Sound of the Genuine

Eric Barreto: The Call to Teach

September 24, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 13
Sound of the Genuine
Eric Barreto: The Call to Teach
Show Notes Transcript

Eric D. Barreto is Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained Baptist minister. He is the author of Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16 (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), the co-author of Exploring the Bible (Fortress Press, 2016), and editor of Reading Theologically (Fortress Press, 2014).

Instagram: @eric.barreto

Twitter: @ericbarreto

Personal Website:

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

Follow @FTEleaders on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for alerts on new episodes.

Patrick: Welcome back to the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes and I am so glad today because we have a very special guest in Dr. Eric Barreto, who's the Weyerhaeuser Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Eric I'm so glad you are able to join us. It's good to see your face. Good to hear your voice. How are you doing? 

Eric: I'm doing all right. It's nearing the end of the semester. That glorious time when piles of grading are waiting. I'm really glad to see you, Patrick.  

Patrick: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? Tell us about your family. 

Eric: Yeah. Born on the most beautiful island in the world, and nobody can dispute this. It’s the island of Puerto Rico. Was born there. My parents met at the University of Puerto Rico. I spent the first nine years of my life there growing up, speaking Spanish, going to my grandmother's house, driving around the island.

And I think one of the strongest memories I have as a child was these visions of what the United States would be like. And it was this weird combination of Disney World, because I'd been there so I knew what that was. And not Orlando - Disney World, and then this picture of this picturesque snowy street with big mature trees. That was my picture of the United States. I went to an English speaking school inside an American military base because my dad worked for the federal government. So I started learning English when I was five years old. And it was just full immersion. Figure it out as you go along.

And when I was nine, we moved to Slidell, Louisiana, which is a slightly different place than San Juan. We could all speak the language. So that barrier wasn't there. And Puerto Ricans are US citizens, so there wasn't those barriers of migration involved there. But there were significant cultural barriers and it was just this both really exciting, but really scary move that we made.

We moved a lot growing up, I lived in Louisiana and Missouri and Kansas and Western New York. But growing up in a lot of Baptist churches and trying to figure out what it meant to be a brown kid around not a lot of brown folk and trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in that way, too.

Mom, dad, my sister is two years younger than I am as well, so it was the four of us making our way. My dad was the exact middle of 11 children.  My grandfather was a Baptist minister and yeah, they just led really full but humble life at the same time.

And my dad was really always looking for the next thing. So he graduated high school early. He works for the federal government. He was always looking, that was part of the reason that were always moving. And so there was always the next opportunity, the next thing to try on, the next thing that we might be as a family. So that was a big part of all the moving around. 

Patrick: How'd you find community when you were doing all that moving? 

Eric: You know it was hard. I think, part of it is that when you're an adolescent, pre-adolescent, your main drive is to fit in to be like your classmates and your friends.

And so I think I've wrestled with that a lot in my own life, like all adolescents do, but adding to that layer, the different language that I spoke at home, the different way that I looked. So that, yeah, that was a struggle. That was a hard part about all that. And yet I think there is an incredible amount of grace in all these spaces as well between, not every teacher, but most teachers were incredibly generous with their mentorship, with their teaching, with their patience.

My parents had this radar, where they can find Puerto Rican's and Latinx folks wherever they move. So they actually lived in Antwerp, Belgium for a couple of years after I was out of the house. And they found all the Puerto Rican's in Antwerp, which I didn't know there were any, so that was also a part of community as well as we went along.

Patrick: So where'd you go to high school? 

Eric: I was outside of Kansas City for most of high school and then my senior year in a town called Fairport, New York outside of Rochester, New York. So I moved just my senior year in high school, which at the moment seemed like the worst thing ever.

I'd lined up all these ambitions about year book and about student council and the debate team, because I was a huge nerd in high school. Still am, but those were all my ambitions. And then this move came and we moved there and I met my now wife in October in my senior year in high school. So we were high school sweethearts.

She also had grown up in this town, had moved away for a little bit, moved back to the same town the year before. So although she knew this area, knew a lot of the kids, she felt like the new kid in a lot of ways too. So these two new kids found each other and all these years later, we were happily in love still.

