Sound of the Genuine

Robert Chao Romero: Between Jesus and Justice: The Brown Church

October 26, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 17
Sound of the Genuine
Robert Chao Romero: Between Jesus and Justice: The Brown Church
Show Notes Transcript

Robert Chao Romero is an associate professor in the departments of Chicana/o Studies and Central America Studies, and Asian American Studies at UCLA. He is also the Director of the Brown Church Institute. He received his Ph.D. from UCLA in Latin American History and his Juris Doctor from U.C. Berkeley, and is also an attorney.  Romero is the author of Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity; The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940; Jesus for Revolutionaries: An Introduction to Race, Social Justice, and Christianity; and Mixed Race Student Politics.  The Chinese in Mexico received the Latina/o Studies book award from the Latin American Studies Association and Brown Church was written with the support of a Louisville Institute Sabbatical Grant for Researchers.  Romero is also an ordained minister and faith rooted community organizer. 

Instagram: @RobertChaoRomero

Twitter: @ProfeChaoRomero

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli


Patrick: Welcome to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine, I am Dr. Patrick Reyes. I am so excited about our guest. Today is Robert Chao Romero who's a lawyer, a doctor, a pastor - wrote one of the most inspiring books I've read in a while, The Brown Church. Talking about the liberative tradition within the Latino church. I'm just grateful today as a pastor and a mentor and a friend that he would join us on the sound of the genuine 

All right Robert, I'm glad you're here to talk about your journey, but before we get to all the things that you are; pastor, lawyer, professor, just human extraordinaire, tell me about yourself. Where'd you grow up and tell me about those early days. 

Robert: I was born at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights raised in Hacienda Heights. My dad is an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, my mom from Hubei in central China. And when I was born, my dad was a butcher. As I was growing up, my dad kinda did the education thing and by the time I was in high school, my dad was actually president of the state board of education in California.

And so I grew up with one foot in Goshen, if you will, one foot in middle-class white America. I am probably older than some people might think. But when I was growing up, public schools had just been desegregated less than a decade before.

So I grew up in a very white kind of environment where the way to survive was to assimilate into whiteness. And I remember as a mixed-race person being Mexican and Chinese, navigating that. And I have so many stories, but I think that it's sort of the pain of navigating all of that, that really ultimately gave me my calling of becoming a human being pastor professor who addresses issues of race and Christianity kind of flowing from some of those painful experiences.

Patrick: As you think back on that time, what did your dad, what did your family hope for you growing up in this time, in that era in LA? What was it that they wanted for you? 

Robert: I think they wanted me to be like the immigrant kids dream kid. They wanted me to go to law school and make a lot of money and be rich and famous.

That's honestly what they wanted for me. I'm sure they wanted me to be happy. It was well-intended. 

Patrick: That's funny. What did you want to do, your aspirations growing up? 

Robert: So I was a very good first child. So I kinda went down that path in, elementary school all the way through high school, even in college. Again there were bumps in the road, lots of bumps in the road with, structural discrimination. I remember things like, I wanted so badly to be in the honors gate classes in elementary school, but they wouldn't let me. I remember, you know, I [got] called beaner, growing up different things like that right? Stopped by the police because they thought that my car was stolen, those kind of things. But I follow up that path of just, becoming just this, I don’t know, immigrant kids, like just make a lot of money kind of person. And so I went in into undergrad with that experience at UCLA, with that motivation. I picked a history major. I thought it was my easiest path towards law school.

Then I went to law school at Berkeley and in my first year in law school, that's where Jesus radically got ahold of my life. Radically. It was like many years ago, but it was like a relationship breakup that kinda landed me flat on my face. I felt God take me up by the hand and just heal me, transform me.

And along with that process, I felt God knocking on my heart saying, okay Robert, you've never asked me what I wanted to do with your life. And so I went to a park bench near my parents' house across from the Puente Hills Mall, if there's people from SoCal. I sat at a bench and I said, okay, Lord, what do you want to do with my life?

Do you want me to practice law? I'll practice law, but it can't be just about the money. I said, okay I think I can go to seminary. I can become a pastor. And here's this crazy idea I can go and I can get a PhD, finish law and get a PhD in Latin American history, which I had studied as an undergrad.

And it was like this long discernment process. And after about nine months of discerning, I applied actually for one PhD program in my third year in law school, and that was UCLA’s Latin American history PhD. Even when I was applying though, I left my options open. I'm like, God, you need to make it really clear to me.

