Sound of the Genuine

Erica Ramirez: Called to the Common Good

November 30, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 19
Sound of the Genuine
Erica Ramirez: Called to the Common Good
Show Notes Transcript


Dr. Erica M. Ramirez is Auburn’s Director of Applied Research. Before joining Auburn, she was the Richard B. Parker Assistant Professor of Wesleyan Thought and Heritage at Portland Seminary in Portland, Oregon. A rising star in the field of U.S. Latinx religion, and a scholar of Pentecostalism, she brings to the Auburn team a vital sociological imagination and a deep commitment to research and writing that troubles the waters and heals the world. 

Ramirez holds the Ph.D. in Sociology of Religion, having studied at Drew University under the late Otto Maduro, a leading sociologist of his generation. Her dissertation revisited the Azusa Street mission revival through the frame of the maternal divine, working with themes of revolution, disruption, and the carnivalesque. She holds the M.A. in the History of Christianity from Wheaton College and the B.A. in Counseling and Psychology from Southwestern Assemblies of God University. With broad interests in religion, contemporary politics, and culture, Ramirez is particularly interested in “how radical religious traditions present as a challenge to and resource against social oppression.” 

She is a fifth-generation Texan, with deep roots in San Antonio. Ramirez enjoys music, hiking, and all things pop culture. With her husband Chris, she has three children: Judah, Julia, and Camilla.

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

Patrick: Hey, what's going on? It is Dr. Patrick Reyes from the Forum for Theological Exploration. Welcome to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine. And today we have my friend, my colleague, my comrade, Dr. Erica Ramirez, who is the director of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. 

From San Antonio to New York, what I love about Dr. Ramirez's call is that no matter where she is or what she's doing, it is about leveraging those skills, those gifts, those talents, those passions for your people to really change this world.  

Dr. Ramirez is good to see you. Good to talk to you.  How are you doing?

Erica: I'm doing great. How are you? 

Patrick: I'm doing well. So tell me about yourself. 

Erica: I'm Erica Ramirez. I am director of applied research at Auburn Seminary. I am a third generation Pentecostal raised in Hispanic churches in South Texas, specifically San Antonio, and I attended mostly Assembly of God churches, to get denominationally specific. And I just got my doctorate from Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, in 2019.

And somewhere along the way I met you, Dr. Reyes and a number of your colleagues at FTE and that has led to this moment. It's led to a lot of moments, but here it's led to this moment where we're sitting across from each other I think to talk about life stories. 

Patrick: That's right. And I know where you ended up, I know all of that and we'll get to that. I'm curious about when you were younger. Did you always dream you would be the director of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York? If it is, this will be the shortest episode that we have. I'm hoping that's not the case though.

Erica: I did. I always knew I wanted to work at a school in Manhattan as the director of applied research, but really no, before that, when I was just a little girl growing up in the south side of San Antonio, my mom is a teacher and my dad is a firefighter, well they were before they retired, and like most children of newly middle-class parents, my parents had specific ideas about what I could be when I grew up and they included being a teacher, a lawyer, or a doctor. So when I was growing up, I thought I might do one of those three things.

As you can tell that didn’t happen!

Patrick: Well you’re kind of like all of those things now in your current [role], you’re like all those things combined.

Erica: Yeah, actually you're right. Would you let them know that? That would be great. 

Patrick: I'll write them a letter. So you're going through junior high and high school, thinking about your next steps, leaving San Antonio, what did you pursue? Were any of those still on the imagination? Was the church in the imagination? What were you thinking you were going to do and who was helping you make that decision? 

Erica: There are a couple of ways that I got to being the director of applied research at Auburn. One is the development of a temperament. So my dad is a very opinionated observer of politics, both on the granular level…So politics within family, politics within churches, and then…like the nation all were for him of keen interest. And I'm the eldest of three girls and his observations were always brought into our conversation.

So I really grew up having a lot of conversations with my dad. My dad is highly interested in the politics of like organizations all up into the nation. And my dad always kind of expected me to be able to think in those terms and converse in those terms and over time, of course I learned to do that.

The second influence though that I had was a group of people that you'd probably be interested in your work. So I grew up in the late nineties and the Assemblies of God at this time was at what I think of as a high water mark in its cultural life, meaning it has all kinds of programming. For young persons that had something called Royal Rangers and Missionettes, which was like Christian girl Scouts and Christian boy Scouts. And I was a Missionette. And it had really active youth groups. Like my youth pastor grew our church to having a hundred person youth group, which was a major feature, right? That's something to boast about in AG culture. And that youth group would go on two big trips a year, Patrick; the summer camp and the November conference. Now at the summer camp, a week long, we were always really encouraged to think about our calls.