Patrick: You're off the Island, you've traveled around, now you're with your high school sweetheart, which is your life partner, you're about to go to college. What did your parents hope for you? What were their dreams for young Eric?

Eric: At that point, when I was 16 years old, I felt a call to ministry. And at that point, I didn't know that seminaries existed.  I hadn't even thought about you can get a PhD in this stuff. It just hadn't crossed my mind. So I thought I had to go to a Christian college, right? So you go to a Christian college and you go serve a church.

I thought that was the order of things. And in some traditions, that's still how you do things. But so I was going to this little Baptist college in Oklahoma and I think my parents had always been deeply supportive, but they were not helicopter parents.

When it came for me to do my homework, for me to pick my classes, for me to figure out where to apply to college, there was this generosity, this space given to me to figure out what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. And I think it was important to them that I was happy and that I could have a financially sustainable life.

Like they just wanted to support me in every way and making that possible. Like I said, my grandfather was a Baptist minister and it felt like this faithful calling to take up. 

I just thought I was going to go to college and then go preach every week. And things went a little bit differently than I would have thought and planning, which is often the way with calling, I think is that God, I think has a pretty strong sense of where we’re going to be. What kinds of places, what kinds of roads we ought to take. But I think sometimes we need help in imagining the possibilities. I think often we hear a call and we narrow it down to one possibility when there are often many possibilities within that call that God has placed upon our lives. 

Patrick: I'm trying to put the pieces together in my mind. I got you till nine in Puerto Rico. You're on the Island, the most beautiful Island, and you're landing at a Christian college in Oklahoma. 

Eric: Yeah. So my family was in Western New York at that point. Not freshman year, but every year after that, I would hop in my car with my CD player and all the stuff in the back trunk of my Nissan Altima and drive two days across the country on my own. It’s just the way things were, right?

It was just, it was not bad or anything. It was just - It was out there. It was in the middle of nowhere. So in a lot of ways, it was a great time. I had teachers who again were deeply generous and who wanted to share with me the depths of biblical scholarship and the Western cannon and all the classics.

I had these teachers in biblical studies who taught me Greek, taught me Hebrew. They taught me the basics of exegesis. And then they encouraged me to think beyond the schools I knew about at that point.

So I said this earlier, I didn't know seminaries existed. So when I went to college, I was going to be a major in pastoral ministry. And then I learned that you could spend three or four years studying Greek and Hebrew and I was like, yes, that sounds like the kind of thing this nerd wants to do. So I switched right away and I was like, oh I'll go to seminary.

And all my professors had gone to Southern Baptist seminaries and they encouraged me to think into other worlds as well to think about other possibilities. There was a new Dean of students my senior year in this school who had gone to Duke Divinity School. And he sat down with me for lunch one day and said have you thought about going to seminary at a place like Duke or Princeton?

So they opened up all these possibilities for me, gave me a lot of gifts. But I think also it was in some ways, it was an isolating time. It was a different part of the country than I'd lived in before.

I was a wrestling with my own sense of identity. And my friends loved me and cared for me and this wasn't a conversation and a set of thoughts that they necessarily could help me with. I needed a different sense of community to tell me to do some of this work.  And that's where seminary and the doctoral programs and all this other work really came into play.

Patrick: Yeah, how did you find a community? Did you have that same radar that your parents did? 

Eric: There weren't many to find where I was, but I think maybe their radar is stronger than mine.  So I went to Princeton seminary and did my MDiv here. And it was the Latinx community here.

And in some ways it was a community too I found in literature and in books. So I remember vividly going to the library here and finding Fernando Segovia’s Decolonizing Biblical Studies and reading Justo Gonzáles’ Manana and reading Justo Gonzáles’ Santa Biblia. Finding scholars whose last name sounded like mine, whose stories resonated with mine was a revelation for me because after I left the island, I don't think I had another Latinx teacher until I was deep into seminary. I'd done all this thinking, all this academic work, all this intellectual work, learning these traditions, learning these cannons. But what these canons didn't have was voices that sounded quite like mine, names that sounded like mine and stories that sounded like mine. So finding that community in the scholarship, right? And these people who were for a long time names on a page, names on the cover of a book are now colleagues in the scholarly work. It's just a really cool experience to see both sides of that.