Like Elijah and you know how he was going at it with the prophets of Baal and Elijah poured all this water on the alter. And it's overflowing with water and he said, God lick it up right? Like make it really clear and that was my process too. I mean there are many things that happen in the discernment process, but one of the things was I heard a Christian speaker at the program at Berkeley. So it was like A Thinking Person's Journey to Coming to Know Jesus, something like that. And I had never heard a person be a follower of Jesus and speak in such an eloquent way, such a meaningful way, that was really grounded academically. And I remember I was sitting in the church service at Berkeley Presbyterian and after that person gave their talk, I'm like literally numb because he had moved me so much. And I thought to myself, wow I can do that. I can do that! But for me, I want to be able to speak about issues of race and Christianity, because that's what had always motivated me as a mixed-race Latino person. And that was one major big moment for me and I was like, okay I can do that.

But I still waited I continued to discern. Maybe like two months before graduating from law school, my dad called and I entered my apartment just the right moment that he called. And he said, are you seated? And he said, I got the letter from UCLA. You got in and you got like a full ride and all that kind of stuff. And I was like, okay Lord, now I know this is from you because I would have been happy just to get in with a little bit of money. I didn't even know it was possible to get a full ride for your PhD. And then, so I graduated from law school, took the bar exam that summer and like one month later started my PhD.

Patrick: What was your emphasis in your PhD program and how did that fit into that park bench conversation you had with God and the JD you just got?

Robert: You know, everything was new to me, the whole PhD thing. But I had always remembered that my family had said, oh yeah we have friends in Mexico who are Chinese. And I thought, man I want to study that. I didn't really know anything about anything and I proposed studying the Chinese of Mexico, to my advisor José Moya. And it turned out to be the perfect topic because it was a topic that was important in Latin American history but no one basically had written a book about it.

There was a good number of articles and that just became my topic. In hindsight, I got to study Latin American history, I got to study Chicano Latino history, I got to study Asian American history. I got to learn about the dark side of colonialism, and all those things that we talked about now, whiteness and so forth, but I was just kinda thrown into it. At the same time, I made a commitment at that time. I'm like, I'm going to read the Bible once a year. I read my Asian American studies textbooks in one hand, my Bible in the other hand and I just did that for five years. Just sifting through and trying to make sense of it all. I remember took one like legal studies kind of a class in my PhD, but to be honest, I was still pretty traumatized from law school, so it took me a while to come back to it. Eventually I did. That took a few years. 

Patrick: And as you did this study you know, my sense is Chicano studies in particular, the complex nature that the church and relationship that the church has in a colonial history, especially in the Western hemisphere, hasn't been the most receptive place of folks who feel called or this sense of following Jesus as a vocation. How did you navigate your kind of academic disciplines that you're housed in doing this deep historical research, talking about colonialism and also this call to ministry at the same time?

Robert: So first, I needed to learn all of that bad stuff from colonial history right? I read [Bartolomé de] Las Casas and I read like people like that and Juana [Inés de la Cruz], I read, about the anti-Chinese movements in the US, those kinds of things. But one thing I found was, and think this was God's sovereignty, as I was studying the bad stuff that happened, I also found that there were prophets, there are always prophets. There was always one Christian or two Christians somewhere in the historical record, according to just my reading the secondary literature at the time, where they stood up and they said no cierre, chale, this is not God, this is not Jesus.

You can't do this to the indigenous people. You can't do this to Asian-Americans. And so I found in my readings, over five years, both the records of the people that twisted Christianity for colonial purposes and sexist purposes and all of that stuff, but also those bright lights. Again like that calling I felt was so deep.

And I think one of the saving graces in my life, literally and figuratively was that Jesus touched me so radically when I was in law school, that no one was ever going to tell me, oh Jesus is not real. Despite whatever misrepresentations of Jesus there were, Jesus was as real to me as if I would cut my finger off.

So I would never be persuaded. Like I'm not going to stop following Jesus I don't care what anybody says. And then I think what motivated me in my studies also is that my primary spiritual gift is evangelism. Like I want people to know Jesus because Jesus changed my life. And it sounds so old school and stuff. I have the, like the background as a community organizer that I can say that and not be cheesy but yet at the end of the day, that's so real to me. And so when I found so many people losing their faith in the context of ethnic studies because they read about all the bad stuff that really did happen, it made me even more motivated to want to be able to come up with a response. 

Patrick: And you just mentioned community organizing. So I want to pick up that a little bit because you're not…I mean, you're brilliant. You are all brains, but you're also all embodied too in the community. Tell me about how this ministry, this deep study of history, this love of the community that formed you, how does that journey you outside the classroom or just outside the church and into the community? What does that work look like for you? 

Robert: As I began as a professor I started at the same time to meet, as I mentioned earlier, like so many people that would lose their faith, so many people because they didn't know how to reconcile justice and race issues with following Jesus.

Maybe they grew up like the local Pentecostal church, or like the Iglesia Bautista like me, or they were grew up in their local Catholic parish to UCLA, and then they learn all the bad stuff that happened in history. But they didn't really have a way of being able to understand how their faith of their abuelitas or abuelos or their dads or their moms or the tía's and their tío's, how did that faith intersect, right, with the God of justice and all these things? And so that led me very organically with my wife, Erica, to begin our ministry called Jesus for Revolutionaries. And we've had the privilege of working with FTE with some of our projects, too.

