How do you solve a problem like María?

Next Monday, December 12, is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s a special time to remember the appearance of the Virgin to Juan Diego so many years ago. For many Mexican people, Guadalupe is a sign of welcome, hope, and faith.

In my conversations with Mexican Lutherans, it appears that they are either fervent guadalupanos luteranos, or they are very strictly anti-Guadalupe, with not much in the middle. Some Lutheran congregations integrate devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe into their liturgical practice and community celebration. A very large congregation in Fort Worth is named after her, and was featured in The Lutheran a few months ago. Conversely, both Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe are conspicuously absent from the list of commemorations in the front of Libro de Liturgia y Cántico, our Spanish-language Lutheran hymnal. In my congregation, we have people with firm beliefs on both sides. On the one hand, when I visit people, quite a few homes have images of her displayed prominently, and more than a handful of women and girls are named Guadalupe, Lupina, Lupe, or other variations. She’s on jewelry, bumper stickers, and baseball caps. On the other hand, others think it’s too Roman Catholic, and inappropriate for us as Lutherans. To be Lutheran is to not have images, I’m often told.

Personally, I’m quite sympathetic to the argument that ELCA pastor Maxwell E. Johnson makes in The Virgin of Guadalupe: Theological Reflection of an Anglo-Lutheran Liturgist, that there is room for the Virgin in protestant worship. As a white guy from Iowa, I did not grow up with Guadalupe as any part of my religious faith development. I first started to develop an appreciation for her story when I served as intern at a New York congregation that celebrated December 12 with much gusto. That congregation had a giant mural depicting the Virgin standing hand in hand with Martin Luther and Frederick Douglass, emphasizing the beautiful racial collaboration in that place.

When you get down to it, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a rather Lutheran story. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German so that the Gospel could be understood in the language of the people. The Virgin speaks to Juan Diego in his language so that he may understand. In the spirit of the priesthood of all believers, Juan Diego becomes an unlikely evangelist, speaking truth to the power of the colonial religious establishment.

Whereas I think Guadalupe is a beautiful way of recognizing God’s subversive way of bringing justice and peace into our world, I also note that her devotion raises some theological question. I’m starting to become the imperialism aspect of it. Sometimes I do think that she becomes a sign of Mexican nationalism, and I wonder how welcoming she is for non-Mexican Latino/as. On internship with folks from many countries, the bulletin suggested changing the words in one of the Virgin hymns to “somos cristianos” instead of “somos mexicanos,” (“We’re Christians” instead of “We’re Mexicans”) but most people still sang it as they knew it.

So what do I preach this weekend? I get that the Virgin of Guadalupe is an important part of personal devotional life for many in my congregation, but I also want to respect the bound consciences of those with some discomfort. I realize that as a new pastor, especially as a new Anglo pastor in a Mexican community, it takes some time to build up some trust before preaching on controversial and potentially divisive topics. I have, however, mentioned Juan Diego in a recent sermon. I was talking about how some folks have intense and dramatic encounters in the course of their faith journeys. I did mention him in the same breath as Moses, Martin Luther, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter.

I’ll have plenty of years to preach my “Guadalupe is a really Lutheran story” sermon. I think I’ll wait for an opportunity. There will always be a chance to tell that message. Maybe I’m timidly squelching indigenous religious experience by my silence. On the other hand, I want to respect my pastoral colleagues and not preach a theology that is 180 degrees from the theology of some of my predecessors, especially on a topic that is so close to many hearts. This year, I’ll stay with Mary’s song from Luke’s Gospel. They’re Advent words that call us to start thinking about the radical transformation that God is about in the world. It’s a message of hope and justice that we all could keep hearing again and again.


Advent at San Lucas

Advent is here at San Lucas—waiting, watching, preparing. After our worship service on Thanksgiving Eve, we lingered around, sipping hot chocolate and noshing on pumpkin pie, decorating the sanctuary with Advent greenery. Our regular Wednesday night Bible study is on hiatus so we can gather for Evening Prayer these December nights. In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate Las Posadas, the beautiful Mexican tradition of reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for respite and lodging en route to Bethlehem.

In my first months as pastor here, I have felt a sense of welcome and hospitality. As the congregations and I have adapted to one another, we learn. My Spanish is getting better, and I’m gaining sensitivity to nuances of Mexican culture. I’m figuring out the process of bridge-crossing. The food bank continues to feed local families. A new guitar group has been developed to rise up worship music leadership. The Word is proclaimed; sacraments are administered. We journey together.

 Week after week, a vanload of San Lucans heads across into Piedras Negras, Coahuila, to worship at Cristo Rey, our Lutheran mission site about 13 miles away in Mexico. I am one of just a few ELCA pastors who preach in more than one country on any given Sunday. Once a month, nearly fifty Cristo Rey families receive some food assistance. It is getting more difficult to bring food and supplies across the border. We’ve started to buy more food in Mexico instead of risking crossing at the bridge. In October, we were not allowed to bring medicines for the free medical clinic across the border. There seem to be more Mexican soldiers near the bridge.

Advent is a time of hopeful anticipation. Here are some things to watch for at San Lucas in the time ahead:

  • Training a few new assisting ministers
  • Introducing an occasional childrens’ sermon
  • Some sort of ecological project—perhaps a community garden or maybe a goat or two
  • More intentional stewardship education
  • Developing a leadership team at Cristo Rey
  • Hosting a Cub Scout pack at San Lucas

Come and see! We sincerely hope that you consider visiting us at San Lucas and Cristo Rey some time in the next year. You can read this blog and check out pictures posted on facebook, but there’s no better way to understand the ministry here than to visit. Because the church property had long ago been an orphanage, San Lucas has dorm space available for visiting groups. Past congregational contingents have done cleaning and construction projects, helped with the food bank, and hosted medical clinics and health fairs. A fun potential project for a first-time mission partner congregation might be to help with a Saturday afternoon children’s event and/or help prepare a community meal. When you come, we can go to see the controversial federal border fence in downtown Eagle Pass so you can get a firsthand glimpse at our human boundaries. There have been concerns about safety and security along the border. We do take precautions. Both church campuses are surrounded by locked gates. If we do cross into Mexico, we go only in the day, taking a church van instead of personal cars.

¡Muchísimas gracias! In a context with much poverty and unemployment, San Lucas and Cristo Rey are both very dependent on the generosity of our mission partners and supportive donors. We are ever so grateful. Due to internet privacy concerns, we won’t list individual donors here. Besides ELCA and Synod support, we have been impacted by the munificent benevolance of so many others. Thank you!

Please remember in prayer:

  • The mission and ministry of San Lucas and Cristo Rey
  • The ELCA
  • The Southwestern Texas Synod
  • Our mission partners and prayerful supporters
  • Those who receive food from our food bank
  • Families traveling north for agricultural work
  • Teenagers tempted by the allure of drugs
  • Victims of violence on both sides of the border
  • People struggling with their legal immigration status


Advent blessings,

Pastor Paul


Adapted from an Advent 2011 newsletter to friends and mission partners of San Lucas.