Patrick: So you're at seminary. Did you have a conversation with someone and said Eric, do you need to think about doing doctoral work? We need your voice. 

Eric: There's a couple of folks that come into mind. One of the things I really struggled with at seminary - I remember my first year I was taking a class in intro to theology. I'd done biblical studies, but theology is its own beast. We know this right? Its own set of discourses, its own grammar. And I was in this big lecture classroom. The professor would give this hour long, two hour long lecture. There's eighty, ninety, a hundred of us in the room. And I remember the class would end and a group of my classmates would circle around the professor, around the podium, and were asking the professor questions. I remember sitting in that room thinking, I wouldn't even know how to begin to frame a question to ask.  Part of it was just this kind of this inner worry that I wasn't good enough that I didn't know enough. I hadn't gone to a college whose name people would know something about, I hadn't read the people that other people had read.

Like I just felt behind in a lot of ways. So one of the gifts of a place like seminary and people like Beverly Gaventa and Brian Blount, Ross Wagner, were their deep ability to name my gifts and also to teach me the things I still needed to learn, to push me to be a better writer, a better thinker and to inhabit precisely who I was.

I learned from them that my identity, the things that I brought with me were not an obstacle on the way to becoming the scholar I needed to be, but were a deep part of what it means to be the scholar that God had called me to be. So going from the sense of, I don't belong here, I don't even know what questions to ask, I don't know these words, I don't know these people, to people walking alongside me, seeing these gifts. I loved reading all the time growing up. It was just always had my nose in a book, but then also teaching was something really transformative. Standing in front of a classroom and inviting students into things that they know and the things that they don't know alike, that inviting them into that it's just this powerful moment. And there was a powerful moment in my life so often. And then to get to, to be on the other side of the podium so to speak right? To go from student to teacher was a real draw for me when I was in seminary. 

Patrick: It sounds like seminary was really formational in your own sense of purpose. You're married at this point, what are your parents saying? What are they all saying about this kind of coming awareness that you want to geek out? 

Eric: Yeah, I think when it came to my parents, it was a lot of encouragement. I remember telling my grandfather, this is near the end of college, that I was going to seminary and I was going to become a pastor that he was just really excited about it.

Now I know he didn't go to seminary, he got trained in a different way.  Yeah. I don't know if he knew what Princeton Seminary was or what it meant or what it represented, but that I was following the path that God had called me into was enough. And I think that was the way I often felt that with my parents, with my wife, with my grandparents, this sense of pride and accomplishment, even if was just a really different world than the worlds that they had walked.

Patrick: So when did you first start thinking about doing a PhD?

Eric: I was thinking about it in seminary and part of the reason I wanted to go to a place like Princeton Seminary is I got to figure out if I actually have the chops for it. Can I do it? Am I smart enough, am I good enough? Which are actually pretty silly questions to ask, but those were the questions that were running through my head. And again, it was those teachers walking alongside me saying, no, you are good enough are, we'll write you the letters. We'll make this a part of our own work that really made all the difference.

I think I was really tentative in my first year of doctoral work. And I remember at the end of one of my, first year review that the only thing that my professor Gail O'Day said, the only thing I want you to do differently is to say more because your classmates need to hear what you have to say.  Now, it's not about me. But I think I find myself telling my students that all the time, because I don't think it's about me being like crazy smart or whatever, but it's about if education is going to work, if education is going to change people's lives, it won't happen just because the teacher has their mouth moving. It'll happen because of the relationality that happens amongst students with the things that they learn with one another. But it was such a gift for someone else who I deeply respected to say, you have gifts to share, you need to share them. You need to say them. You need to put them out there in the world.

Patrick: How long were you in your PhD program at Emory?

Eric: So all together it was six years, I think. The last year I was teaching at Luther Seminary and finishing my dissertation. 

Patrick: How long were you at Luther? What was that like? Cause that's a very different context than down here in Atlanta. 