We just began this, this kind of just like giant experiment of how do you create ministry spaces so that we can process that connection between Jesus and justice? And so that led us naturally into organizing and activism and Bible studies and mentorship. And I've married students, I've baptized students. I have prayed with students to receive Jesus. Now I want to say for the record, like apart from my work at UCLA, like I really respect the boundaries of church and state and so I want to be very clear. But that being said, like in my free time, I can do whatever I want, right? And then I came to understand more kind of the experiences of my students on the ground right now. And again, like I said, I grew up one foot in middle-class America, one foot in my immigrant families experience. So I was kind of detached a bit or a lot actually. And as I met my students, as I began to learn from them and hear about their stories, then God just really taught me so much through my students. And it was funny because I'd be teaching these classes at UCLA for the first time, like classes about Latinos and the law, like immigration and voting rights and affirmative action and language discrimination. I'd be teaching it for the first time with my students, I'd be hearing their stories at the same time, and I'd be reading my Bible at the same time. And as you begin to care, then you realize, oh my gosh, what are the policy reasons behind why this is happening to people's families? And then, most immediately, like in the last five years, that's brought me the blessing of getting to know Reverend Alexia Salvatierra, Reverend Michael Mata and others, who have taken me under their wing and then transformed Jesus for Revolutionaries into also a work of community organizing and activism and all kind of in this organic way. And then that led to like, I'm a lawyer and I haven't practiced law, but I'm a lawyer. Eventually what happened, that prayer at that bench; okay God, do you want me to become a pastor, a lawyer or a historian? Eventually, like it all just happened, I think that's maybe like a lesson from my story is that ministry doesn't have to happen in the linear way that maybe a lot of us have been exposed to. Like okay, you just go to seminary, then you become a pastor. For me, I'm all over the place. I change hats like I change my chonies, right? It's like, they just... Hopefully that's inspirational to people to realize it's not linear. It doesn't have to be. 

Patrick: That's incredible. One of the things that I think is inspiring about that Robert is that on that park bench, you didn't say God told me to check all the boxes right now, just to check the boxes, it feels like all these things are coming for a reason, so you can have the skills and capabilities to enact your call faithfully where you are. What are some of the biggest challenges you're facing right now in your vocation?

Robert: I would say in my latest work that I've done, you know, Brown Church, like I never expected to write that book either. For those who are listening, who might not be familiar with it, so Brown Church, it takes all the experience that we just talked about, and it says in an interdisciplinary way that combines history and ethnic studies and CRT and theology, it says the church has been co-opted for 500 years in many different ways, but there's always been a separate strain of followers of Jesus, a prophetic strain who have challenged colonization, who have challenged the exploitation of immigrants who have challenged such and such things. And I call that 500 year tradition the Brown Church. This 500 year tradition of Latino, Latina, Christian, social justice, I call it the Brown Church. And I say to those who are wrestling in the borderlands of faith and justice, right? Don't know where you fit, welcome! You belong. You belong to the Brown Church. We've been doing this justice and race and Christianity thing and following Jesus for 500 years.

So the challenge of that is, I have different audiences, right? So one audience is like, how do I communicate this message in a way that is thoughtful to my colleagues in ethnic studies? And then at the same time, how do I speak this message to Gen X, to millennials, right, in a way that meets them where their heart is at?

How do I bridge too, the first gen folks, right, like my parents and uncles? And how do I share that same message? And so I think one of the challenges is bridging those different audiences. But you know I get crazy stuff that some people say, but for the most part, it's like it's resonating pretty well, resonating pretty well.

Patrick: Folks who are listening can look up my review of it and said, if I would have read that book before I went to all my school, I would have saved a lot of money on school because the Brown Church is such a beautiful marriage Robert, of all the things that I feel like Jesus was calling us to. And that as we talk about your vocation, I am curious about how you manage all of this. How do you manage a deep scholarship, a deep love of study of texts and people and histories, a call to do community organizing, a call to being a lawyer, a call to being a good partner, husband, father, all the things? How do you manage all of these vocations? Is it that the sum of them are one vocation? Is it just you have really great time management? Is there a cool app they should know about, how do you manage this? 

Robert: And first, thank you for those kind words about Brown Church. I think that I have become skilled at taking off hats and putting them down so like for different seasons, I wear different hats. I think that's probably the way I do it. So there was a season when I was, mostly professor and an organizer. Like I mostly focused on Matthew 25 work and being a professor. But there might be another time where for a year I'm focused on writing my book cause I got like a fellowship. I learned from experience the hard way to burn out. So I definitely burned out and there was a time about four or five years into my professorship where I mean I learned the lesson like you can't do too much.

