where your parents live? He went, checked the seminary out and it turned out that he enrolled and moved back to Georgia. And as soon as he started, he called me and said you have to go to seminary. And I hung up on him. It's not been a very easy flow path for me in ministry. I literally hung up on him. 

Patrick: I mean you eventually and up in Decatur. I should also say this Dr. Gonzalez, he not only is our neighbor down here in Decatur, but he was also instrumental in FTE in 1976, commissioning and writing the report that said that FTE needs to start funding Latinos in theological education.

So you end up eventually in Decatur. I mean you hung up, but did you ever pick back up the phone and say, okay, maybe? Maybe I should?

Claudia: It took six or seven months of convincing. He started making sure that the seminary students emailed me saying, oh we need you here. And then one day a catalog arrived at my house and international shipping is very expensive. I'm not going to take this lightly. They paid money for this. I looked at the catalog there was this program master of arts in theological studies.

One of the courses that you could take was a United Nations seminar. Oh, international relations, faith, two things I'm really into. This is the perfect combination. I said, I will apply, but not for the MDiv. I'm going to apply for the MATS. And I applied and it was the most exhausting uphill battle because Columbia, my alma mater had never had an international student enrolled in a basic degree program full time before. I'm one of the few applications that have to be voted for by all the faculty and by all the board. It was a system built to discourage me.  Again, international shipping is very expensive, especially when you make pesos and not dollars.

Every week it was, oh we need your transcript. So I would send my transcript - but we needed a certified translation in English. Then I would send it again. But now we need this other piece of paper and now you need $30,000, which is still a rule for all international students.

You need $30,000 in your bank account. Seriously, my dad put all of his life savings for me to get this visa. It was just very exhausting and discouraging but I also had a lot of support. 

One day I just got this letter from North Decatur Presbyterian church saying, hey we think you're really cool, here’s this scholarship. We'll pay for tuition, board, books, everything. Years later I learned that it was my campus ministers family who did it. Just having that kind of support is what drives you forward when everything is against you. If I had not had my dad supporting me and trusting me, putting all his life savings so I could just present $30,000 at the embassy and say my dad is vouching for me. If I had not had the support of my campus minister and his family. Behind one person there's  millions pushing.  I'm a testimony of that. 

Patrick: While you were here, you're doing your MA thinking about what comes after, what is your imagination? What is this teaching you about the church or about theological education or what you eventually might do?

Claudia: So at that point I had learned enough about ministers to think they were very big headed people and I did not want to be like them. So after this, I'm peacing out, going back to my country. I got a job in a British company doing customer service representative, doing networking parties, doing the financial statements for them. I was miserable every step of the way. I'm in financial world and this fancy building with people who don't even say hello to the woman who cleans our bathrooms. I'm burning inside and not in a good way.

I called my campus minister again, and I was like I'm in a crisis.  He said I'm a pastor now in Santa Fe, New Mexico why don't you come here? We just got money for an intern. You try it. And if you hate it it's just a year of your life. And if you like it, then you know where you should move forward. I had never been to Santa Fe. I didn't know anything about New Mexico, but I was like sure, I'll move again with all my belongings.  My brother drove me from Mexico City to Puerto Penasco, which is the border. Again, my family just literally pushed me through this.  Month one of ministry at this church in Santa Fe, I was like uggh now I have to get an MDiv. 

Patrick: What was it that spurred the getting an MDiv as you're serving in ministry in Santa Fe, which for anyone who doesn't know the difference between Mexico City, Decatur, and Santa Fe, you cannot pick three very different locations that you're going on faith. What was it about Santa Fe in particular that said, okay, I need to get an MDiv? 

Claudia: There were so many circumstances around it. My friend Tracy, who is the spouse of my campus minister and pastor of the church, had a very difficult pregnancy. So he had to take some leave to take care of her. Suddenly I went from being an intern to being a solo pastor and I was like I need more training for this. Why didn't I take all the practical courses? All the courses I took in my MA were ethics and politics and faith. I need Christian Ed and I need preaching classes.

I need all the practical stuff. So I think that's what drove me. I'm not equipped right now and yet I kept doing it. I survived. The spirit equips us with what we need for the moment. But that's what prompted this idea. This time, instead of just going blindly to the seminary someone else chose for me, I applied to several seminaries, but there was something that kept pushing me to Columbia because I think that there's work I need to do there. It took many more years than I anticipated because I stayed four years after that as an employee. I went with this idea of making Columbia more diverse and more welcoming to people like me. I went with an intention.

Patrick: And so you come to Decatur after Santa Fe, after you've had this baptism by fire in ministry. And you come down here to do the MDiv work at the institution and you pastor down here, tell me about that. Returning back to Decatur to pursue ministry.  