And so those are like a deep spiritualization at this point, and confrontation of people - about 14 to 17 years old - confrontation with themes about the rest of our lives, matters of ultimate importance and the responsibility of believers, including young believers like ourselves to build what they would call at the time, build the kingdom of God.

And sometimes they would say not your kingdom. So building the kingdom of God and answering God's specific call for your life, which God would tell you about in your heart and in your own psyche. So through prayer and through seeking God, God would make known God's will for your life, AKA your calling.

So I had two kind of strong sets of ideas at this time. The idea that my life was such that I was responsible to a calling and that that was going to be nurtured in the space of my church was my experience. And then I also had this responsibility to be a professional. And those two things did not seem to me in contradiction until I got to be around 16 or 17 and it was time to choose where to go to college. 

My mother had gone to Trinity University in my hometown of San Antonio. And there was the expectation that I would do the same and I almost did. But my calling, as I understood it at the time, took me to Southwestern Assemblies of God and Waxahachie, Texas.

There was a moment, you know, I'm 17 years old, I'm feeling a little unsure about how I'm going to pursue my future. And in the end, my sense was I needed to go to Bible College, and so I did. Waxahachie is right outside of Dallas. So it was my first time to move away from home. 

Patrick: So as you think about this strong sense to be professional or following this call, did the Bible college offer the professional piece too? I mean, was the college checking both boxes for you at this time? Was it you really responding to that sense of call? 

Erica: That's actually such a great question So you may have a sense of calling. You may have a priority for the work of God in the world, but at the Bible college, of course, they're trying to sell you programs. And I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. When I got there, I try to renegotiate the tension between a very spiritualized Jesus modeled ministry on earth as like the, pinnacle of calling in my mind and the desires of my parents for that steady paycheck and professional identity. 

My first compromise that I brokered there was to set my sights on becoming a counseling psychologist. So my major was in counseling, which was a lot of fun. Actually, I have to say that that introduced me to a whole new world of thought. And I had a really fun professor named Dr. Calvin Carmen. [He] had spent time at Harvard, so he was bringing a really different perspective than I'd ever really been exposed to. And so that's where my turn inward into the mind came. And I learned Freud among other people. So those are kind of the beginning of my social science journey. And it was a big failure, nonetheless, because when I told my parents that I wanted to be a psychologist, my dad said there are already too many shrinks in the world. 

Patrick: It didn't check those boxes. It wasn't the type of doctor he had in mind. 

Erica: Yeah, psychology was kind of new on the scene. I remember trying to find my way forward [and] one of my professors recommended that I do an internship with Dr. Frank Minirth from the Minirth Meyer clinic, which at that time, he was like almost the second name, right under James Dobson. So I did an internship there and I could see the professionalization path in front of me that my dad couldn't yet see.

But I did not pursue that path because Patrick, I had always wanted to go to Wheaton College. Right after I got married and graduated, my husband suggested that I go to Wheaton College grad school. They had a PsyD program, which was new at the time, a doctorate of psychology, but I thought what was right for me was a degree program called Religion in American Life. I was still unsteady around how my calling was going to be shaped in terms of professionalization, even after I graduated undergrad. 

Patrick: So you got to tell me about this. You're going to Wheaton which is not in Texas. Tell me about the move out to grad school as you tease out these sort of questions. Why grad school and why not into professional way right away? 

Erica: I had always wanted to go to Wheaton and none of you know my dad so I'm just going to tell you what he said about it when he took me there. So my parents took me to Wheaton to check out the campus and to see if I could go there. And my dad was like - I mean this was classic dissuasion but it got to me - he was like this campus is kind of small.

It's kind of ugly. And then he was like, and actually the people are kind of ugly, which was so mean and funny and rude, but that's just kind of how they got to me. And I was like, you're right it's not that great. So I had been easily talked out of Wheaton, but then it had lingered for me. It was hard to explain my draw to Wheaton in any other way than, I knew a woman there who was on faculty, who had been raised in the Assemblies of God, who had written a book about the Assemblies of God that we read at Southwestern, and who had also gone to Harvard.

And so I think what I saw in Dr. Edith Blumhofer was the possibility of bringing together different aspects of my personality that were hard to bring together right out of Southwestern. So even though I think it was a perfectly fine idea to be a psychologist and I think that would have been a great road. I was still dealing with the questions, they didn't feel resolved about how to tie it together probably a desire for professionalization, a super intellectual side and a sense of calling. And I saw in Edith Blumhofer the potential of that so I went to Wheaton to take classes with her.

