Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Learning Spanish Saved My Life

The following is drawn from a message delivered in ESR and Bethany Joint Worship on March 22 by David Johns:

 Several years ago I was standing at the International Airport in Portland, Oregon waiting for a shuttle to take me to the campus of George Fox University. I was there to attend a conference and present a paper. A group of us gathered to wait for the shuttle. A gentleman asked me:
“Are you here for the FAHE conference?”
“I am,” I said.
“You teach?”
“I do,” I said. “Theology.”
He shook his head. “Well, that is a monumental waste of time.”
The problem is I had already had a number of conversations like that one at PDX. In each of the encounters I felt I was doing more than simply arguing a case for the importance of what we theologians do; I was trying to legitimize my own sense of worth, my own calling as a person of faith. And each time I walked away wondering if I really was wasting my time—and, by wasting my time, also wasting my life.
Even in the seminaries where I teach: most students come with an interest in spirituality or pastoral studies; many have reservations about theology—a mild distaste for it—the area of study in which I had invested so many years. I know very well that it can be dry and theoretical and embarrassingly clueless, but no student has ever been as blunt as the retired philosophy professor I met in Portland. The nagging doubt never quite went away.
I withdrew as much as possible and spent less time with students and co-workers. After dismissing class, it was not unusual for me to hurry to my office, close the door, and thank God I didn’t have to interact with anyone for the rest of the day. I was ready to retool and find another career…to do something that mattered.
For any of you who might be able to relate to this thus far, you know very well that such crises are not simply professional ones. They have that appearance; but they are deeper. They can eat away at one’s soul; cause one to question one’s vocation; and they can cause one to question one’s faith. They are spiritual crisis. It angered me that I might have been pouring my life into something meaningless…and worse! that I was justifying it all for God. I thought maybe God had sucked out the energy of my life, exploited me, for too many years, and now it was time to do something important…which obviously meant it was now my time.
Then I traveled with a group to Honduras in January 2006. What happened in the ten days I was there has changed my life forever. 
Without warning I fell in love with Honduras. I fell head over heels with Latino culture. And to my surprise, I fell in love with Spanish. As I look through the notebooks from my days there, I was learning words like: brother, sister, up, down, to walk, to eat, to do, and so. Basic. As an adult I knew how to count and say “hello,” and that was about all.
When I returned I began studying in earnest with a Columbian student of mine who sat patiently with me as my stilted conversation became a little more confident and as our weekly hour together shifted from mostly English to mostly Spanish.
Since then, I have returned to Honduras seven times, the last time I was accompanied by some of my own seminary students. I spent a sabbatical there too, rather than where I thought I would: in the Bodlean Library, University of Oxford, writing an important book. Since then, I’ve taught courses in New Testament theology and contemporary theology at an institute in southern Honduras, I’ve taught in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Costa Rica, in Nicaragua, and at la Universidad Iberoamericana in Puebla, Mexico—all in Spanish, and I’ve been a scholar in residence at two different organizations in Mexico City. 
Absolutely none of this was on my radar screen a few years ago. I saw none of it coming.

I began by mentioning the nagging question of whether my work was a monumental waste of time. You’ve been patient with your time as I have narrated this personal story. But what is the point?
I want to claim that, for me, learning Spanish saved my life. This is a kind of linguistic soteriological love story.
I’ll make four points briefly:
1.      Learning Spanish awakened a delight in other people
Speaking Spanish meant I had to listen, really listen, to the people with whom I was talking. I don’t always do that well. Knowing English the way we do, we can listen without listening…not really pay attention. We can text, read, and talk, while trying to listen. Because I didn’t know the language, I had to listen carefully to what was being said. I had to ask questions. I had to look at the person with whom I was speaking. In short, by learning Spanish, I discovered, in a new way, how to delight in other people. I fell in love again with my human family.  

Bernard Lonergan, one of the most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, would name this a conversion—a conversion is a kind of falling in love, he said.
Conversion, as lived, affects all of [one’s] conscious and intentional operations. It directs [one’s] gaze, pervades [one’s] imagination, releases the symbols that penetrate to the depths of [one’s] psyche. It enriches [one’s] understanding, guides [one’s] judgments, reinforces [one’s] decisions. (Method in theology, 131)

2.      Learning Spanish allowed me to risk, to stretch beyond what was familiar and comfortable
I like to appear competent in the eyes of others, especially when I speak in public. However, each time I open my mouth to speak Spanish, I make some mistake…I’m becoming fluent, but I’m not native, and as much as I’d like to think I am Mexican these days, I’m not fooling anyone! So, each and every conversation I have requires risking not appearing competent.
When we take a risk, it is easier to take another…and another. And it becomes easier to trust that God is present even in the places of challenge and stretching. But our institutions—churches, seminaries, other religious organizations—are conservative, no matter how progressive we claim to be; in one sense, these institutions’ first order of business is survival—how do we keep going. Risk is hard enough without complicating it with this survival instinct.
I think we believe: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” But we will never see the: “I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” if we are hunkered down in enclaves of familiarity, comfort, and stasis. (Isaiah 43:19)  Learning Spanish has helped me risk taking risks.