And to speak honestly, like it brought me to a point where I was going to christian counseling twice a week. And all these kinds of healing things. Being willing to say, you know what, I'm just gonna, I'm just gonna just stop for this moment.

I remember when my daughter was born, our second child, Erica and I stopped ministry for a year. We said we've been doing super intense ministry for five years and we got to stop. And at first it's so hard because we were like, oh my gosh we've invested so much time and energy and momentum in doing our ministry.

And guess what? When we came back a year later the world was still spinning. God was still in control. It didn't depend upon us. That being said, once you get tenure as a professor then it gets way easier, at least in my experience. So for those of you who might be listening and thinking about becoming a professor, depending upon where you're teaching, but like for me, it was like after six years, seven years you get evaluated. And if you get that promotion, that's called tenure, then you have your job for the rest of your life. And the pressure is most intense for those first six or seven years, you have to publish the right books and articles and so forth.

I think having tenure makes all the difference. I want to say also, yeah having such a supportive, amazing spouse, Erica, you know, we're really like a family unit, and my wife is an organizer, spiritual director, we co-parent. And surprisingly I have dinner with my family by 5:30 every night. And most weekends I don't work. And all that kind of stuff, it's possible. I know people get the impression that maybe I'm working all the time, but honestly, like right now I'm on a work vacation with my family and we went skiing yesterday.

Patrick: That's so awesome. I want to stick on that point just real quick before we get to my last question and that's because I don't think in a lot of these interviews or a lot of the literature around vocation, the idea of sacred pause is stressed enough. It might be suggested as kind of a nice thing or Sabbath is cool, but you just mentioned a whole year off ministry when your daughter was born.

And that's not just a year of waiting until you get back to the thing. Can you talk a little bit about the joy of that period of rest or even in the week? What is it like to not work on the weekends. Just tell us about that rest time. 

Robert: I just love to spend time with my family. Like when my daughter was young, she’s just going to hate me if you ever use this, but we asked her, what's your favorite thing to do?

She's like, ‘I like to spend time with my family.’ How did my daughter get an East LA accent, first of all? Secondly, that's super awesome right? Like for me too. I love to spend time with my family. You know, we go on long walks. We have our dog, we travel a lot. My wife and I try to, every year, go on a retreat for a few days, just to seek God and our family's vocation and for the year. And try to exercise. Another thing is like I tried to stay connected to the local church, our local Latino church. That's very life-giving.

And yeah, just take time to breathe. It helps that my wife's a spiritual director, so she knows all the stuff like, oh this is whatever Ignation this and so I'll just do whatever she tells me to do.

Patrick: As I think about what you just said about Erica and your family life, the question almost seems insignificant, but I ask everyone this who comes on this show the same question: How much of your sense of vocation comes from the community going all the way back to your dad and the butcher shop or leading education in California to the family in East LA to your studies, how much is driven by that community and how much is driven by your own kind of relationship with God, your own sense of call, your own sense of ministry?

Robert: I think it's all mixed up together for me. I think honestly, like my closest, most enduring connections to the community is my students. 

So I think it comes from my students. It comes from my local church La Fuente ministries where it's like, maybe we're like 50 people on a good Sunday. But we're intergenerational, there's like people who just, you know, the night before worked an all night shift at the gas station and then they show up and there's people that, essential workers, there's Fuller professors at the same time. It's so critical for me, I think, that connection to the local community. In my opinion, theology is the best when it comes from the local community, right? It's sort of, it's organic. That's why I love the earlier Latino/ Latina theology, it's like Elizondo, and Justo González and Elizabeth Conde Frazier. They're pastors, they're in it. And then they write from that experience. I want to be honest, too, like some theology that I see coming out now, it's not connected to the community. I just think, how could that even work in the local community? I try to picture it. How would that even work what you're saying in my, in my local church? All that to say that like, you know, as much as I don't do it perfectly, but that connection to the local Brown Church. That's it for me, that so critical.

Patrick: That's absolutely beautiful. Robert, I think the theology from the community, fuels that vocation. I hear it in your story. I hear it in your work that really, we can't live into our multiple calls, hats or chonies that were given by God. They have to be driven by the community that is following or attempting to follow Jesus and God in our search for justice in the world. And I think that's absolutely what this next generation is going to be holding a lot of, cause there's a lot for them to do. So I just appreciate the example that you're leading as all those things as a professor, as a lawyer, as a community organizer, as a father, as a friend I'm grateful to know you and grateful you shared your story. This is inspiring. 

Robert: Thank you brother Patrick. It's such an honor to be able to talk with you and to share my story. I'm honored. 

Patrick: I just want to thank you for joining the sound of the genuine. We know that there's a lot of inspiring stories out there, and we're glad you spent some time to hear Dr. Romero's work, life, ministry. 

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