Eric: In a lot of ways, it was this incredible experience. One of the things I wrestled with in my doctoral program and in talking to a lot of minoritized folks, I think this is an experience many of us have: So we feel called into this work often out of context of faith, out of church contexts, then you get into the doctoral work and all of a sudden the work that was centered around congregations and communities is now centered around this new community, which is the guild.

The Academy has its own set of standards for excellence, its own criteria for what counts. So I'd felt this call when I was sixteen to ministry. And as you're working your way through the doctoral program and you're reading stacks of books and you're translating all this Greek, it's hard to make the connection between what happened then and what's happening now.

So one of the gifts I had at Luther was this was a place whose mission was deeply rooted in preparing people for ministry in a very particular context. So many of our MDiv students at Luther were going to serve a three-point parish in rural Minnesota or rural South Dakota. They knew that's where they were heading and that's where God had called them.

And the immediacy of that call, the immediacy of that context, brought me back to that original call to say that what I'm here to do is not to make them conversant with this academic discourse, but to help them understand how these academic discourses come to bear upon the preaching that they do every week, upon the pastoral care they will do with these rural folks, with what it means to them to minister in these often largely white Lutheran congregations in communities with immigrants coming in from all over the world.

And they were worshiping in their own communities, but what does it mean to be a Christian leader in those contexts? So the twin cities is in the upper Midwest is the center of a particular kind of Lutheranism. Lutheranism that's rooted in immigrant stories from North Europe, and there was this deep piety.

So some of the patterns of faith that were present there look less like the Presbyterians out East than the Baptist I’d grown up with. It was just this mix of faithfulness that I didn't expect.  Part of it, again was it was another season where I'm trying to figure out what is my voice in this context here?

I could not teach these students how to read Romans like a Lutheran should, so to speak. But what I could do is open a conversation with them to say, these are the things I see in Paul's letter to the Romans. This is what I see coming from a colonized space, what it might mean for the apostle to write to people living in the shadow of empire.

And to have that conversation with my students who are reading from a very different context. Less so they'll adopt my reading because it's not their experience necessarily, but in that encounter, something really powerful can happen. But I think it took a long time for me to figure out what that voice is.

One of the difficulties of the doctoral program is…so I'll put it this way, I'm more an extrovert than not. And in my last year of my doctoral program, I spent a lot of time by myself because I had to just finish the dissertation. I was just locked in a study, carrel, just knocking it out. And when I emerged from that and I finished the degree it almost felt like I'd lost something of myself in the process. I’d almost forgotten how to be with other people, how to be the person I had been before spending that year writing, those several years with a singular focus around this program. What does it mean for me to have the voice when I was trying to learn how to speak into this particular academic discourse? And now that I'm speaking to students that isn't their primary discourse, how do I make that move? How do I make that translation? Part of the struggle is then finding that voice again, finding that teaching voice, finding that writing voice.

Patrick: I have to ask, because I think a lot of folks who are discerning would be in similar situation where you are sitting between your grandpa, who's a pastor who didn't have this same sort of seminary training that you have, and then on the other hand, you have Luther as your first sort of sense of call. How do you navigate that as a scholar, as you honor those who have given you the platform to be able to do this work and find yourself in a very different context with that work?

Eric: Oh, that's a great question. Yeah, you wrestle with it. You struggle with it. Because the connections aren't immediate or evident. Like what does Isabela, Puerto Rico have to do with St. Paul, Minnesota? The places are just so different. So part of it is this hybrid existence that I think characterizes a lot of my upbringing, right? So I was this Puerto Rican kid in mostly white suburbs.

First you learn how to fit in, and then if you have the right mentors and the right encouragement, you figure out how to bend around the situations that you need to and not lose who you are. I think that's a big struggle for a lot of minoritized folks in the academies.

How do you hold onto those communities that nurtured you, these communities that you feel accountable to, these communities that sent you on the way with the hope that you would help transform, help shape that community. And then you're in a very different set of contexts and yet when I think about the students I helped teach at Luther or the students I'm teaching now at Princeton Seminary, who knows in what world they will find themselves.