In fact, that was a major pivot in my own development because you can't understand the field of, for instance, the study of American Pentecostalism, which is right in the middle of my own scholarly niche - You couldn't understand that without understanding Edith Blumhofer. She was fundamental to creating the field. So by around 2001, when I finally show up at Wheaton, I'm getting closer to where I'll end up, obviously. 

Patrick: Wow. And so you're getting to study with this mover in the field. And what does that stir for you? I mean, not just that she can represent what you could do, the professionalization of your intellectual interests, but how are you thinking about actualizing this? You know most masters students don't go straight onto writing books or doing deep research. How did working with her kind of stir some imaginations about what you might eventually do?

Erica: It was Edith Blumhofer's class on American Pentecostalism. Our final projects, she asked for her students to find little known Pentecostal movements and to try to write a social history of them. I have to admit, I thought this was really boring at first.

I wasn't really drawn to history at the time, yet I had this paper to write. And it just so happened to be a time where my paternal grandmother was really sick. So I had to go visit her at the hospital. And then I remembered that this paternal grandmother had been part of an immigrant Pentecostal denomination, not the Assemblies of God.

That had, in fact, I learned broken away from the Assemblies of God due to racism. So in connecting with my paternal grandmother, because she was sick, I remembered that in fact, where I kind of clicked, I did have the potential to study a small Pentecostal movement that had not yet been really well studied.

And so it was a simple as an assignment. I ended up turning that assignment into an independent study project with a historian named Tim Larson. And what I discovered about that group called CLADIC for short, was that they had a lot of grievances against what they would call the Anglo-Saxon in Spanish.

I love it. It's called Anglo-Sajónas, but Anglo-Saxon brethren who they felt oppressed them and had oppressed their vote when it came to their desire for a specific superintendent. I found that history fascinating because having grown up in the Assemblies of God, having had some beloved youth leaders and pastors from the Assemblies of God, it was very interesting to do this long retrospective into my own intergenerational history and to see that that relationship had really been broken. And this is like in the early 1900’s. 1923 is the founding of CLADIC, founded in response to what they felt was over ethnic oppression. 

Fortunately, at that point, the independent study advisor, Tim Larson, he really allowed me to ask different questions of this history. So when I tried to interview people from CLADIC to talk about their history, they were really really hesitant to talk to me at all.

This all unraveled, this project totally unraveled for me by asking why did they not want to talk to the public? Why did they feel really private and guarded about their own historical documents? And so I went in the direction of studying their desire for opacity, their desire for unintelligibility to the academy. 

And I wrote that up using JMC Scott's Hidden Transcripts. This is a pretty well-documented way of thinking about how subaltern groups or minority groups or oppressed groups conduct their business in one way as to hide their meetings, hide their transactions from the eyes of operatives who represent a hegemonic force. So in not wanting to share CLADIC documents with me and not wanting to share their perspectives with me, I could see myself as part of the other, that CLADIC still wanted to maintain privacy from and maintain opacity with, if that makes sense.

So that was my masters and by that point, I'm asking really different questions about not just the history of American Pentecostalism but also, just to get closer Patrick to where this is really living, this is my grandparents Pentecostalism.

I was reared in very different Assemblies of God directed Pentecostalism. So what does it mean to be the other, to become identified with a group that maybe my grandparents were uneasy with? And you're right, it still wasn't obvious to me that I was going to be the director of applied research at Auburn, but I was coming to see American religion as a contested space in race and ethnic ways, in a way that previous to that, I was very innocent about. Very naïve about. 

Patrick: Seems to me like you got a great, as I talk to doctoral students or potential doctoral students, a great research question. Like you have some great curiosity that's been spurred in your master's program to really go deeper and kind of tease out what this history is, what religious movements might mean. So what'd you do with that curiosity? And what was your next step to further your own study, your own intellectual curiosity? 

Erica: Well, right after that I decided to become the manager of a prime steak house. And that makes a lot of sense. And I decided to become good at selling wine to people who were trying to party on business accounts.

I actually think this was a really important time in my life. I don't have time to tell you everything that I learned from that experience, but I wanted to give your audience a sense of the non-linearity of my path. I'm working on the Riverwalk with people who are literally sometimes using their money to get coked up, right? And I had grown up in church, like my parents do not drink at all. I do not know how to dance. I'm not terrible dancer, but I had never been to dance. So this was a whole new experience for me, and to be around people who had like an intense party capacity. I remember looking around and not really being sure, you know, would I ever really get out of that industry because it can be fairly lucrative.