Claudia: The second time around, the thing is the world changes in such a short amount of time so when I returned, Columbia was super different. 30 or 40% of the student body was people of color. There were 10 or 12 international students. I had almost instant community which was so different from my first time around. That was very helpful. 

I started doing ministry as an intern at this amazing church in Atlanta, in Midtown, called Mercy Community Church. And mercy is mostly comprised by people experiencing homelessness.   Another baptism by fire, right?  There was so much joy and so much love that even with people who were struggling with a society that rejects them and their own, for lack of a better word, demons. They were so loving. I built this amazing community. This is the kind of ministry I want to do.

Then as I continued my job at Columbia, I worked in admissions. So my mission to make Columbia more diverse with on point.  This is the venue, right? The funny thing is once you put the right kind of leadership, you really don't have to be intentional, you don't have to say all are welcome here. If you have leadership that looks like the people you want to attract, people will come.

My supervisor, the director of admissions, was this non-Presbyterian black woman. Then there was me who was Presbyterian - at that point I had converted from Catholicism to Presbyterianism.  And then our other staff person was a Baptist white guy. There was just so much diversity in our team and that was making me thrive. I started building more and more relationships with students and I learned that even though the people were there, the structures were not welcoming.  So there's a difference between just saying you're welcome and being really nice and having the kind of financial structure or even core structure or curriculum structure to welcome someone. When you talk about the Holy Spirit and then you dismiss Pentecostal traditions where the spirit is on fire, you diminish a lot of people. Those were the things that I started paying attention to and I eventually became Associate Dean of students there and started pushing more for changing the structures.

That was just very difficult. But then the students were worth it. But then there was this church that came across my screen and I was stalking another seminaries job posting page. And I saw this position for a pastor for justice in a church in Midtown Atlanta. I applied for the job and that job has been probably one of the greatest gifts of my life. It's hard to say and be credible, but it's a magical place.

Patrick: Let's try to tease out some of the magic. I'm just trying to put myself in your shoes, standing between Mercy and Columbia navigating spaces that are welcoming, affirming to, as you said, folks who are experiencing homelessness to students who are international and you land at this church that you say is magic. What did they do that kind of check those boxes for you? 

 Claudia: I just showed up for my interview and no one knew who I was.  It's so strange to say things like this, but I heard all this male voices singing the hymns. And if you go to most churches in this country, it's mostly women who go to church and it's mostly women who participate in the life of the church. But this church had so many male voices and I started paying attention and it was so diverse. It was I would say half LGBTQ and had maybe 15, 20% black folks. And it had Latinos and it had people from Asia and Southeast Asia and it was just so beautiful. This is what I think the kingdom of God looks like. And then they were not just diverse. They were very much doing the work.  Jane who carries this board and on Sundays, she just registers voters. And they had a ministry for people experiencing homelessness. They were intentional about the diversity of the board. Again, if you put the right people in the right places. And the staff was very diverse. It didn't feel for the first time like tokenism. It was very intentional and it was a church that stood up for LGBTQ rights before it was cool. It was a very amazing place. 

Patrick: So remind us of what the title was that you technically had as minister of, and then what was the day-to-day? 

Claudia: So I was Associate Pastor for Justice and Witness. I did preaching, I worked with the youth because that's an expectation of an associate pastor of a mid-sized church. I help to connect the ministry that the church had with people experiencing homelessness with other ministries. We did a lot of education around anti-racism and bias. Because the truth is even a church like that has a whole lot of work to do to gain equality. We went to protests and pride parades and then I got my boss arrested, which was really fun. I got him arrested because I was not a citizen. There's so many things that people just overlook when you do things like that, right? Oh yeah, civil disobedience, everybody should do it.  The thing is if you're not a U.S. citizen, your citizenship is at risk if you ever get arrested. I convinced my boss to get arrested and he was very gracious because he had all the privileges to do that. Like he was a straight white guy in his forties. He had every single check mark to not have severe consequences and what I loved is the response of the congregation. I was really weirded out when they applauded to us on Sunday when we arrived. But also they were like oh, next time, call me. Next time I'm going to get arrested. 

Patrick: That's incredible. I'm thinking of all the young adults who are discerning a call to ministry that should be on their checklist. Now as your associate pastor wearing that collar the highest level you can achieve is get your pastor arrested for civil disobedience. That's a new call. I love it. How long are you ministering in Atlanta? 

Claudia: I was there for three years. Between all the time I spent in Atlanta almost for 14 years, but at Virginia Highland church, I was only there for three years. 

Patrick: And what called you away from Virginia Highlands? 

Claudia: It's the same thing.  People can be very welcoming and the structures are not. I didn't have benefits and not having healthcare is a huge thing. So I had to rely on my husband's healthcare, which kind of tied him up to his job. There was this Mennonite church, this church that had done really great things in Denver. They started programs in the West side of Denver.   They've fed hundreds of kids. They have created probably five or ten nonprofits that are doing great work in the city that started there.