Maybe a lot of them won't be serving like a church full of Puerto Rican kids that just moved over from the Island.  But you never know who's going to be in that community.  So can I help equip them with a set of lenses, with a set of reading practices, with a set of experiences that they'll take with them into contexts that I can't entirely anticipate because I couldn't have guessed the places where I ended up teaching, the places where I ended up learning along the way.

How can you find those people that will help nurture in you that, that sense of rootedness about where you've come from and the sense of call of where you've landed? And help you make that connection between the two.  We had this great friend in Minnesota who was a pastor and her name is Mary Brown.

And so I have this rule called the pastor Mary Brown rule. And that's that pastor Mary Brown has this spiritual ability to see in others, their deepest gifts, especially those gifts that you wouldn't otherwise know about. So when pastor Mary Brown says, Eric, you should think about doing X, even if X sounds silly and ridiculous and way out of step you follow X, because you've learned to trust that person's vision about vocation.

So I think finding those kinds of people in our lives is a really important part of this. Who are those people that you can find who can see your gifts better than you can? And then how do you nurture that trust that when they say do this, you follow along the way?

Patrick: You found this sort of sense of home and community. You're raising family now in Princeton, teaching back where you were first formulating these questions and sense of identity in seminary. What's it like to return to Princeton and raise a family there and bring up another generation at the same seminary that formed you?

Eric: Yeah it's a bit mind bending, right? Cause I live a couple of blocks away on campus from the apartment. This little apartment where my wife and I started our lives together. And now we've come back to the same place, just a couple of blocks away, but with two kids in tow and a really different life, really different sense of the center of our lives.

This place was a huge gift to me and being able to come back and teach here is thus a huge gift. What it meant for me to learn here, to find my voice to find a larger community of belonging. 

My first fall back was the fall of 2016 and I was teaching a course I teach regularly on Race, Ethnicity and the New Testament. And there was an experience I had during that class that's been emblematic of my time here. So the week after the presidential election of 2016 that class met. 

That semester we'd already had significant conversations around there was a police shooting that happened that fall.  So we took the time just to stop and reflect on what had happened in the wider world and how that connected to our work.

In the wake of an election that marked some of our students as unwelcome, that caused others to question their place, that made others wonder what's the value of leading communities that are enthralled to the kind of verbal violence and hateful rhetoric that won that election.

So one of the best things I did in teaching that first fall back here was the week after the election going in to that Race, Ethnicity, and New Testament course saying a little bit about what I was feeling, and then not saying anything for the next two hours, but listening to what the students had to say, and moreover letting their classmates hear from one another.

To hear the deep pain that some people were feeling, the deep fear that others were feeling, the deep ambivalence that others were feeling, it was this moment when you can see what teaching can be. It can be this moment where we're witnesses of each other's stories. We hold each other's stories, tenderly because our stories are so fragile.

They can be so fragile, right? They're full of courage, but they can be harmed so easily. They can become brittle. But to be on the other side of these same podiums where people I so deeply respected and taught me so much is yeah, it's just really sobering. I think the other piece is thinking about the long history of a place like this. The seminary completed recently this audit on slavery and its involvement. So the earliest professors at Princeton seminary many of them owned slaves and later on, many of them imagined themselves as opponents of slavery. But what they were for was the resettlement of black folk back into Africa. They thought the problem is that we just can't live together.

Black folk and white folk we just can't live together so the best thing to do is to send them back. So when I'm sitting there teaching from maybe not the same podiums, but to think about also the fragility of our teaching, to know that some of the things I'm teaching I'll have to revisit, I'll have to repent of, I'll have to find a way to repair in my future teaching it's a sobering reminder, cause the place is so old and we can see so clearly the mistakes of the past, that it's important for us to know even if we can't see the mistakes of the present, we know they're there. 

Patrick: Now that you're professor, writing, publishing yeah, I got one more question for you around living into your sense of call, how much of this was due to the community around you and how much was that voice inside you that said, I want to nerd out on new Testament stuff.