I think I made $70,000 one year. Those steaks and wine are expensive so there's a hustle element there. But I looked around and there were people who wanted to be actors, there were people who wanted to be in different places, they wanted to be lawyers or they were going to be social workers. And I started to wonder Patrick, like were any of us going to get out?

Everybody has dreams, everybody has goals, but there can be the beat down of daily life. So I think this is really important to include, I spent five to six years in and out of the waitressing/waiting industry and the food managing industry, and I don't regret any of it, but there were times when I couldn't see clearly the way forward. There were also times when people lost faith in me and felt like I was not going to move forward. And that added to a lot of anxiety. 

So insert small chapter here about working on the Riverwalk and anxiety and then I'll tell you the next part, where I finally decided to apply to a PhD program and FTE man - this feels like this was scripted but it's not - FTE had a lot to do with this. 

So I don't remember what year this was that you guys were trying to Nurture my future, along with a lot of other people's future, in theological education. But I think this was AAR, Nurturing the Next Generation that you guys took us to. Do you remember this? 

Patrick: I wasn't there. But I know what year it was, it's 2011 Nurturing the Next Generation of Scholars of Color, that was the title of the program. Cause we still have the program. I can see your name and I technically still have your essay. I won't share it in the show notes, but I remember what you said you wanted to study, but go ahead. 

Erica: So I wandered into the Drew Theological School reception. For those of you who've never been to the American Academy of Religion in November, they have a conference every year and at night, schools and theological organizations, para-organizations like Forum for Theological Exploration and Hispanic Theological Initiative, throw receptions. And so the receptions are really fun because they're an opportunity to get to know the school and/or organization and loosely to kind of party, because a lot of the receptions can offer like hors d'oeuvres and wine. So we were doing the reception and getting to see what sort of, I think, academic life is about via the conference. I wandered into the Drew Theological School reception and immediately was introduced to Otto Maduro, who would end up being my doctoral advisor.

And there was just something about the room, the Drew room that I felt so drawn to. The community just felt totally right for me. And Otto, who would not live long into my own program, he really was a giant in terms of his presence in Hispanic theological education and just the most wonderful, warm hearted and really erudite human being. Anyway, I met him. I was totally overwhelmed by that meeting. Totally overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the Drew reception and promptly applied to PhD programs because I could tell I wanted to be in that kind of room.I applied to three programs, but Drew was my first choice, I got in and I went. 

I went in saying that I had experienced Pentecostalism, the version that I had been nurtured in, as a liberative force in my life. And I really liked that idea of force because it's not a liberative ideology, and actually I don't think that Pentecostalism is necessarily a very liberative ideology. And in fact, if I were to kind of give you the clearest version of what I think it does, as it is right now, it has oppressive hierarchies. But it also gives individual adherents tools for overcoming them. In a weird way it’s kind of like a vaccination in that like, when you get a vaccination technically you get the illness. It's given to you in a way that is designed for you to overcome that illness successfully.

So I would say American Pentecostalism is ambivalent but it has really strong capacity for empowering people to overcome adversity in their lives. And so I said as much in my admissions essay to Drew and Otto Maduro who had been a lifelong Catholic/atheist, so it depends on what period you're studying Otto. He was sometimes an atheist, sometimes a Catholic, he had actually come to that same conclusion on his own. So there was a consonance of our concern around Pentecostalism and he was wonderful at nurturing my study of American Pentecostalism’s ritual system.

Now I'm at a point in a story where people can come in on their own planks, meaning suddenly this year and in 2016, a lot of people got interested in Pentecostal politics because of the rise of Donald Trump and the role that some celebrity televangelists, who are Pentecostal, like Paula White for instance, played in surrogating Trump into office.

That's super interesting and I've written several articles on that for popular press, including the Washington Post and Religion News Service. And that I think is really what's fantastic about Auburn, which is where I am now. Auburn is positioned in a way where it tries to steward American religious traditions or American religions very broadly construed, it's multi-faith, for the public good.

So in my capacity as director of applied research, I both am looking to implement public interventions, for instance, vaccine right now; how to get vaccine into low trust communities and trying to engage churches in that work, I'm doing that now. But I'm also speaking into public discourse from my position as a scholar of religion, and in one project bolster up our faith in democracy and our muscles for participating in democracy, or bolster our knowledges about, for instance, how somebody like Donald Trump happened. How to frame his appearing in force in our public life. I feel like that was all really clear and you probably don't have any more questions.