3.      Learning Spanish opened my eyes to the urgency of what I do…but in a different perspective.

I was in Copán Ruinas, Honduras waiting to begin a workshop. People trickled into the church a few at a time, walking from various parts of the small town and the mountainous region surrounding it. Shortly before time to begin a little Toyota pickup truck pulled in carrying nine or ten people. The pastor told me that these folks had driven all day from El Salvador to participate in the workshop I was offering.
I was overwhelmed. I—literally, not metaphorically— locked myself in the bathroom and prayed (in the spirit of nearly every call narrative in the bible): “God, you have the wrong person! I’m not cut out for this. What I do is not important enough to ride in the back of a pickup truck for nine hours.”
When I spoke with a Honduran friend of mine about this he shook his head and said, “Don’t be crazy! What could be more important than what we are doing here tonight?”
I realized the questions I was pursing were born more out of the academy than out flesh and blood. Why? Because I wasn’t pressing into life with the kind of abandon that allows one to know the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age.” (Gaudium et Spes, 1)  Learning Spanish taught me this. In so many ways we play games. We’re institution building, reputation building, ego building. In the midst of all this inflated self-importance we forget Jesus. While trying to become the “best of these” we forget about the “least of these.” There is an urgency about what we are doing here; but believe me, it sharpens the mind and focuses the resolve when you see, coming up the driveway, a pickup truck packed full of people arriving to hear what you have to say. You have to quickly separate wheat from chaff, truth from bullshit.
4.      Learning Spanish helped me to see the invisible, particularly the exploited and the impoverished. 
Our world aches with the suffering of untold millions of people. However, most of these people are invisible to us. Even in our religious institutions. Like many Christians, I was aware of poverty and would say that praying for the poor was part of my Christian duty … or volunteering in a soup kitchen, or something of the sort. But, again, like many Christians, even though I would say helping the poor was important, I did not know anyone who was poor…really destitute. “The poor” was a category; it did not have a name. I did not know the name of anyone who works for pennies a day to sew cheap socks and underwear for people like me who stuff them in Christmas stockings next to my fireplace. But to paraphrase Jacques Lacan: The poor do not exist. Neither does the immigrant, nor the refugee, nor the Iraqi, nor the Republican. As categories, they do not exist.

We can travel the world—get the passport stamp to prove it—and post our photos on Facebook; we can travel the world and not see a thing.

Learning Spanish has opened my eyes to the world, its joy, and its suffering as never before. This was the point of so many feminist writers in the 70s around the theme of “raising consciousness.” We’re not invited to see something new or novel—but simply to see what is. That’s harder than it sounds and there are powerful interests benefiting from us not seeing. But once we see, really see, we either have to consciously choose to ignore what is before us, or allow our life to be forever changed; after being brought to our consciousness, a reality uncovered will be made visible again and again, even in places we thought we knew well. Something happens when this happens; as Frederick Herzog observed: “You don't understand what theology is unless you have looked in the face of suffering, unless you have become an atheist in the presence of pain.”

Learning Spanish made the invisible visible, and it gave me a voice with which to speak with the world.

There is much affluence and abundance in the countries I’ve visited, but it has been my time with those on the margins that has made my theology more edgy. It has given a risky and frisky quality to my teaching. It is no longer adequate to simply talk about this teaching or that doctrine or about some abstract moment in the church’s history without drawing a deeper connection or offering a more textured critique. Rather, my work is today more impassioned with a deep concern for how we as people of faith can interrogate our own practices and our own commitments and how we can evaluate whether we are contributing to the world’s suffering, or whether we are speaking a word of hope and life.

In short, learning Spanish saved my life. It opened me to the joy of other people, it has helped me learn to take risks; it has helped me see how my work really can be meaningful. It has made me aware, directly, of realities I would rather have overlooked. 

I no longer worry whether my work is a monumental waste of time; I worry these days whether I will have enough time to do the monumental work that lies before me.

May the grace of God:
open our eyes,
loosen our tongues,
and set our lives right in the middle
of all the action,
in the places where
faith, hope, and love are most needed.

David Johns is a graduate of ESR and the School's Associate Professor of Theology.


  1. Thanks for your testimony! You narrate (and thus embody) the kind of trans-formation we're trying to engender in our teaching. Your vulnerability in describing it openly is a gift!

    Jim Higginbotham

  2. Thanks for the testimony! I am planning to travel to Barcelona next year and start learning Spanish. I think it can be an unforgettable experience!