Eric: It's all the community, it's all the community all the way down. Left to my own devices my internal voice is so often one of opposition so the imposter syndrome is so significant. The sense that you don't belong, that you're going to be discovered at any moment. This sense that we can't negotiate the tensions between the communities that called us first and the communities that now are employing us. This sense of tension that we can't resolve our call to the church and the call and the criteria of the Academy. Left to my own devices those tensions, I think would be demoralizing and would freeze me in place. And it's the community. That's always been the difference. It's been my parents and my grandparents and my sister. It's been my spouse and my children. It's been the folks at the HTI office, Joanne Rodriguez, it's Angela, it's Maria Kennedy, right on down the list.

These folks that have said that we need your voice. Not because your voice is special by itself, but because it represents something bigger than you, it represents a community and a place. So I think it's always been the community. It's been my friends. It's been my colleagues. It's been people that when I wasn't sure I had the gifts, I didn't have the words to speak or the words to write that they kept reiterating that I did.

It's the community all the way down. Going back to my doctoral studies, I think it often felt like this very lonely road, especially, when you're writing a dissertation and you're just surrounded by books. But it's never actually a road that we take by ourselves. And I wonder if we fall short we do so because we forget that. Or we believe the lie so deeply that we did this on our own, that we become pretty insufferable colleagues and not particularly gifted teachers and insular researchers. If we forget that it's not about us and that we never did this on our own. And I think we lose our way really easily.

Can I tell you one more story? There's this professor Don Juel who I never had as a teacher. He taught at Luther Seminary and then came and taught here at Princeton Seminary. He was on the faculty when I was a student here, but I think he was sick by the time I'd arrived here and he died while I was a student here. So I never had him as a teacher, but his colleagues, his friends, and some of the students were colleagues and teachers of mine. I read this collection that a couple of his students put together of his sermons and some of his essays. I finally picked it up and I was reading through it.

And the thing that kept happening every other page was I'd read something. And I was like, Oh, I thought that was my idea. I thought that was my insight into the gospel of Luke. I thought that was my exegetical or hermeneutical move. I thought that was mine. And Don Juel was never my teacher. And I think there's something mysterious about teaching and the kind of life of ideas that they can move from generation to generation, from person to person.

And it might be really hard for us to trace the sources of our knowledge, the ideologies of our knowledge. Certain things I know, like I remember reading Gonzáles. I remember reading Segovia. I remember reading Ada María Isasi-Díaz. I can trace exactly how I learned the things that they taught me, but so often, so many of the things we pick up we integrate as our own and we can't even trace where they come from, but we have to always be reminded that they've come from somewhere else. So I've told my students that my hope for them is that one day they'll pick up the gospel of Luke there because they're getting ready to preach that week. And they'll be like, ah, I have this idea.

And they'll preach this thing that will transform their communities. And maybe I taught them that, or maybe I gave them the seed of the idea, but part of me hopes that in some ways they don't remember where they learned it, because then it can be theirs. It can it can be such a part of who they are.

They can't remember who taught them that.  I think there's something mysterious and beautiful about teaching.  At the same time, I think it's important that the, the politics of citation are really important that we just don't steal other people's ideas. What I'm talking about is something maybe a bit more mysterious than that, but anything that we've learned, someone taught us. All of it all the way down. And it's always been this community that's been around us.

Patrick: Eric, thank you for sharing your story for naming the gifts that you see in yourself and see in your students and the travels that you have and holding loosely that our knowledge, it comes from somewhere else. That our creativity, when we take in ideas from a lot of places, it becomes, does become a part of us.

And our responsibility is to share it with the world. And I think that's absolutely beautiful and I think you're doing a gift and a service to your students and grateful for knowing you and all the stories you've shared with us. 

Eric: Grateful for you, Patrick, and all the good folks at FTE. Y’all are making a difference in this world. So thank you for all the work that you all do.

Patrick: I want to thank you for listening to Dr. Barreto's story and spending some time with us here on the Sound of the Genuine. Special shout out to our design managers, Heather Wallace, and Elsie Barnhart, and @siryalibeats for his music. If you like what you heard or you were inspired, please share this episode and the series with the friend. And don't forget, you can get more information about the Forum for Theological Exploration and our many resources at 

Thank you for listening and see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.