Patrick: I was just going to say, you're a scholar, you're a doctor, you're an educator. You're educating the public. 

Erica: Yes, that's right. 

Patrick: And kind of like you're creating law. I mean you're living out your dad's dream going all the way back to the beginning. 

Erica: And there is a law of continuity actually. And it sets me up for having still really robust conversations with my dad today because my dad continues to be the same person. Still highly interested in ethics, which is like law, because you're making a lot of moral judgements and trying to talk about norms and goods and human flourishing. So the conversations are the same. The tools are more elaborate, the audiences are more diverse, but there is integrity with how I started out on this road and what conversations my dad made possible. So when my dad and I disagree, it's always really bitter. I mean we're trying to learn, but there's an inherent bitterness about it. Something that I think is really cute is he really never thought that conversations about politics were too complicated for a 10 year-old girl or an 11 year-old girl. So feminist sources are diverse. They come in places I don't think we always think we'll find them. 

Patrick: That's cool. Now I just got one more question for you, cause it sounds like you're deploying this research curiosity that you had through your master's program, honoring your grandmother, you know, teasing out this relationship with your dad and how he prompted you.

How much of your sense of your vocation, your call, what you do in the world is driven by some sort of inner voice going back to your 16 year old self who hears that sense of call, then how much of it is driven by your community? The conversation you've had with elders, you know, going back to your master's program, to Dr. Maduro, your father… 

Erica: Wow. What a fantastic question. And what an opportunity to really evaluate because the truth is there are so many convening voices. That doesn't change when you enter the workplace. I'm really glad you're doing this podcast and I also have to admit the need for it because there are so many competing energies when you enter these kind of spaces. And there's a lot of pressure to respond to opportunities, responsibilities, other people's desires. So let me say that I think one of the most important things that spiritual formation - I want to give a shout out to my youth pastor Mark Molina I'm going to make them listen to this - One of the most important things that the church did for me was to hone that sense of calling. I don't want to try to elaborate more because it's such a awesome thing. And a sacred thing and it took work over time, creating space for young people to ask those questions, encouraging young people to take themselves in the world seriously, is just incredible.

FTE and HTI, Hispanic Theological Initiative are other places that picked that up for me. You know, by that time I was fairly demoralized. I just want to put that out there because people experience demoralization and frustration, and a sense of powerlessness.

By the time Hispanic Theological Initiative and Forum for Theological Exploration come into my life. And you guys that nurturing program 2010, 2011, pick up on the themes of calling. It’s really an incredible intervention on y'all's part that belt on my formation in Pentecostal churches.

And then now the truth is that this is one of the first times in my life that I'm having to see that conversation as one I'll have to steward too with you. Does that make sense? So this podcast is a clear touch point. But you know if I'm wanting to maintain a sense of connection and calling, it will matter how I remember these things and how I live into them.

And to be honest, I don't want to answer the question that you just asked like, oh every morning I get up and like I journal about my grandmothers. I wish that were true. And in fact, I guess what I'm saying is so much of life crowds that out that this conversation has been re-centering, so thank you.

I think it will be important for me to sit with and to listen to others of your interviews so that I can see that work of maintaining sense of calling differently now that I hit mid-life and it's my job to both hold that and to encourage that for others. 

Patrick: Oh that's incredible and I'm so grateful that you shared your journey with us. I'm inspired by you. You're making a difference - to do all that education, to be that scholar, that doctor and to tell us all how to be better citizens. And I think it's really powerful for folks who are thinking about pursuing research in some sort of fashion and showing how it can make a difference.

So you're making a difference every day. Grateful for you, grateful for this conversation. 

Erica: Thank you so much. Yeah, everybody who's listening, go get more education if that's what you feel like, but whatever you choose to do, seek out community and be empowered to live out your callings and your convictions. Thank you. It's been great to be in conversation with you!

Patrick: Thank you again for listening and subscribing to the Sound of the Genuine. We hope you were inspired by Dr. Ramirez’s story. And if you've got a story please let us know. Hit us up on social, drop a line to us in our email box or go visit the website at to see the many resources and ways that FTE can support you in your call. I just want to send a special shout out and thank you for our wonderful design managers, Elsie Barnhart and Heather Wallace who make this podcast possible. And as always, a great thank you to @siryalibeats and his wonderful music that really brings this podcast alive. Thank you again and we'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.