What I love about this church is that once these non-profits take off, they don't hold on. They're not trying to micromanage and say we're going to stay on your board forever. We nurtured you and then we'll let you go. They were very important actors in bringing planned Parenthood to Denver and this pastor who worked on this, John Ventura, he's in his eighties - nineties now. I asked him why did you bring planned Parenthood to Denver in the fifties - sixties? And he said, we were just tired of seeing young women die. That was such an honest response. I was very drawn to that.  I'm very attracted to this idea of nonviolence and I was very attracted to that in the Mennonite tradition. This church is also a troublemaker. The kind of troublemaker that I like. They ordained the first LGBTQ person in the Mennonite USA. They are pushing boundaries. I was very attracted to that…and benefits .

Patrick: And benefits. How would you define ministry then, your ministry now, as you have had all these experiences, what is ministry to you?

Claudia: I think it's a very difficult question at this particular moment in time because I moved here right before COVID hit. Ministry is more of a…and you're a runner more than me, but the first two miles of ministry is just getting to know people. So I was in those two miles of getting to know people and having coffee with people and then COVID hit and I had to become all sorts of things that I was not prepared for, or qualified for like video editor and producer.

Try to figure out how to record on zoom and how to edit and how to fade and how to add credits at the end. And there's so many laws about copyright. So I had to become a lawyer and all sorts of things. In a way I feel very stuck, but part of it is it's, COVID. I cannot go and advocate at the Capitol because the Capitol is closed. There's not even a legislative session happening in person right now. So there's just a lot of things that I want to do here that I feel I can't do because of COVID but hopefully this year we'll get unstuck. 

Patrick: Let me start all the way back at the beginning with the poetry. Resisting the urge to be a poet and disappoint your parents has taken you on quite a journey into all these other vocations; the campus ministry, to Santa Fe, to Decatur a couple of times, to Atlanta now to Denver.

You're a holy troublemaker, problem solver, organizer. You do all the things. I am curious about how much of this sense of vocation and following these different pathways has been the result of your community. Speaking this over your life and how much has been driven by an inner sense of call or conversation with the divine.

Claudia: Yeah, my answer will sound so dumb, but I want to say it's a hundred percent and a hundred percent. Yes, it is completely driven by my community and yes, it is completely driven by this back and forth that I have with God. When I was six years old I had this huge fight with my dad and he still remembers because I told him you should not be making what you're making when there's people sweeping the streets and working way more than you. I always had this inner weird consciousness about justice that has always been there and this idea of poetry too.

The funny thing is when I write sermons, I feel like I'm reading poetry. And when I write liturgies, that's what I feel I'm doing. So in a way I'm a poet. But then all of it I owe - like if my mom had not been an abused Protestant child by her community and if my dad had not fled from seminary. His mom tried to put him in seminary and he fled from seminary. And if I had not been in all these Catholic communities, where my parish was very progressive working with the community. If I had not had all these people and a campus minister who was so supportive and always believed in me when I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

And if I had not had the other campus ministers that taught me about living in a culture and not trying to change it, but learning from it and being changed by it. If I had not had seminary professors who were like you need to take the Bible seriously. Even when all those things that my community taught me put me in tension with my own community.

I had this tension with my parents about my vocation several times and had this tension with my seminary community about taking the Bible seriously and what it means to be the body of Christ.  I think those, all of those things co-exist at the same time.

Sometimes I feel it's all driven by my community. And sometimes I feel like it's all driven by this sense of call.  Sometimes I feel like it's just driven by a sense of duty. It's not always a constant, sometimes it's just like…it's fire. We build a lot of fires here in our house. Sometimes there's a little bit of wind and it just like blows up and it looks very scary and sometimes it's just like the same fires, just very calm and warm and fizzling out. But it's always there. That's how I feel about all of this. 

Patrick: That's incredible. And that's a beautiful image to think about the fire and how you're carrying it forward through generations, keeping it alive. And I'm inspired by your ministry, your life. I'm inspired by the times your fire is shooting through the roof. And the times when it's just crackling in the fireplace. So I'm grateful for you and grateful for this conversation.

Claudia: Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me and for being one of my mentors too. I do not take that lightly. 

Patrick: I just want to thank you for listening to Claudia's story and joining us here on the Sound of the Genuine. We know that you can find inspiration a lot of places in your life and we're glad you chose FTE to hear this story. Gratitude to our design managers Heather Wallace and Elsie Barnhart and @siryalibeats as always for his music. 

Don't forget you can get more information about the Forum for Theological Exploration, our grants, our resources, our fellowships at ftleaders.org. Subscribe and share this audio series with a friend. Thank you for listening and see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.